In 2008, U.S. news wrote that Obama’s groundbreaking election “enjoyed a groundswell of support among, for lack of a better term, the Facebook generation.”
By 2012, the novelty of a politician using social media had worn off, but the tweet Obama’s campaign sent after he won the election still quickly became the most retweeted tweet in history moments after it was sent.
I think what really appealed to the electorate about Obama’s use of social media is it felt personal, even if it wasn’t really him behind the buttons. The town hall meeting had gone digital.
For the first time, it felt like you were getting an authentic slice of the candidate, unfiltered by the media or other artificial gatekeepers. It was a total shift in our access to candidates and their thoughts, feelings and beliefs.
Today, it feels a bit like Twitter and Facebook have lost that communal feel. They’re bigger and it seems their focus has shifted more toward broadcasting rather than conversations.
So is the moment lost? Will we just keep reading soundbites on Twitter and Facebook will be another place to host variations of a press release?
Maybe. Or maybe podcasting will step up as a place where we can listen in on even more honest conversations with candidates.
Hillary Does Another Round with BuzzFeed
We have very limited evidence to suggest that this will happen for the 2016 elections, but we have two compelling case studies.
The first is when Barack Obama sat down in Marc Maron’s garage to discuss his presidency. I won’t talk about that groundbreaking event here, you can find tons of coverage of that elsewhere on the Internet.
As a quick side note, BuzzFeed’s new podcast strategy is brilliant. They don’t treat podcasts as stand-alone and separate media; rather it’s integrated into the rest of their website content alongside the rest of their writing, video and GIFs. This single Clinton interview, for example, produced not one, not two, not three, but four related articles.
The other smart strategy by BuzzFeed is to target demographics who don’t usually listen to podcasts, which have largely been the domain of white males in their 30s and 40s. (You can hear former BuzzFeed Director of Audio Jenna Weiss-Berman, now co-founder of podcast company Pineapple Media, discuss that with Nieman Reports here.) The newest BuzzFeed podcast is hosted by Lena Dunham of “Girls” fame, and Another Round is hosted by two young black women.
In Another Round, hosts Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton cover both serious and not-so-series topics. They discuss race and gender but also squirrels and mangoes.
The episode with Clinton was true to form — serious and at times silly. It started off with personal questions that revealed Clinton at her most unguarded and vulnerable. She talked about the daily grind of politics, the moments that made her crack and how as a woman she can be caught in damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situations for how people expect her to act.
But then the hosts shifted and started asking tough policy-based questions, including directly asking Clinton if she felt complicit in 1990s laws that disproportionately put away African-American men for low-level drug offenses.
Clinton, for her part, didn’t pander or talk down to the hosts, but challenged them with her own views when she had viewpoints or historical context to impart. I came away from listening to the interview feeling like I got to “know” different sides of Clinton I’d never seen before, despite her being a mainstay in national politics for decades. She seemed more real as a person, and more concrete as a policy-maker.
Podcasts Sound Authentic
If this comes off as a pro-Clinton puff piece, that’s not my intent. If many politicians on both sides of the aisle sat down for a similar interview, they also would have ended up sounding human and intelligent as well. I’ve heard many examples of conservative and liberal commentators show a less guarded, more human side of themselves on political podcasts like Keepin’ It 1600, The Axe Files, The Ezra Klein Show, and Powerline’s podcast, including many guests that respectfully disagree with the host on several key topics.
I think the key is the podcast format. At least at this point in history, a podcast feels more natural and authentic than a sit-down media interview or even elsewhere on social media. It feels more like the early days of Twitter and Facebook. That’s refreshing.
Right now, we are in the midst of the controversy and drama of campaign convention season. But after the hangover of the headlines from that experience, we all might seek out something quieter and conversational. That could be hard to believe, I know, but there are signs that podcasts are already impacting this election cycle. Keep an eye on Marketplace’s Inside Out “pop-up” podcast and 538’s “emergency podcasts” of thoughtful convention coverage, which could become a model for fostering dialogue about breaking news beyond screaming headlines and push notifications.
If 2008 and 2012 were the Facebook and Twitter elections, 2016 could be the podcast election.
[This was originally written on Medium as part of a series of exploring 100 podcasts and writing what I learn.]
Tim Cigelske (@TeecycleTim) is the Associate Editor of MetricShift. He has reported and written for the Associated Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Budget Travel, Adventure Cyclist and more. Today, he is the Director of Social Media at Marquette University as well as an adjunct professor teaching media writing and social media analytics. You may also know him as The Beer Runner blogger for DRAFT Magazine.