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How the ‘Flashback’ Podcast Takes History to the Top

Apple hosts more than 1 million podcasts—and the new hit, Flashback, is in its Top 50. See how sound supports OZY/iHeartRadio’s show about the accidental side effects of history.

New York, NY (May 21, 2020)—The brainchild of host Sean Braswell, a renaissance man of sorts who holds a Ph.D. from Oxford University and a law degree from Harvard, each episode of the new Flashback: History’s Unintended Consequences podcast shows how actions that seem inconsequential can eventually lead to surprising outcomes.

“We like to joke that he’s OZY’s in-house cool history professor,” says Flashback executive producer Rob Culos, who leads the creative direction behind original audio programs at OZY. “When you listen to an episode, it’s as if you’re sitting in Poli-Sci 506 and you are learning how a decision that was made had a ripple effect 50 years later.”

Flashback is the brainchild of host Sean Braswell.
Flashback is the brainchild of host Sean Braswell.

In the first two episodes of the 10-part first season, Braswell connects Henry Ford to the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, and shows how the YMCA unwittingly helped launch the tobacco black market. Co-produced by OZY and iHeartRadio, Flashback is currently ranked No. 3 on the Apple Podcasts chart for History podcasts and hovers around the top 50 overall.

That kind of success doesn’t happen by accident—Culos and the Flashback team had the podcast series in development for six months prior to launching. Production began in January 2020, so when the COVID-19 crisis hit and people began to shelter at home, eight episodes were already completed and two were still in production for season one.

Flashback executive producer Rob Culos
Flashback executive producer Rob Culos

The COVID-19 pandemic has doubled the number of Americans who work remotely to nearly 60 percent of the workforce—but the team behind the new Flashback: History’s Unintended Consequences podcast series was already ahead of the game.

“We had already been working and producing this show remotely, so our workflow was largely set up,” says Culos. “Our producers are in San Francisco, Washington D.C., L.A. and Atlanta, and have at-home studios. We had already done the groundwork for it to work.”

Even so, a new production process had to be invented from the ground up. The first order of business was to firm up assets, cataloging what was needed to continue producing the show. In a typical interview situation, they provide guests with best practices on ways to record local audio, which they later sync to the host’s audio.

“Oftentimes, we’re talking to folks that have done this before and might have a handheld Zoom recorder, or they might have some little thing they got at Radio Shack 20 years ago that will do wonders,” he says. “Outside of that, we have them use their phone and tell them to do the basics like hold it up as you’re talking on the phone and go into Airplane Mode. That file is our backup.”

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Luckily, the production team is accustomed to being flexible with how it sources audio. The production staff also recognize that the audio characteristics of a phone call or a VoIP app like Zencastr can be aesthetic choices in themselves. Culos says they often lean into those variables to enliven the podcast.

“We’ve actually put small telephone filters onto telephone calls so it enhances that experience, and that’s before any of this [pandemic] hit,” he says.

Where consistency is key—such as with the host mics and certain interview sources—the producers use a Shure SM7B to keep the sound and timbre uniform across a variety of voices.

“We tried out probably six, seven, eight microphones across the board,” he says, “and we just found that the SM7B highlights each one of those. We don’t have to think about it. It just gets what we want to get, and it makes it easy.”

Producers Iyore Odighizuwa (pictured) and Chris Hoff develop production music ideas around themes for individual episodes.
Producers Iyore Odighizuwa (pictured) and Chris Hoff develop production music ideas around themes for individual episodes.

The sound design on Flashback is a more open-ended animal, as it is for many OZY shows. Culos and Braswell begin by passing songs back and forth for ideas—on season five of The Thread, OZY’s successful precursor to Flashback, they even hired a bluegrass band out of North Carolina to record custom music. This time around, the team didn’t want to stray too far from the formula they established for The Thread, but Culos knew he wanted more “punch” and a more modern treatment.

“We relied a lot on our two producers on the team, Iyore Odighizuwa and Chris Hoff, who each have a really good ear for music, and we created a folder of production music and ideas around themes and beds and vibes and motifs,” he explains. “I wanted it to be a cool documentary style but also fun and unexpected.”

For each episode, editing and production work are done through a somewhat gated group effort, with a small group focused on the first round of edits. Once a rough cut with sound design is completed, the team leader opens the project to a larger group to get line notes. They even have a process to smoothly navigate editing over the different platforms used by the producers.

“There have been times in the past where we’ve had to export stems and sessions from Pro Tools to Logic, which can get a little bit hairy,” he says. “But as long as you know the exact way to export your sessions, you should be fine.”

Flashbackhttps://podcasts.iheartradio.com/ozyfb

OZY • https://www.ozy.com/

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