It’s Tax Notes Talk’s fifth anniversary! Host David Stewart discusses the history of the podcast with current and former members of the team: Gulnar Zaman, Derek Squires, Paige Jones, and Jordan Parrish.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
David D. Stewart: Welcome to the podcast. I’m David Stewart, editor in chief of Tax Notes Today International. This week: half a decade.
Five years ago, we started this podcast as an experiment in presenting tax news through a new medium. We’ve learned a lot over the years. And this week, I’d like to introduce you to the people behind the production.
I have the easy job. I’m just here to ask questions. Most of the work happens in the planning and postproduction of the episodes. Without the voices you’re about to hear, none of this would be possible.
First, we’ll hear from Tax Notes Product Director Gulnar Zaman and Tax Notes graphic designer and photographer Derek Squires, the first producer and audio engineer for the podcast. Then we’ll hear from Paige Jones and Jordan Parrish, who later took on those roles.
Gulnar, Derek, as weird as it feels since you’ve been in this room many times before, but this is the first time I say, “Welcome to the podcast.”
Gulnar Zaman: Hey, Dave. Thank you. It’s great to be back. It’s been a while.
Derek Squires: It’s good and slightly weird to be here.
David D. Stewart: You were on this project before I was. Can you tell me how this podcast project started?
Gulnar Zaman: It all started with a few of our reporters going to our editor in chief at the time — who is now our CEO — with this idea for a podcast. She was my manager at the time, and she tasked me with looking into it.
So I started having discussions with the reporters, did some research into what it would take to start a podcast at Tax Analysts, and that’s how it started.
The next task for me was to find a host. I remember we went through some auditions. I remember running into you, in the hallway, expressing the need in the hope to find a podcast host.
David D. Stewart: All right, so tell me about the early days. What all went into making this happen?
Gulnar Zaman: We had to figure out how we’re going to record, where we’re going to record, who’s going to do the recording, who’s going to do the editing, all of that. It really was a lot of conversations with different people.
When we were working on the webcast, which was called Tax Notes Live, we didn’t have access to outside resources for the recordings. So we actually had someone working in the production department at Tax Analysts who had some experience with recording equipment and editing helping out, so I had to find someone like that for the podcast as well.
Derek Squires: Basically, Gulnar was talking to people one day, and she’s like, “Do you have any experience doing this kind of stuff?” I had worked with our audiovisual tech at a previous job, and so I knew a little bit. I didn’t realize how much there was to learn.
It was a little bit of prior knowledge and a lot of, “Oh my God, what are we going to do to make this thing work?”
David D. Stewart: What all went into putting things together to get us to where we could record?
Derek Squires: Well, I think the biggest surprise was how much ambient noise there is in an office. If you’re standing there talking to somebody or working, you’re not paying attention to it. But then when you’re trying to record something, then you realize there’s just a lot of noise around you. There’s copying machines, there’s people talking, there’s chimes on the elevator and everything.
I spent a while walking around the building, just staring at the ceiling with my eyes closed and trying to find a quiet place in the building.
David D. Stewart: I remember one room we thought was going to be perfect, and then a motorcycle drove by and we realized it wasn’t.
Gulnar Zaman: Yes, I do remember that. There were a lot of rooms that we tested out before we built this studio.
Derek Squires: And as you are aware, we had some problem with echo.
David D. Stewart: I’ve been told that my voice has a tendency to echo off of things.
Derek Squires: Your voice loves to echo.
So then we started this whole crazy process of trying to corral your voice, which involved these semicircular isolators, putting up half a tent, and then a full tent. It took about 45 minutes to build a tent around you, as you recall, one side blue and one side orange.
David D. Stewart: Well then, I guess I should ask, Gulnar, did you ever get your afghan back? For the listeners, Gulnar brought in an afghan at one point to cover the entire table surface in front of me to help try and knock down the sound.
Gulnar Zaman: I did. Actually, I just ended up getting rid of it because when I moved desks, it was still at my desk for all these years. But yeah, that was probably one of my favorite stories about our early days pre-professional studio. We were in the conference room in the back of the building. We had to shroud you in a blanket.
