06 June 2020

Podcasts Are Changing Politics Now the Way that Talk Radio Changed Politics in the 1990s

I visited Reagan's Presidential Library about a year ago. I was so struck by the obvious: Reagan had mastered radio and TV before he entered politics. He'd been an radio announcer, then movie star, and then had a radio commentary program before running for office. He was an incredibly effective politician in large part because he had mastered mass media. (He won re-election with nearly 60% of the popular vote and with 98% of the electoral vote.)

He left office with early onset dementia and talk radio came in to fill the gap that this communicator had left. Reagan left office in 1989, the year that Rush Limbaugh's radio career took off.

What talk radio did for politics after Reagan's presidency, podcasts are now doing for politics in the years after Obama's presidency.

Radio fractures attention with lots of ads and artificial deadlines (news at the top of the hour, traffic reports every 15 minutes, etc.). To keep you tuned in, it has to provoke. To get callers, it has to create controversy.

By contrast, podcasts don't have to fit any time slot. The same podcast could be 26 minutes one week and 66 minutes the next, depending on the guest and conversation. No one calls in, so they can explore ideas without feeling the need to make them argumentative. People have time to explain nuance, explore causes, and talk about possibilities. Concise is nice but inadequate for some conversations. Conservatives on talk radio simply have to defend the past and that lends itself to concision; progressives on podcasts are trying to define a new future and that process lends itself to long digressions rather than quick quips. Some issues have taken a long time to develop, will probably take a long time to resolve, and might - just might - take more than 3 minutes to discuss. Oh, and some topics have more than two sides, more than two options for moving forward. Podcasts lend themselves to exploration and not just advocacy and I think they were a big influence on what happened in the 2018 election and what will happen in this year's election.

I enjoy Ezra Klein's podcasts. This conversation of his with Ta-Nehisi Coates is really timely and also a good example of what is possible in a longer conversation that isn't perpetually interrupted by ads and is more intent on manufacturing possibilities than dissent. You may enjoy it.

No comments: