Sabbatical Series: Will Sommer, Week 2 of 5

Notes on Conservative Podcasts, By Will Sommer 

In August, an unlikely podcast snagged the top spot on the Apple Podcast News and Politics charts  — one that didn’t have anything to do with Chapo Trap House or Crooked Media. And unlike the most talked-about podcasts of the Trump era, this one, ”The Ben Shapiro Show,” was a distinctly right-wing affair.

Shapiro has come a long way since his teen years, when he made his name as an early-aughts answer to Alex P. Keaton who talked, a lot, about how he wouldn’t have sex until marriage. Now Shapiro runs a budding podcast empire on the right, with the podcasts under the umbrella of his conservative website the Daily Wire regularly making it into the more public strata of the Apple Podcast rankings.

Shapiro isn’t the only right-wing personality cultivating a podcast operation off a profile built on more prominent outlets like Fox News or Breitbart. There appears to be a growing, inter-linked conservative podcast ecosystem emerging in the shadow of traditional right-wing talk radio and Fox News infrastructures and in spite the GOP’s older-leaning demographics, whose potential podcast listenership is limited given that age group’s general frictions with technology.

While Donald Trump’s presidency has shaken up the GOP — and draws more attention to the ideologically scattered, frequently bigoted “alt-right” movement — this growing contingent of right-wing podcasts tends to trend more toward a more traditional National Review-style of conservatism. Which is to say, while far-right figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones may be getting broader media attention these days, among right-wing podcasts it seems that Shapiro’s brand of #NeverTrump, William F. Buckley-style conservatism rules. It’s increasingly uncommon to find spaces within right-wing media where criticism of Trump can flourish (or at least a place where Trump can be avoided), but in this medium where the economics allow for shows to be successful with a smaller (and younger) listener base, there seems to be less pressure to keep up with all things Trump; what he did today, how he’s changing his supporters’ politics, so on and so forth. This stands in contrast to what has followed from the pressures that emerged within the conventional right-wing talk radio ecosystem. (Longtime talk radio host John Ziegler, for example, who quit his show last year, complained frequently about how criticizing Trump meant alienating his conservative listeners and ensuing ratings suicide.)

This isn’t to say that conservative podcasts are totally unlike the rest of right-wing media, of course, particularly when it comes to how the bills get paid. Many of the ads are still the same — you know, meal kits for the apocalypse, stuff like that. (Although, there are noticeably fewer gold scam ads.) But these shows are also taking on the various business model experimentations happening elsewhere in the medium; like successful podcasts on the other end of the ideological spectrum, there is some focus on promoting premium content through paid membership clubs.

Shapiro looms over conservative podcasting, building off a career as a pundit that he’s been building for more than a decade, along with regular appearances across principally digital conservative media. Shapiro has even benefited from the rise of left-wing “antifascist” protesters, who have organized against his speeches on college campuses and, as a result, sometimes bubbles him up towards national media attention. It could be argued that some non-Republicans might find Shapiro’s views comparatively palatable for 2017, like if Karl Rove had come of age in the Soundcloud era. His ardent anti-Trumpism — he quit Breitbart in 2016 after over the site’s response to Trump campaign manager allegedly assaulting Breitbart reporter reporter Michelle Fields — has arguably made him one of the country’s most prominent #NeverTrump media figures.

Shapiro’s Daily Wire has two other near-daily podcasts that occasionally rank highly on the charts: “The Andrew Klavan Show” and “The Michael Knowles Show.” Klavan’s attempt at jokes tend to prove the old saw that conservative comedy is an oxymoron, while Knowles — whose publication of “Reasons to Vote for Democrats: A Comprehensive Guide,” a book that was mostly blank, earned a Trump shout-out — features mostly solid news of the day and interviews with righty up-and-comers.

Like a lot of people making it big in podcasts, Shapiro’s broadcast style might not have made it 20 years ago on traditional talk radio. At his worst, he comes off like a high school student at a debate tournament: a little too nasally, a little too fast, and a little too quick to show off his references.

Still, there’s a bit of charm in there. Even Ira Glass, no one’s idea of a typical talk radio listener, tweeted last week that he’s a fan. “I really like listening to @BenShapiro,” Glass wrote. “He’s interesting. I’ve learned things.”