Derek Squires: We literally surrounded you. I remember Jeremy coming in one day to do a recording, and he just stopped and goes, “Yeah, it’s as ridiculous as I thought it would be.” But that was before we decided we actually needed a studio.
David D. Stewart: And just to clarify, that is Jeremy Scott, the chief content officer.
What did it take to put together the studio space?
Gulnar Zaman: A lot of research and measurements.
I remember Derek and I going to the mailroom downstairs to see if we could use that and very quickly found out that you could hear the door basically slamming with anyone coming in and out. And then we found this little storage room up on the fourth floor and looked into what it would take to improve the sound quality.
Derek Squires: We had to put up a bunch of acoustic tiling in the room, which was all mounted to Masonite board, which meant I spent a couple of evenings down in the garage with cans of spray fixative mounting these things.
Gulnar Zaman: Derek did the majority of the work. But that was a lot of fun.
David D. Stewart: All right. Now, there was a moment early on when we started doing the podcast where we shifted from doing it biweekly to weekly, which I found a bit terrifying and intimidating. How did you respond to that?
Gulnar Zaman: I agree. In the beginning, it was a little intimidating. It was more of a challenge. It would be more work, but it was also at the same time very validating that, “Hey, you guys put up a good podcast. You built a studio. You’re putting out a good product.”
David D. Stewart: Derek, how about you?
Derek Squires: It became a little intimidating because not only were they becoming more frequent, but they were also becoming longer. Originally, we were starting out with seven- to eight-minute podcasts, and then gradually they were growing to 30-minute podcasts, and eventually up to an hour. That was a lot of time spent editing at that point.
David D. Stewart: Do you have any particular recordings that stand out in your mind as an interesting experience?
Derek Squires: I would say probably the one that I enjoyed the most was the intros and outros to some of the special editions, where we would play around with sound effects. I got to really stretch my creative legs a little bit with opening cans of soda that were standing in for beer for the Drunk Tax History episode. And in the Death Taxes episode, the spooky music and lightning. That kind of stuff was a lot of fun to do.
Gulnar Zaman: I think my favorite story probably was when we went off-site to do a podcast recording.
David D. Stewart: That was with Pascal Saint-Amans and Grace Perez-Navarro from the OECD.
Gulnar Zaman: They were in D.C. for a conference, and we went to a studio in Georgetown to meet them and do this recording. It was like a field trip for us.
It was toward the end of the day. And I remember finishing off the day and the recording with canned wine in hand that the studio owners had.
David D. Stewart: I distinctly remember that can of wine. I believe I had a chardonnay.
Gulnar Zaman: It was pretty good.
David D. Stewart: Surprisingly good. Yes.
Gulnar, at some point you handed off the podcast. Could you tell me about your transition and what you’re up to now?
Gulnar Zaman: My role at the time was to basically stand up projects and then move on to the next one. Once the podcast was in a good place, I handed it off to Paige Jones, who is now our acquisitions and engagement editor in chief, and she took over. I moved on to product development at the company and started working on developing various products.
David D. Stewart: I assume you’ve got some exciting things in the works now. You don’t have to say specifically what they are, but you’re working on some good stuff?
Gulnar Zaman: Yes, we’re currently working on another big product, and I’m excited for our customers to be able to see the finished product.
David D. Stewart: Derek, what are you focused on now?
Derek Squires: Mostly web graphics, print graphics, really whatever’s needed. Some photography here and there.
David D. Stewart: Well, Gulnar, Derek, thank you so much for being here, and thank you for all of your terrific work getting this podcast set up and setting us up for the future.
Gulnar Zaman: Thanks, Dave. Congrats on the anniversary.
David D. Stewart: Joining me now is a familiar voice from the podcast, Editor in Chief for Acquisitions and Engagement Paige Jones. Paige, welcome to the main segment.
Paige Jones: Thanks, Dave.
