Podcasting in the Age of Brittle Supply Chains

The Supply Chain of Conversation, Disrupted

A Podcaster Reflects on the Negative Effects of the Great Reopening

October 29, 2021
by Ken Gordon
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Everyone, it seems, is having supply chains problems. We’ve got labor shortages. We’ve got driver shortages. We’ve got shipping container shortages.

EPAM Continuum saw this coming. As it says in our NXT 2021 Trends Report: "2020 delivered many different kinds of shocks to the cohesion of the global economy, and 2021 will be characterized by the reverberations."

Allow me to augment the chorus of frustration with a riff all my own. My supply chain of conversation is starting to get tangled, and I want to ensure that it doesn’t fray or snap.

I’m the producer of The EPAM Continuum Podcast Network. Since March 2020, my team has had to record all our podcasts virtually. At first, the idea of far-flung recording was worrisome. The best conversations are always between two people together in a room. I thought: “Who’d be interested in a dialogue of dueling laptops?” and “How are we gonna get our guests to be relaxed and real if we can’t sit across an actual table from them?”

But when the pandemic took hold of our world, we quickly got used to the virtualization of all conversation. Zoom was the medium in which our conversations swam. Distance became de rigueur.

In the Before Times, I produced a podcast called The Resonance Test, all about innovation and implementation (“From our perspective, ideas aren’t really ‘innovative’ until they exist,” we say each episode). We’d invite guests, venerable Leaders of Thought, to our studio in Boston’s Innovation District, then sit them down before a tangle of mics and wires to hear what they did to bring new-to-the world ideas to the market. We normally knocked out one episode a month.

Since COVD went down, we added another podcast, Silo Busting, which covers integrated consulting and cross-functional work (“Real opportunities aren't siloed,” we always remind listeners).

Together the two podcasts made a network, and now I’m always in a frantic process of booking, recording, editing, or socializing a podcast every week. Well, nearly every week. I just realized that the last podcast to go live was on October 4. This gap is unusual.

No one is going to record a podcast while flying to, you know, a symposium in Paris.

The pandemic podcasts had been productive. I’m talking about a new era of expert access. The major league authors and professors and business leaders I tapped to chat, were, in fact, easier to get ahold of than ever before—we’re talking about people like The New Yorker’s Louis Menand and Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal, author of An American Sickness—I suspect because everyone was at home all the time. The pandemic made all kinds of people more available than they’d ever been before. Making themselves free for 30 minutes of digital chatter was surprisingly simple.

Now that the smartest people in Smart America are vaccinated, things seem to have shifted. An episode that I began setting up in July has been rescheduled so many times that we’re all starting to suspect it will only ever be a scheduled podcast. Another guest said he’d be interested, but we had to wait until after an event. (Remember back when all the events took place at laptops?) Finally, it seems that a number of C-suiters we’ve invited to join the pod have been, in recent weeks, disappointingly elusive.

The Great Reopening means that when leaders attend in-person meetings, conferences, dinners, and such—it eats up their time and attention. No one is going to record a podcast while flying to, you know, a symposium in Paris.

In addition, says my frequent podcast collaborator Toby Bottorf, “There may be a sense that time and work need to rebalance. We gave all our time to work and are exhausted. We started working from home and ended living at the home office.”

Are we at what Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath calls an inflection point? In her book Seeing Around Corners, she defines this as “a change in the business environment that dramatically shifts some element of your activities, throwing certain taken-for-granted assumptions into question”?

We may be… though it’s probably too soon to tell and we don’t have any good research on it right now.

Podcast producers are in the same stressed-out boat as everyone else. Time to find a way to get unstuck from the port.

But I spoke the other day to an MIT researcher, a guy who will soon be on The Resonance Test, who is currently in Mexico. The space between us—I’m in suburban Boston—made me think that a new kind of distance may well start getting in the way of my producing. Liberated from their home offices, our experts are doing stuff in the world and that may require us to take a new approach to my work.

I’m not back full-time in my office yet—our office hasn’t completely reopened—and it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to revert back the vaccine-free days when guests regularly visited our studio for the express purpose of podcasting.

But it seems like maybe there’s a hybrid model that could work. Perhaps it’s time to record, outdoors, with local experts, while it’s still warm enough to do so. (Professor Menand, what do you think?) Or maybe I need to look at which big events are being held in Boston and arrange for thought leaders making the trip to book 30 minutes to chat when in town. Or maybe I simply need to up the number of experts I recruit and not expect everyone to say “Yes, let’s record!” right away.

In any case: We need to address our many supply chain issues. Our society has learned the costly lesson of passively assuming a supply chain will retain its resilience merely because it’s been historically strong. Podcast producers are in the same stressed-out boat as everyone else. Time to find a way to get unstuck from the port.

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