It’s hard to judge, precisely, just how successful Shapiro’s on-demand audio efforts are in concrete terms. This is podcasting, after all. (Shapiro and co. didn’t respond to requests for comment.) But between the show’s high placements and Shapiro’s media brand somewhat gaining traction within the broader media landscape, even these abstractions of success are worth some attention.

Some observations about other parts of the right-wing ecosystem worth mentioning:

  • If Shapiro runs the leading podcast equivalent of a traditional talk radio show, comedian-slash-prankster Stephen Crowder has the GOP’s leading morning zoo-esque gabfest with “Louder with Crowder.” Crowder, who made his name as a conservative comedian during the Obama years and was an early pioneer of getting punched by left-wing demonstrators, isn’t a rabid Trump fan. But his methods — one “prank” recently featured him threatening to call ICE on day laborers — straddle the line of the extreme.

  • There are some prominent right-wing podcasts that bear more recognizable names, like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin or even Alex Jones. In most cases, these podcasts are mostly just stashed recordings of their broadcasts buoyed to the top by name recognition and nation-wide station reach. These efforts generally feel like afterthoughts — Rush Limbaugh boasted a few week that he doesn’t include his podcast ratings in rating compilations, since his terrestrial numbers are so big the podcast numbers don’t really matter. As a result, the major right-wing outlets have been slow to get into podcasts, leaving the field open for conservatives looking to explore the medium beyond just reproducing talk radio — and for established pundits launching their own outside efforts. (Let’s not forget Bill O’Reilly jumping into podcasting after being dismissed from Fox News.)

  • A word on the “alt-right”: they don’t seem to be hugely popular, comparatively-speaking, but one could argue these podcasts play a huge role in white supremacist right. From my work covering them, there is some evidence that a few white nationalists have turned to podcasts as a channel of outreach; for what it’s worth, I saw some of the leading white supremacist podcasters address their fans in Charlottesville. This makes some sense: with no access to traditional radio or television and increasingly banned from hosting services and social media sites, these folks need alternate and relatively ungoverned spaces to build their platforms. Just as neo-Nazi websites are increasingly only available through Tor browsers and the dark web, though, these podcasts are mostly kept off the usual distribution platforms. [Ed. noteThis NY Daily News piece is relevant.]

It’s not clear to me whether conservative podcasts can support more than a few prominent personalities, or if those successful right-wing podcasters will focus on building out their podcast operations should the prospect of a contract at one of the vastly more monied traditional conservative media platforms emerge. (For most, big immediate paydays are certainly more appealing than scraping Patreon dollars today for a potential bigger tomorrow, after all.)

But I think a future with a more robust conservative podcast presence is definite possible. Instead of looking for mass reach, such podcasts are most useful to the right as a place to develop niche voices that can get by with smaller audiences. And that’s not nothing.

Will Sommer is the campaign editor for The Hill, based in Washington DC. He also writes Right Richter, a newsletter about trends in right-wing media, of which I’m a reader and a fan. Also, the dude recapped Narcos for Vulture. You can find him on Twitter at @WillSommer.

And he’s really great to work with!

Sabbatical Series: Caroline Lester, Week 1 of 5

Published September 12, 2017.

For more information about the Sabbatical Series, go here.

By Caroline Lester

This summer, I often went for walks through my neighborhood, listening to podcasts and telling myself, now that I’m a freelancer, this was a form of work, too. And I did learn a lot from those walks.

I learned, for example, that the bright green house I live in is called a painted lady, for her garish coat and colorful trims. I learned that late summer nights are an excellent time for possum spotting. And I learned that an acquaintance had used my full name — first and last — for a character in his podcast.

I spent the following days in a fog, listening as much and as often as I could. I heard my name constantly, spoken by voices I didn’t recognize. And, at the end of the season, I heard my own murder. Well, my namesake’s murder, anyway. By a character with the same name as the acquaintance, who slit my (namesake’s) throat.

It’s odd, to hear yourself die on tape.

