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Producing Rolling Stone’s Podcast During COVID-19

By Jim Beaugez. Currently sheltered in their homes, Rolling Stone’s podcast team improvises to keep the content coming.

Brian Hiatt (right), host of the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, often talks with guests, such as Questlove on the show.
Brian Hiatt (right), host of the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, often talks with guests like Questlove on the show.

New York, NY (March 27, 2020)—The familiar becomes ever-more important during times of crisis, and for many people weathering the current COVID-19 global pandemic, that means taking deep dives into streaming TV shows, movies, music and podcasts. For a weekly podcast like Rolling Stone Music Now, that means the show must go on, with its production team creating new episodes to answer demand, despite the added hurdles of lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders.

On the March 23 edition of the podcast, four of the magazine’s staffers—two in New York and two in Los Angeles—discussed the industry’s current troubles in the first remote-recorded edition of Rolling Stone Music Now, “Cancellations, Chaos: How the Pandemic Halted the Music Biz.”

Instead of tracking the podcast in Sirius XM’s New York studios, as they’ve done on previous episodes, each journalist sequestered in their apartments and communicated through the Zoom web conferencing platform. With all four of them on the call, an engineer recorded them from a fifth location and began the editing process before the episode hit Sirius XM.

The results kept the wheels on the train for the first episode, but the show’s host, Rolling Stone senior writer Brian Hiatt, is already planning ways to improve the audio quality to something more akin to the podcast’s typical production values.

“I’m going to attempt to separately record my audio using a high-quality [Apogee MiC Plus] microphone I have at the same time I’m speaking in Zoom, and allow my engineer to use my more studio-sounding microphone along with everyone else’s phone call,” he explains. “For the first episode, that didn’t work out, but I think I figured it out now.”

Once an engineer takes a first pass at the edit, Hiatt, a guitar player and home-recording hobbyist, makes the episode’s final cuts. “We haven’t actually [tried using the second mic] yet, but I’m fairly confident it’ll work,” he says. “The problem is I can’t monitor it, so that’s annoying for various reasons—in part because there’s a local delay so I can’t listen and monitor at the same time. I just have to hope for the best that it’s coming out okay.”

Rolling Stone Music NowSince the first episode premiered in January, 2016, the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast has consistently dropped content that mirrors the boundary-blending range of music, politics and pop culture long established as hallmarks of the print magazine.

The March 23 episode explored the effects of the pandemic on the music world. According to Forbes, overall internet use is up 70 percent in countries under lockdown, particularly in Europe, driven in part by a 12 percent-spike in streaming entertainment. As mandated shelter-in-place orders are implemented in more places in the U.S., experts expect those numbers to follow suit. Unfortunately, the live entertainment industry is suffering in opposite proportion to those online gains.

“It took a while for [COVID-19] to hit the concert industry, and when it did, it was like a chain of dominoes,” said Hiatt during the episode. Longer-lead festivals were first. SXSW and Ultra both cancelled on March 6, followed by Coachella on March 10. Pearl Jam threw up a white flag on its major North American tour March 9, followed by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on March 17. After that, the entire concert industry effectively shut down in short order—providing plenty for Hiatt and Rolling Stone senior music business editor Amy X. Wang and staff writers Samantha Hissong and Ethan Millman to recount and discuss.

In the past, Rolling Stone Music Now has also covered historical topics such as the making of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, hot takes on current artists like Taylor Swift and Lil Nas X, as well as self-deprecating episodes like “Classic Albums We’ve Trashed,” in which a team of staffers revisits underwhelming reviews and atone for their predecessors’ questionable judgment calls.

Moving forward during the current COVID-19 crisis, though, Hiatt says they’re considering new themes and ways to bring fresh content to their audience under these less-than-ideal circumstances.

“I think going forward we’re going to have to reconsider exactly what we’re doing,” he says. “I like maybe the idea of pulling back and doing some deep dives on some artists’ catalogs, some kind of timeless stuff. And people can be really into that idea. It might be the right time for that kind of thing, so I’m sure it will affect how we do things.”

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