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CNN’s Daily Coronavirus Podcast Beats Production Challenges

Working from separate home studios, CNN Audio and Dr. Sanjay Gupta create bite-sized content every weekday for the Coronavirus: Fact or Fiction podcast.

When CNN announced its Coronavirus: Fact or Fiction podcast on February 29, there were only 22 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States. That afternoon, President Trump confirmed the country’s first coronavirus-related casualty in a press conference.

Two days later, when the Dr. Sanjay Gupta-hosted podcast debuted its first episode, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes were beginning to fly off store shelves nationwide. Seattle, where the first cases were found, was still the country’s outbreak hotspot. The newly formed CNN Audio team was still producing podcasts at its studios in New York, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

Barely a month ago, life looked entirely different than it does today.

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“When we started the podcast, we were not working from home,” says Dan Kantor, VP of audio at CNN. “At that point, we were thinking about remote guests, but a lot of it was, ‘Hey, we’ve got our studio, we’re all together, and we’re going to approach this the way we’ve been approaching podcasts in the past.’”

That plan changed entirely over the course of a week. With staff now working from their own homes, the CNN Audio team had to pivot quickly to a remote-recording arrangement and develop standards for audio equipment and procedures. But after spinning up the podcast series itself on a similarly tight turnaround in late February, they were prepared.

Over a few days, the podcast’s engineer recreated the CNN studio at his home so Gupta and the guests and producers could dial in through video conferencing software and patch into the program. Each of the show’s principals has a home recording setup of varying sophistication, and the team has been working to adopt a single standard microphone for podcasting, with redundancy handled locally.

“We’re recording it all at the engineer’s home studio, but we’re also asking that all participants record it themselves so that way we have a backup,” says Kantor.

“We’re saying, ‘Well, you could use your phone if you have to. Maybe use a Bluetooth headset, maybe isolate yourself in a closet or a room that doesn’t echo, and then record yourself. If you could do it on Zoom or Zencastr, great. If not, literally open up your iPhone voice memo and just hit record as you’re talking.’”

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One of the most unique aspects of Coronavirus: Fact or Fiction is the format itself. Many podcasts publish on a weekly basis or follow the “season” model by following a topic or story to its conclusion with typically longform episodes. But the CNN Audio team pushes episodes of this podcast live by 6 a.m. every weekday in bite-sized content chunks that listeners can consume quickly.

“We wanted to give [them] information in a shorter period of time so they could go about their lives, as people are taking care of their children, of their parents, of their friends,” says Megan Marcus, executive producer of the podcast. “They don’t necessarily have time to consume 20-30 minutes of content, if not an hour.”

Marcus says the podcasting format enables Coronavirus: Fact or Fiction to have a more intimate connection with its audience and focus on delivering a story in the way it calls for. Much like the early days of FM radio in the 1970s, there are no strong format rules. Producers are free to embrace storytelling in an immersive way that’s impossible in a television news program. In times of crisis, that entails what she describes as “embracing the mess.”

“I think because there’s that personal relationship with the listener, you can be very honest about that dog barking in the background, or the child crying,” she says. “You’re taking somebody into your life. It’s very much a dialogue with the listener, and a conversation, and that’s what we’re doing with this particular podcast.

“The news affects all of us,” Marcus adds. “We’re not immune to what’s going on, and so you’re talking about your own fear of what’s going on in the world, and then you also have the challenge of pulling this off, and also realizing we see this as a public service.”

Coronavirus: Fact or Fiction •