Podcasting in a Pandemic

As we bid farewell to Mia Warren, our 2020 Editing Fellow, she leaves us with a reflection on her year working with Feet in 2 Worlds.

As an audio producer, my favorite part of the process is getting to that moment of pressing the “record” button and sitting back to hear someone tell their story.

In early 2020 I was looking forward to bringing my recording expertise to Feet in 2 Worlds, an organization I’d long admired. But my favorite part of the process came to a screeching halt just a month into my editing fellowship. Like many other media organizations, our New York-based team had stopped taking the subway and started showing up on Zoom. We were faced with the difficult task of trying to figure out how to cover the impact of Covid-19 on our lives, and in particular on immigrant communities — all the while sheltering in place. Going out into the street with a microphone had been transformed into a potentially life-threatening exercise.

Before New York City shut down, we’d been discussing the creation of a food and politics podcast. But now our focus became the coronavirus and how it was wreaking havoc on our most vulnerable immigrant communities. After many brainstorming sessions, an idea began to take shape — five months later, our podcast series “A Better Life?” was launched. The ten-episode series examined the question of how immigrants come to the United States in pursuit of a better life, and how the pandemic has changed or challenged their ideas of what it means to be American.

Mia Warren setting up microphones for an interview before the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy Mia Warren.

There’s something so magical about being physically present for an interview. It’s the closest we audio folks get to feeling like being on a movie set. When someone speaks a particularly poetic phrase I’m already arranging it on a timeline in my head. When recordings come to a close I often feel exhausted, like I just ran a marathon. It’s goofy, I know…but it’s true that holding space for people can take a lot out of you.

During my first year as a field producer for StoryCorps — before the pandemic and before coming to Feet in 2 Worlds — I set up audio equipment in all kinds of places: conference rooms, broom closets, basements, home offices. Sometimes, people assumed my male colleague was in charge of me — or, if I was traveling with a female colleague, they’d assume our boss was on his way. On a few occasions, they’d even grab the mic arms from me and attempt to screw them onto the table (and one time told me I was “too pretty” to operate audio equipment). Most of us field producers were young people of color, and we encountered these awkward moments often.

In an effort to banish my own discomfort, I began to take up more space. I donned my headphones with confidence, readjusted microphones without hesitation, directed people to begin speaking, and paused them when a plane passed overhead or a truck roared by. That pesky imposter syndrome was quickly slipping away as I embraced the notion of my own expertise.

Over the years, I came to regard the recording space as a sacred one. The recording is what I’ll bring home with me — it’s what will last beyond this day, this hour, this moment. Traveling across the country, I soaked up the words of so many different people: farmworkers in central California, Roman Catholic women priests in Baltimore, a Native railroad worker in North Dakota, Marine Corps veterans in Colorado. Their stories followed me home, and their reflections stuck with me long after I’d hit the “stop” button.

Mia Warren and the “A Better Life?” team meeting remotely using Zoom.

Working from home and recording interviews remotely was a challenge for me. I desperately missed the in-person experience of conducting an interview, of breathing the same air as the person at the other end of the mic. I hated being confined to my desk day after day. I was missing that feeling about being an expert — of creating a space for people to share their most intimate hopes, fears, and dreams.

But after a year of producing in a pandemic, I’ve realized that this shift in how I collect audio has ultimately made me more nimble as a producer. The process has made me infinitely more patient and flexible in the face of technical and logistical challenges.

Like others in my industry, I pivoted to technologies like Squadcast to record interviews. I also trained interview subjects in how to record themselves on their phones. People walked me through their houses on a WhatsApp call, showing me which rooms were the quietest, or where they had the best Internet connection. It took more time to find and create that ideal space, but I learned more about people along the way. I caught glimpses of their vegetable gardens, their bright kitchens, their dogs, their children.

Over the summer, I sent an audio kit to a couple unfamiliar with recording equipment. It took three hours on a Zoom call to show them how to set up their mics and recorder. It became an intergenerational experience when their teenage son, who was in virtual school, helped us conduct a test recording. These moments, though new and challenging, helped me build trust with the family. Collaborating on the process leveled the playing field of producer and guest. Getting to see the effort that I put into the process made them more engaged in the act of telling their story.

All of this was a helpful reminder that anyone can be an audio producer — and maybe that’s how we should be thinking about our craft anyway. Podcasting shouldn’t be limited to those who have access to studios or expensive equipment. If we’d gone into production of “A Better Life?” with that mindset, we never would have been able to record the stories we did. I’m especially thinking of the “Call Your Elders” segment of the podcast, which highlighted intergenerational conversations between Fi2W producers and immigrant elders from around the world.

This “expert” mindset — this idea that only those equipped with the proper equipment or resources can be storytellers — can be damaging to the narratives we’re shaping and the stories we choose to tell. I don’t honestly know if I would have come to this conclusion if my own biases and prejudices weren’t challenged by the limitations imposed by the pandemic.

Of course, wiser people than me have been speaking this truth for years. In reevaluating how I work, I find myself meditating on the words of Alice Wong: “Our world is never going to be the same again. And I think the more we can grapple with that, the more chances we have to think about, what kind of world do we want in the future? What kind of world do we deserve? And also, how do we just start building that world right now?”

All of this isn’t to say that when it’s safe to gather again, I won’t be heading out into the world with my audio kit, excited to gather ambiance like the true audio dork I am. Rather, it means that my eyes and ears have been opened to the infinite ways that exist to tell stories — and I won’t be forgetting that soon.

Fi2W is supported by The Ford Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, the Listening Post Collective, an anonymous donor and readers like you.

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