Today in Focus: 'Listeners feel they have a personal relationship with us'

Two years after we launched our podcast, the team behind it explain how it’s evolved – and why audiences have soared in lockdown

Anushka Asthana is a Today in Focus presenter and the Guardian’s editor-at-large. Nicole Jackson and Phil Maynard are the podcast’s executive producers

What effect has the pandemic had?

NJ It feels like a lifetime ago that we weren’t working like this. It’s slightly obvious, but the remote working is the main thing. In some ways, it opens things up, because we don’t have to think about sending people physically out to meet people with microphones and other technology. No location is out of the question. Interviewees have become much more adept at self-recording. It was a visceral experience – we were reporting daily on something that we were also feeling the effects of, so it changed how we thought of the story, in some ways hopefully for the better.

PM A lot of what we used to do involved having coffees with people, chatting to colleagues in the newsroom, getting ideas from them face-to-face. All that has to be done now by scouring news lists and following up with people individually, which is a lot more time-consuming, and a lot less easily collaborative. Having done it for eight months though, we are finding it easier to make connections.

AA The pandemic hit us so suddenly that we were forced, like everyone, to adapt quickly. We were used to having to orchestrate a studio and technical equipment, and when that couldn’t happen any more we came up with lots of fixes. I started off recording underneath a duvet to cancel out audio reflections. It seems ludicrous now that I have the far more sophisticated solution of a cubby-hole with a piece of acoustic foam and a duvet hung up by string!

What does an average day look like?

PM We’re never just working on one pod. We’ve always got several balls in the air at once, and we’re usually working on one, mid-edit for another, starting to think of ideas, preparing scripts and structures for another, finishing off the next day’s episode, scheduling, etcetera.

The day begins before the 9am news meeting, discussing what the focus of the day should be. We’ll discuss ideas with editorial colleagues and among ourselves. The afternoon is mainly spent finessing the script so it sounds very current and newsy – often the story has evolved even in the space of a few hours – and we’ll also do group edits over zoom, re-recording as need be, sourcing other voices if we need them. Then it’s sent to the sound designer, Axel Kacoutié, to score it and make it sound polished, before being uploaded late at night. A lot of interviewees have had to learn a lot more about audio recording – going out and doing the recording themselves on a mobile phone and trying to make it studio quality.

NJ It’s like a hungry machine that you can never stop feeding because there’s so much happening and so many interesting stories to tell. The beauty of a pod versus a radio show is that there’s some flexibility – sometimes an episode will be 20 minutes and sometimes 40, so we can try to make the idea work for the show and we’re not too limited.

We think it’s vitally important that we try and create an authentic sense of atmosphere, and I think listeners appreciate how much we can create a world via “found sound” – so sometimes people will send in snippets of sound, which has opened up possibilities about how we take listeners to these places. It’s one of the things that sets us apart from other news and current affairs pods.

Why has listenership increased?

NJ I think partly it’s that we have grown more confident in ourselves, and we have a better sense of what kinds of stories we want to tell and how we want to tell them. Also we are living through this unprecedented time and people want to understand what’s happening, and have someone help them navigate through the uncertainty. Anushka and our other presenter, Rachel Humphreys, have become people that listeners feel they can rely on, and that, combined with the quality of our regular contributors and correspondents, is really important.

AA Our listeners are all experiencing some pretty seismic, unnerving changes, and we are too, so we can create an authentic sense of community when we speak to people. When I was talking to Jim Waterson, the Guardian’s media editor, we let slip that he was doing the recording underneath a duvet, and lots of people wrote in to say how much they appreciated the lengths we were going to in order to make the pod work in these strange times.People hear us struggling and trying to make the most of things, and I think they appreciate it and empathise.

Anushka Asthana in front of a microphone in a brightly coloured yellow, white and black studio booth
Anushka Asthana in the studio in 2018, when Today in Focus, was launched. Home working in the pandemic has created a number of challenges. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Have there been last-minute pods?

PM For the US election, we had been planning the pod that would go out on the morning of 4 November for months, but we had to work through the night to make sure we captured the craziness and excitement of the night, and that it would hold for the following morning.

We had Ed Pilkington in New York helping guide Anushka through it, and Oliver Laughland in Florida, where the story was updating minute-by-minute. At times you do feel like you’re building the plane mid-flight, so we have to work very quickly.

NJ The producers are unbelievably talented and creative, and work so well together in spite of – and possibly because – they all have quite different perspectives and approaches.

AA It can’t be overstated how blessed we are in terms of our team. The producers do an amazing job of driving the ideas, representing a huge diversity of voice, and different areas of interest and focus. They have helped make some really interesting, rich pods come together in quite stressful circumstances. It’s because of them that we’ve done everything from Blind Date in lockdown to George Floyd’s killing, to Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpieces, an investigation of racism in schooling and interviews with Benjamin Zephaniah and George the Poet.

What sets it apart?

NJ I think we’re quite unique tonally. We want to cut through the facts and figures, and make sure we are telling real stories and bringing the stats to life. And we try to balance out serious and lighter, more hopeful stories, news and culture, national and global, so the variety is important.

AA Audio itself is a special medium. It’s naturally less conflictual and more nuanced than print. We have really tried to make the most of that quality, drawing out the stories of individual people behind the news stories of the day – especially more complex or sensitive subjects. Recently, Jessica Elgot has spoken brilliantly on the antisemitism crisis in Labour, for example. It helps that we have a pool of incredible writers – both domestically and in terms of the foreign correspondents who contribute from their parts of the world. Tom Phillips in South America, Michael Safi in the Middle East, Lily Kuo in China, the list goes on.

How would you like to see it evolve?

PM We’re desperate to be able to get out in the world and report as thoroughly as possible, and carry out in-person interviews. There’s something to be said for hearing people speak for themselves about what they’re going through. A lot can be lost in translation in print.

NJ We want to keep expanding our ambition, growing our listenership, and covering interesting topics in-depth. We live in exhaustingly divisive times, and I really hope our podcast can provide a bit of respite. People are generally incredibly receptive and kind about us, and fortunately we have support from Guardian staff across the world to help us make really valuable, interesting journalism. It’s a privilege.

What feedback do you get?

PM I think some listeners feel they have a personal relationship with Anushka. People will write in to pick up on something she has said, ask a follow-up question or suggest an idea, and she always tries to reply. When we produced the two-parter focusing on transgender issues, we had a great response from readers.

NJ We’re not combative as a product – we’re interested, curious, and we want to examine things, but we’re not trying to say what people should or shouldn’t think. We love hearing from our listeners because they help guide us all the time, and help us improve. As with anything, it’s a work in progress.

Today in Focus was the 2020 winner of best current affairs podcast at the British Podcast Awards, won the Lovie award for news and current affairs podcast, and was nominated for three Audio and Radio Industry Awards (Arias)


Anushka Asthana, Nicole Jackson and Phil Maynard, as told to Sophie Zeldin-O'Neill

The GuardianTramp

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