When I reached out to let the acquaintance know I’d “discovered” his secret, I told him I was flattered. (This was a poor choice of words, and I’ve felt like an idiot ever since.) But I don’t think that what he did was malicious. He told me he wasn’t good at coming up with names, and as a result opted to take them from the people surrounding him.

I called my brother, laughing, and told him what I had just listened to. He asked if I had called the police.

Maybe I was being delusional. Anyway, it makes a good story.

It’s a strange position, to find yourself the subject of someone else.

I’ve been working on a piece about, among other things, infertility. The women I talk to all ask if they can see their quotes before I publish. When I tell them no — ethics, you know how it goes — they’re graceful, and still willing to talk. Every time they agree, I’m thankful, but surprised. Here I am, a stranger, asking them to give me a part of themselves. When we talk to reporters, or people who make stories, or anyone who requests to use our name, we’re looking for something. Validation, perhaps, that our story is true. We’re asking to be known. It feels so good to be known.

I think, all the time, how brave it is, to trust someone with your name.

This isn’t quite the same, but there’s a vaguely similar kind of uncanniness. To find, as a writer, a piece of yourself used as an accessory; to see your name transferred onto a character you don’t control. (Usually, you’re the one in charge.)

The stakes are different between nonfiction and fiction, of course. I recognize that. When my subjects choose to lend me their words, they’re on the line. When someone takes your name for a fiction podcast, it’s not you that’s on the line — not really, anyway.  But the outcome, a character with your name that you didn’t create, is somewhat the same.

But here’s the thing: it feels good to be a character in someone else’s story, whether it’s you or just parts of you. It feels like someone has found you important and moving enough to write about or listen to or even just borrow from. Like you always suspected, some part of you matters, and here is proof.

And yet there’s the other thing: that version of you isn’t you, or at the very least isn’t the whole you. So what are you left with? A shadow that outgrows you, one that isn’t controlled — by which I mean, defined — by you. And in my case, defined by someone who doesn’t even really know you, by someone who picked up your name and maybe small parts of yourself (who knows) and warped it into something just recognizable enough.

And so this thing that once felt good feels, instead, horrible.

I find myself going back and forth. Is this bad? What’s the difference between someone borrowing your name for a story and sharing a name with someone famous?

Last month, I interviewed a high school student named Casey Anthony. That’s much worse, I imagine.

The violence that happens to my namesake (my shadow) changes things, of course. And the possibility that maybe, just maybe, my acquaintance wasn’t fully forthcoming about the name use. That he wrote traits into the character that he thought came from me. Which makes the violence more disturbing.

I wonder what Casey Anthony would have to say about this.

Making audio stories is a solitary process. You track alone, you edit alone, you spend your days buried in headphones and audio files and your studio (or in my case, closet). But the things we create are the opposite of solitude. The sound of someone speaking is insulated, immediate, and shared. Piped through earbuds, it becomes both formless and full of knowledge. It’s a knowledge that’s very hard to challenge, specifically because it lacks a form. You’re in someone else’s world, now.

I moved recently, which I think that’s why I’ve been listening to podcasts so much. The closeness between you and the story being presented to you isn’t of the place you’re in. It’s a space of your own. When I walk around my neighborhood, headphones in, I sometimes feel as though I’m floating. Moving through, but not within.

When I heard a raspy female voice whisper my name through my headphones, I snapped back to the sidewalk strewn with cigarette butts, to elm trees lining the street, to the smell of asphalt in the sun and hot, close air. A shrill sound moved towards me. A car drove by, horn stuck.

There’s a thrill to hearing your name spoken by a stranger… and an alienation, too. It’s like looking in a mirror and being surprised by your own reflection. Is that what I look like to other people?

My character was, at the very least, a surprise. Independent, unexpected. Maybe it was just the name, but I liked her. I spent the week listening, hanging on to her actions and words. What else had this character taken from me? What could I take from her? That week, my pitch was rejected. I argued with my partner. I couldn’t figure out how to hang those damn curtains in my living room. Each time, I turned to my podcast, to the sound of my name and my character.

Then she was murdered, and became what most women in narratives become: a body to be acted upon. (Isn’t it strange, how so many stories end the same?)

