Podcasting in the time of COVID-19

Podcasters and content creators are finding ways to stay creative at home. Although COVID-19 has presented artists with multiple challenges, they continue to keep their art alive.

Randa Hinton was blissfully watching the movie, “Book Club,” when she thought about the idea of starting a podcast on how to find a job during uncertain times. Hinton quickly reached out to Anika Fisch, a friend from the University of Southern California, who she had known for only 10 months. Hinton texted Anika and asked her if she wanted to start a podcast for job seekers.

From a quick friendship to a spontaneous idea Hinton texted Anika, “I was like, hey, I want to start a podcast talking about trying to find a job during a pandemic. Do you want to do it with me? Within 24 hours, she said yes. And without any long-term plan, a month later, we were launching,” Hinton said.

“We were fairly new friends, by any comparison. I think the reason why we work well together is because we have worked together in a class project…luckily, our working habits are very similar. And the way we communicate is very similar,” Fisch said.

Fisch completed her bachelor’s degree in 2019 and earned a Master of Communication Management degree at the University of Southern California Annenberg School in 2020, with an emphasis in marketing and branding. Hinton also graduated from USC in May 2020 with a Master of Communication Management with an emphasis in Organizational and Strategic Corporate Communication.

After constant phone calls and zoom meetings, Hinton and Fisch started bringing their ideas to life, “We kind of built it in a month we had a few practice runs…[we] build our cadence and figured out how we were going to speak to each other through the recording process,” Hinton said.

Hinton and Fisch, like many of their classmates, faced obstacles finding a job, post-graduation. “We’re trying to find a job during a pandemic. And it’s definitely different from the 2008/2009 financial crisis… although we’ve heard a lot of great tips from people who’ve been through that crisis, this one was significantly different. So we thought we would start a podcast,” Hinton said.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has forced individuals to stay home, content creators have found creative ways in which to bring people together. “Having that school collaboration experience really did help… we want to provide that level of comfort that we felt with one another, with other people,” said Fisch. “Because no one has gone through this before. It’s very difficult. We just want to be able to provide free resources and a place for people to connect and feel okay, and then get help as well.”

The latest Nielsen study reveals that eight out of ten radio listeners are either listening to radio more or the same amount — the Nielsen study also highlights the percentage of where individuals are listening from. The study found that 26% more are listening from home, 19% more are listening on mobile devices, 14% more are listening to podcasts, 12% more are listening on their computers, and 10% more are listening on their smart speakers.

“The most recent statistics show that 89% of Americans over the age of 12 listen to AM/ FM radio each week. 67% listen to online radio, compared with 87% of watch TV. Okay, so radio is very competitive,” said USC Annenberg Professor, Willa Seidenberg.

Listeners have not gone away, if anything listeners are continuing to listen even more during a pandemic. “Podcasting is getting bigger and bigger,” said Fisch. “I mean, Spotify is hiring lots of different kinds of creators, and I know that they’re investing a lot in their creators…it’s amazing to watch the field and how much it’s growing. And how fast our podcast has grown.”

Randa and Anika’s podcast launched on June 1, 2020 now has over 2,500 downloads. “Crazy to think that’s grown so fast,” Fisch said.

“We hadn’t had any podcast experience before,” admitted Fisch.

Although Hinton and Fisch could not be physically together due to COVID-19, creating a podcast allowed them to work together while apart. The first few episodes focused on LinkedIn profile tips, networking, branding, social media and job hunting skills during a pandemic.

Job-hunting during a pandemic is a topic many individuals can relate to.

Randa and Anika’s target audience is the class of 2020 and early career professionals. “Everything we do is organic, so we don’t spend money on ads. It’s mostly word of mouth and by using everything free on social media,” Hinton said.

Podcasting from home allows creators to stay at home without having to be in the same room with other creators. “We just want to be able to provide great information. Granted, we have a producer who creates the actual podcast, we don’t do any of the audio work. So that’s been really great for us to use,” Fisch said.

Although they were not able to get a job post-graduation due to COVID-19, both were able to connect through this creative outlet and with others who experienced a similar situation. “In both of our minds, we hoped and kind of expected to have graduated and have jobs right away…it’s been great being able to connect with other people who’ve been impacted by this pandemic,” Fisch said.

The purpose of their podcast is to give listeners hope and know they are not alone. “This process can be very isolating, we’re already isolated right now because of COVID… we started off in the same boat we just happened to talk about it on a podcast, that’s the only difference,” Fisch said.

They hope to help their audience find jobs and if not find a job to connect with people in their industry to help them build up their personal branding.

USC Annenberg Professor, Willa Seidenberg recommends podcasters who want to make a career out of it to dedicate some time to the craft. “If you’re trying to do it to make money. I think it takes a lot of time and a lot of energy. I think it’s a great medium…but if you’re doing it because you really want traction, doing the podcast itself is just the beginning,” she said.

Personal branding and networking is vital to Hinton and Fisch. “I think I would just say, I hope that people take away that you need to be networking, and even when you’re not applying for jobs, it’s just so important,” Hinton said.

These USC Masters grads are not the only ones who have started their own podcast.

