‘Casting Call

‘Casting Call

It’s about 15 minutes before recording time at Baobab Tree Studios, and producer Reverend Kevin “RevKev” Ewing and podcaster Shawn Murray, host of Shawn Murray’s International Film Festival, are preparing for what promises to be a freewheeling discussion about movies by having a freewheeling discussion about movies. The conversation jumps from long movies in general to The Irishman, which calls to mind the digital de-aging of Robert De Niro and whether or not it would have been better just to hire a younger actor. It’s the stuff of the podcast itself—earnest critical insights chased by jokes—which is then taken up by Murray’s three guests as they file into the studio. All four are stand-up comedians and friends, mixing movie talk with inside patter, languidly volleying before the match starts. By the time Ewing has eased out of the studio and joined engineer Eamon Linehan in the control room, the conversation has pivoted to the unlikelihood that a character of Clint Eastwood’s age in The Mule would do some of the things he does to earn that movie its R rating.

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Linehan calls it “rapport building”—letting the talent warm to each other and their subject before recording starts, in part by minimizing technical fuss. “So once everyone gets here, we’ll do a simple soundcheck, make sure we’re getting good levels into our workstation. Then it’s a little bit hands-off.” Addressing the podcasters through the window, he has them speak into their respective microphones while he turns the knobs to ensure they’re coming in at the same volume. He then has Murray record an introduction to be edited onto the podcast later. “This week,” Murray obliges, “I’m talking about the trailer for the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie Licorice Pizza and the death of the studio comedy with my guests Stosh Mikita, Dan Kalwhite and Coury Brown. Action!” Murray then adds a mocking note of self-congratulation. “And that’s one take! I’m One Take Jake now!” Ewing laughs and tells Murray he’ll be keeping that bit in the program.

Thirty minutes into recording, Ewing listens with serene amusement, attuned to the pitch of the conversation, which is guided loosely by the host’s talking points but otherwise improvised. “I mean, I have no idea what movies they’re talking about,” Ewing says to the sound of the clamoring voices on the overhead speakers. “They’re funny. Their job is being funny. The way they approach problems. Their ideas. They’re good at it.” The panelists in that moment are citing their favorite comedies but also using their mimetic skills to reenact their favorite bits, simultaneously telling the story of how they ended up seeing that movie in that theater on that particular night.

And that’s what Ewing is most interested in capturing when he looks for podcasters. “This is a place for stories,” he explains. “We’re looking to help folks tell their stories in whatever manner they want. So sitting around talking about movies… we learn a little bit about the person talking. Who they are, where they’re from, what their values are, what their visions are… If I’m putting it out on the Internet, it’s going to reach a whole lot more people. That’s the deal, is getting the stories out.”

Baobab Tree Studios had arguably been developing Baobab Tree Stories, the homegrown media production side of the business, since it branched off from The Grove—a coworking space that still operates nearby—in 2015. By 2017, Ewing was offering his studio space, equipment and expertise to budding musicians, movie makers, dramatists and podcasters for relatively little money in hopes of creating a community of storytellers, while also taking on established clients. At its most cosmopolitan, the studio hosts interviews for radio stations around the world, essentially recording their guest’s answers while the station records the questions. “The first time I got one of these, it was from an NPR station in Utah, and they wanted to interview an expert on Bruce Lee. And he lived in Woodbridge or something.” Such gigs help to subsidize the podcasts, which are for Ewing pure, frictionless generators of stories, requiring only voice and microphone.

As the Baobab Studios mission streamlined, so did the studio space, 88 percent of which became Elm City Games next door. “All I want is this room, the control room, the storage room and my office,” says Ewing, seated at the kidney-shaped studio table, a view of lower Orange Street just outside. The newest podcast—On The Porch with Babz Rawls-Ivy—doesn’t even require those spaces. Rawls-Ivy, a publisher and broadcaster, former alderwoman, and local personality, “has this porch in Newhallville that she sits out on, and people just drop by and talk… Politicians and business owners. People of industry. And one day, comes by and sets up on the front sidewalk and performs.” Ewing and Linehan simply bring the recording equipment. “And that’s the show.”

But Ewing is also the producer in the curatorial sense, nurturing what are essentially investments, with the studio getting a cut of any resulting sponsorship revenue. The Baobab Tree website invites anyone to pitch a show, and if Ewing likes the pitch, he gives the podcaster up to three episodes to prove the concept. “If we bring them in here and we record a session… and it’s clear that they don’t know what they’re talking about, we’ll have that conversation. ‘You weren’t good. It’s dead air. It’s nonsense topics. It’s just not interesting. There’s no story. Here are some things you can do to fix that. Are you willing to do that work?’” In his experience, most would-be podcasters then quit—if not for the sudden realization of what’s expected of them as performers, then for what’s expected of them as promoters, looking for sponsors and nurturing an audience through a systematic social media presence. “Whatever it takes to build a community,” Ewing explains. “Get folks to like you. Or to hate you.”

The ones who stay on continue to get notes. If they keep interrupting their guests or, at the other extreme, let their guests run away with the conversation, he tells them after the show. In-studio podcasters wear headphones, so ostensibly Ewing could give direction live from the control room, but he likes momentum in a conversation and would rather let it run its course. Besides, as Linehan informs me on the night of the Film Festival podcast, the output from the control room is temporarily down. Any necessary communication—like the countdown to wrap-up—has to be delivered by dry erase board, gently wobbled by Linehan in Murray’s eyeline.

Much of the work is done post-production. This is particularly true of a scripted podcast like Downfall, which used narration, dramatic readings, and archival audio to document the career of Major League Baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti. All those elements have to be seamlessly stitched together. Post-production on an unscripted podcast like Film Festival involves sweetening the audio, adding ambience or warmth to make the voices sound more natural. As such, the production is devoted purely to getting a clean recording with plenty of what Linehan calls “head room.” He watches the sound waves on the monitor to make sure they’re not hitting the ceiling too much. If somebody taps the table for emphasis or breaks into a song from Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, he flags the moment to be compressed later.

The conversation in the studio approaches and then passes the 60-minute mark. Ewing realizes they are only halfway through their Top 5 lists. Also, somebody makes a point about the cinematography in Gangs Of New York that he vehemently disagrees with—“That’s what we want! To get an argument!”—so he decides to keep the dry erase board on the floor a little longer. After Murray wraps up, he and his guests continue chattering. Ewing signals to Linehan to keep recording. “Just let it go,” he says, “until they get up and walk out.”

Baobab Tree Stories
Baobab Tree Studios – 71 Orange St, New Haven (map)

Written and photographed by David Zukowski. Image 1 features, from left to right, Shawn Murray and Dan Kalwhite. Image 2 features Kevin Ewing.

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