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The Revolution Will Be Podcasted

The Revolution Will Be Podcasted

Spoken-word media has changed mainstream political discourse–and how we discuss democracy.

Justin Kempf

Not long ago, concepts like populism and democratic backsliding became fashionable among intellectuals outside political science departments. Mainstream political discourse began to borrow ideas directly from some of the latest academic scholarship—and in a big way. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two widely respected political scientists, wrote a book called How Democracies Die that became a New York Times bestseller. Such ideas continue to reverberate in the popular consciousness as politicians have made the defense of democracy a rallying cry in their election campaigns. 

Part of the reason why so many academic theories and complex ideas entered the public discourse was a revolution in how we access ideas. Over the past decade, the way people consume information has changed: Social media has changed the way we organize and express ourselves. Herein lies the paradox–while social media does a poor job communicating complexity and nuance, many in the public policy realm have come to appreciate the complexity and nuance of a greater range of ideas than ever before. 

It is the audio revolution that has made big ideas more accessible to the thinking public. The audio revolution is not limited to a single type of media. It includes audiobooks, podcasts, and even audio versions of print journalism. Today, more spoken-word content is available than ever before. Of course, spoken-word media is not new: Audiobooks have been around for decades on tapes and compact discs. However, the smartphone made these more accessible (and transportable). The growing demand for content has mushroomed into an ever-increasing supply of titles. Indeed, many academic presses, including Princeton and Yale, now publish audio versions of their most popular titles. This has dramatically increased the accessibility of academic research to the reading public. 

Spoken-word media has made the dissemination of new ideas and concepts more efficient. Intellectuals now have access to books and interviews throughout the day, without having to hunt down professors or visit the library. People listen to podcasts and audiobooks while they drive, exercise, do chores, and care for children. Smart speakers in kitchens and living rooms reduce barriers even further, making spoken-word content available with nothing more than the utterance of "Alexa." This flexibility not only broadens the range of environments where one can engage in public policy learning; it expands the range of audiences who can engage in the material. The widespread interest in mental health is just one example where the public has learned a substantial amount in a short period of time. Still, it’s not so much that everyone agrees, but rather, there is simply a greater awareness of different ideas and concepts.

If we're in the midst of an audio revolution, it is the podcasters who led the charge. The medium of podcasting provides access to a wide range of ideas through episodes that people can consume in a single listen or at their leisure. Interviews, one of those most common types of podcast programming, offers listeners direct access to a wide range of experts from different backgrounds. Unlike radio broadcasting, where listeners might join in mid-program or just for a few minutes, the medium of podcasting is developed on the premise that listeners are engaged and committed to the entire episode. In well-produced podcasts, this allows each episode to build ideas upon one another, enabling greater complexity and nuance. 

Even in our current era of shortened attention spans, people are seeking out deeper and more meaningful conversations about democracy in increasing numbers. As the host of the Democracy Paradox podcast, I have seen this firsthand. Listeners do not simply learn about ideas on a surface level, but learn to think through those ideas as the host pushes the guest to explain the implications and consequences of their ideas. It’s thrilling when Moisés Naím shares for the very first time a personal and intimate narrative of his own evolution in his thoughts on power. At other times, guests will take bolder stances on a podcast that they do in print like when Hélène Landemore admitted she believed we could replace elections entirely with sortition.  The spontaneity and casualness of one-on-one conversation allows guests to share ideas they might hold back on putting in print. 

 At the same time, podcasts can overlook details and disseminate misinformation. Joe Rogan, for instance, has often privileged spontaneity over accuracy in his show. Some of his guests have challenged proven fact with pseudo-science and misinformation. However, even well-respected experts can get some details wrong, especially after discussing a topic over a long period of time. The podcast format does well with big picture ideas, but can fall short when it comes to specifics or details. Conversations err towards casual repartee over academically-minded accuracy. This is not a bug, but a feature. Authenticity often comes at the expense of credibility. The best podcasts expose what guests really think and sometimes what they even feel. This is a different sort of truth that listeners want to understand. 

As academic theories and ideas have become more widely discussed in podcasts, the broadened audiences who engage with spoken-word media have have also become increasingly aware of the faultlines in the practice of democracy. On the Democracy Paradox podcast, authors including Anne Applebaum and Moisés Naím have conveyed the threats to democracy from autocratic governments. Daniel Ziblatt and Heather Cox Richardson have warned about the threats to American democracy. Meanwhile, others have discussed how such threats manifest as polarization, inequality, and illiberalism. 

The conversation has slowly begun to shift toward a more optimistic tone. Last year, Democracy Paradox featured a series of episodes on democracy in hard places. It looked at how democracies overcame hurdles in places where it was not expected to survive. Jason Brownlee has forcefully argued that we underestimate democratic resilience. Next year, Kurt Weyland will build on those ideas in his forthcoming book Democracy's Resilience to Populism's Threat. Perhaps the most refreshing insight of all comes from Laura Gamboa, who has outlined how citizens can resist backsliding in their own democracies. 

The question remains whether the audio revolution will encourage active participation in civic society, or just offer higher levels of intellectual engagement. Warnings about the end of democracy certainly demand our attention. But it’s not clear whether more sober-minded conversations about democratic resilience will garner the same consideration. Still, the audience for podcasts and audiobooks is generally more educated, reflective, and self-aware. It’s possible that this is a recipe for meaningful deliberation about democracy. 

Let’s hope the audio revolution continues to fulfill its early promise.

Justin Kempf is the host and producer of the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana. 

Image: A hand holds EarPods. (Unsplash: Daniel Fontenele)

CultureDemocracyPolitical PhilosophyTechnologyUnited StatesU.S. Foreign Policy