Producing top-quality radio during a pandemic is no joke

Maybe you heard Kerry Washington tell radio host Terry Gross about homeschooling her kids while quarantined on a recent episode of “Fresh Air.”

What you definitely did not hear was the behind-the-scenes scramble as producers, engineers, Gross and “Little Fires Everywhere” creator Washington worked in separate locations to create a seamless, unified whole.

“It’s a real honor to be chatting with you from my bedroom,” Washington laughed during the interview.

“I’m at my kitchen table,” Gross replied.

One of NPR’s most popular programs, “Fresh Air” is produced in Philly at WHYY, the region’s public media affiliate (and, we should note, Billy Penn’s parent company). Like Gross, most of the WHYY staff has been working remotely since Mar. 17 — but the broadcasts on 90.9 FM have not shown so much as a hiccup.

How’s it done? A lot of coordination, experimentation, and willingness to try something new.

“It is my first time ever having to do this,” said Marty Moss-Coane, host of daily call-in show “Radio Times.” She’s been working from home, with a new set-up at her large wooden desk. She’s also been trying to hold onto a sense of normalcy: “I have a backyard. I’ve been gardening the hell out of it.”

To give their at home recording an in-studio sound, Moss-Coane and Gross are both using a pricey little dongle from radio equipment manufacturer Comrex. Not so for Maiken Scott, host of nationally syndicated health and science program “The Pulse.”

Scott’s routine has largely been unchanged during the pandemic, she said. Because she has young kids — and the ensuing noise they can’t help but create — Scott’s been one of the handful staff members still commuting to the station at 6th and Race streets.

“The building is secure and there’s so few people,” Scott said, “so it’s been safe.”

Annette John-Hall and Shai Ben-Yaacov, co-hosts and creators of daily news podcast “The Why,” have stayed home, using improvised setups with blankets to muffle echoes.

Here’s more on how radio makers at WHYY are adjusting to keep their audiences informed and entertained.

Terry Gross at the ‘Fresh Air’ home studio Credit: Courtesy Heidi Saman

‘Fresh Air’: Show leaders are like ‘athletes’

You can in part thank Heidi Saman for that show featuring Emmy-nominated actress Washington. Saman, along with producer Lauren Krenzel, books film and television the talent for Gross’ on-air interviews.

Those program appearances are still being booked. “I’m still doing everything, but [the difference is] where I’m doing it,” Saman said.

Working remotely has created a logistics maze that producers and engineers have to constantly untangle to continue delivering quality “Fresh Air” interviews.

Normally, Saman or another producer would sit in-studio with Gross, along with an engineer from WHYY.  Now, the engineer sits alone in the studio and patches in Saman while Terry taps into her Comrex device from home. Saman then calls another team member on iPhone three-way to imitate the hands-on process “Fresh Air” usually employs.

“Because we’re a long format show, we do a lot of prep,” Saman said. “I find I’m just trying to get everything done earlier to prepare for delays.”

What’s most inspiring to Saman is the next-level work ethic from Gross and executive producer Danny Miller, one team member who’s still working in-office.

“Terry and Danny, I sort of liken them to athletes. You hit the tough point and what athletes do is they have this extra reserve,” Saman said. “That’s what I’m seeing both of them tap into, and it’s inspiring me to keep going.”

Marty Moss-Coane at the ‘Radio Times’ home studio Credit: Courtesy Marty Moss-Coane

‘Radio Times’: Only one barking ‘incident’

Moss-Coane, who’s been hosting “Radio Times” for more than three decades, has only accidentally knocked herself off the air once in the three weeks since the lockdown started.

“I must’ve just flailed my hand and disconnected one of the chords,” she explained. “I’m sort of surprised that’s the only terrible thing I’ve done.”

Tens of thousands of listeners hear Moss-Coane’s voice thoughtfully chronicling the news and trends of the day, but it’s the producers who keep things going, she said. “If you have a radio show, it doesn’t work unless you’ve got producers.”

Moss-Coane and team communicate daily using email and Slack, an instant messaging program.

The show, which usually features live calls, has pivoted to a remote commenting system. Listeners can instead leave comments in a collaborative Google doc handled by producers, and Moss-Coane can then read and answer them on air.

Then there’s her Corgi, Cole. He’s kept in his own sort of quarantine when mommy is recording.

“There was one barking incident with the doggie,” Moss-Coane said. “It was kind of cute the first day, but we wouldn’t want that everyday.”

Maiken Scott, host of ‘The Pulse,’ is still working at the empty WHYY station Credit: Courtesy Maiken Scott

‘The Pulse’: Don’t forget to eat

“The Pulse” host and executive producer Maiken Scott works to create the hourlong show with health reporters Alan Yu, Liz Tung, Jad Sleiman and Steph Yin.

Along with homeschooling, Scott has been trying to keep her children occupied when she’s not at the studio, and her entire schedule almost got derailed when, while hosting a pretend gym class with her kids, she hurt her foot.

That battle wound threw off Scott’s workout routine, but her radio schedule has remained consistent, she said. “I have to get up early and go right to work and still eat, although I did forget to eat a few times and that didn’t work for me.”

The show already has a health and science focus, but usually a relatively long lead time. During the coronavirus outbreak, the team has worked to quickly update their lineup.

On Mar. 20, the show was about slowing the spread of COVID-19. The next two weekly episodes were about friendship and mental health.

“For this week’s show, we created an 11-minute segment that was totally new, and we created that in a matter of days, which for us is unusual,” Scott said. “But it’s just sort of like, you just kick into gear.”

Scott’s now trying to “strike the balance” between COVID-19 coverage and news fatigue.

“I don’t want to do all COVID all the time,” Scott said. “I want this show to sound like this is applicable to the times we’re in right now: what are people talking about, what seems to resonate with people and what do people need from us.”

Hosts of ‘The Why’ Annette Johnson-Hall and Shai Ben Yaacov Credit: Courtesy Alex Stern

‘The Why’: Hosts are ‘building forts’

Launched less than two years ago, “The Why” is run by a small, close knit team made of editorial director Katie Colaneri and co-creators and producers Annette John-Hall, Shai Ben-Yaacov and Alex Stern. The daily podcast delves into big picture concepts from local news stories.

“We’re still meeting via video call every day,” with cameras on, said Stern, laughing. “We are so on top of each other all the time.”.

The Why is a daily show, so the team’s rigorous schedule usually includes sitting together while listening back to entire episodes and talking through editing sessions. With no in-person contact allowed, those sessions have shifted.

At 3:30 p.m., the team listens to an episode and reads along using a script one of the producers sends out. They all log into a single Google docs and leave comments along the way as they listen. Then, the team hops on a phone call.

“A lot of our weekly rhythms are the same,” Stern observed.

What’s not the same are interview tactics deployed by hosts John-Hall and Ben Yaacov.

Guests normally chat with one of the hosts in person at the WHYY studio. Now, these interviews are being done remotely, with guests recording themselves during a phone call, and then sending the audio to be spliced in.

The hosts have gotten creative with getting their own sound, too. “Shai…has a fort building kit from his child that he used to make a blanket fort to get the sound better,” Stern said. “Annette puts a blanket over her head.”

There you have it, folks. Studio quality sound for a steal.

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...