What turns me on in journalism these days I’m often asked? What am I watching or reading? The answer is not reading or watching, although I do plenty of both, but listening to podcasts.
It may be that my lifestyle habits have changed as one explanation why I find the podcast such a tiny perfect source of news and information. It is true that living outside of London, as opposed to residing in the middle of it, means more time spent commuting back and forth. That means more time walking to and from a train station and more time spent on London Tubes and buses. Thus podcasts are an appealing way to fill the time when not reading on devices. But life style habits aside, I’ve also discovered that I get more essential information from the better podcasts that are timely and news driven. I have in mind the New York Times new “The Daily” podcast featuring the excellent interviewer and conversationalist Michael Barbaro. https://goo.gl/4YivThHe distinguished himself during the presidential election campaign as the host of the NYT’s “The Run-Up.” He clearly impressed his editors and executives as they’ve created this new daily strip that puts the news of the day in context and features de-briefs with the reporters whose by-lines appear in the Times. A perfect example is a recent “The Daily ” highlighting a must read NYT exclusive filed by two of its best Washington reporters Glenn Thrush and Maggie Braverman. Headlined “Trump and Staff Rethink Tactics After Stumbles,” their story was rich in detail about how Trump spent his time in the White House both in the Oval Office ( he loves it) and after formal work hours. The one anecdote that went viral was how Trump wandered around in his private quarters attired in a bathrobe. Press Secretary Sean Spicer denied the story and said Trump never relaxed in that matter. Of course, then, predictably, the Internet world was awash in photos of Donald Trump in bathrobes.
What ” The Daily” podcast gave you was Barbaro -going beyond the reporting that had gone viral- pressing Glenn Thrush to provide a detailed account of how they got the story, recounting the challenges of sourcing it, and adding additional insights in reply to thoughtful and probing questions. It was a journalistic feast of how first-rate reporters do the work, a reminder that what separates world class reporting from third-rate blogging (perhaps like this one) and often superficial digital website postings is the calibre of sourcing and verification. Editors still do matter at the New York Times. Also I give high marks to the NYT for adding production values to the podcast. When a reporter refers to something said by Trump or another newsmaker, there’s an audio clip edited in to reinforce what was being said. Very effective and far better than past NYT broadcast efforts.
Other podcasts ( as opposed to reversioned television shows such as CNN’s Reliable Sources) I’ve listened to regularly include David Axelrod’s “The Axe File”, The New Yorker Hour hosted by editor David Remnick, and a new offbeat fast-paced, often insightful and often sophomoric podcast called ” Pod Save America.” hosted by former Obama aides and speechwriters Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor.
Axelrod has proven to be the real surprise in the podcast world. He guided Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and became his White House strategist and adviser in his first term. Since leaving the White House, Axelrod has found his own astute voice as a respected and rational commentator on CNN and director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. Axelrod piggybacks off the Institute relationship to get leading political and media figures to record conversations for his Axe File podcast. Perhaps because of his fair-minded reputation, Axelrod gets the biggest and most influential players. And because “Axe” engages his guests in real conversations and probes gently in a kind of Colombo-styled, often awkwardly framed manner of questioning, his guests relax and tell stories rather than regurgitating sound bytes.
He also usually begins by giving his guests the opportunity to reflect on their personal lives before entering the public sphere. This often leads to shared and deeply personal disclosures. Axelrod speaks movingly about how his father committed suicide and how he was unable to talk about it for years. Karl Rove, George W Bush’s political guru, spoke about the pain and anguish in his life because of his mother’s suicide.
What Axelrod accomplishes-as does Michael Barbaro in The Daily and David Remnick in the New Yorker Hour- is include “us” in a genuine conversation that is far more informative than the noisy, hyped, and often soundbite driven exchanges that are the stock and trade of Cable TV and Talk Radio. On occasion I find myself impatient with Axelrod’s failure to follow up more aggressively or irritated when he shifts the emphasis at an inopportune moment. But the payoffs far exceed any drawbacks.
You’ll note that I’ve not included any British podcasts. Why you ask? The reason is that British broadcasting, dominated overwhelmingly by the BBC, does offer a wealth of radio programmes of superior quality that are produced consistent with public service values and absence of artificial commercial pressures. They work well as time-shift listening on the BBC radio I-player or downloaded from BBC websites. But independent journalists and media groups, like our Frontline Club, are confident that there’s room for more non-BBC, original podcasts that do offer listeners and users distinctive voices and material.
I’d be interested in hearing from any readers what your favourite podcasts are and why.