When the covid-19 virus struck in the early months of 2020, the way that we — the media — do business, changed forever. Studios and cramped meeting rooms were replaced by their virtual equivalents. Products like Zoom and Teams and Riverside and Zencastr went from being the exclusive domain of techies and audio nerds, to beinghousehold names. Everything changed… but nothing happened.
Nothing happened in terms of the average set-up that Britain’s broadcasters kept at their disposal. People kept the same headphones (if they had any), the same microphone (if they had one) and the same webcam (if they were already using one). Zoom calls became a catwalk of differing capabilities: Marian, from IT, with her 4K webcam and Shure microphone on an articulating stand; Hassan, from HR, with his fuzzy AirPods and in-built MacBook camera; Colin, from accounts, 30-metres from his display, for some reason, talking into a potato located in a nearby town, whilst using an internet connection established in the era when seashells were used as currency.
No one is a bigger offender, in my opinion, that Britain’s parliamentarians. Members of the Houses of Commons and Lords do remote broadcast media ALL THE TIME. Every week they appear on something: radio, TV or my own child, podcasts. And that’s not mentioning all the meetings with them that people have to suffer through, trying to hear them through the echo of cavernous rooms, the hiss of non-existent microphones. So I figured I’d address the UK’s parliamentarians directly, to tell the what they should’ve done in 2019 — but should definitely do now.
1. Buy a microphone. Microphones are not expensive, and can almost certainly be expensed (more certainly than duckhouses). A USB microphone is perfect for this task, and totally idiot-proof: it just plugs straight into the laptop or computer you already have. A Shure MV7 costs less that £300 and is excellent. Even cheaper: a Logitech Blue Yeti, for around £120. Failing that, I don’t hate the on-board microphone on a MacBook or the mic on a pair of Apple wired headphones. But generally most external USB microphones will be better than the one on-board your parliamentary issue computer. You will use this microphone every single day (and many times a day). If that’s not worth investing a couple of hundred quid for, I don’t know what is.
2. Use headphones. Shouldn’t need saying, but it does. Headphones make it easier for you to hear, firstly, and stop irritating feedback. This is particularly important for podcasts, which are often edited from multiple tracks. I think Bluetooth headphones are generally a lot more fiddly and temperamental for podcast purposes, so would generally recommend a wired set. Whether in-ear or over-ear, it doesn’t really matter to me. You can spend £20 or £1000 on headphones, but you’ll get a lot of use out of them. It’s 2023: please don’t show up for broadcast interviews without having a set of headphones to hand.
3. Use Chrome. Chrome is overwhelmingly the world’s most popular browser, so again, this shouldn’t need saying. But Chrome is also the browser which is likely to be compatible with all the software that a remote producer will want to run (Zencastr, Riverside, Cleanfeed: whatever). The reason is simple: Chrome allows these systems to back-up your audio during the recording, something that is very valuable given the disgraceful state of parliamentary internet (more on that shortly). A remarkable number of people don’t know what Chrome is and think that the button that opens Chrome is just a generic gateway to the internet. I once had to describe the icon to a guest as looking “rather like a pinwheel”. Here, below, is a picture of it, just so you have no excuse for confusion.
4. Understand your internet is probably a problem. Internet in parliament is notoriously poor, which means that producers will bend over backwards to try and mitigate that. The best way is for us to use a system like Zencastr or Riverside or Squadcast which records you locally and then uploads at the end, rather than capturing the murmurings, break-ups and cross-talk that we all endure with Zoom. This is why it’s important to try and use a non-Zoom solution, even if it’s slightly inconvenient. It’s for your own good and it’s usually the fault of your connection. If a producer asks you to record a Voice Memo on a smartphone and send it over, again, that’s not them being difficult or asking too much. It’s likely just because your connection is a bit janky and they don’t trust the broadcast to be safely transmitted. (Learning how to do local recordings on an iPhone, or other smartphone, is also a very good skill to acquire).
5. Pick a sensible place to broadcast from. Parliament is a busy place. There’s a lot of noise, noise that will be picked up by your microphone. The best thing you can do to minimise noise disturbances is to be close to your microphone. The next most important thing is to tell those working in your office to try and be quiet for the duration that you’re being recorded (there is, sadly, not much we can do about division bells). Think too about the nature of the space. You’ll probably broadcast from the same part of your office 90% of the time. That should be a space that is small (not too echoey), perhaps with some soft furnishings. Ideally it will not be too near a busy hallway, or a frequently flushed toilet.
But the one thing I want people to take away from this screed, is that a small hardware investment should have been made mantatory for all Members of Parliament back in 2020. The day that lockdown was announced, someone should have sent out 650 USB microphones and 650 sets of wired headphones. They should’ve made sure that you had the desktop version of Zoom installed, and that you were using Chrome as your default browser. But instead we muddled on in a fugue state of technological incapacity, so that, post-covid, we live unhappily in a hybrid world. Work is never returning to its pre-covid realities (and I don’t think there are many MPs who’d decline the opportunity to keep broadcasting from their constituency homes) and yet too many of us are still using the technology of the before times. Please follow my 5-point list: it’s not too late.