New York, NY (May 14, 2020)—The production team behind Gimlet’s Mogul podcast faced a significant hurdle when it decamped to work at home in March. It wasn’t merely a question of how it would continue producing content in the time of COVID-19—rather, the entire show had to be reinvented from scratch.
Mogul’s first two seasons were deeply researched documentaries into hip-hop history. The entire first season, a run of six shows devoted to the story of industry kingpin Chris Lighty, spanned close to 100 interviews, all threaded together with an ambitious sound design inspired by trailblazer This American Life.
“The challenge for the team was, how does a music show like Mogul meet this moment?” says Matthew Nelson, lead producer on the podcast. “We’re not going to go out there and report on the coronavirus. What can we do to make people feel good?”
Due to social distancing policies, the team couldn’t put in the field work that went into a typical season of Mogul, either. Instead, it decided to transport listeners to a simpler, happier time.
“We thought to ourselves, let’s take our listeners back to a time and space that is very far removed from corona, and let’s have some of our favorite people in hip hop talk about their favorite moments in hip hop,” said Nelson.
In just three weeks, the team went from concept to pilot to launch on The Mogul Mixtapes, a series of bite-sized episodes featuring guests like Ludacris and T.I. (who has his own podcast studio in Atlanta), while maintaining the same aesthetics and sound design of the flagship series. To carry over that show’s DNA, that meant keeping music in the forefront, with hard cuts to segue to the interview segments, in episodes that average around the 15-minute mark.
“The episodes have this almost syncopated feel, where it will be talk, burst of music, talk, burst of music,” says Nelson. “[That] is a style we developed to fit this mode of working and to make our listeners still feel like they’re getting a highly produced music show without doing too much to what are essentially simple conversations.”
Host Brandon “Jinx” Jenkins records the interview audio to a Marantz PMD661 MK2 through a Rode NTG2 microphone, while his subject typically records a local copy to send to Nelson for post-production synching. For the Ludacris episode, however, they used a straight phone call recording, and for an upcoming episode with T.I., the artist recorded audio in his home studio.
Each episode is produced in concert among the production team members, with real-time collaboration through a Google Hangout. Nelson imports the files into Avid Pro Tools and works locally on initial edits, then shares with an engineer. Once the elements are assembled and ready for review, the team logs on, listens to the content, and then unmutes to discuss it as a group. All together, editing and mixing usually takes a week on a Mogul podcast episode.
“Process is key to Mogul,” he says. “Whether we’re working on a six-part documentary or a one-off interview with Ludacris, everything is agonized over. Everything is very carefully edited [and] constructed. It was very important for us to set ourselves up in a way that could facilitate this collaborative editing process that every show does at Gimlet.”
While there’s a nostalgic component to The Mogul Mixtapes, Nelson feels that the way they’re producing the show is likewise a little nostalgic, too, since the coronavirus crisis has forced the team to revisit DIY-style producing arrangements it had long outgrown.
“If you think about the evolution of podcasting and the growth of companies like Gimlet, this has all happened in the past five years,” he says. “Before that, most of us were in our bedrooms [or] our closets making these shows. So, although I very much miss all the technology and resources we have at the Gimlet offices, there’s something really sweet about working in this style and this manner.”
Mogul • www.gimletmedia.com/shows/mogul