Podcasting Succeeds Where Liberal Talk Radio Failed

Dec 11, 2017

President Trump’s attacks on the media are not new. He routinely calls fact-based reporting with upwards of ten sources “fake news.” He blames the “crooked media” for the fact that our country is more polarized and divided than it has been in decades.[i] The Associated Press describes these attacks as “unprecedented” and they are obviously having an effect, with only 41% of Americans trusting the mass media to “fully, accurately and fairly” report the news. [ii]  The president himself admits that “Now, maybe I had something to do with that.”[iii]

However, even those mass media outlets that are by and large trusted have struggled with credibility issues from those on the left. Much of that criticism stems from anecdotal experiences of Hillary Clinton campaign staff supporters who noted that despite frequent policy and issue speeches, she struggled to have her policy positions break through into the media. In August of 2017, these anecdotally supported criticisms of the media were validated by The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University’s report that used “large-scale data collection of media stories published on the web and shared on Twitter” to provide quantitative analysis of mainstream media coverage of the 2016 presidential election.[iv]

The key takeaways from the report that are relevant to this paper are:[v]

  1. “Donald Trump succeeded in shaping the election agenda. Coverage of Trump overwhelmingly outperformed coverage of Clinton. Clinton’s coverage was focused on scandals, while Trump’s coverage focused on his core issues.”
  2. “The media landscape is distinctly asymmetric.”
  3. “The center-left and the far right are the principal poles of the media landscape.”
  4. “Conservative media disrupted.”

These sections of the report highlighted the fact that on the left articles shared about the election were mostly evenly distributed between center, center-left, and left-leaning media outlets. However, on the right, the articles shared were much more likely to be from far-right media outlets, especially from those with laxer editorial standards. There was less traditional or center-right media shared on the right, with Breitbart and The Daily Caller disrupting the conservative media scene and traditional right-leaning outlets like The Wall Street Journal being treated as too centrist and therefore shared less.

So why does all this matter? It matters because those on the left were left with, no pun intended, media that still largely covered Donald Trump and the “horserace” style stories instead of Hillary Clinton’s policy vision.[vi] Unlike the tightly insulated right-wing media environment that pushed Trump’s policies with handpicked facts and outright fictions, Hillary Clinton, and other Democrats running in 2016 did not have any media outlets on their side in the same way.

Luckily, for those on the left, that seems to be changing. Democrats are finding their niche in the media, and it is in podcasting. Republicans and the right have dominated talk radio for years, despite efforts to create a liberal talk radio network. Air America, the liberal hope for talk radio, went through a well-publicized bankruptcy in 2007, just three years after it took to the airwaves.[vii] It continued for three more years, before finally closing its doors in 2010.[viii] Other attempts have been made, but it has been difficult for liberals to break through on talk radio in part due to the demographic makeup of the liberal base.

Democrats are wildly less white than Republicans. Overall, 87 percent of Black voters and 63 percent of Hispanic voters identify themselves as Democratic or lean Democratic.[ix] This is significant to the success or failure of liberal talk radio because many of these minority communities have cultural radio stations they are already dedicated too, such as Spanish-language radio stations or “inner-city stations.”[x] While these stations do have talk programs that often lean left, they are more general programs and much less focused on politics than Limbaugh or Hannity.[xi]

The Democratic party is also home to many more women, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, low and middle-income individuals, and young people, than the Republican party is.[xii] Since the election of President Trump, these underrepresented groups have become the face of the resistance, with The New York Times declaring “A Year After Trump, Women and Minorities Give Groundbreaking Wins to Democrats” and recent polling finding that “Women Make Up Majority Of Anti-Trump Calls To Congress & It’s Not Surprising.”[xiii]

Despite that, these leading voices are members of groups that would typically face significant barriers to becoming voices on talk radio, even amongst liberals, where white men often became the face of the party. A notable example is Al Franken, who was paid $360,749 annually for hosting on Air America.[xiv]