David D. Stewart: Now you were the second producer on the podcast. Can you tell me how you ended up in that role?
Paige Jones: That one, to be quite honest, I pretty much stumbled into. I took over from Gulnar in July of 2019.
Before that I had been a reporter for the Tax Notes Today State team for about three years. Through my time being at Tax Notes and before that, in being a journalist for about five years, my passion had always been social media. So I’d actually pitched to the higher-ups of our company to create this new role to manage most of our social media platforms. As part of that, they came back to me and said, “Well, will you also do the podcast?”
I love podcasts. I listen to podcasts. At the time, I didn’t know much about producing, recording, or really anything about making the sausage of putting together a podcast. For me it was definitely a learning experience on how to put together content for an audio medium versus the written word, which is what I had done.
David D. Stewart: Now when you came in, what sort of things did you change?
Paige Jones: When I came to the podcast, this lovely studio was already built and the structure of the show was set. I felt like the podcast had already established how people are hearing things through the podcast and what you’re hearing.
What I really wanted to change was the “who” part. When I came on, it was mostly you, Dave, interviewing a lot of our internal reporters and our editors. We do have a whole bunch of great tax experts here at Tax Notes, but I thought some real talent and some real voices that we were missing were some of the people that appear in our written content all the time.
A lot of the people here have relationships and chat with high-ranking IRS officials, people at the OECD, people at our state revenue departments, all the time. A lot of our people here have personal relationships with these people. I would walk through the newsroom and hear a reporter joking on the phone with a former IRS commissioner.
What I thought would be such a great idea was to take those personal relationships and capitalize on them for the podcasts. I’d take those people and say, “Hey, you’re already talking to these people every day for stories that you’re already writing on. Why don’t we bring them onto the podcast? Why don’t we take this conversation and these relationships that you’re already having and just put a mic in front of you guys?”
I started working with reporters to identify some of the biggest news makers and shakers in tax to bring onto the podcast. Not only that, but to also work with our reporters who write all these great stories and who dominate the written word into translating that into an audio medium.
Over the next two years, we had some fantastic episodes and great guests. Pre-pandemic, we brought some great people into the studio. I’m thinking of former IRS Commissioner John Koskinen and former National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson.
We also had great ones with people who did not come to the studio, who could not make it because they are all over the world. People like Pascal Saint-Amans, Benjamin Angel from the European Commission. And then we had several other high-ranking government officials from around the world.
David D. Stewart: Well, the next question I wanted to ask you, and I think we might have gotten a preview with you mentioning the pandemic, was what sort of challenges did you face in producing the podcast?
Paige Jones: My first challenge was really figuring out how all this works, my role in that, how I can help make this podcast better.
Probably about a year in, the pandemic hit. The funny part with that was we had actually had a professor who was in Shanghai. She had written a piece for us that had published in our magazines about the tax policy changes that China was making in result of this pandemic, which had not come to the United States at that point. So we had talked to her about her life in lockdown, how everything was changing, and then a month later we went into lockdown.
David D. Stewart: I remember that distinctly. I remember hearing from her and thinking, “Wow, this seems like such a strange world that she’s living in.” And then finding out, firsthand, pretty soon after that.
Paige Jones: Yes, after the pandemic hit here and we all were pretty much sent home.
With that, I’d say the biggest challenge was that we had recorded almost exclusively in this podcast studio, except for the few times that you had gone to some IFA conferences. We did a couple of recordings in Washington as well when we had some people here, but this was the first time in which all of our episodes were not being recorded in the studio that we had built specifically for recording episodes.
A lot of it was figuring out, how do we do that? The technical side actually worked itself out. We did a lot of it on Zoom. We made schedules work, but we were dealing with the same problem that everybody else in the world was — trying to record a podcast when everybody is home.
That’s when you can hear firetrucks in the background, dogs, kids. Figuring that out and figuring out for almost each individual person and for almost each individual episode, what is the best time? When is your house going to be the quietest? What room?
