How to Comfort Listeners During Self-Isolation

Lily Percy Ruíz, Photo Courtesy of On Being Studios
Lily Percy Ruíz, Photo Courtesy of On Being Studios

Some ways your podcast can offer compassion while your audience is dealing with challenges.

There are many ways that podcasts provide comfort to their listeners. Sometimes it’s as simple as the transportive nature of entertainment; sometimes it’s something much deeper, like connecting with an interviewee over a shared experience of adversity. As the COVID-19 crisis continues, podcasters are giving renewed consideration to how their shows can be most useful to their audiences.

Recently, Skeptoid made the entirety of their premium content, which includes all episode archives, free via their website for the duration of lockdown, and On Being released a Listening Care Package for Uncertain Times, “a collection of podcasts, poetry, meditations, and reflection for however you’re processing this moment.”

“We thought about every piece of the package really thoughtfully and additively,” says Lily Percy Ruíz, an executive producer at On Being Studios and the host of This Movie Changed Me. “How will someone receive this? What will the listening experience be like for them? The visual experience? The writing, the quotes, all the things that we pull out for it?”

Beyond those questions, there was a lot to think about when putting together the care package. Below, Ruiz and Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning explain what they’ve considered in their responses to the pandemic.

Understanding what is needed

Ruiz says the On Being team saw the episodes being shared by their listeners via social media. “One of the things that we really think about is, how do we serve our community best?” Ruiz says. The answer in this case was to make the shows that were being shared organically easier to access and consume as a package.

“We really were very thoughtful about what we included, and also made sure it wasn't overwhelming,” says Ruiz. “Because one of the things we discussed editorially was how everyone right now is so overwhelmed with the news, with every piece of information that's being sent out there. So, how do we make sure that the content we release right now—in a care package or in our podcast feed or on our social-media platforms—feels additive and responsive to what we're hearing from our community, and isn't just another piece of content to fill their time?”

Ruiz says Krista Tippett, the founder and CEO of the On Being Project—the nonprofit media and public life initiative that produces On Being, Poetry Unbound, and This Movie Changed Me—and the host of On Being, presented two questions to guide the decisions the team made as the COVID-19 crisis unfolded: “Is it valuable for our audience to hear this right now? Will it accompany them in a way that matters?”

In response, poetry became a frequent topic of conversation. The inherent nature of many poems—brief and meaningful, a message distilled to its bare necessities—made them especially powerful when it came to creating an experience that isn’t overwhelming but adds value to their listeners’ lives. One of the most recent episodes of Poetry Unbound, titled "A Poem in Gratitude for Health Care Workers," features Leanne O’Sullivan’s “Leaving Early,” which is only 15 lines long.

Empowering through knowledge

Skeptoid Media is a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit, and so episodes from its podcast—Skeptoid, hosted by Brian Dunning, which examines urban legends through a scientific lens—are normally behind a paywall. They’ve removed that paywall during the COVID-19 lockdowns, granting free access to a large archive of episodes that debunk things like paranormal activity, conspiracy theories, and even the show Ancient Aliens, using an exclusively fact-based approach.

Skeptoid’s mission is to promote critical thinking and scientific skepticism, which in itself is a useful mindset—thanks to their commitment to evidence-based conclusions, Skeptoid has built a trusted reputation. Listeners are able to tune in and know that they’re getting only fact-based information about, say, whether apple-cider vinegar is really so great for your health, or the conspiracy theories and politics that have surrounded pandemics historically. The show covered the latter in an episode that was released April 7.

“Our goal in these episodes is always the same,” says Dunning. “It's to point out how and why people will believe things that aren't true, and how and why we know what we know, and teach people the lessons they can use to apply these same thought processes to other things in life." He says that the purpose of the episode that examined conspiracy theories and pandemics was to point out that there are explanations for why people think like that, and understanding those reasons is key to avoiding falling into that trap in our current environment.

Seeing your role as proactive

Dunning also echoes, in a way, one of Ruiz’s sentiments: Keep your audience in mind.

“With every episode I do, one of my very conscious goals is to make sure that every listener comes away a little bit better of a person,” says Dunning. “Whether that's with some more knowledge or some more insight, or with some better preparation to make better decisions in the future. Even if it's a comedy podcast. Entertaining your listeners is great, but entertaining and improving your listeners is even better.”

When asked about the most useful experiences podcasts can offer listeners right now, Ruiz pointed to a recent episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, in which a remote video interview with Daniel Radcliffe was beset by technical issues for nearly five minutes of a 13-minute clip. She says that anything creators can do to create intimacy, to remind those listening or watching that we are all in the same boat, is valuable. “That makes me feel like you're in the room with me,” says Ruiz. “It makes me feel like we're in this together. I think the more we can do that, as podcasters, the less alone people will feel." So—embrace technical challenges, bad audio, grainy video.

“We're feeling anxiety,” says Ruiz. “We're feeling pressured. And those of us who are artists, who work in the media, who work in podcasting, we feel called to respond. But there's so much thoughtful reflection that happens, if you just stop and take the time, that I think lends itself to the right kind of creativity.”

—Matt Williams