With Being Studios, podcasting meets reality TV

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In mid-March, Mariana Marroquin went on a video call so the 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. While he was playing, Marroquin began to cry.

“I cried a lot,” she recalled, speaking in 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. “It’s always surreal to me that I can communicate who I am.”

Marroquin’s voice is key 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 from Being Studios, a new initiative from Lemonada Media, “Being Trans” follows four transgender actors 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 are debating hormone therapy. “Being Trans” and a planned second season – shaped around retirees and tentatively titled “Being Golden” – attempt to translate the immediacy and apparent truth of reality television into an audio-only format.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs, co-founder of Lemonada (“Last Day,” “No One Is Coming to Save Us”), called the Being project a “great experience.” Before recording began, she wasn’t quite sure what this experience would be like. Could the reality format really take the leap into a new medium? Could he make that leap humanly? In other words: if a glass of chardonnay is launched and no one is there to see it, does it cause a stir?

Many podcasts rely on a documentary format, even more are improvised and unscripted. But Being Studios, which plans to release two limited series a year, is aiming for something different. Recorded mostly in the field and foregoing hosts and external narration, the shows hope to immerse audiences in the lives of the subjects.

“Our whole purpose of Being is radical empathy,” Wittels Wachs said. “You just hear people exist.”

In terms of podcasting, Lemonada tries something unconventional with “Being Trans” and does so with plenty of 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% of Americans are now familiar with podcasts, more than half listen to them regularly. According to the Podcast Index, over 600,000 podcast episodes have been posted in the past 90 days.

“We went from a niche market to a mass market,” Courtney Holt, then global head of podcasts and new initiatives at Spotify, said in a conversation in November. (Holt announced his departure from Spotify in mid-April.)

Still, Holt still believed there was room for innovation, citing the rise of video podcasts and Spotify’s embrace of interactive tools like polls. Rachel Ghiazza, head of US content at Audible, highlighted her company’s recent projects that have expanded what an audiobook can be, including an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics and “When You’re Finished save the world” by Jesse Eisenberg. She also mentioned an upcoming show, “Breakthrough,” Audible’s first venture into the competition format.

“It’s a really exciting time,” she said. “Technology is improving. The way we are able to listen becomes deeper. It really opens the doors to different ways of thinking about and using audio.

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 a lot of questions about how ” Being Trans” would answer that. moment.

“I keep realizing that we don’t have visual signs,” she said. “Creatively, how are we going to direct listeners to where they are and who they’re listening to and what’s going to happen?”

Two months later, with the recording underway, she had begun to find answers. “Being Trans” appealed to people with what Barrett called great lives and a willingness to share them, before landing on three main cast members: Sy-Clarke Chan, a legal assistant who identifies as non-binary trans ; Chloe Corcoran, Alumni Relations Specialist and trans woman; and Jeffrey Jay, a comedian and trans man. Marroquin, a program manager at the Los Angeles LGBT Center and a trans woman, had been cast as a community elder, a figure that other cast members could look up to. She also quickly became part of the main cast. The fact that the mics couldn’t capture her high-end feminine style — heeled boots, vibrant eye shadow — was a source of occasional regret.

Still, there were advantages to using only audio. Each episode would cost around $100,000, which is twice 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 worry about lights or makeup. And we can do things on a much smaller scale, which promotes intimacy.

On a sunny morning in Burbank, Calif., about a week before Halloween last year, the team gathered outside Jay’s blue stucco apartment building. With just a nudge from the producers, Jay greeted a friend, Mackenzie Rohan, and as a fuzzy boom mic leaned nearby, he suggested a walk in nearby Johnny Carson Park.

At the park, Jay and Rohan sat at a picnic table, microphones in their pockets, while producers huddled nearby, faces averted to make sure the conversation worked without visuals. The friends talked about a few story points the producers had flagged: how Jay had recently been asked to mentor a transgender child, his relationship with his girlfriend, an apprentice pilot. When the chat faltered, supervising producer Sele Leota followed suit, respectfully, with questions about engagements, marriages, and gender binaries.

Jay seemed reconciled, even receptive, to these minimal intrusions. “It’s weird dealing with a group of humans who ask you how your life is going and give you a [expletive]he said, speaking fondly of the crew of six, the majority of whom identify as gay.

But he always liked to joke about the format. During a comedy show later that day, he accidentally spilled a few sips 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 the cries of preschoolers. Clarke-Chan described the recording process as “very new, scary and weird”.

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

This spring, in a series of story meetings, producers decided exactly what listeners — pediatricians, others — would hear. They had recorded 50 hours of tape over 12 weeks, for about 600 hours in total, which they then had to cut down to just six 45-minute episodes. Producers tried to merge some trans-specific stories — like that of a character contemplating high-profile surgery — with more universal stories about relationships, parenting and careers, to better capture entire lives without resorting to sensationalism. .

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

In March, producers played rough cuts for focus groups, which reported that without a host or traditional stage setting, they sometimes felt confused about who was speaking, when, and where. Additional dialogue was therefore recorded. The “Next on” and “Previously on” segments were also added.

“It’s a whole new genre,” Barrett said. “Everything can be learned.”

The cast members were also learning. Responding to producers — and each other — had been a lot of soul-searching. “Oh my God, we discovered so much about ourselves,” Marroquin said.

At first, Clarke-Chan joined the podcast out of curiosity and fun. Now the participation seemed more meaningful. “I became aware, every day, how few people know about transgender people outside of this water cooler conversation in the air.”

This podcast, they thought, might do something different. This could show that trans lives are in many ways like all other lives, that trans people also renew their memberships at Costco. And it could achieve this by letting its actors 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 be more than normal or cooler than normal sometimes. We don’t have to be boring. But I just want us to be able to present ourselves as ourselves.

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