Issue 238,  published December 10, 2019

The Power That Be

There’s a lot going on over in New Hampshire.

Back in September, the public radio station over there, NHPR, launched a podcast called Stranglehold, which sought to interrogate the mythology around the Granite State’s status as the first to vote in the presidential primaries. It’s a status that has given New Hampshire a considerable amount of power and influence over the priorities of presidential election campaigns, despite the fact that the state has just over a million people and a demographic spread that’s over 90 percent white, according to the census. That status is also the result of power and influence: a major throughline of the podcast is its examination of one of New Hampshire’s key political figures, NH Secretary of State Bill Gardner, whose machinations are central to the preservation of New Hampshire’s position as the first in the primaries.

As you would expect from an effort that interrogates a source of power (and, in some cases, a state’s identity), NHPR has received some pushback because of the podcast, mostly from the state’s political establishment… but not always. On the Dec 2 edition of The Exchange, NHPR’s local call-in morning show, a listener called in to say: “I’ve been very disappointed with NHPR over this series. I mean, yes, some of the reporting is fine, but do you have to call it Stranglehold? Why do you feel we need to attack such a great institution?”

Like I said, lots going on here.

You might remember NHPR most recently for Bear Brook, the truly excellent true crime podcast they put out last year. But they have long been an organization to watch, particularly in how they’ve long punched above their weight in terms of podcasting. It’s no different with Stranglehold, from idea to execution.

To learn more about what the station’s been going through, I recently sent an email to Dan Barrick, NHPR’s News Director, and Maureen McMurray, NHPR’s Director of Content, with a ton of questions.

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Hot Pod: The podcast has provoked a strong response from the state government over at New Hampshire. Could you talk a bit about what you’ve been experiencing there?

Dan Barrick: It’s been a little all over the map. Lots of journalists who’ve covered the primary for some time, or people who’ve observed it from an objective distance, have told us they appreciate a local media outlet taking a questioning stance towards an institution that has such a huge influence on our state politics. On the other hand, we expected pushback — especially from people who make their living off the primary, or who’ve based their professional and personal identity on their relationship to the primary.

That pushback has been bipartisan too. People telling us that we’re ignoring “the beauty of the primary,” that we are pushing “the same crap” that’s been pedalled for decades about the primary, that we’re “tone deaf” and seeking to tear down this civic institution. I think we were a bit surprised at how quickly — even before we released the first episode! — that pushback has come, and in particular, how some other media outlets and reporters in the state have basically accused us of being ungrateful. The state’s largest newspaper ran an editorial, headlined “Is This NHPR Series Hype or Tripe?” pretty soon after we released a two-minute trailer.

In a sense, it’s all really confirmed our underlying thesis, which is that powerful institutions in the state have a lot at stake in New Hampshire’s continued position at the head of the presidential nominating calendar, and anything that questions or examines that can be seen as a threat.

HP: Were you expecting the response?

Maureen McMurray: While I expected a response, I wasn’t sure what form it would take, for a few reasons. I moved to New Hampshire in 2014, so the primary mythology is still somewhat new to me. My position oversees NHPR’s original programming and on-demand content, and this is the station’s first politics podcast. And I’m not nearly as familiar with the state’s political players, including the 424 members of our citizen legislature, as Dan or our politics team.

So, intellectually, I understood that the primary is a powerful institution. That’s what the entire podcast is about. But I was still surprised by the speed and intensity of the pushback. Like Dan, I was surprised that some of it was coming from local media outlets and reporters.

But there’s another type of response that I wasn’t expecting. I met a man at Pete Buttigieg’s filing who said he’s lived in New Hampshire for years, but had never attended a candidate filing. He listened to a few episodes of Stranglehold and said he “had to see where it all happens.” A listener in Connecticut booked a mother-daughter weekend in New Hampshire, just so they could experience the primary. Last week, we heard from a college professor who is using Stranglehold as an alternative to a text book. She’s bringing her students to New Hampshire in January — right before primary day. I didn’t anticipate that.

Barrick: It’s caused me to question some of our own past reporting on the primary, in previous election cycles. Four years ago, NHPR put together a series called “Primary Backstage,” basically a bunch of profiles of the people who are behind the scenes in every primary season but who aren’t explicitly political: like the local sound tech who staffs every campaign event, or the must-stop seafood shack where candidates have gone for decades for photo ops. It was a light series, for sure, one that tried to provide a view of how the primary has seeped into so many other aspects of New Hampshire life: the economy, culture, tourism, etc. But looking back at it now, I worry that it was an example of the kind of “gee whiz, ain’t the primary neat!” school of thought and assumptions that we’ve been actively trying to question in this podcast.

