Bernie Sanders' new podcast is awful.

Bernie Sanders’ New Podcast Is a Hit on iTunes. Also, It’s Awful.

Bernie Sanders’ New Podcast Is a Hit on iTunes. Also, It’s Awful.

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
April 19 2017 5:30 AM

Bernie Sanders’ New Podcast Is a Hit on iTunes. Also, It’s Awful.

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Journalists should be interviewing politicians, not the other way around.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Within a week of its release earlier this month, Bernie Sanders’ podcast had climbed to the No. 2 slot on iTunes, just behind S-Town. (It’s now sitting at No. 6, still firmly in the top 10.) Which is to say: The Bernie Sanders Show, the product of a sitting U.S. senator’s Washington press office, is currently competing head to head in the same market as the likes of This American Life and TED Radio Hour. I’m not sure what that means, but I think it’s significant—certainly more significant than the show itself, which is almost as intellectually lazy as it is technically incompetent.

A popular talk show that’s hosted and editorially controlled by a current government official is something we normally expect from a Latin American dictatorship, such as the late Hugo Chávez’s hilarious and terrifying Aló Presidente, where Venezuela’s socialist leader would chat with his people, rant about capitalist conspiracies, order around his bureaucrats, and occasionally tell a general to send thousands of troops on hostile exercises—all on live TV.

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Though I suppose the use of state TV or radio for such a program is, theoretically, a more despotic move than offering the same sort of thing for download on the internet. Chávez, by commandeering the public’s airwaves and claiming many hours per week on one of a finite number of channels, had a relationship with his audience that could not have been fully consensual. In contrast, no one is even indirectly compelled to subscribe to a podcast. (No matter what you may have heard, you really don’t have to listen to S-Town.)

Also, Bernie Sanders is not a dictator. He’s an independent junior senator from a tiny state who caucuses with the minority party. But we’ve already had another guy make the leap from popular show host/producer to commander in chief, and did that make the United States feel more or less like Venezuela to you?

The Bernie Sanders Show, in its first four episodes, has consisted of the senator interviewing fellow progressive heroes, such as Bill Nye “the [outspokenly secular humanist] science guy,” and Josh Fox, director of the anti-fracking documentary Gasland. I categorize these as interviews rather than conversations because Sanders generally does limit himself to the role of interviewer by asking questions (however leading) and letting his guests take up most of the oxygen.

This is not to say that I think Sanders is doing something journalistic. There’s a certain type of question that interviewers ask when they clearly have no desire to probe, scrutinize, confront or even just learn something from their interviewees; this type of question is easily distinguished by its first few words, which are some version of the imperative “Talk about …”

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For example, in his interview with New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer about her extensive work investigating the Koch brothers’ funding of libertarian political causes, Sanders asked such “questions” (I suppose they’re technically directives) as, “Talk a little bit about the kind of intellectual infrastructure [the Kochs] have established,” or “Tell us a little about the Koch brothers and the role they have played in billionaires being able to spend unlimited sums of money [on politics].”

“Talk about” questions are what you whip out when you simply want to prompt your guest to say something that you already know or agree with. Sanders uses them all the time on his show, and this makes for comfortable, boring listening.

Mayer has done much fine reporting to expose the full magnitude and reach of Koch political spending, but it’s also true that political scientists have struggled to document causal relationships between such spending and actual electoral or policy outcomes. A journalist, unlike Sanders, might have asked Mayer some more interesting questions, such as: Considering that the Kochs couldn’t get their chosen candidate, Scott Walker, even close to the presidency this last go-around, what makes you believe their spending has an effect? Conservatives often point to George Soros as being the left’s equivalent of the Kochs; is that a fair comparison? Do Soros dollars and Koch dollars effectively cancel each other out?

Mayer probably has really smart, compelling answers to those questions, and I regret not getting to hear them in her chummy chat with Sanders. We all might have actually learned something. You may be thinking to yourself, “Come on, guy. That’s not what Bernie’s show is about. There are plenty of other shows where you can hear Jane Mayer get drilled.” Yes, there are other shows like that, and you should listen to one of those shows instead. Are you really so insecure in your worldview that you need to listen to two people uncritically reinforce it for half an hour each week?

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I think the high point of Sanders’ interview with Mayer was when she delicately challenged the senator’s rote dismissal of what he called the “corporate media”—“I come out of the mainstream media, so I have to defend my people,” she said. “Alright, well you defend them,” he replied, before immediately changing the subject.

Call me old-school, but I think journalists should be interviewing politicians and not the other way around. That’s what we do in liberal democracy. Anything else is Aló Presidente territory, and please, let’s not give Presidente Trump any ideas about starting a podcast himself.

Podcasting—and the internet in general—has diminished the role of gatekeepers, and that’s mostly a good thing. But just because politicians can now bypass the “media filter” and talk to you directly doesn’t mean you should listen, at least not in the numbers that would propel a podcast to the iTunes top 10. You should want to hear even your favorite politicians get pushed to defend their assertions, not just toss them around in choruses of mutual agreement with like-minded allies.

At the very least, you should be listening to a podcast that sounds better than The Bernie Sanders Show. As I was told by Josh Miller-Lewis, the young Sanders press office staffer who produces the show, the senator initially conceived of it as a Facebook Live program, and it was only later that his staff thought about adapting it for a podcast. All four episodes thus far have started off as FB Live broadcasts, and boy can you really hear it.

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Since Sanders and his staff are thinking about the needs of video first, he and his guests are mic’d with visually inconspicuous lavalier microphones that clip onto clothing, instead of the bulky large-diaphragm mics on stands that you see someone like Howard Stern using in the video feeds of his radio show. The problem with lavaliers is that they usually don’t sound very good, especially when you don’t have an image to distract you from that fact.

With these nonradio mics, the sound of the show is distant and murky, exacerbated by the fact that someone seems to be applying noise-reduction software to the original FB Live audio, resulting in swirly digital artifacts. When listening in the car, I often found it impossible to make out the softer speaking.

Of course, all mics sound bad when the people using them don’t really know what they’re doing. Sanders’ first guest on the show, Moral Mondays protest leader Rev. William Barber II, was nearly inaudible for the first 10 minutes of the interview because his mic was simply not on (or so that is my armchair diagnosis). This is not the level of audio production to which listeners of top-10–rated podcasts are accustomed, and many otherwise-enthusiastic iTunes reviewers have left complaints about the show’s listenability.

I come back to my fundamental bewilderment about the popularity of The Bernie Sanders Show. How is it that a political PR team—noticeably unschooled in the ways of audio production—is presently boxing with the likes of NPR at the top of the iTunes charts? “It’s a testament to how powerful the senator’s message is,” Miller-Lewis told me. “[Listeners] want a bold and progressive message.”

It may also be a testament to how much the current podcast listener demographic overlaps with Sanders’ core demo of educated young people. Or, it may be a testament to how much the iTunes chart algorithm is weighted to reflect new subscriptions, thus making recently debuted shows appear competitive with established shows that actually get far more downloads. (This is a widely believed guess, Apple keeps its algorithm secret.) Those subscribers who swarmed in on Sanders’ name alone might not keep with his show once they actually listen to it. Regardless, I think people who “want a bold and progressive message” should also want a better podcast than The Bernie Sanders Show.

Adam Ragusea is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.