Most of the time, you’d find the hosts of CMT Hot 20 Countdown chatting with the top country artists on red carpets, backstage on tour, or at the biggest summer festivals. Instead, like many of us, they’ve been working remotely for the last two months, trading in the conference room for a home office.
Still, the show must go on! In this interview, Hot 20 hosts Cody Alan, Katie Cook, Ashley ShahAhmadi, and Marley Sherwood tell us about their learning curve while working from home, their favorite part of doing interviews screen-to-screen, and the ways they’re staying upbeat during a challenging time.
Editor’s Note: CMT Hot 20 Countdown airs at 9/8c on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Like many of us, you are working from home. What do you remember about that first episode of Hot 20 that you put together during the quarantine?
Alan: I remember the sudden awkwardness of doing a TV show from my guest room. Since Hot 20 is usually on the road at a concert stop or amazing festival, I just wasn’t accustomed to walking 37 steps from my bed to work! That said, it’s been a fun challenge to bring viewers a fresh new episode of Hot 20 every weekend.
Cook: I was so excited that we had found a way to keep going, but I was very nervous about pulling it off without a crew. I have been very spoiled over the years to have the best camera operators, audio and lighting experts, etc. And what if something went wrong with Zoom? Luckily everything went smoothly, and it was a huge relief. Learning to light properly and use all the equipment has been very empowering, but I miss my crew!
Sherwood: I remember thinking, this might be a bit different, but it also felt normal considering it wasn’t just on our end. The entire world was going to do this, too; every show on air is doing the same thing. I recall just being thankful to continue to do my job remotely. Seeing our Hot 20 team come together, not only the hosts but all of the hard work being done behind the scenes to get Hot 20 on the air, was such a rewarding experience.
ShahAmadi: Honestly, I’ve been so impressed with the Hot 20 crew and everyone’s ability to adapt and work remotely. Specifically, about that first episode of Hot 20 I remember just being excited because of the ability to work from home and the creativity behind the “new normal.” I also had multiple producers and camera operators on the call to make sure it looked good via Facetime, which is definitely a different type of challenge.
When you work in news, television, and the music industry, you have to learn to adapt. Now that we’re a few months into this quarantine, what has surprised you the most about this new way of working?
Cook: I should say I am surprised that it only took a couple weeks for our industry to work out a new approach, but I am not. At its core, the entertainment industry is creative and adaptable. I could say I am surprised that the fans have been so supportive of our new format, but again, I am not. We stick together and support each other through these challenging times and music is the great uniter.
Alan: Like they say, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way!” Although at first I never could have imagined it, our amazing Hot 20 team figured out new ways, with today’s technology, to pull together a show week after week. For all of us, Zoom has become our new best friend and a household word. By the way, we’re all using “Zoom” as a noun, adjective and verb! Who knew this would be the case at the start of March?
ShahAmadi: I think the biggest surprise about this new way of working is just everyone’s ability to be flexible and adapt. When there is an issue or problem with our “at-home studios” we figure out a way to make it work. Obviously, doing interviews and shooting content as a “one-man band” isn’t the most ideal situation, but everyone has been SO willing to figure it and make it work no matter the circumstance.
Sherwood: I am loving how we are seeing a different side of the artists at this time. It’s awesome to see the creativity that goes into their “live” Zoom setup from home, or the way they want to connect with their fans without being able to have shows right now. It’s fun to be in the host seat and really take the time to ask personal questions we might not get to on tour stops or red carpets. I really love that we are getting a glimpse of their home life and seeing them as very relatable.
I have also been surprised at how many devices I can run on my own! Being a one-man band while filming has its challenges, but it gives you a whole new respect for your crew and makes you miss them so much when you have to create a shot without them being there.
Over the years, the artists have come to know the behind-the-scenes team that puts Hot 20 together each week. Now that interaction has to take place through a screen. What is that experience like, conducting an interview with someone who’s not in the room, but still having an “in-person” conversation with you?
Cook: I was worried that it wouldn’t be the same. I am used to reading body language and looking into someone’s eyes during an interview, so it’s different for sure. It’s different for the artists too, but we have all adjusted really well. Artists don’t typically get to be home this much, so it has actually been really nice to see them so relaxed, in their own homes, rested and excited to have some way to keep sharing their music.
Alan: It has been a little tricky. But interestingly, I’m finding artists are much more at ease when they’re at home. Something about the “natural habitat” that has made conversations click in new and different ways. It’s fun for me and other fans because we get a sneak peek each week into the star’s homes and lives. We’ve seen everything on Hot 20 from artists’ sons and daughters drop in on our conversation, to their dogs and cats making cameos. Honestly I’ve enjoyed that unique aspect of these strange few months.
Sherwood: The best thing about working on Hot 20 is creating personal relationships with artists we would see and interview regularly. Our crew is just as familiar to them as the hosts are. Because we hosts know these artists so personally it really shines through in our interviewing, because there is a sense of comfort between the screen calls. I think there is a whole new level of getting to know someone when you see the inside of their house on a Zoom call. Usually we film backstage on a tour stop and now we might be in their kitchen with the dog barking in the background. It’s kind of fun! Definitely different!
ShahAmadi: I feel like the interviews are the most “challenging” part of this whole thing (but the most fun for sure). It’s crazy because behind the scenes there is not only the artist on a screen, there’s the computer where the artist is actually coming from, the camera, lights, and FaceTime with multiple producers during the whole interview. Lots of moving parts, but it all comes together and looks like a breeze on air!
What are some of the ways you have stayed positive during this time?
Alan: I have a new dog, Teddy! We got him in February, having no idea that a quarantine was about to start. He’s been a lot of fun, keeping me company and at my feet most of the time while I’m working on Hot 20 or CMT Radio Live. I think also reaching out to others has helped. It’s been easy to mope or get down about the current state of the world. But I’ve been taking more time to reach out to family, friends and others in need, and it has helped me to connect and reconnect with people I love.
Cook: I love to stay busy, even when there is no pandemic, so I have just used this extra time to knock stuff off my “to-do” list. I’m cooking, gardening, writing songs, working on my podcast, and enjoying more home time with my family. I love not having to set an alarm clock; I wish that could stay the same forever! We’ve been ordering lots of takeout to try and keep our local restaurants in business, and reaching out to friends who are out of work. We’re just trying to find ways each day to turn this hard time into a positive and help anyone struggling.
ShahAmadi: Being able to work from home with Hot 20 has been one of the most positive things about this time. I’m so grateful to be able to work from home and help produce content! On a different note, being able to spend time with family and friends has been a true blessing. I would never normally get time like this so that has helped me to remain positive in this situation. Not to mention, I’ve been baking up a storm in the kitchen! Having some free time like this has allowed me to explore new hobbies!
Sherwood: Something that keeps me positive in this time is the fact that I am still able to have my job and truly love what I do! The power of technology has gifted us with the ability to all stay connected and continue working.
I also stay positive by living with my husband who serves in the Navy. I am a military wife and after 3.5 years of long distance and deployments with him, this amount of time together is something I never thought would be possible for us to have. So, whenever I find myself feeling cooped up or antsy, I remind myself how thankful I am to have him home during this.
So many military spouses are handling COVID-19 adjustments, quarantine, homeschooling and more without their husbands and wives who are currently serving and deployed. My situation is something I do not take for granted.