COVID-19 has presented an opportunity for many students and individuals around the world to take a moment to pivot and create their own projects. Whether it is creating one’s podcast, movie, or short film; this moment in time has become a cultural and financial time to reinvent creativity.

Screenwriter and Director, Meg Swertlow graduated from Hamilton College with a degree in Theater. Upon graduation, she pursued stand-up comedy in Los Angeles.

In 2016, Swertlow studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California, School of Cinematic Arts. At USC, she wrote her first romantic comedy movie, “Two-Drink Minimum.”

Swertlow has made three short films during the pandemic. One of the three films she directed and wrote was a short horror film, “Blood Will Have Blood.”

“I filmed a short, called Blood Will Have Blood and that was just in one bathroom, in a friend’s apartment,” she said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Swertlow also wrote and directed a two-minute horror short film titled “Jenny” in her apartment, which she submitted to the Corman Quarantine Film Festival. This film is about a woman who finds horror within.

American Director, Roger Corman, best known for his work in movies such as The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), Death Race 2000 (1975), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and many more, hosted a virtual Corman Quarantine Film Festival back in April.

Corman announced in an Instagram video, “We’re looking for the next great film director.” He challenged filmmakers to create their stay-at-home short film. Filmmakers had two weeks to create their short films.

Swertlow accepted the challenge and submitted her short film, “Jenny.”

Corman only took five winners. Although Swertlow did not win, she was able to create a short film at home. “It was a creative challenge to have so many parameters…it has to be at home. It has to be with the people you quarantine with… for me, it was just me and my husband.” Swertlow continued, “I was in it, filming it, directing it and doing all those things with gear that wasn’t professional…the constraints allowed for my creativity,” she said.

With COVID-19, the only tool filmmakers, podcasters, and creators need is an iPhone or a microphone to be able to produce their own work safely at home. Creativity has no limits.

In Feb. 2019, Jason Hibono, a recent UCLA 2019 psychobiology graduate started his own podcast titled, “Couch and Chat.”

The purpose of the podcast was that I wanted to find some sort of medium where people could listen in and do other tasks while washing dishes [or] driving a car,” Hibono said.

“I wanted to record my conversations with a lot of my friends, do you ever have those conversations where, you say, dang, that’s deep!…” Hibono continued, “I felt like I had a lot of interesting conversations, but more and more so my friends had a lot of interesting things to say. And I feel like people can learn from those conversations. I started documenting all these and putting it up on Apple, Spotify, [and] SoundCloud.”

Hibono’s first few episodes highlight stories of various UCLA students and their experiences as college students pursuing various fields of study from pre-med, philosophy, geography, communication and many more. Now, he is working on reaching other audiences.

“My target audience is more of 18 to 23 young adults…people who are transitioning into adulthood, so that’s the demographic, male and female,” he said.

Although Hibono has not been consistently uploading episodes, he has noticed an increase in listeners due to COVID-19.

“I’ve been trying to discover new audiences. However, since the quarantine, in that brief time, I didn’t upload any podcasts. I’ve seen an uptick in new viewers. And because I also have video format on YouTube, I’ve seen new viewers [and] new listeners. I think that goes to show that people are at home and looking for ways to really pass the time. Podcasting is one of those things people are gravitating towards,” he said.

Hibono currently has 124 subscribers on his “Couch and Chat” YouTube Channel. His most recent video has 389 views, and each of his episodes is not only distributed through audio platforms but also through YouTube videos. Thus, it has expanded his viewership through different platforms and mediums.

Hibono’s recent episode, “How to get into pharmacy school from a UCSD student” spoke on the struggles student pharmacists face. According to Hibono, “pharmacists [are] exposed to the virus at a very high level…having those conversations, I think, in that it’s not every day where you can talk to a pharmacist who’s in those situations.” Hibono continued, “it’s been a very rewarding time during this quarantine in terms of podcasting, because I feel like I’ve been able to have more of those conversations with some of my friends and other people that I find interesting in the space or other spaces,” he said.

With 16 episodes, the “Couch and Chat” podcast covers stories from student experiences in college, college majors and post-grad life.

When asked about his thoughts on podcasting being the new radio, Hibono responded, “I don’t necessarily think radio shows will be replaced. I think there’s just a new player in the game. It’s just another medium for people to listen to their news.” He continued, “because podcasts, they’re not just stories, there could be news, it could be education, it could be anything, just how, for example, Spotify, Apple Music, and all those works. It didn’t replace radio, per se, but it was a competitive player in that space,” he said.

Although podcast consumption “has increased significantly from March to April growing 42%, " according to Voxnest. Radio continues to be strong.

“Radio is often a very important part of media consumption in rural areas, because they might not be as connected to the internet…the radio has traditionally been a real lifeline in rural communities,” Seidenberg said.

Podcasts are another outlet in which people can share their stories, says Hibono.

“The only money that I spent personally was for the branding. I hired a designer to help me come up with something that was good for “Couch and Chat,” something that really captured the vibe that I was going for. Something like a podcast, where friends are just sitting down and chatting. Other than that, there’s not really that many upfront costs, other than the microphone that you might need,” he said.