I remember walking around with one of our reporters on Zoom, and she was saying, “How does this room sound? How does this room sound?” I think she had birds in her house. We were like, “No, we can still hear the birds,” which was a lovely sound but, for a podcast, does not work.
That was a very interesting challenge that we dealt with for probably two years. We’ve now been back in the studio for six months.
David D. Stewart: Recording in my house, the recordings had to happen before 4 o’clock because sometime around 4 o’clock, the mail would arrive and the chihuahuas would go crazy, and they’d stay pretty crazy for the rest of the day.
Paige Jones: Yes, I do remember that. I felt very fortunate that I did not have to be on the mic because I have a loud dog who barks at everything in our neighborhood.
But it was funny to figure out these small windows into everybody’s life because of the pandemic of like, when can we record? “Oh, my kids are coming home at this time,” or like you said, “My dogs bark at this time,” or “I know my husband’s going to be on this conference call and he’s the loudest person in the world and we can’t do it then.”
It was such a weird challenge, and it’s still one that we still face, even now as we record with people all over the world. We have correspondents in different places throughout the United States and the world.
It’s still a challenge, but not as challenging.
David D. Stewart: Are there any episodes that stand out to you?
Paige Jones: Yes, the one that sticks out to me the most is the interview we did with Paul Tang, who is a member of the European Parliament.
We recorded this episode during the pandemic. He’s already based in Europe, so we already knew that we were doing stuff with Zoom.
I remember we were very excited to have him on. He was one of the first, I would say, European officials we had on. We had had some OECD officials, but this was one of the first ones that we had had from the European Parliament ever on the podcast.
I remember, even for Zoom, I had made sure I had on a button-up shirt. I had made sure my background looked good. It was morning time for us and our reporter who was doing the interview.
It was evening for him. I think he had just finished up a long day at work. He was very casual. He was very relaxed during the whole thing. I think he actually started vaping during our interview, which we had never had happen. That took us by surprise.
But the biggest thing I would say probably happened about 20 minutes in. We were chatting. I think he was responding to an answer, and he dropped the f-bomb.
Tax Notes as a publication, of course, has a rule for such language, but this was the first time that this had come up in an audio medium. What do you do when a high-ranking European official drops the f-bomb on your podcast?
I know for me, immediately when that happened, I tried to reach out to Gulnar, my predecessor. I think I reached out to you, Dave. I said, “What do we do? We have rules for this when it’s in an article, but what are the rules when it’s in a podcast?”
I think ultimately we did end up bleeping out the word, but it was such an unusual problem that I never thought we’d encounter.
David D. Stewart: All right. You have handed off the reins of the podcast. What are you up to now?
Paige Jones: In June of 2021 I transitioned into my current role, which I’m now the acquisitions and engagement editor in chief. I’m not as involved in putting together the show as I used to be.
When I was the podcast showrunner, I’d say I was the muscle behind the mic. You never heard me on the show the two years that I did it. But I helped in picking all the topics, selecting the guests, and getting everybody ready. I think I even took over writing some of the intros.
In taking over this role, I went from doing all of that, being out of the spotlight, to then now having a mic in front of me and having to do “Coming Attractions,” which I do every week.
Aside from also now being on the podcast as a regular talent, I still serve as a sounding board. I help out with ideas as needed, and I still listen to each and every episode before it publishes.
David D. Stewart: Well, all right. Paige, thank you for your work on the podcast, and thank you for being here.
Paige Jones: Thanks for having me, Dave.
David D. Stewart: Joining me now is Tax Notes Multimedia Editor Jordan Parrish. Jordan, welcome to the other side of the microphone.
Jordan Parrish: Thanks, Dave. As everyone else has said, it’s very strange to be on this side of the mic.
David D. Stewart: Tell me how you came to be the producer and audio engineer for the podcast.
Jordan Parrish: I do it all now, but I didn’t start out doing it all.
I started at Tax Analysts in September of 2019, and maybe about a month later, I was already involved with the podcast. I had done previous podcast work before. I’ve edited other podcasts and been on a few myself.
