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NEW YORK — Nobody was ready for what came upon us in 2020. Fortunately, radio has shown its tenacity and strength during these challenging times.
One example of this is WNYC in New York. The station, under the umbrella of New York Public Radio, used creative problem solving and advanced technological skills to help ease the difficult scenario for its audience. In April 2020, New York was in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown. Like other places in the world, the stay-at-home order put an end to mainstream activities and business. To make matters worse, nobody knew how long the situation would last.
There were thousands of theater performance cancellations worldwide, but Shakespeare in the Park is not just a theater performance. Since 1954, The Public Theater has been presenting the piece annually in Central Park at the Delacorte Theater. And over time it developed into one of New York City’s most beloved summer traditions. After so many years of New York natives and visitors enjoying the open-air, free performance, COVID-19 threatened to break this tradition.
WNYC is one of the oldest radio broadcasters in New York. It began transmitting on July 8, 1924, and today comprises a pair of nonprofit, noncommercial, public radio stations located in New York City. WNYC(AM) broadcasts on 820 kHz and WNYC(FM) airs on 93.9 MHz.
Both stations air a mix of locally produced and National Public Radio programming. WNYC reaches nearly 1 million listeners each week on air and millions more online, and has the largest public radio audience in the United States.
“Shakespeare in the Park is a 70-year story of free Shakespeare plays in New York Central Park,” explains Steve Shultis, chief technology officer at New York Public Radio. “For the first time they just couldn’t do anything. We puzzled over doing something to avoid that; then our colleagues came up with a brilliant idea.”
Clever Problem Solving
Elliott Forrest, host at WQXR — WNYC’s sister station and NYC’s classical music station — joined forces with Emily Botein, vice president for on-demand content at WNYC to raise a simple question: Why don’t we do it on the radio?
This would have been a quite normal idea in ordinary times, since you simply need to set up a bunch of microphones on a stage and you can capture to the best of your ability a great live performance. But during lockdown, no theater was able to let people (even actors) enter the venue. In addition, these artists live all over the United States and some even abroad, so it was impossible to physically bring them together for the performance.
“During normal times, we might have considered hiring a number of recording studios in each town where the participants were located and connected the studios virtually, bringing it all into our master studio,” explained Shultis. “Due to the pandemic, this was just not feasible for us.”
Since there was no past reference for this type of a scenario, and there was only a little over a month to meet Shakespeare in the Park’s summer season timeframe, imagination and efficiency were really important.
“Basically, it was a matter of creative problem solving. And I think we crafted an incredible story of trying to be resilient in COVID-affected New York City,” Shultis added.
Shultis and his team came up with the idea to group all the actors through a Zoom meeting. During the virtual meeting, each personality played their part from home as if they were live on the stage. It wasn’t possible to directly record the Zoom session and use it as final because many of the connections were through Wi-Fi or mobile broadband, leading to some latency issues.
To solve the problem, Matt Collette, an executive producer at WNYC, devised a professional recording kit and personally delivered the kits to those participants in NYC or via the post to those in other cities.
Most kits included a Zoom SD recorder or Tascam and Sound Devices recorders, as well as either a Neumann KMS or Shure SM58 mic. Some participants received headphones as well but most opted to use their own.
After receiving their kits, they connected through the Zoom app and successfully performed “Richard II” virtually. Each of them individually recorded their segments on their recorder and after every two-hour recording session, emailed the file to WNYC headquarters. The sound engineers then turned the different pieces into a type of masterpiece.
The first step was for the audio engineers to clean up the sound of each track. Since the artists recorded from their homes with no soundproofing, there were a number of undesired sounds, such as dogs barking, traffic noises and trains passing.
The second step was to align the various tracks with the support of the performance director, and subsequently produce the master recording. Then a sound designer and a mastering engineer carried out audio correction (levels, tones, for example) on each track.
“We aired the performance in mid-July, for four consecutive nights.” Shultis said. “We also made it available as a podcast on our website.
“This project was also a way for us to bring back radio as an entertainer, like it was back in the 1920s, for instance, when families sat down around the radio receiver to listen to performances they would have never had the chance to experience otherwise.”