“I know people can use their air-pods or headphones with a microphone attached to it. So not too big of an upfront cost if you want to invest into it like a microphone.” Hibono continued, “if you really want to start, you could start with nothing.”

On the contrary, Seidenberg believes that a career in podcasting requires more than just a microphone. “You have to market it. And you have to put it up on the web, and you have to have a lot of elements to get heard by people. So, you have to do social media,” she said. Social media has become an important communication tool for podcasters.

Kira K. Dixon, a current USC Annenberg graduate student and former Miss America started a podcast titled, “What we do” in 2017.

Dixon’s podcast, “What we do” started as a vehicle to interview successful female entrepreneurs, actors, activists, hosts, artists, or leaders in their field. “What we do” also serves as an inspirational platform that lends advice from experts in their fields and encourages individuals to achieve their dreams no matter how unattainable they may appear.

The “What we do” podcasts initial model targeted women ages 18 to 30. The podcast also targets individuals interested in motivational, inspiring and career-building content.

Dixon completed 30 episodes between 2017 and 2019.

After working on it for two consecutive years, Dixon took a hiatus for about a year.

However, she found a way back into it after the COVID-19 hit. “I came across a story that I was really passionate about that was in this mini-series. And I was on and off about how I would actually produce it. And then COVID hit and I had all this time on my hands,” Dixon said.

So, she created a mini-series, “The What we do podcast presents: Defy-A Four Part Mini-Series.” This series highlighted a different element to her original idea. It still featured stories on strong women, however, it told stories on the intersection between race and the criminal justice system.

It took Dixon over 18 months to produce this mini-series. Some of the voices in the series include Brittany Lee Lewis (Ph.D. candidate at George Washington University), Stacey Putka (Executive Director of Defy Colorado, a nonprofit organization) and Abe Arrington (who was wrongfully convicted of murder).

The mini-series targets anybody that is social justice-minded and willing to listen to a different version of the story than what we’ve all been told our whole lives growing up. “To be honest, [this] story I produced… I personally felt compelled to do it. I didn’t really care about the audience, which is not the way that you should produce a podcast. It was something that I was passionate about before and I figured if I was passionate about it, other people would be passionate about it as well,” she said.

She worked with producers in Louisville, Kentucky and a company called Resonate Recordings. “I did all of my production, meetings, notes, editing, all that type of stuff with them virtually and on the phone.” She continued, “They have a platform that you can submit everything through, and they comment on things, and it’s really cool,” she said.

Dixon utilized a platform called Zencastr, a podcast recording tool for her interviews. “It provides studio quality recordings, even though you’re recording with a computer, and remotely from your guests. I did everything that way. And, that’s how it came together,” Dixon said.

She has also seen an uptick in listenership since COVID-19. “I certainly got a ton of new listeners and reached a new audience for me completely.” Dixon continued, “the podcast space is really saturated, and just because you put something out, even in COVID doesn’t exactly mean that people are listening, or they’re going to listen, so it’s just hard to be discoverable, you still have to put in a lot of work to get people to know you exist,” she said.

Although podcasts have increased in popularity in times of COVID, Dixon believes that it will continue to grow. “For independent creators, especially, I think it’s gonna get harder and harder to break out unless you have a major financial infusion, or you’re partnered with iHeart radio or something like a network that can use their infrastructure to promote your show,” Dixon said.

Podcasters can choose how much they want to invest in their project. Dixon chose to make a large investment for her podcast. “I mean anybody can record audio on their computer, maybe you bought a $50 mic, and then you can put that on the internet. And that’s a podcast. And it’s really, really cheap.” She continued, “But to create what I did for this four-part mini-series, which was an extremely cinematic style, documentary type show… [was] [a] much larger financial investment for me, because I personally don’t have those types of engineering skills.”

Dixon’s highly produced show required major engineering with the sound effects for the music that she used. “A lot, a lot went into it, and the hours that they spent on just editing. I would send pages and pages and pages of notes, [and] editing. It wasn’t just like the regular style podcast where you sit around a group of three to four people, and you talk about a topic and it moves through different things,” she said.

She decided not to find a financial partner and purposely did not seek out advertisers. “I just felt like the subject matter was too important to interrupt,” she said.

Dixon encourages students who want to create their own podcasts to find their niche and become experts on the topic of choice. “If there’s a way to break into a podcast network, if that’s something that is interesting to you, then that’s amazing to help just build your initial audience,” she said.

Social media presence plays a vital role when it comes to building a robust audience. Creators want to make sure that they are catering to their audience. There are multiple components that come into play. “The podcasts that I like also have a ton of bonus content, their own websites, their own branding, it’s a huge thing. I think that just putting something online, unless it’s like, amazing, isn’t gonna get you all the way there,” Dixon said.

COVID-19 has reinvented creativity. Artists and creators are finding ways to tell stories at home via social media, short films and podcasts. It is time to share your creativity with the world.

Get your phone and create!

“Choose something in the place that you are quarantining… shoot a video on your phone, and use the lights in your house,” Swertlow said.