A Few of My Favorite Podcasts (Part Four): American Voices

In the wake of last year’s divisive election, there’s never been such an urgent need for Americans to be listening to each other. America is in the midst of a dynamic and dramatic demographic shift which is been building over the last several decades and extends into the horizon.  America is becoming a more diverse nation, one which will be minority – majority in a few more years. Some segments of the population have embraced these changes but others have been left out of this conversation, are less certain what the future holds for them, and were encouraged by this election cycle to react with fear and uncertainty. In this context, I feel an urgency to help build bridges between different communities. There is a classic story of Mark Twain hearing about the invention of the telegraph and being told that for the first time the people in Massachusetts would be able to speak to the people in California. His response was to ask what the people in Massachusetts had to say to the people in California. Today we might well ask what the people in Mississippi have to say to people in California. I’m very interested in the infrastructure and social capital that still holds the country together in the face of some of the sharpest ideological divides Americans have faced since the Civil War and Reconstruction.

It seems a terrible burden to place all of this on the back of podcasts, but because podcasts are such an intimate medium and support such diverse perspectives, they offer a unique opportunity for us to read each other’s mail. That is to say, podcasts allows us to listen into conversations that would otherwise be closed to us and as a consequence, hear perspectives we would not otherwise access. The podcasts I’m exploring today are ones that I use to bridge various cultural divides, to do my homework on race, gender and sexuality in America today, and otherwise broadened my access to minority perspectives.

Podcasts have been at the center of the movement over the last several decades to rediscover the dying art of storytelling. Alongside various forms of digital storytelling, they supported various communities interested in hearing stories of everyday life. Not since the mass observation movement in Britain during World War II has there been such a concerted effort to capture the details of how people live and make sense of the modern world. There is some tension here between podcast that emphasized the art and craft of storytelling and those which are trying for a more documentary style grittiness.

Those which emphasize highly professionalized and well-crafted stories – such as This American Life, The Moth and Snap Judgmentare often among the best-known examples of podcasting. Each has developed a distinctive voice and format but what they have in common is a fascination with the spoken word. On the other in the spectrum, I would play something like Story Corps, which sets up booths at various locations to collect more naturalistic accounts of everyday people’s experiences. Story Corps is at its best when the stories are organized around larger social themes and categories, such as an extended series they did several years ago about veterans returning from recent wars or their efforts to deal with the experience of transgendered people or any number of other projects which tackle questions of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ethnicity. We learn something about the value Story Corps places on voice and personal narrative by examining their standards mission statement: “StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.”

After the election results, many of us woke up the following morning with the strong sense that we didn’t fully understand America as well as we thought we did. Red America and Blue America were talking past each other, might’ve been doing so for many years. One of the best resources I’ve used to work through some of those feelings is a podcast that originates in West Virginia called Us and Them. This podcast explores the faultlines in American cultural and political life. It’s host Trey Kay models what I would describe as ethical yet critical listening. A progressive, he never the less is seeking out conservative voices with the goal not of knocking them down but of exploring why conservatives think what they do. He certainly doesn’t let anyone off the hook for misinformation or faulty logic. But he remains open to alternative vantage points and tries to provide some historical context for how they emerged. I was drawn to the podcast by his extensive reporting on the debates around the Confederate flag and its continual role in southern civic life. Us and Them has also done outstanding reporting on the textbook struggles in Texas, the so-called “war on Christmas”, addictions to opiates in rural America,gays living in small and rural towns, Islamaphobia and the experiences of recent refugees moving to middle America, and many other topics. I have been raving to anyone who will listen about Us and Them as a model for what other kinds of meaningful interventions might look like that bridge between different American realities. Often when people speak about the need to listen more fully to rural and working-class America – almost always read as white America – there is an anxiety that this will mean the displacement or marginalization once again of minority perspectives. This podcast continually shows shows us the importance of bringing multiple perspectives together as we try to unravel the complex history of the current culture wars. Along a similar vein, I might recommend Home of the Brave which comes from a westerner’s perspective and has been doing a fantastic job covering debates around environmental preservation and especially around native American politics. Thanks to Elyse Eidman-Aadahl from the National Writing Project for calling this one to my attention.  Both have done some compelling episodes interviewing everyday Trump supporters.

For me, as a native Southerner, part of this process has involved in thinking more deeply than I have in a long time about the American South, its culture, its politics, and its history. As I do so, two podcasts have emerged as essential listening. The first Gravy comes from the Southern Foodways Alliance, a group that “documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. Our work sets a welcome table where all may consider our history and our future in a spirit of respect and reconciliation.” In many ways, food is what South gets right: southern cooking bridges between different racial, ethnic and economic groups each of whom call call the South their home. My all-time favorite episode, “Southern Fried Baked Alaska” asks some core questions about what makes southern cooking southern and how “fine dining” has emerged as the South negotiates a more cosmopolitan identity. Gravy often examines the historic emergence of so-called “white trash” cooking, examining the history of particular dishes or ingredients, specifying the distinctions between different states and regions, or dealing with the history of institutions such as Coca-Cola. But Gravy offers us a vision of a multiracial South, exploring not only what black Southerners brought to the table from Africa or their experiences of slavery, but also factoring in the various foods brought to the South by immigrants from Asia and Latin America.

The second is the Smithsonian’s Folkways Sound Sessions, one of a number of podcasts that have emerged from the Smithsonian Institute in recent years. I know of no other cultural institution which has made such a deep commitment to the podcast. There are probably a dozen or more podcast representing the different museums and collections at the Smithsonian. I’ve sampled a number of them and they seem consistently strong and interesting – ranging from short videos for children about the animals found at the nation’s zoo to short docent talks about specific works found in the National Portrait Gallery. The Folkways Sound Sessions draw from a rich archive of folk music collected going back to the 1930s. I grew up listening to some of the Folkways recordings on vinyl records which I checked out of the Atlanta Public Library so some of the materials presented here are very old friends indeed. Each episode’s focuses on a specific artist, their work, and their contributions. I take great pleasure listening to their in-depth explorations of Woody Guthrie, Bill Monroe, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Leadbelly. But I’ve also discovered new artist such as Ella Jenkins, Doc Watson, and Jean Ritchie who would not been on my playlists otherwise. Only rarely does the podcast extend beyond American regional traditions and tap into the extensive holdings the Smithsonian has in world music. Here, we get podcast dedicated to Oud music or the music of the Silk Road. Just as Gravy allows us a deeper appreciation of what food says about the region, here we learn about the ways that music has expressed the struggles of the working class South.

While on the subject of the Smithsonian, I wanted to do a shout out to the podcast they created around the opening of the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture, Historically Black. As part of the process of building up that museums collection, the Smithsonian reached out to everyday people in hopes that they might share family treasures that shed light on his the social history of black America. Beyond putting these objects on display, the museum also collected the stories behind them and share some of them through this podcast series. For me one of the most moving ones centered around a bill of sale as a former slave purchased his wife and children. Another must listen episode recounts the story of NASA’s human computers and provides valuable background for the current film, Hidden Figures. The others range geographically and chronologically including accounts of fiddle music in Missouri, a photographer capturing the Harlem Renaissance, and the Million Man March in Washington DC. My only regret is that the series was a special event rather than ongoing outreach. I loved every episode here but I’m sad that there were so few.