Podcasting has not entirely bucked that trend, with leading voices on the left including Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer, and Jon Favreau – former Obama staffers who now host the podcast Pod Save America along with a cohort of other podcasts under the Crooked Media umbrella – and Matt Christman, Felix Biederman, and Will Menaker – hosts of Chapo Trap House, a podcast which dubs itself the “Dirtbag Left.”[xv] These leading podcasts bring in anywhere from $1,056,000 to $5,000,000 plus per year.[xvi]

However, these podcasts are not the only options for leftist listeners, which is why podcasting can express the diversity of the Democratic party in a way that liberal talk radio could not. Starting a podcast is much less resource heavy than beginning a talk radio network. Estimates range, depending on the sound quality and analytics new podcasters want, but they can cost as little as $5 a month to run to approximately $500 in startup costs and $20 per month.[xvii]

The lower barrier to entry of podcasting has allowed the diversity of voices on the left to flourish. As of August 2017, more than 1,000 political podcasts had launched follow Trump’s election, with the majority “appearing to have a liberal or anti-Trump bent.”[xviii] That number has only continued to grow. These podcasts include Girl Friday and Hellbent, podcasts with women hosts who bring their own unique biting political, feminist, analysis and humor to the digital airwaves.[xix] These shows have more women, people of color, young people, and LGBTQIA+ individuals as guests, because they themselves are underrepresented voices in the liberal space and recognize the importance of representation and giving a leg up to those below them.[xx] Hellbent has been so successful, that one of the hosts, Sarah Lerner, turned down a full-time job at a major media company because it would have prohibited her from continuing the podcast.[xxi] Girl Friday’s host, Erin Gloria Ryan, was recently welcomed to Crooked Media’s family of podcasts under a new name, Girls Just Wanna Have Pod, and she regularly is a contributor on Pod Save America.[xxii] Crooked Media is also about to launch a new podcast, Keep It, featuring Ira Madison III, a culture writer at the Daily Beast, and a gay man of color.[xxiii]

The voices of the resistance to Trump are not white men, although they are along for the ride. They are fierce feminist women, Black and Hispanic community organizers, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and millennials, all with years of experience fighting inequality. And because of podcasting’s low barrier to entry, their voices are being heard in a way they never could be on liberal talk radio.

[i] Conor Lynch, “America May Be More Divided Now than at Any Time since the Civil War,” Salon, October 14, 2017, https://www.salon.com/2017/10/14/america-may-be-more-divided-now-than-at-any-time-since-the-civil-war/; Karma Allen, “Trump Launches Fresh Attack on ‘Crooked Media’ at Phoenix Rally,” ABC News, August 23, 2017, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/trump-launches-fresh-attack-crooked-media-phoenix-rally/story?id=49370649.

[ii] Jonathan Lemire, “Trump, in Unprecedented Fashion for a President, Rips Press,” AP News, February 17, 2017, https://www.apnews.com/60a22e93df684f0ebaaaec63e5e68147; Art Swift, “Democrats’ Confidence in Mass Media Rises Sharply From 2016” (Gallup), accessed December 4, 2017, http://news.gallup.com/poll/219824/democrats-confidence-mass-media-rises-sharply-2016.aspx.

[iii] Lemire, “Trump, in Unprecedented Fashion for a President, Rips Press.”

[iv] Robert Faris et al., “Partisanship, Propaganda, and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 US Presidential Election,” Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, August 2017, http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:33759251.

[v] Faris et al.

[vi] Faris et al.

[vii] Nathan Harden, “The Death of Air America: Why Liberals Fail at Talk Radio,” Huffington Post, March 24, 2010, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/nathan-harden/the-death-of-air-america_b_433208.html.

[viii] Abram Brown, “Why All The Talk-Radio Stars Are Conservative,” Forbes, July 13, 2015, https://www.forbes.com/sites/abrambrown/2015/07/13/why-all-the-talk-radio-stars-are-conservative/.

[ix] Pew Research Center, “The Parties on the Eve of the 2016 Election: Two Coalitions, Moving Further Apart,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (blog), September 13, 2016, http://www.people-press.org/2016/09/13/the-parties-on-the-eve-of-the-2016-election-two-coalitions-moving-further-apart/.

[x] Brown, “Why All The Talk-Radio Stars Are Conservative.”

[xi] Brown.