HP: Given the pushback, how do you think through the risk of the project? Do you fear any sort of reprisal?

Barrick: I wouldn’t say that we fear reprisal, but we’ve come to expect a negative reaction from many folks we have to come into contact with on a regular basis as journalists, covering politics in a small state. We’ve had several high profile members of the New Hampshire political class publicly dismiss or accuse us of bad faith in our reporting. We’ve thought a lot about that as a team, and have frequently talked through individual critiques we’ve received and held them up against our work.

But I think what has helped is that we have spent a lot of time talking about why we’re doing this and what we feel we owe to our audience, episode to episode, and we’re really comfortable taking criticism but also explaining our goals to critics. Still, it is hard to accept that lots of people you cross paths with on a regular basis — sources, former colleagues, friends — are going to be offended by your work. That dynamic has definitely been part of editorial conversations, but we just keep returning to the original vision of the project and why we believe there’s value in the story we’re telling.

HP: Tell me about the development process.

McMurray: We started having those casual “we should do a 2020 primary podcast” conversations right after the 2016 primary. I think we understood we had something to say, but it wasn’t formed. I kept thinking about the way reporters sounded when they had just returned to the office after a campaign event or assignment. I knew I wanted to make something that sounded like that.

Dan and I had our first “official” primary podcast meeting in the spring/summer of 2017, and started working in earnest in October 2018.  The development process was very different from our other podcast series. Bear Brook and Patient Zero were creator-driven: Jason Moon pitched the idea, and came to Bear Brook’s first storyboard with a fully-formed narrative structure.

The primary was this unformed lump of clay. We used the newsroom’s collective talents to shape it into something meaningful. It took a while to get there. Dan and I organized a group of reporters and producers and over a series of meetings we did all these exercises to bring us closer to a central editorial vision. Along the way, themes began to emerge and it seemed like we were coalescing around this idea of power and the people and institutions that fuel the primary. From there, story ideas started to emerge and we created reporting buckets. Jack Rodolico and Lauren Chooljian took the early lead on the reporting and played a huge role in shaping Stranglehold. Jason, Casey McDermott and Josh Rogers have played an increased role as the primary progresses.

We also had to dig into tone, sound, style and feel. Very hard stuff to articulate and some of the people on the production team had never worked together before. I jacked Radiolab’s visual moodboard exercise. The themes that emerged in those series of meetings informed how we approached the title and logo of the podcast.

Lauren’s father is a celebrated wrestling coach in New Hampshire and he suggested Stranglehold as a title. When Lauren brought it to the team, there was this collective moment of divine inspiration. It captured a number of things: the local power dynamics at play in the podcast, the fervor around the primary, New Hampshire’s live-free-or-die spirit, and our own self-awareness. It also served as inspiration for the score and artwork.

Jason composed and performed Stranglehold’s theme and original score. We wanted him to go for a dirty, late-’70s hard rock vibe — slightly over the top, with heavy drums and guitar riffs. There’s a satisfying dissonance between the score and the subject matter. One minute you’re standing alongside a wooden ballot box in quaint Dixville Notch — and then the theme comes in and turns everything on its head.

Same with the Stranglehold trailer and logo. We wanted to subvert genre expectations and create something that would, in the words of Jay Allison, make people look at their radio. I summoned Lauren Chooljian and Jason Moon to a meeting and made them watch a bunch of 70s-era horror and action movie trailers. The trailer they produced is bold, hard-driving and irreverent. The Stranglehold logo, designed by NHPR’s Sara Plourde, features a heavy metal-like font and a crudely drawn hand clutching a ballot. The wrist below the hand is inked with a Granite State tattoo. We used one of Sara’s first drafts. Initially, she wanted to make the lines crisper, but we all agreed — keep it messy.

HP: What advice would you have for other teams developing a politics podcast in this vein?

Barrick: One thing that has been awesome on this project is that the team includes people from lots of different perspectives when it comes to political reporting. Some have been covering New Hampshire politics for almost two decades, some are relatively new to political reporting, and some have never covered politics at all. This has been great in gauging where we need to be in terms of tone and assumed knowledge on the part of the audience. It also helps serve as a collective gut check on whether we’re pushing a point too hard. So I’d say, if you’re planning to do something narrative-driven, politically-oriented, make sure the people making editorial decisions aren’t just your vetreran statehouse reporters. Include people who don’t care about politics but have other talents: who are good storytellers, who know how to find the strong characters in a story, that kind of thing.

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You can find Stranglehold here.