How we created a multilingual podcast between Africa and Europe without getting on an airplane
You just had the most brilliant idea for a podcast and were lucky enough to land a grant. Except you’ve never done a podcast before and you’re stuck in the middle of a pandemic so your chances at getting in the field without losing time and money are very slim.
So what do you do now?
With the right amount of preparation, it is still possible for you to produce a ground-breaking documentary podcast from the (dis)comfort of your living room.
Believe us, because we did it.
We are a small team of journalists at Euronews and during the 1st, 2nd and 3rd (so far) wave of COVID-19 we managed to produce a podcast set in five African countries.
Not only that. We managed to do it in two languages.
1 — Choose a production house that is not too big, or too small, but fits your needs.
Whether it’s your first podcasting experience, or you are a pro, do consider working with a production house as it makes things a lot easier for you. There are many production houses in France where we operate, but we chose Studio Ochenta, based in Paris.
They are good at storytelling, both fiction and non-fiction, but we also felt that they are very open and approachable and we could learn a lot from them. They also had experience with mutili-lingual podcasts. Their most successful show, Mija, is narrated in four languages and explores the story of immigrant families, celebrating their cultures and their dreams.
2 — Think about a strong graphic identity for your podcast.
Someone wrote that “your content could be the best around, but if the cover art doesn’t stand out, you’re standing in the way of your own success”. This is true.
Make sure that the art you choose looks good in miniature.
Also, consider modifying it for each episode. You might not want to at the beginning, but do make sure to have/ask your designer for a flexible .psd template you can adapt, in case you change your mind.
3 — Collaborate with local journalists, and choose them wisely.
If you want to record a podcast abroad and you can’t travel, you need to rely on someone else on the ground to do the job with you. You need someone to be your eyes and ears. It is important to choose a like-minded journalist with a strong background in what you’re going to be talking about.
It doesn’t matter if they’ve ever worked with audio before. The person has to be available and capable of thinking outside the box. Remember, you will be completely dependent on their awesomeness, so if you don’t get along, maybe it’s not a good idea to work together.
4 — Plan ahead: it takes months to pull off a good quality 15 min documentary podcast.
After weeks spent researching, you pitch the idea to your partner on the ground. Now it’s their turn to do research and see if your story stands.
After all the back and forth, you end up with a solid plan. It’s important to make sure the story is doable, everyone you want to interview is available, and you know exactly what sounds and music you want.
The journalist on the ground will spend weeks chasing people, getting interviews done… and re-done (things go wrong!). When you think you’ve done your deed, you have to sort and list all audio files before sending them to the production studio… Believe us, all of this takes time.
5 — Strive for uniformity.
Working in a team with a lot of journalists with different backgrounds, one of the biggest challenges is to achieve balance and uniformity in the content. We used Google Docs for the collaborative editing of the script, and found it really useful.
In order to maintain a high level of quality, but also coherence, we organised several training sessions for our stringers and journalists (recording audio, working with gendered topics, conducting interviews for videos) and established and wrote down the best practices for them.
6 — Write guidelines for the people recording in the field.
Don’t spare the details, write them only once but write them well. This is the principle that saved us a lot of time. Layout specs, but also editorial line.
Journalists in the field need to feel empowered but not lonely, they need to know the whole team has their back. Having clear guidelines for achieving the perfect shot (if you are also recording a video) or the perfect sound will save you a lot of pain, and will ensure the homogeneity of the product.
7 — Never go out in the field without a pre-script.
The more research is done in advance and the more detailed your pre-script is, the easier it will be for your producer on the ground to go out and record those sounds/interviews.
Talk to the people you are going to film a few days before the shooting to get organised. Pre-interview them: have them tell their story to find out if they are a good match for the project. Make a list of the ambient sounds you will need, as well as the people you want to speak to and the music that will make your podcast fly.
Make sure the journalist on the ground is part of the process. Don’t hesitate to ask them for local colour, cultural details. Little things that might seem mundane to them, make the best content for your story.
8 — Find a way to organize your team.
We learned that if you’re collaborating with more than one journalist in more than one other country, WhatsApp groups with everyone involved are pretty useless. In our case, working with more than 10 people in Europe and Africa, WhatsApp groups are pointless. However, this type of communication has been very useful for the parts of the production that don’t involve field work. We have created groups for people with whom we share precise objectives.
9 — Learn how to use online tools to help you.
We use Trello board as a project management tool. Trello allows you to create a dashboard where you can put “cards”. Each card works as a placeholder, can be worked upon in a collaborative way and can store files. In the first months of the project, Trello became a giant dump for us, and each “Trello card” a repository of stuff.
