Briefing Notes: Podcast masterclass with Today in Focus
Rachel Humphreys, co-presenter and producer Rachel.firstname.lastname@example.org
The Guardian set up its Today in Focus podcast in the summer of 2018 and it launched in November of that year. There’s quite a big team – around 10 full time staff plus freelancers – made up of presenters, producers, exec producers and sound designers. Rachel presents and produces (which involves planning the episode, briefing the presenter and editing).
The aim of the podcast was to tell the stories behind the headlines, develop the Guardian’s journalists as characters and find a new audience beyond those who read the newspaper or follow the Guardian online. Rachel came from daily news so she is able to turn stories around quickly when necessary, but she enjoys spending more time getting the story right. The lead presenter at the start was Anushka who recently left. There will now be a trio of presenters – Rachel, Mike Safi and Nosheen Iqbal.
They were named best current affairs podcast in last year’s British Podcast Awards. They are different from most current affairs podcast as they only do one story per episode and they do not slavishly follow the news agenda.
Today in Focus runs daily from Monday to Friday – each episode is roughly 30 minutes long and follows one story. The interviewees are mostly Guardian journalists but other experts sometimes feature and when it’s a human interest story there will be first person testimony from someone who has first-hand experience of the issue.
They try and vary the mix each week, a mixture of lighter and more serious, a running daily news story, a human interest story, a big global story, something lighter.
They have run quite a few international stories. In the last couple of months, they have reported from Brazil, Syria, Gaza, Hong Kong, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Canada, China and the US. They have covered Covid, British politics, climate change, missing people, human rights, UFOs. The range is broad. They are quite open minded about the stories they cover. One of the new presenters, Mike, is based in Beirut so there will be more foreign stories going forward.
Rachel and her colleagues keep an open mind and they are happy to receive pitches. Pitch to Rachel by email, either a story you think they should report on or a human interest issue with a named character they can interview at length. The stories need to have several elements to sustain 30 minutes. One of their recent episodes about families tracing missing relatives was the result of a pitch by a charity to Anushka. Rachel will read all the pitches she receives. It is also helpful if you can send her some audio that you have recorded yourself (it can be recorded on a smartphone).
Human interest stories
Rachel spoke about a podcast on human rights in Egypt which told the story of an Egyptian who was detained by the authorities and later released. The podcast also featured his British wife. Casting is key and they work hard to make sure that the human interest stories have strong characters at their heart. They also have a duty of care and will play clips to the contributors to let them know what to expect. It’s good to interview people who have never been interviewed before – they did one episode on gay conversion therapy and featured a woman talking for the first time about her experience of it.
There is no set approach. Sometimes they will send questions in advance or do a research interview. On other occasions, it is more effective to be spontaneous. It depends on the guest and what works best for that person. Answers should not feel rehearsed or scripted.
Tone of voice
One of the key reasons for their success is getting the right tone of voice and this has evolved over time. The tone is conversational and informal. The presenter is a like a friend guiding the audience through a story. They bring something personal to it and even if they have prepared the questions in advance it should not feel scripted. They want to explain complex stories but not to patronise their audience and tell them things they already know. Working out how much to give as background to a story is one of the most challenging aspects.
Rachel showed us how she edits with different contributors on different tracks. She will do the first edit then show it to the presenter and exec producer and make more changes. Everyone will listen to it several times before it is signed off and goes to the sound designer to complete. A lot of time and effort goes into editing although on the big running news stories the time is condensed. They will do an interview in the morning, edit it and hand it to the sound designer in the afternoon and s/he may work on it all evening. It goes live around 2 or 3am.
Choosing the right presenter is key. Rachel feels that the skills needed are to be calm under pressure, to have the ability to empathise, to be able to listen and have a conversation rather than just run through a list of predetermined questions, to remember to ask the obvious questions, a sense of humour, and a voice that is easy to listen to. Presenters should be in the background allowing the story and the protagonists to take centre stage, they should not ask ‘clever’ questions to show off. Follow your instincts – the audience tends to be interested in what you are interested in.
A podcast is like a documentary, there is a narrative journey, a beginning, a middle and an end. Today in Focus breaks a story up into chapters to provide punctuation. They also start with a question which provides the focus for the narrative. The intro at the top is important – put your strongest sound first to get the audience hooked but don’t tell the whole story in the intro. Remember the thing that got you interested in the story in the first place.
Rachel gave us some concluding thoughts. Teamwork is crucial. Tell stories that you’re interested in. Keep an open mind. Keep things simple. Audio is so clever that there is always a way of telling a story.