Business

With Being Studios, Podcasting Meets Reality Television

In mid March, Mariana Marroquin logged onto a video call so that producers of a new reality series could walk her through a rough edit of a sensitive scene, which detailed Marroquin’s recent visit to her native Guatemala. As it played, Marroquin began to weep.

“I cried a lot,” she recalled, speaking on a video call a few weeks later. “Because I was happy. I was so happy.”

Why? “It was about listening to my own voice,” she said. “That’s still surreal to me that I can communicate who I am.”

Marroquin’s voice is essential, because the show that features her, “Being Trans,” which will release the first of its six episodes on April 28, is a podcast. The debut effort of Being Studios, a new initiative from Lemonada Media, “Being Trans” follows four transgender cast members as they go about their ordinary lives in and around Los Angeles. Which means that while at least one scene is about renewing a Costco membership, others debate hormone therapy. “Being Trans” and a planned second season — shaped around retirees and tentatively titled “Being Golden” — attempt to translate the immediacy and ostensible verité of reality television into an audio-only format.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs, a co-founder of Lemonada (“Last Day,” “No One Is Coming to Save Us”), referred to the Being project as “a grand experiment.” Before recording began, she wasn’t entirely sure what that experiment would yield. Could the reality format really make the jump to a new medium? Could it make that jump humanely? To put it another way: If a glass of chardonnay is thrown and nobody is there to see it, does it make a splash?

Sy-Clarke Chan, a legal assistant who identifies as trans nonbinary, is one of the podcast’s main cast members.Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times

Plenty of podcasts rely on a documentary format, still more are improvisational and unscripted. But Being Studios, which plans to release two limited series per year, aims for something different. Mostly recorded in the field and forgoing hosts and external narration, the shows hope to immerse audiences in the subjects’ lives.

“Our whole goal of Being is radical empathy,” Wittels Wachs said. “You’re just hearing people existing.”

In terms of podcasting, Lemonada is trying something unconventional with “Being Trans” and doing it with ample resources. When the show arrives, it will join an already crowded landscape, teeming with established and expected formats.

Podcasting is no longer the fringe medium it was 10 years ago. Nearly 80 percent of Americans are now familiar with podcasts, more than half listen regularly. According to the Podcast Index, more than 600,000 podcast episodes have posted in the last 90 days.

On Being Transgender in America

  • Elite Sports: The case of the transgender swimmer Lia Thomas has stirred a debate about the nature of athleticism in women’s sports.
  • Transgender Youth: A photographer documented the lives of transgender youth. She shared some thoughts on what she saw.
  • Remote Work: Remote work during the pandemic offered some people an opportunity to move forward with a transition. They are now preparing to return to the office.
  • Corporate World: What is it like to transition while working for Wall Street? A Goldman Sachs’ employee shares her experience.

“We’ve moved from what was more of a niche market to a mass market,” Courtney Holt, then the Global Head of Podcasts and New Initiatives at Spotify, said during a conversation in November. (Holt announced his departure from Spotify in mid April.)

Yet Holt still believed there was space for innovation, citing the uptick in video podcasts and Spotify’s adoption of interactive tools like polls. Rachel Ghiazza, the head of U.S. Content at Audible, pointed to recent projects at her company that have extended what an audiobook can be, including an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics and Jesse Eisenberg’s “When You Finish Saving the World.” She also mentioned an upcoming show, “Breakthrough,” Audible’s first venture into the competition format.

“It’s a really exciting time,” she said. “Technology’s getting better. The way that we’re able to listen is becoming more profound. That really opens the doors to different ways to think about and use audio.”

Back in August, before recording began, Kasey Barrett, the executive producer of Being Studios and a veteran of shows like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “Born This Way,” had plenty of questions about how “Being Trans” would meet this moment.

“I keep wrapping my head around the fact that we don’t have visual signposts,” she said. “Creatively, how are we going to orient listeners to where they are and who they’re listening to and what’s about to happen?”

