How Podcasters Are Adapting to New Circumstances

Hrishikesh Hirway and Samin Nosrat, Photo Courtesy of PRX
Hrishikesh Hirway and Samin Nosrat, Photo Courtesy of PRX

The medium and its creators are finding ways to shift focus in ways that keep shows relevant, useful, and entertaining.

When city and state governments from Seattle to New York started issuing stay-at-home orders to their citizens, LA-based Reema Khrais, the host and senior reporter of the Marketplace podcast This Is Uncomfortable had a realization. Her show, which is about the ways money affects our lives— needed to pivot. And its carefully curated editorial calendar needed to be scrapped, or at least adjusted.

Khrais sensed her listeners wanted something more than the episode on cubicle culture that they had planned. “It just felt like none of this applies anymore,” Khrais says. So she got on the phone with her sister, who, like many people across the world right now, had just been laid off from her job. “I interviewed my sister that morning, and then the whole team just dropped what they were doing,” Khrais says. “They started reaching out to folks.” The decision to change direction was made on a Wednesday, and the resulting episode, “COVID-19 Comforts,” was live 24 hours later. On the episode, Khrais checks in with her sister and gives listeners an “audio care package” of sorts, offering a soothing reminder that we’re all in this together and while money and work are important, family and community come first.

The ability to shift direction the night before a new episode is set to release shows how nimble audio can be as a format—an idea can become a show in a matter of hours. As the world adjusts to the new realities of life during the COVID-19 pandemic, many podcasters are responding to listeners' changing needs, pivoting to new topics, bringing back-burner ideas to life, or creating new shows seemingly out of whole cloth.

Finding stories at home

When Roman Mars, the host of 99% Invisible—a show about all the ways design is important in our world—realized he was going to have to shelter in place, he looked around his home and realized he wanted to report on the items he saw there. “I just felt like I wanted to feel connected to other people, as much as anything else,” Mars says. “It just felt the most comforting to me. Like it felt the most like a service I could provide.”

So the second weekend in March, Mars taped up bullet points and scripts around the house, picked up his recorder, and wandered from room to room describing the objects—a window, a fan—and telling tiny stories, trying to capture the story in just one take. (“It was my 1917,” he says, joking, sort of.) In the aptly titled episode, “Roman Mars Describes Things As They Are,” released on March 17, Mars delivers a show that is both engaging and extremely on-brand.

Mars says the episode, made on the fly in the midst of a pandemic, was a fun challenge. “One of the things I love about the days of radio and even podcasting is I like having to deal with the circumstances,” Mars says. “I like the show not being hermetically sealed.” That said, the show’s editorial calendar has shifted in light of COVID. For instance, they released a recent episode on toilet paper.

Identifying a need, and filling it

When it became clear that people would be eating at home for a long time, Song Exploder’s Hrishikesh Hirway and New York Times columnist, author, and Netflix star Samin Nosrat decided it was time to bring to life a podcast they'd been thinking about for a while, a cooking advice show where Nosrat helps people put together memorable meals out of ingredients they have on hand.

The result is Home Cooking, which Hirway hosts with a liberal sprinkling of food puns and dad jokes, and Nosrat answers callers' burning cooking questions. The show is practical, educational, and fun to listen to, particularly as guests like W. Kamau Bell and Josh Malina, Hirway’s West Wing Weekly costar, call in to talk recipes and food.

While they'd been daydreaming about a show for a while, Hirway admits that the idea could have lived on the back burner “potentially indefinitely” if it weren’t for the quarantine. “Suddenly there was a real reason to try and do this project that we'd had in the back of our heads for almost a year and a half,” Hirway says from his home in LA. Despite the fact that he is busy with Song Exploder and his brand-new show Partners, he is excited to be finally working on this with Nosrat. “It's more like a passion project,” he says. “It feels a lot more like the way people used to always make podcasts.”

Curating content to a timely need

Radiolab recently unveiled a curated collection of kid-friendly stories, an idea that had been waiting in the wings for quite some time. “Radiolab for Kids was a long time coming,” Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad writes in an email. “For years, people asked for something like this, and we always thought it was a great idea, but never quite had the time.”

That all changed when the world locked down. Faced with a lot of time at home and the realization that his own kids’ school was going remote, Abumrad decided it was time to make the concept a reality. At his team’s first Zoom meeting, all the other parents who were suddenly confined at home with their own children seemed to have the same idea. “We pretty much shouted at once, 'We have to finally get together a list of kid-friendly shows!'” Abumrad writes. “We decided on that call that it should be its own feed. And we started working on it as soon as we got off the call, and now it's out in the world.” The result is Radiolab for Kids, a list of all of Radiolab’s most kid-friendly episodes that parents can queue up for the kids without worrying about content.

Of course, many other podcast creators are hard at work, too. In addition to 99% Invisible and This Is Uncomfortable, there’s also new shows like NPR’s Coronavirus Daily, BBC World Service’s Coronavirus Global Update, and Three Uncanny Four’s Viral: Coronavirus, which provide essential news updates to listeners. Podcasts are, like all of us, working hard to adapt and respond to the needs of their communities. When the world is changing so rapidly, that's an invaluable quality.

—Melissa Locker