Later, we switched towards an approach more focused on project management — which is exactly what Trello should be used for — assigning each other tasks and ordering tasks into columns (daily, weekly and long-term tasks). We still store stuff on Trello, but only in a few selected cards. This kind of housekeeping job is boring but necessary, as a messy board (whichever tool you end up using) leads to messy outcomes and is symptomatic of a disoriented approach.
10 — Dubbing a documentary podcast can be crazy. Make sure to plan in advance.
In Burundi, most of the two documentary episodes have been recorded in Kirundi, the local language, so when mixing and editing the podcast, you will need dozens of people to voice the interviewees. In our case, multiply this by 2 as we needed them both in English and French. Organization is key here. From our first chaotic experiences, we learned to record all the voices in the same studio and to write an organized list of all the voices we needed per episode. In addition, we call in many favors from our multilingual colleagues with a nice voice.
11 — Be prepared for a lot of Esperanto talk.
Our team in Lyon is made up of a Russian, an Italian, a Spaniard and a French of Tunisian origin. On top of this, each of the African journalists we collaborate with speak their own mother tongue, plus English or French as a second language. Working in several languages must be part of your daily routine. It’s important that your journalist on the ground is comfortable in your working language. However, be prepared to make an effort to understand each other.
12 — If you can pay for an AI transcription tool, it’s money well spent.
We found Trint and Headliner (combined with Deepl translator) powerful allies for transcribing and translating audio files. Obviously, these are not a panacea (as they don’t include all the world languages) and we still needed to get on board a translator from Wolof. Luckily, she was based in Lyon. But, still, they help a lot.
However, not everything can be translated. Subbing a documentary podcast is quite straightforward… But things get harder when it comes to conversational episodes. In Cry Like a Boy we mix both formats, so for the conversational episodes we opted to invite different guests for each language.
13 — If you are the person in the field: describe, describe, describe.
The power of the podcast lies in being able to tell and feel a story without being able to see it. And by not being able to see the stories we wanted to tell ourselves, our work with the journalists in the field has been much more intense. They were our eyes in the field. What was the house like? What did it smell like? What was the day like? Was it hot? Describe it to me. These conversations helped us write better scripts.
For each scene, we aimed at trying to create feelings with sounds. We suggest recording the interviews (in a quiet place) and sounds to create the scenes separately, when possible. Each sound must be at least 20 sec long and uninterrupted (eg. if your phone rings in the middle of recording, you start over).
We also suggest keeping the microphone on recording as much as possible. Each interviewee should have his own microphone, when possible, and ideally the interview should start with 30 seconds of silence before the talk.
Record audio descriptions before each scene. Describe out loud in the microphone: where we are, who is with us, what we are doing, what is interesting?
Record descriptions of the characters before each interview, as well as many sounds as possible.
14 — Have a backup plan.
When recording a conversational podcast, with Zoom or with other platforms, have your guests record the conversation with another recording device. If poor Internet connection makes you lose some sounds, you’ll have a backup at hand.
15 — The hard work starts when the podcast is published.
We learned the hard-way that once you have made sweet bread, out there in the lab, if there is no one to sell that bread to customers, it will go wasted, unfortunately. In our case, being our first podcast, we recognise the enormous size of the challenge to build an audience around it. You’d need specific expertise, but also clear workflows on distribution and promotion. Most podcasts are recurring, rather than “one-off series” because it can take dozens of episodes to build an audience, and they are usually addressing a specific national market (because podcast platforms and charts are organized by country). We are still trying to figure out what the best strategies are to gain as many listeners as possible, but in the meantime, one last piece of (unwanted) advice: don’t get to the finish line exhausted. This is where the real race starts.
Having said all of that… now that we are starting to look back, maybe the fact that we couldn’t travel was for the best.
We have been forced to create a basis for working remotely that we can now apply to any other project, we have had a thousand conversations, feedback that has traveled back and forth between Africa and Europe and we have all felt very fulfilled to be able to tell stories that allows us to travel mentally even when we can’t physically.
Lillo Montalto Monella, Naira Davashayan, and Marta Rodríguez Martínez are journalists at Euronews and from September 2020 they are producing the bilingual podcast Cry Like a Boy/ Dans la tête des Hommes. Arwa Barkallah is our French host, freelance journalist, and co-creator of the project. Peya Mame Dia is collaborating with us during her internship from Nairobi, Kenya. Charlotte Cullen is Cry Like a Boy project manager. Danielle Olavario, social media journalist at Euronews, is our English host. The podcast Cry Like a Boy was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the European Development Journalism Grants programme. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.