Going Solo: How Journalists Recreated the Production Studio in Their Own Homes
COVID-19 saw journalists adapt to new conditions. With only skeleton crews allowed inside most studios, what did broadcast journalists who had to work from home do? We spoke to three to find out.
One day in early March, Femi Oke — international journalist and host of Al Jazeera’s daily TV show The Stream — was told by her executive producer to go home and not come back.
She wasn’t being fired. Climbing cases of coronavirus in Washington, D.C., meant that going into work was now too dangerous.
“So there we were, all in our various homes. We had to cancel the next day’s show,” she says. “We had no plan. Nothing.”
Many people around the world found themselves in a similar position. With less access to sources, staff and colleagues working from home, and an anxiety-inducing news cycle to contend with, COVID-19 presented a big challenge to journalism and journalists.
Yet audiences became more engaged with the news during lockdown. Writers, reporters, and editors adjusted, even swapping the production studio for kitted-out bedrooms. The result? A multi-skilled, agile workforce and a more democratized conception of media production and who can produce it.
Here are the technicalities of how a broadcaster, a documentary maker, and a radio host worked from home during the pandemic.
Femi Oke: Live Broadcasting From Home
The Stream is a 30-minute, conversational show by Al Jazeera English. It looks at the most pressing issues happening around the world and seeks to answer questions such as “how can Bangladesh protect its Hindu community?”
Back in March of 2020, Oke and her team tried to work out how they could do the show remotely, a process that took four weeks. Oke was determined to produce something that wasn’t just her presenting in front of a blank wall. It had to be recognizable as The Stream.
“One of The Stream’s key brandings is gobo projectors displaying Al Jazeera’s logo on a brick wall in the studio,” Oke explains. So Oke’s lighting designer, Michael Corripio, made custom gobos, including the iconic brick wall, and brought those same projections into her living room. Her home backdrop looked so realistic that people told Oke they thought she had an actual brick wall in her home.
Lighting boxes lit up different areas of her room to give that studio effect. On the less high-tech side of things, Oke balanced her laptop on a stack of books so that she was presenting from the right height. As she left the studio so suddenly, she wasn’t able to use one of Al Jazeera’s proper cameras, and learned to live with that which was built into her laptop.
“The installation of the lights was pretty horrible because I wasn’t allowed to be in the same room as the lighting designer due to COVID,” Oke says. Corripio installed the lights, left her house, and directed Oke on how to set up a full lighting kit over the phone.
Next was establishing a virtual control room. Oke used an application called vMix, which her team used to put the show together. Other than that, Oke became her own make-up person, IT person, and presenter.
Setting up her home studio every morning took about 30 minutes. Oke would reset her laptop, reboot the internet, put the lighting on, run a technical check with the crew, and then, finally, prepare for her show.
“If anything goes wrong, it was just me and my laptop,” Oke says. “It was an extraordinary learning curve.”
But the upside of doing The Stream from her living room was that the audience could see that Oke was in her home, just like they were. “I had fantastic conversations with my guests because people were more relaxed,” she says. “I was coming to them virtually, so it added a level of intimacy to our conversation that you just don’t get when you’re in the studio because people think ‘Wow, I’m on TV’ and that can be quite intimidating.”
There were, of course, a fair share of mishaps. The show was broadcast live on YouTube, as a safety net, and then edited the next day. One day Oke’s internet provider did some work and her connection crashed six times. The crew took that particular episode off YouTube and stitched it back together overnight.
After nine months of hosting The Stream from her living room, Oke was relieved to finally be allowed back in the studio. She describes feeling “a lightness” upon re-entering the building: “I no longer had to firefight all these different things. All I could do is concentrate on the audience and guests, and that was really special.”
Because of lockdown, Oke now knows how to light a space properly, how to dress a shot, where the camera should be placed, and the importance of wearing headphones to avoid feedback, among other things. These are essential skills she uses when MCing remote opportunities with United Nations and the African Union, international events that look to remain virtual for the foreseeable.
Moving The Stream into Oke’s home influenced the show editorially too. “One of the biggest things was that I had to work out how to do a show with no script,” she says. “The top of the show was always scripted, the ‘hello, welcome’ bit.”
But when parked at her living room table, Oke created an unscripted opening to each show where she would ask her guests to introduce themselves to the audience rather than doing it herself from a script. “You get this lovely moment where the person frames themselves how they want to. It just puts a more personal stamp on it,” she says.
While Oke doesn’t miss stressful mornings troubleshooting microphone problems, she is grateful to have learned an enormous number of technical skills. And the process galvanized The Stream’s warm, conversational style.
