Birmingham, AL (June 11, 2020)—Lifestyle magazine Southern Living sought to tell the down-home stories of musicians who cook and chefs who rock through its new podcast, Biscuits & Jam, but like many podcasters, they had to rewrite the recipe once COVID-19 shutdowns began. To put it in a Southern way, those rolls never had a chance to rise.
“The goal was to interview musicians and chefs in their homes or restaurants to find out how those worlds mix,” says senior producer Jim Hanke. “Where they grew up, what recipes or meals they loved as a kid, what holidays looked like around their house then and now.”
Hanke was set to begin tracking episodes in March when everything ground to a halt. Four days before they were scheduled to record audio with singer-songwriter John Prine for the first episode, his team called to postpone. Sadly, he passed away of COVID-19 complications a couple of weeks later.
Suddenly, Hanke and the team were stuck with an ambitious plan that didn’t fit the new reality. With social distancing in place, host Sid Evans, editor-in-chief of Southern Living, would no longer be able to interact with guests in their own environments. That shift changed the personality of the podcast, Hanke says.
“You and I talking like this would sound different than talking [while] sitting across a table from each other, just due to visual cues,” Hanke explains. “But we’ve made it work.”
It quickly became clear that there was no single solution to recording audio remotely. Guest Martina McBride recorded her audio at Blackbird Studios, the A-list recording facility she and husband John McBride own in Nashville. On the other end of the spectrum, Willie Nelson called on a cell phone from his ranch in Texas.
Hanke leaned into that realism as a sound design tool while maintaining production values. Although the original vision for the podcast left room for sound design cues to serve as transitions and take listeners into the guests’ home environments, Evans used the newly open format as an opportunity to give more in-depth context to the guest and episode.
“There’s a niche here where people who just follow the Southern Living brand are going to be excited that there’s a podcast, and they might not know all the musicians and chefs we’re talking to,” he says, “so giving them some background before we get talking is important—and vice versa for people tuning in because they saw we’re talking with Willie Nelson or Gladys Knight.”
To host the interviews, Hanke used SquadCast and Zoom, depending on the guests’ preferences. For artists like Nelson, he used the live audio recorded directly from the call, but McBride and other guests sent local audio to be synced. The podcast’s first guest, country music star Jake Owen, tracked his audio with a Neumann microphone in his personal studio. Host Evans recorded his audio for all 12 episodes through a Blue Yeti USB microphone.
“[Some guests] have come to it with a Blue Snowball microphone, and some people have an XLR setup where they basically have the equivalent of a radio DJ mic plugged into their board,” he says. “They could just talk into that and it sounds like they’re right in the room.”
Hanke edits to the show’s script in Audacity before sending the files to audio editor Ann Kane, who performs another three rounds of edits to multitrack files in Adobe Audition. On her initial round, she cuts the audio to match the script and remove any speech tics or random audio clicks. Kane cleans up any awkward cuts or transitions on the second pass, and then adds music in the final edit.
“Audio has been a challenge,” Hanke admits, “but as we’ve gone through these 12 episodes, it’s gotten easier and easier. COVID was so new, we were all just like, ‘Okay. How do we do this?’ It’s this new way of accepting, like, ‘Considering what’s going on in the world, I accept this as okay audio,’ even though normally we wouldn’t.”
But, he adds, “Whether this is good for podcasting or not, I don’t know.”
Biscuits & Jam Podcast • http://www.southernliving.com/biscuits-and-jam-podcast