Are we entering an era of authenticity?

COVID-19 is ushering in a stripped-down, personal approach to content that can deliver new depths of connection

. 5 min read

COVID-19 is ushering in a stripped-down, personal approach to content that can deliver new depths of connection
Scott Newman of On-Air Fest and work x work

Creativity thrives under constraints — in fact, many suggest creating constraints as a strategy to increase creativity and drive new approaches. So it is no surprise that shelter-in-place orders and social distancing measures have driven a profound shift in how content is conceived, produced, and consumed.

I reached out to Scott Newman, the creator and organizer of On-Air Fest, a festival that celebrates the ‘creatives edge’ of audio and whose live events are rooted in authenticity and intimacy, to talk about the shift in the cultural and creative landscape and the implications for podcasting.

“What I find really interesting is the creativity that’s happening. You know, on one hand you could say creativity’s over. We can’t gather, we can’t broadcast, we can’t produce anything. And then on the other hand, you can be creative with just the microphone in front of your mouth. If you have an idea, if you have something that you want to say, if you have a point of view, how do you present that? I don’t know that you need all the bells and whistles to be able to do that. So we’re seeing creativity being elevated and challenged at this time. Are you funny enough? Are you interesting enough?”

Spectacle has been replaced with intimacy

“You can’t go and put on a big spectacle like a live concert — there are no crowds, there are no giant lights or sound systems, and there are no dancers. Now, if you’re a musician and you’re doing a performance, you’re doing it in your living room with no makeup.”

Scott’s right. And these stripped down performances have unique appeal. Instead of a stadium tour, we got to see the Rolling Stones perform remotely… and have we ever loved Charlie Watts more than watching him on the Global Citizen benefit concert playing “air drums?”

Rolling Stones performing remotely for the Global Citizen benefit concert

Throughout the lockdowns, musicians around the world have been staging intimate shows from their living rooms and connecting with fans in new ways. Vancouver musician Dan Mangan even has a specialized business, Side Door, that helps artists and fans connect online when they can’t connect in person.

Dan Mangan’s Side Door company makes it easy for artist to set up virtual concerts for fans

“Hosts” have become humans

Late night television has evolved during the pandemic as well, with hosts broadcasting monologues from their living rooms — or in the case of Seth Myers, his attic — with no audiences, no bands, no wardrobe, and no makeup.

And what’s the result? We’ve been able to see an entirely new side of them. Without the distance of a host being on stage and performing to a crowd, we are connecting with them much more intimately. Stephen Colbert’s dog regularly intrudes into the taping of the show and his wife recently brought him out a birthday cake.

Stephen Colbert’s dog has become a regular presence on The Late Show

Seth Meyers’ children burst out of hiding places in his attic, and revealed a side of Seth we might never see in a traditional studio setting.

Seth Meyer’s kids making cameo appearances

On-Air Fest founder Scott Newman sees this as a humanizing win for late night and celebrity culture in general: “As much as we like to elevate our heroes and our celebrities, I also think we want them to be back down on our level, you know? We really like to see ourselves a little bit in our heroes.”

Perfection has been replaced with a celebration of imperfection

Celebrity culture has long cultivated a culture of aesthetic superiority — perfect hair, perfect skin, perfect teeth, perfect abs… the list goes on. We have been obsessed with humans who are almost inhuman.

And that, too, is shifting during COVID-19. Eva Longoria dyed her own hair… at home… on Instagram… for Loreal. She showed off her gray roots and created a lot of fans in the process. (h/t to Shira Atkins!)

Over 2.3 million views of Eva getting rid of her gray roots at home

Authenticity and podcasting

So what does this have to do with podcasting?

Authenticity and intimacy are what podcasting does best. Scott has a great way to think about how to find authenticity for yourself as a podcaster:

“I always come at it from a place of point of view. What is the story that needs to be told now? And that can only be told by you. What is it that I can uniquely bring to this conversation? And when I think about authenticity, it’s not just being honest and vulnerable, which is all very wonderful and really can be endearing and bring people closer to you. But it’s also asking what is the true value that I’m adding to this? And is there something I can bring to the conversation that nobody else can bring?”

This is a moment when audiences crave real people sharing their real lives and real stories. This doesn’t feel like the time for overproducing a show. It doesn’t feel like the time to try to sound more like a professional host. It doesn’t feel like the time to sound to be like another podcast that is popular.

This is the time to be 100% you and this is the time for you to own it.

As Scott puts it:

“How real is your story? Can you truly express yourself without all those other enhancements? Can we tap into the theatre of the mind? In the COVID-19 period we are in, you have to ask yourself — is your thing interesting enough? Are you bringing enough value to me as a listener? Are you teaching me something? Do you have a point of view because maybe just being sexy and beautiful, or in the world of brands just doing like cool advertising or like flashy stuff… that doesn’t cut it anymore.”

If you’re a podcaster, could there be a better time to lean into authenticity and embrace the key strengths of audio?

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