[xii] Pew Research Center, “The Parties on the Eve of the 2016 Election”; Pew Research Center, “A Survey of LGBT Americans,” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project (blog), June 13, 2013, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/06/13/a-survey-of-lgbt-americans/.

[xiii] Kenza Moller, “Women Make Up Majority Of Anti-Trump Calls To Congress & It’s Not Surprising,” Romper (blog), April 2, 2017, https://www.romper.com/p/women-make-up-majority-of-anti-trump-calls-to-congress-its-not-surprising-48519; Michael Tackett, “A Year After Trump, Women and Minorities Give Groundbreaking Wins to Democrats,” The New York Times, November 8, 2017, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/08/us/politics/democrats-women-minorities.html.

[xiv] Harden, “The Death of Air America.”

[xv] Jia Tolentino, “What Will Become of the Dirtbag Left?,” The New Yorker, November 18, 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/what-will-become-of-the-dirtbag-left; Jason Zengerle, “The Voices in Blue America’s Head,” The New York Times, November 22, 2017, sec. Magazine, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/22/magazine/the-voices-in-blue-americas-head.html; Jim Rutenberg, “Opposition and a Shave: Former Obama Aides Counter Trump,” The New York Times, March 20, 2017, sec. Media, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/20/business/media/rutenberg-trump-opposition-pod-save-america.html.

[xvi] “Chapo Trap House Is Creating Chapo Trap House Podcast,” Patreon, accessed December 11, 2017, https://www.patreon.com/chapotraphouse; Zengerle, “The Voices in Blue America’s Head.”

[xvii] Nick Loper, “How Much Does It Cost to Start a Podcast?,” Side Hustle Nation (blog), August 12, 2013, https://www.sidehustlenation.com/how-much-does-it-cost-to-start-a-podcast/; Jessica Moorhouse, “How Much Does It Really Cost to Start a Podcast?,” Jessica Moorhouse (blog), August 10, 2015, https://jessicamoorhouse.com/how-much-does-it-really-cost-start-podcast/; Meryl Williams, “The Cost of Launching a New Podcast,” The Billfold (blog), August 8, 2016, https://www.thebillfold.com/2016/08/the-cost-of-launching-a-new-podcast/.

[xviii] Alex Thompson, “Podcasts Are Becoming the Left’s Right-Wing Talk Radio,” VICE News, August 31, 2017, https://news.vice.com/story/podcasts-are-becoming-the-lefts-right-wing-talk-radio.

[xix] John Bonazzo, “The Feminist Duo Using Podcasts and Parody Accounts to Resist Trump,” Observer, March 20, 2017, http://observer.com/2017/03/resist-trump-hellbent-podcast-parody-account/; “Girl Friday – CAFE,” accessed December 11, 2017, https://www.cafe.com/series/girl-friday/.

[xx] Sara Boboltz and Kimberly Yam, “Why On-Screen Representation Actually Matters,” Huffington Post, February 24, 2017, sec. Entertainment, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-on-screen-representation-matters_us_58aeae96e4b01406012fe49d; Mirel Herrera, “Representation Matters: How the Movie Coco Celebrates Mexican Culture,” The Education Trust (blog), December 4, 2017, https://edtrust.org/the-equity-line/representation-matters-movie-coco-celebrates-mexican-culture/.

[xxi] Bonazzo, “The Feminist Duo Using Podcasts and Parody Accounts to Resist Trump.”

[xxii] “Crooked Media Adds Three New Podcasts,” All Access, accessed December 11, 2017, https://www.allaccess.com/net-news/archive/story/171317/crooked-media-adds-three-new-podcasts; “Crooked Media Announces New Site, Podcast & Store,” Publishing Executive, accessed December 11, 2017, http://www.pubexec.com/article/press-release-crooked-media-announces-new-site-pod-store-network-contributors/.

[xxiii] Ira Madison III and Javier Moreno, “Ranking 33 Classic Hollywood Leading Men,” BuzzFeed, accessed December 11, 2017, https://www.buzzfeed.com/iramadison/cat-on-a-thot-tin-roof; “Crooked Media Adds Three New Podcasts.”