Ali Rae: Making a Documentary From Home
Al Jazeera’s senior digital producer Ali Rae presented, produced, filmed, and edited a five-part documentary series — All Hail the Lockdown — all while working from home. It’s a series that explores the global consequences of COVID-19. And it was made entirely from her small living room in east London.
She was helped by her remote teammates: executive producer Meenakshi Ravi, production assistant Ben Walker, and animators Pierangelo Pirak and Cosimo Kirico. The second season of All Hail accrued more than 1,500,000 views after its first round of promotion.
Looking beyond the daily news briefings and minute-by-minute updates, Rae’s series examines the social and political ramifications of COVID-19 in countries across the world, including India, Spain, China, and Brazil.
Despite not being able to visit the far-flung countries All Hail spotlights, Rae has found value in the working-from-home documentary-making process and sees it creating more opportunities for more collaborative projects in the future. And she can now add a host of niche skills to her resume, including making a floating dolly (a camera wheeled on a cart down a track) from a skateboard.
“I missed bouncing ideas off colleagues in our office,” Rae says, “but even in lockdown, projects like these are never truly done in isolation. Whether I’m receiving editorial feedback on a draft script from my executive producer or sending files to a remote animator — collaboration is always key.”
There were other factors too, besides her remote teammates, that helped Rae complete such a project from the confines of her flat.
As a multi-skilled creative, Rae already owned camera and mic kits. She used three different cameras for All Hail: a Sony A7 III, a Canon G7X, and a GoPro-esque camera, DJI Osmo Action. Alongside this, she used a Neewer lightbox, Freeworld monitor, and RØDE lapel and Blue Yeti microphones.
Coupled with her past multimedia experience was an opportunity created by the pandemic: a world of experts working from home, with much freer schedules. “The only barrier to speaking to someone was a good Wi-Fi connection,” she says.
Author, scholar, and activist Arundhati Roy in India and environmental journalist George Monbiot in the United Kingdom were among those that gave vital insights into the social and ecological disasters coinciding with the pandemic.
Working for such a large media organization, Rae also had access to Al Jazeera’s global archival footage. Crucially, she was given eight months to bring everything together — an important time frame when grappling with temperamental Wi-Fi.
“The issue with working remotely is I had to transfer and download all this archival footage on comparatively slow Wi-Fi. So that’s one production hurdle that you have to take into account,” she says. “And then the other thing to consider is that you often can’t see the archival footage before you download it, so the quality might not be the best, or it might not be what you’re looking for. But you sometimes have to wait for it to be sent from Doha to London, then they’ll digitally transfer it over to you, which can take a little while.”
Another hurdle Rae managed to overcome was making a static setting, her living room, dynamic and distinct from the usual pandemic footage of talking heads over Zoom with a bookcase in the background.
When interviewing people, Rae’s footage switches from the classic webcam view of her speaking into her laptop to another camera positioned on a tripod behind her, framing the back of her head looking at the screen. This gives a behind-the-scenes feel, but also emphasizes the authenticity of the production process — this is one journalist, making a documentary series from home during a pandemic.
To help explain more complex topics, the walls of Rae’s home were turned into a conceptual backdrop (a greenscreen) for explainer animations created by her two animators based in Italy. This helped enliven Zoom interviews, such as providing accompanying visuals to tech writer Evgeny Morozov’s explanations of tech solutionism. The frame starts with Morozov talking via video chat, then it zooms out to a digitized representation of a noticeboard where lines grow from the original frame of Morozov to trace relevant infographics in squares.
“Of course, we could have downloaded nice pre-made templates, but we wanted to situate each graphic in the home to reinforce the lockdown theme,” Rae says. That’s why each explainer starts as a photo ‘frame’ on my wall, to metaphorically represent windows into the lived experiences of others around the world.”
“The opening to each episode also uses a different filming technique,” she continues. “Given the amount of COVID-19 coverage, we wanted to make it creative and engaging, while still being journalistically robust.” Rae used space-morphing techniques (where one image, shape, or animation seamlessly transitions into another), greenscreen masking, stop motion, and 360-degree filming — achieved by mounting her camera on a rotating tripod mount — to commence each episode.
After giving her animators in Italy a rough idea of what she was looking for — something that illustrates the mundane routine of lockdown — for the complex opening sequences, Rae filmed herself around her flat in a high-definition 4K and then sent the animators the massive files to begin playing with. Once the team was happy, the final version was edited into each documentary.
Rae also created her own budget floating dolly, a device that huge film production companies normally use to enable a camera to track forward and backward, as though it’s floating. Think Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock.
“I didn’t have the space to lay down a professional camera track, so instead I used a skateboard and attached a gimbal [a pivoting support device that allows a camera to rotate smoothly] on top of it to keep the camera stable. I simply pushed two desks together and rolled it down the middle,” she explains. “It’s great when an idea works out — but it can also be stressful stretching yourself creatively, while also managing the other aspects of the series as well.”