Two months later, with the recording underway, she had begun to find some answers. “Being Trans” had issued a call for people with what Barrett called big lives and a willingness to share them, before landing on three main cast members: Sy-Clarke Chan, a legal assistant who identifies as trans nonbinary; Chloe Corcoran, an alumni relations specialist and a trans woman; and Jeffrey Jay, a standup comedian and a trans man. Marroquin, a program manager at the Los Angeles LGBT Center and a trans woman, had been intended as a community elder, a figure that the other cast members could consult with. She quickly became part of the main cast, too. That the mics couldn’t capture her high femme style — heeled boots, vibrant eye shadow — was a source of occasional regret.

Yet there were upsides to going audio only. Each episode would cost about $100,000, double the amount of a typical Lemonada show, but somewhere between a quarter and an eighth of a typical reality hour. And the format allowed for more flexibility. “We don’t have to deal with continuity issues,” Barrett said. “We don’t have to deal with lights or makeup. And we can do things on a much smaller scale, which lends to the intimacy.”

Jay, right, with his friend Mackenzie Rohan, catching up in Johnny Carson Park in Burbank, Calif.Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times

On a sun-nuzzled morning in Burbank, Calif., about a week before Halloween last year, the crew gathered outside Jay’s blue stucco apartment building. With just a little nudging from producers, Jay greeted a friend, Mackenzie Rohan, and as a fuzzy boom mic leaned close, he suggested a stroll in nearby Johnny Carson Park.

At the park, Jay and Rohan sat at a picnic table, microphones in their pockets, while the producers clustered nearby, faces turned away to make sure that the conversation worked without visuals. The friends talked through a few story points that producers had flagged: how Jay had recently been asked to mentor a transgender child, his relationship with his girlfriend, a trainee pilot. When the chat faltered, Sele Leota, the supervising producer, goosed it along, respectfully, with questions about engagements and weddings and gender binaries.

Jay seemed reconciled, even amenable, to these minimal intrusions. “It is weird to deal with a bunch of humans who ask you how your life is and give a [expletive],” he said, speaking affectionately of the six-person crew, the majority of whom identify as queer.

But he still delighted in joking about the format. At a comedy show later that day, he accidentally spilled a few glugs of bottled water on himself. “This is a podcast!” he reassured the crowd.

The next day, Clarke-Chan and their husband hosted a birthday party for their 4-year-old son. The producers were there for that, too, recording the ambient noise of preschoolers screaming. Clarke-Chan described the recording process as “very new, scary strange.”

“Occasionally I’ll say something and then that night I’ll be in bed thinking, like, ‘Oh God, our pediatrician might hear that,’” Clarke-Chan said.

This spring, in a series of story meetings, the producers decided just what listeners — pediatricians, others — would hear. They had recorded 50 hours of tape for 12 weeks, for about 600 hours total, which they then had to whittle down into just six 45-minute episodes. The producers tried to meld some trans specific story lines — such as one about a character contemplating top surgery — with more universal ones about relationships and parenting and careers, the better to capture entire lives without resorting to sensationalism.

“I don’t want anybody at the end to feel like, what did I just do? What was that for?” Barrett said.

Jay seemed reconciled, even amenable, to minimal intrusions by the podcast’s production crew, but still delighted in poking fun at the format. Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times

In March, the producers played rough cuts for focus groups, who reported that without a host or traditional scene setting, they sometimes felt confused as to who was speaking and when and where. So some additional dialogue was recorded. “Next on” and “previously on” segments were added, too.

“It’s a brand-new genre,” Barrett said. “It’s all learning.”

The cast members were learning, too. Answering the producers — and each other — had prompted a lot of self-reflection. “Oh my gosh, we’ve discovered so much about ourselves,” Marroquin said.

At the beginning, Clarke-Chan had joined the podcast out of a sense of curiosity and fun. Now the participation felt more meaningful. “I’ve become aware, every day, how little people know about transgender people outside of that zeitgeisty water cooler conversation.”

This podcast, they thought, could do something different. It could show that trans lives are in most ways a lot like any other lives, that trans people renew Costco memberships, too. And it could achieve this by letting its cast members speak for themselves, with little mediation.

“It’s a cliché to be like, I just want people to see us as normal,” Clarke-Chan said. “I also want us to sometimes be more than normal or cooler than normal. We don’t have to be boring. But I just want us to get to show up as ourselves.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button