But from there, I still wanted to be involved. I thought it was really fun that we had a Tax Notes podcast. I didn’t know a lot about taxes when I first started. So it was a nice way for me to learn as much as I could have about taxes through a podcast scenario.
From there, about a year later, I switched off with Derek, and we started editing episodes every other week.
Finally, in March of 2021 I started editing all the episodes myself with Paige. We worked together as a team.
A few months later, Paige became the boss, and we redid her role and the editor role, and it became my multimedia role, where I not only edit the podcast but also do that producer aspect of things.
David D. Stewart: Now, what did you find to be the biggest challenges as you were taking on all these roles, piece by piece?
Jordan Parrish: Every role is different. Each one has its own challenges.
As far as the producer role and putting things together goes, one of the weirdest challenges is just dealing with time zones, which doesn’t seem like it should be that weird. But when you have people all over the world, it makes you constantly think about, “OK, I’m in this time zone. This person is this many hours ahead, so we can only record between these hours and these hours.” That type of scenario.
As the editor, Paige mentioned all of our remote recordings and things like that. That probably was the biggest challenge, switching from in-person to remote only and having to say, “OK, the audio’s going to sound different, so let me figure out what is going to be the best audio that we’re going to get from the scenario.” Because things are completely different.
Everyone loved to say “unprecedented times,” and that’s what it was at the podcast too.
David D. Stewart: I’ve been asking this question as people have been coming in to talk about the podcast. What episode do you remember most?
Jordan Parrish: There are a few. I was trying to narrow it down, and there’s a lot actually that I loved working on and putting together.
We did a few really fun episodes. We did several tax fact episodes, which were a different way of doing our podcast than we’d done before.
We’ve also done other ones looking at the more serious side of things. We have a critical tax theory series that we’re putting together where we take a look at how taxes impact aspects of people’s lives that might not normally get considered in taxes in general.
We did a feminism and taxes episode. We’ve done other ones talking about the tax code and how that affects all types of people, but also how certain aspects of racism have been included without people even realizing. Being able to take a look at that side of tax has also been really interesting and something that I’ve loved focusing on.
David D. Stewart: Now you alluded to the time zone question. Maybe you should tell listeners about the most extreme event of time zone coordination that you had to deal with.
Jordan Parrish: Yes, that one was crazy. We interviewed Pascal Saint-Amans, who we love having on the podcast. It’s always great to have him. He was in France, so it was about 9 a.m. his time.
Then our lovely reporter, Stephanie Soong, was on the West Coast, so it was about midnight her time.
And I, on the East Coast, needed to be up extremely early to get this recording done. I was up before 3 a.m. making sure everything sounded great and was ready to go.
We put the episode together, and I thought it sounded good. I was up very early, but I think the end result worked out.
David D. Stewart: It turned out to be worth it.
Jordan Parrish: Definitely.
David D. Stewart: Well, what sort of things do you have planned for the weeks ahead?
Jordan Parrish: I’m really excited about the rest of the episodes we have slated for 2022.
Coming up soon, we’re going to be previewing whether or not we should be taxing robots. I know there’s pro and anti opinions about this, so we’re going to feature both of them.
Then this year is also the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s fifth anniversary, so we’re going to be highlighting how everything has panned out in the last five years, how it’s impacted federal, state, international taxes, all of that fun stuff.
Finally, we’re going to wrap up the year with our yearly episode with our Chief Content Officer Jeremy Scott, and we’ll be talking about what’s been happening in taxes this year. More stuff has happened than I think any of us expected. And then what we can expect to see in 2023 as well.
David D. Stewart: Well, Jordan, thank you for all your hard work on the podcast and making it sound so good. I look forward to working with you for the next five years.
Jordan Parrish: Sounds great. I’m looking forward to that as well.
David D. Stewart: Well, now that you’ve met all of the people that make this show possible, I want to thank you for listening. To our longtime listeners, thank you for sticking with us while we found our voice.
We look forward to being with you for the next five years.