Having come out the other side of lockdown, what has Rae learned about the filmmaking process?
“The big thing I had to grapple with was navigating the broadcast specs for TV, which would normally be done at our broadcast center in the Shard,” she says. “There are a bunch of technical hurdles pre- and post-production you need to meet in order for something to be broadcast on TV. “For example, you need to meet broadcast specs for photosensitivity levels, audio levels, branding on-screen, and even provide detailed documents that outline copyright information for every bit of footage used.”
“This process has made me realize that if you can build successful working relationships despite the challenges of remote working, there’s a real opportunity to consider flexibility in terms of where people are based for future projects,” she continues. “It has opened up my thinking for collaboration around the world — and that’s exciting.”
Philip Chryssikos: Hosting a Radio Show From Home
Chryssikos had already soundproofed his spare room for voiceover work before the pandemic. This eased the transition of presenting live radio away from LBC’s London studio.
His room’s walls are quilted in two-foot-by-two-foot black and purple square tiles that span across the ceiling and around the door handle. They’re professional, studio-grade, acoustically treated tiles from EQ Acoustics, which Chryssikos installed manually using 3M Velcro strips.
“It deadens the sound, instead of having reflections that would bounce around. If you clap in a room and you can hear slight reverberation, it’s there,” Chryssikos explains. “I even went as far as putting some matting on the desk as well to kill the sound.” Good sound quality keeps listeners listening, so mastering this is essential.
In total, the soundproofing cost approximately $3,300, a calculated investment that was worth it for Chryssikos’ career. “Weigh up the pros and cons. Make sure you can do what you can afford to do in your budget,” he says.
But what if you can’t afford studio-grade soundproofing panels? Don’t worry. Chryssikos recommends using a duvet instead.
“You need to think about where you’re projecting to. Use four poles with something solid underneath them and just drape a duvet over them,” he explains. “You may not make it 100 percent soundproofed but even 90 or 80 is going to sound far better than zero.”
There are other easy tricks Chryssikos uses, such as his silent Logitech mouse so that clicking remains undetected. He stacks his computer away in a cupboard so there’s no whirring. Then on his desk, Chryssikos has two dual-screen monitors and a little mixing desk so that he can use faders while on air. Most importantly, the operation was not Wi-Fi enabled. Everything was hardwired back to his router, eliminating dropouts.
Choosing the right microphone that works with your voice is also crucial, Chryssikos advises. He uses the Orpheus mic from Suntronic, which cost approximately $500.
“It made my voice sound like silky smooth Galaxy chocolate. It was completely different to the Røde mic I was using before,” Chryssikos says. “It was an absolute game-changer. When you are recording or doing anything on a microphone, everyone’s conscious of their voice and if you’re happy with how you sound it makes you feel confident.”
Confidence is one of the key takeaways from Chryssikos’ year of broadcasting to the U.K. and beyond during the height of a global pandemic. “It’s moved my skills,” he reflects. Being able to wear many different hats behind the mic has bolstered Chryssikos’ confidence to work anywhere across the country as a voiceover artist and radio host.
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Additional content and context, added to everything we do.
Use: Tools to Try
Which piece of equipment couldn’t our interviewees live without when working from home?
A virtual control room, such as vMix.
Using a digital control room app like vMix (alternatives are available) allowed Femi Oke, international journalist and host of Al Jazeera’s daily TV show The Stream, to do a TV show that looked like a real TV show, rather than a Zoom meeting, from a tab on her laptop.
Her director could count her down in her ear, guests’ names would appear when they were brought on the show, and other videos could be introduced.
A microphone that works with your voice.
“Everyone’s voice is different,” explains Philip Chryssikos, a freelance voiceover artist and broadcaster. He recommends trying out a bunch of different mics to see what works with your voice. The best one for you is not always the most expensive.
“Think about how people will be listening to your show. On massive hi-fi speakers or a little mono speaker? However they listen to it, the sound must be crystal clear without any echo,” Chryssikos says. “Because if the sound sounds good, they will listen for longer.”
A strong Wi-Fi connection.
Ali Rae, Al Jazeera’s senior digital producer, recommends prioritizing fast internet speeds. She was able to upgrade to a faster fiber connection in her area, which made downloading and transferring files much more manageable.
Plenty of storage in the cloud.
Nothing fancy here either. Rae upgraded to 2TB of Google cloud storage. “It made a big difference for organizing, ease of file transfers, watching previews, collaboration on a script, etc.,” she says.
Meet: About the Author
Frankie Lister-Fell is a newspaper reporter and freelance journalist based in London. She writes about local democracy, culture, and good journalism.