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26 January 2017

How podcasts are responding to Donald Trump

New shows are promising better political conversations across America’s divides.

By Caroline Crampton

“I would just like to say that taxation is theft and government is slavery,” says Michael from Summerfield, North Carolina, in a chatty, light-hearted voice. “I feel like political action, or any kind of protesting, doesn’t have any results. The true way to enact any kind of reform is to subvert the government.” Kai Wright, the Monday-night host of the new American public-radio show Indivisible (Mondays to Thursdays, 8pm Eastern Time), handles this odd pronouncement with aplomb and deftly moves things on. “OK, well I thank you for that, Michael. Now we’re going to go to . . .” And, just like that, Michael is gone. We’ll never know more about his plans to overthrow the Trump administration by stealth.

Indivisible, as the name suggests, was created in response to the political, social and cultural divisions exposed by the 2016 US presidential election. It takes its name from the American pledge of allegiance – “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”. The production is a co-operative effort: the New York public radio station WNYC, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) and the Economist have joined together to bring the show to the airwaves.

For the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency, a rotating cast of hosts will take calls from people all over the United States. (As well as WNYC’s Wright and Brian Lehrer, the long-time conservative host Charlie Sykes and MPR’s Kerri Miller will be taking turns behind the mike.) The aim is to expose listeners and callers to perspectives other than their own and, if possible, to begin to heal some of the rifts in American society.

Like with all phone-in radio, the first episode of Indivisible is eclectic and not a little strange. Hassan from Pennsylvania is concerned by what a Trump administration might do to Muslim Americans, but is “encouraged” that the new president hasn’t yet launched a Muslim registry. Lynette, an African-American Trump supporter from Arkansas, describes how she supported Hillary Clinton in 2008 but switched sides after feeling badly served by the Democrats. Yet it is Adam from Brooklyn who sums up the mood of the show, and perhaps the nation. “Humans aren’t great,” he says, the despair audible in his voice.

As the world reels from all of the terrible things Donald Trump has done since he took office a week ago, we’re beginning to see the first audio responses America’s new political reality. I spoke to Jim Schachter, WNYC’s Vice President for News, the day after the first episode of Indivisible went out and asked him what it had taken for his station and its partners to bring it to air so quickly. “It feels like we threw the whole place at it!” he said. “It’s sort of a moment of ‘whoah, let’s put on a show’.”

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Indivisible has its origins in the podcast The United States of Anxiety, which WNYC and The Nation put out in the run up to the election in November 2016. That show, Schachter said, “was a deep look over 8 or 9 episodes at trying to understand the social and economic and political forces that had given rise really to the Trump movement”. In the days after Trump’s win, the station continued running phone-in shows under that title “so that people could talk about this strange moment that America had arrived at”.

This isn’t the first time that WNYC has found the demand for phone-in radio surging in troubled times. Schachter pointed out that after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the station pivoted from dividing its time between news and classical music to becoming entirely a news and talk station. “Something dramatic had happened and the city needed to have a place to explore what it was going through in depth,” Schachter said. (He emphasised that he wasn’t comparing the attacks to the election of Donald Trump, but rather explained that there were similarities in the way listeners had interacted with radio afterwards.)

Indivisible is also available after it has aired as a podcast. I asked Schachter whether it was considered to be a radio show first and download second, or if the podcast format had been a consideration from the beginning. “Very much so,” he said. “We’re airing this at 8pm eastern time on weeknights, and for the eastern half of the US that’s a reasonable time to expect people to be listening live and calling in. Once you get past the central time zone going west, it’s very hard to ask public radio stations to air this show live because it’s the prime news time.” He also pointed out that in London, where the Economist is based, the show is on air in the middle of the night.

“We very much wanted to build something that would be immediately available to people in on-demand locations,” Schachter said. The plan is for podcast listeners to be able to take part in the conversations on Indivisible too. As well as social media engagement, there is a bot on that will call listeners back once they provide a phone number and allow them to leave a voice memo. “Our producers will be listening and we expect to play some of those on the radio show,” he said.

WNYC isn’t the only place to be trying to improve the quality of conversation about politics now that Donald Trump is in the White House. The Washington Post is launching a fact-checking show called Can He Do That? very shortly, and the excellent pre-election podcast Keepin’ It 1600 (hosted by a group of former Obama staffers – I wrote more about it here back in November) has now morphed into a whole new media venture, called “Crooked Media”. The podcast continues as Pod Save America, and its mission statement is the rallying call many disaffected liberals have been crying out for:

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned from 2016, it’s that there are no experts with all the answers. There is no secret plan. And there is no hero coming to save us. Anyone can help figure this out. You can do it. We can figure it out together. We can be patient and thoughtful and open to new ideas. We can challenge ourselves to be better and smarter. We can be tough on our opponents, forgiving of our allies, and we can take our country back.”

Pod Save America (which has already had an interview with Barack Obama, no less) has a new tone of humility and thoughtfulness mixed in with the bravado, quick-witted repartee and political insight that went before. In the most recent episode, “The Mall Sank Into The Earth”, we heard an impassioned follow-up to the mission statement, as they declared “this is not just what happened but what we can do about it”. The discussion is now always moving onto practical steps listeners can take in response to the news, as well as delighting and abhorring the absurdity of events. As one of the hosts (I find it hard to tell them apart still) declared later on, “this is us post-election – humbled but joyous warriors in the face of adversity, who recognise our own limitations but aren’t afraid to speak our minds”. I found myself nodding along – these days, aren’t we all?

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This article appears in the 26 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West