Mind the gap: Can podcasting heal our national divide?

(from a talk given at Sound Education podcast conference, Harvard Divinity School — November 2, 2018)

Our weekly solutions podcast is “How Do We Fix It?” We’re listed as a news and current affairs show on iTunes, but our episodes also touch on education and learning. Over the past three-and-a-half-years, 178 episodes have been published. We interview authors, researchers and occasionally, advocates. I’m a co-host, producer of other podcasts, and a recovering… journalist.

That’s a confession, because people have lost trust in the news media. Until I left my job at ABC News and became a podcaster, I didn’t understand why.

We journalists are held in very low regard, with about the same sort of disapproval ratings normally reserved for undertakers, insurance sales people and politicians. Despite thinking of ourselves as serving the public good, journalists — even at quality newspapers and on network news broadcasts — are too often obsessed with clashes, contests and celebrities, instead of asking now what? And how can life be better?

The way that vital stories are often covered is with a breathless emphasis on breaking news, with a heavy emphasis on what is broken. It’s rare to come away from a reading a newspaper or watching the news feeling hopeful or empowered.

The news media have contributed to today’s angry, polarized, frayed and cynical political environment, where many Americans believe that those they disagree with are actually bad people.

Our podcast is an attempt to gently pushback by being positive. On “How Do We Fix It?, my good pal and co-host Jim Meigs, and I interview expert guests and ask them for their fixes.

In addition to this, our storytelling is also about our friendship. We laugh quite a lot. Sometimes, Jim and I take stabs at being entertaining. Sometimes we are serious.

One of our most recent guests, Tiffany Wilson Worsley, a family and community outreach specialist in Minneapolis, says all of us are at least a little bit crazy. We agree. The outrage volume has been turned up to eleven. Our nation’s partisan and cultural divisions are as deep as they have been in living memory.

Can podcasting do anything to address the problem? I believe it can, and that podcasts are an especially important medium today.

They are human and intimate. The connection of speech is deeper than with video or social media. Usually, we listen to a podcast on our own, and often with headphones or earbuds when the voices are literally inside us. We aren’t being lectured to. And usually we’re away from our screens with their pop-up messages, email and other instant distractions.

The community of podcasters is also a caring, collaborative space. Here at Sound Education, offers of help flow like a river of kindness.

Maggi Van Dorn, host of the podcast Interfaith Matters, says podcasting is a visual medium. “You can only hear my voice, and as a result, you have to conjure images in your mind that might be so much more powerful than anything that you would see on a TV screen,” she says.

The humanity of podcasting allows us to get beyond objectifying others and seeing them as people. Our podcast guests come from a range of viewpoints. We don’t always agree with what they’re saying (Jim and I often disagree with each other), but at the dinner table where we record our podcasts, we have a lively conversation. Mostly, we listen. Our aim is to expose fresh, often counterintuitive ideas. And you can’t really grapple with an unconventional idea unless you give it a little time to settle into your mind.

After our guest leaves the room (we record our podcasts at our dinner table and not in a studio), Jim and I have a discussion. I lean liberal while Jim is more of a free-market libertarian. In our chats, we use our different political orientations to challenge the strengths and weaknesses of our guests’ ideas. And, as Jim says, we like to flatter ourselves that we are also modeling a healthier kind of political discourse, one where people can disagree but still work together.

The best ideas are those that have grown stronger through robust debate. A constructive conversation is one in which people exchange information and opinions with the shared goal of making the world a better place. What give this power is good faith: people on both sides — or all sides — must be committed to presenting their views with honesty and civility, and to listening in the same spirit.

Agreement is not necessary. In fact, civil disagreement can be vital in helping people on both sides of a debate sharpen their ideas and understanding. The problem is that extremists on both sides don’t want to debate the issues: they’d prefer to declare that the other side evil and illegitimate.

Podcasting can help us heal and turn away from anger and fear to the side of love and cooperation.

Richard Davies is a podcaster and audio consultant. He runs DaviesContent.com.

Podcaster and Podcast consultant. DaviesContent.com makes digital audio for companies and non-profits. Solutions journalist. Views and humor are my own.