Oh, I thought. This is not me, after all.

Caroline Lester is a writer and audio producer who has served stints in Alaska and Boston. She now lives in New Haven, and is a contributor to WNPR and WSHU. You can find her on Twitter at @caro_ohlivia.

She was great to work with! You should hire her.

Alice Wilder, “Perma-intern”

Let’s say you’re a young person looking for professional purpose, some idea of a future, so what do you do? You move cities, get closer to the action, grab some people, take whatever opportunities cross you by: internships, fellowships, freelance jobs here, there, anywhere. You cobble together whatever you can into the shape of a thing that could hopefully pass as a career. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to work a third or fourth gig to pay the bills. But that’s only if you’re lucky. And you wonder: where is this all going? What does this all lead to? The answer, maybe, is always the same: who knows, we’ll see.

This week, I traded emails with Alice Wilder, a young producer from the South in her early-twenties.

Hot Pod:  Tell me about your current situation.

Alice Wilder: Currently I’m the Podcast/Video intern for FiveThirtyEight. Really, I’m the podcast intern. Right now my manager Galen Druke is working on a mini series for the site, so I’ve been focusing mostly on that (transcribing tape, assembling sessions, scheduling interviews etc). I also work on the weekly politics podcast.

In my spare time I run a newsletter called “Cult of the Month” with my best friend Kelsey Weekman. It’s our passion project (and a way to justify spending hours researching the Breatharians).

HP: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?

Wilder: I would not have any type of “career arc” if it wasn’t for Lauren Spohrer and Phoebe Judge, who let some random college girl transcribe tape for Criminal. People think I’m bullshitting when I say that I actually enjoyed transcribing tape, but listening to Phoebe interview is a masterclass and it gave me a deeper understanding of each story we did. I still miss logging tape for Criminal.

Then I asked if I could be an intern, and made a promise to myself that I would not say no to anything they asked of me. Lauren, Phoebe and Nadia Wilson (our new producer!) are the best people to work for, they did not restrict me to typical intern tasks and took my thoughts (and pitches!) seriously, which means a lot when you’re an intern.

I stayed at Criminal for two years (I did not spend much time on homework for those years). When I graduated from UNC (Go Heels!) I moved to New York to start my internship at FiveThirtyEight. I’ll be here until early September, when I’ll start interning for Planet Money. I’m also starting a weekly(ish) newsletter for interns in the media industry. We don’t have access to much institutional power and I want to help build a network for jobs and career resources.

HP: Being pretty early on in your work life, how do you think about your next steps? What does a career mean to you, at this point?

Wilder: To me, a career means having health insurance. I really, really want health insurance. My initial thought going into my senior year of college was that I want to make radio in the South. I have roots in North Carolina and Louisiana and want to hear stories that come from those regions. I’m in New York right now because that’s where podcast jobs are. Eventually I’ll find a way to move back South.

HP: When you started out, what did you think wanted to do?

Wilder: LOL. I thought I was going to be a social worker. For all of high school and the first two years of college I was very involved in local activism and centered my identity around being a Teen Feminist. My 15 year-old self would be horrified that I didn’t participate in the Women’s March. But I couldn’t, because doing so violated my employer’s policies on political action. Instead I spent that time dogsitting for a family that was going to the march.

I wrote columns for my college paper for two years, and that involved writing about myself a lot. Right after I had a bad experience (intense street harassment, reporting sexual assault, etc) I would turn around and publish it for thousands of people to read. I (finally) realized that writing about something and sharing it with the world is not the same as actually processing it. So I stopped the column, did that processing, and used the platform I had built at the newspaper to tell other people’s stories.

The best lesson I learned about having a career in this field, I learned from Phoebe Judge. She gave a workshop at the Daily Tar Heel and told us that there’s not just one route to having a fulfilling career. You don’t have to major in journalism, intern for WaPo or NPR, and go straight to a big name publication after college. At the time, it felt like all my peers were taking that route and I felt like it was already too late for me. It was such a relief to hear that there are so many paths that can lead to a great career, and they don’t always involve having the New York Times on your resumé by the time you turn twenty-two.

You can find Wilder on Twitter at @Alice_Wilder.