DFL lawmakers looking for a way to cut through the media clutter started a “Minnesota Values Podcast” in February to champion their causes and rally supporters to their legislative agenda.
The Minnesota GOP, frequently critical of the mainstream media, responded in October with “Truth Matters,” a podcast designed to give the Republican voting base “information straight from the source.”
No longer willing to let others filter their political messages, candidates and elected officials are increasingly turning to podcasts and other social media platforms to communicate directly with voters.
“It seemed like a really good idea for me to be able to share my voice directly, as I want, to communicate with people,” said Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan.
While the technology is new, the impulse is centuries old.
First came Thomas Paine and the political pamphleteers of the Revolutionary era. The dawn of radio, a century-plus later, brought President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” into living rooms across the nation. In recent decades, the internet opened the floodgates for a steady stream of updates from politicians delivering their messages directly into e-mail inboxes and social media feeds.
Now, a growing number of politicians are turning to another increasingly popular media platform: podcasting, a communication medium providing narrative depth far beyond the 280-character limit of Twitter.
Streamable audio shows catapulted into the zeitgeist in 2015, thanks in large part to the hit investigative series “Serial.” Today, hundreds of thousands of programs, on topics ranging from current events to sports to reality TV, are available at the tap of a phone screen. People are listening. Roughly half of Americans have tuned in at least once, up from 36% in 2016, according to Edison Research. The most popular shows, such as the New York Times’ “The Daily,” can rack up a billion downloads over time.
Politicians and their messaging gurus have taken note. Governors, senators and presidential candidates are all “friends of the pod,” appearing both as guests and hosts. Pod Save America, a chatty political gabfest hosted by a group of former Obama aides, has exploded into a lucrative business. Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, launched a limited-run series of his own in 2018.
Minnesotans aren’t sitting out the trend. In addition to the House DFL and state GOP, Attorney General Keith Ellison, who hosted “We the Podcast” while serving in Congress, debuted a new series called “Affording Your Life” this year.
Given the popularity, potential reach and relatively low production costs, the boom in political podcasting shouldn’t come as a surprise. Peter Loge, a political communications expert credited with putting the first member of Congress on the internet back in 1993, noted that elected officials often follow trends in technology as it matures.
“It’s harder to break through the clutter, and elected officials are trying to do that,” said Loge, now an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.
Unlike other emerging mediums, such as Twitter or text messages, podcasts can be consumed passively, while working, walking or sitting in traffic. DFL Rep. Liz Olson, who co-hosts “Minnesota Values,” said she binges on podcasts on drives from her Duluth home to the Capitol in St. Paul. Veteran state podcasters cite a similar draw.
“People who are into politics, maybe a little deeper than your average person, they’re busy and the podcast format allows them to listen to it in the car, be mobile with it, multi-task,” said Brian McDaniel, a GOP strategist who co-hosts “Wrong About Everything,” a long-running bipartisan show on Minnesota politics. “It’s always there, available to them.”
But experts say the platform also offers something harder to capture in a mail piece, e-mail newsletter or even a speech at a rally: a sense of intimacy.
“Podcasts are a way to have a theoretically infinite number of one-on-one conversations,” Loge said. “The congressman is talking not [to] all of us, he’s talking to you.”
For politicians in particular, there may be another appeal: an ability to control the message and speak directly to voters without facing questions from journalists or responses from critics. Former U.S. Sen. Al Franken released an eponymous podcast as he began his return to public life following his 2017 resignation over allegations of inappropriate conduct toward women. At the time, the Washington Post wrote that the Minnesota Democrat “is talking, but only on his terms: into a microphone, in the studio, where he gets to set the agenda during the interviews and exercise editorial discretion afterward.”
Franken’s return to the recording booth rocketed to the top of the Apple charts. Episodes featuring playful political banter between the “Wrong About Everything” hosts can attract thousands of listeners. Hosts say authenticity and a well-defined voice are crucial.
“There are some elected officials that are doing podcasts because they want to share their work or they want to influence their constituents, and that’s really good and really informative, but what we’re doing has had success because we’re bringing a really rare perspective,” said Carin Mrotz, a “Wrong About Everything” co-host and executive director of the progressive group Jewish Community Action.
But gaining a large audience isn’t a given, particularly in a crowded market. Each episode of the House DFL podcast appears to get just a few hundred downloads on SoundCloud.
“Call of the Senate,” a program hosted by the Senate DFL, has 27 subscribers on the same site.
As podcasting state leaders continue to compete for voters’ earbuds, others are already experimenting with other emerging platforms.
State Rep. Tim Miller, a member of the New House Republican Caucus, said he had so much fun appearing on a live YouTube show that he decided to create his own weekly live series, aptly named “Miller Time.” The Prinsburg Republican said he was drawn by the low barrier to entry and the opportunity to engage directly with constituents in his rural district.
Reps. Eric Lucero and Mary Franson, both Republicans, decided to do a Facebook show, “The RIGHT View MN,” that’s part morning show and “Saturday Night Live.” In one episode, viewed more than 7,000 times, Franson dresses up in oversize glittered dollar-sign glasses and pretends to be “Big Pharma,” a skit intended to offer satirical commentary on the industry’s influence in politics. In another, they poke fun at concerns over “global warming and the end of the world” using a rotating green-screen backdrop of snowy forests and a close-up of a blazing sun.
“I know there are some out there with an operating mechanism where anger is their modus operandi ... but the most well received [for us] does include humor,” Lucero said.
But he said the need to reach the public on the platforms they use is no laughing matter.
“If elected officials want to stay relevant with voters,” Lucero said, “it is critically important that they adopt their methodologies to disseminate information to match the way that it’s consumed by voters.”