2016, 2018, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders — November 12, 2017

This pod could be your America

by

Could podcasts play a similar role in a 2018 wave election that AM radio did in 1994?

There is an almost inappropriate roar of a crowd.

It could be welcoming an aging boy band or an Avengers Comic Con panel. Instead, four former White House staffers and the one former Bernie Sanders flack take the stage of The National theater in Richmond, Virginia. It’s November 5, 2017 — just hours before polls are to open in for most important election since Donald Trump colluded and fluked his way into the presidency.

Jon Favreau — the offensively handsome former Director of Speechwriting for President Obama — welcomes the crowd. He then introduces his less offensively handsome co-hosts: Dan Pfeiffer, former Obama Senior Advisor, Jon Lovett, Obama speechwriter and TV writer/producer, and Tommy Vietor, former spokesperson for the National Security Council and Obama. They’re joined by Symone D. Sanders, former national spokesperson for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. 

Favreau then asks each comms expert to make the case to elect Ralph Northam the next governor of Virginia. Each appeal hits a different angle, intuitively tailored to sell the candidate to various skeptical loved ones. Each appeal earns cheers from the crowd. The crowd erupts again when Lovett insists that anyone who not planning to vote should leave.

But, the crowd is reminded, voting isn’t enough. There are calls to be made, doors to be knocked on and voters to be dragged to the polls. These are familiar admonitions to any consistent listener of Pod Saves America — or the show’s 1.0 version Keepin’ it 1600 — but the crowd seems to enjoy being admonished in person.

Among the most scarring lessons of 2016 was “You need to do more.” It’s an unspoken chorus that bonds the show’s hosts, their guests, which have included Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and several 2020 front-runners, and their crowds. And just hearing hints of that refrain makes them roar.

Is this what democracy sounds like in 2017?

It does to me as I’m grokking the episode entitled “Don’t Hiss. Vote.” (LIVE from Richmond)” while I’m walking my beagles on Election Day.

And obviously, I’m not alone. Pod Saves America regularly tops the iTunes podcast chart, where you might also see other Crooked Media podcasts — like Lovett or Leave It, which applies a edgier Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!/Watch What Happens Live aesthetic to politics, or Pod Save the People, where DeRay Mckesson and his contributors offer an organizer’s view of the world, or With Friends Like These, where the inconceivably gracious yet acerbic Ana Marie Cox engages in weekly conversations about difficult issues and uncomfortable alliances, or Pod Save the World, Tommy Vietor’s effort to remind us that foreign policy exists beyond Trump’s tweets.

It’s a vast podcast empire — a description that is still an oxymoron — that is on the march with addition of Majority 54, hosted by former Secretary of State of Missouri Jason Kander, and the launch of Crooked.com led by editor in chief Brian Beutler.

Of course, Crooked didn’t invent left-leaning podcasting.

The Majority Report with Sam Seder been seriously funny for over a decade. Chapo Trap House launched around the same time as Keepin’ it 1600 has almost 20,000 Patreon supporters. Hosts Will Menaker, Matt Christman, Felix Biederman, Amber A’Lee Frost, and Virgil Texas — who may be too funny for SNL — have not only succeeded in creating a career for themselves, they’ve also created an addictive forum where people can discover how to talk about leftism without sounding like tired adjunct professors. Jacobin‘s The Digg hosted by Daniel Denvir can then take you deeper into politics Bernie Sanders helped thrust back into America’s mainstream.

Rewire‘s Boom! Lawyered with Jessica Mason Pieklo and Imani Gandy makes the complexities of the GOP’s war on bodily autonomy fun and Lady Parts Justice’s Repro Madness features the  compassionately cutting voice of Lizz Winstead, who helped create Air America — which you may remember as the left’s most conscious attempt to counter the power of Fox News and AM radio’s 24-hour-a-day testosterone drip for the right.

Air America ate shit, but from its ashes came Senator Al Franken and Marc Maron’s WTF, the comedy podcast that inspired so many podcasts that if you got this far in this post, you’re may be pissed that I didn’t mention yours yet. Sorry. I haven’t even mentioned the podcast I co-host.

Could this on-demand audio revolution be enough to counter a right-wing media fed by the power of Clear Channel, Fox and the most terrifying addition to the conservative entertainment complex Sinclair Media?

I once was at a dinner party in LA where a guy who was said to be Alan Dershowitz’s son — and why would anyone lie about that? — said the reason right-wing radio works is because conservative voters have jobs where they can listen to the radio all day. Maybe.

The right was able to win complete control in Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years just as it mastered a means of communication that is as close to hypnotism as the FCC allows. Could podcasts help reverse this reactionary wave by exploiting a medium that offers even lower barriers to entry?

The cubicle dwellers and remote workers of the left certainly have found time to plug thousands of hours of audio into their brain. And the intimacy of the medium is as effective as creating a culture of community as anything you’re going to find in today’s media. And community is drug the left needs.

The right’s decimation of labor unions has left us unable to counter the solidarity created by AM radio, Fox News, megachurches and a right-wing political sphere where any right-leaning young person of marginal talent or useful identity gets sucked into the tax-cutting machine.

In the aftermath of a mass shooting, some on the left rightly tie Republican inaction on gun safety to NRA’s never-ending flood of campaign donations. But we can’t ignore how much the organization’s power comes from its ability to harness community.

“There are more gun clubs and gun shops in the United States than there are McDonald’s,” Hahrie Han wrote in her essential piece “Want Gun Control? Learn From the N.R.A.”

We’ll lose if we think the right’s political power only comes from money. They’ve got their people and though there are way fewer of them than us, they’re efficiently geographically distributed and they show up to vote, every time. Their power comes from a steady diet of anger fuel, white rage and a brand of politics that offers enormous returns on its massive investments.

But it also comes from community.

There’s no such thing as a gun control club. But a podcast may be the next best thing. If nothing else, it’s at least a reminder that you need to do more.

[Image via @PodSavesAmerica.]

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