Too Much Opinion. Not Enough Reporting. How Do We Fix It?

This is written in response to a Medium post by Lewis Wallace, a talented, brave and passionate young journalist who worked for the public radio show, Marketplace.  He was fired this week for refusing to take down his post.  The headline was: “Objectivity is Dead, and I’m okay with it.”

I disagree. A reporter’s job is to report, not to tell listeners what to think. It is a humble calling. Reporting is a craft, not an art.

One reason why Trump became President is the narcissism of our time. We all think we’re entitled to yell at each other. That everyone’s opinion is equally valid. It has become acceptable to take a verbal fire hose to those we disagree with.

There’s a place for resistance and protest. But bombast, ridicule and contempt are drowning out respectful disagreement, even good natured argument.

From TV, online media, newspapers, commercial radio and podcasting, there is much more opinion today. Not enough reporting.

One reason why so many people distrust us journalists is our lack of diversity. Not enough diversity of opinion. Diversity of class. Geographic diversity. We must do a better job of listening to those who make us uncomfortable. That includes listening to those who felt that Trump was preferable to Clinton.

The most important pursuit is the quest for truth. But truth can be elusive. This makes our jobs difficult, but profoundly important.

Journalism should strive to be more like science, where good researchers employ skepticism as they try to disprove their theories.

Objectivity may be in the emergency room. But it is not dead. Your view and my view of objectivity will be different. But we should still be searching for it just around the corner.

With respect,

Richard.

How Do We Fix It? No. Never Make a Podcast Unless…

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I’ve been into audio ever since I was a little kid who slapped 45 rpm green, red, yellow and orange Disney discs onto the record player my parents gave me when I was six years old.

The stories, voices and jingles really were music to my ears.

Not long after college, to no-one’s great surprise, I landed my first job in radio. I spent well over thirty years at stations and networks doing the thing I loved.

Last year, with my pal Jim Meigs and producer Miranda Shafer, I started “How Do We Fix It?”– a weekly podcast.  We’re having a fun ride and I feel privileged to meet a lot of great people along the way.  Our 86th weekly show is currently in production.

At its best, podcasting is remarkably intimate and honest – without noisy distractions.  Just you and another human voice in your ear.

Unlike broadcast radio or TV, listeners are the programmers, deciding exactly when and what they want to spend their time with. They give us podcasters their pure, undivided attention. In every way they are our equal – never to be manipulated, pandered to nor shouted at.

Sounds like the perfect environment for a content producer.

But let’s face it: many podcasts are crap – weeds in the ever growing audio jungle.

And not just the two-guys-in-a-garage kind of spontaneous podcasts. Even well-made, sophisticated shows are often way too long, self-indulgent and without a clear purpose.

Your audience is busy and has vast array of audio offerings to pick from.  Many of us listen on the go – in the car or at the gym.  The average American commute time is about 25 minutes.  Most podcasts last at least half an hour. Mistake.

The first don’t of podcasting is never waste their time. Make a show with purpose that doesn’t last quite as long as you – the podcaster – want it to.  Don’t be afraid to slice out a few minutes.

Leave your listeners wanting more after each episode. Also answer this question: “Who is your audience?”

The second don’t:  Forget about making podcasts unless your brand, company or cause already has followers or subscribers.  This medium is a great way to forge deep, authentic connections with your people, but on its own – without a website, blogs and other forms of content –  you won’t make a splash. The only exception is if you’re already famous.  Anderson Cooper, Alec Baldwin, Snoop Dogg or Shaq can operate by their own rules.

Podcasting is special – different from radio and certainly not merely the audio track of a You Tube video.  Respect your audience.

Third don’t: making a podcast “live” or on the fly is rarely a good idea. Edit it and listen with a critical ear.

The fourth don’t is about lack of commitment. While podcast equipment is cheap and the launch costs are small, the process can be surprisingly time consuming. Unless you are prepared to go long and deep with your podcast project, don’t start.

A weekly show may not be necessary. You could release a new series every few months. But whatever the plan of action, successful podcasts require follow through.

Google “how to make a successful podcast” and you’ll get lots of enthusiastic ideas about equipment, theme music, social media and the need for passion. Much of the advice is helpful. But be wary of those who only explain the do’s and not the don’ts of podcasting.

Richard Davies is a podcast consultant and program maker. Find out more at daviescontent.com.

 

 

 

How Do We Fix It? After We Smashed the China

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Viewing art helps me take a fresh look at the world.

Painters do it all the time.  They deconstruct the objects, landscapes and people they see – putting them back together again on canvas. Reimagining the world. What a brave and profound thing to do.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we would do the same thing with the way we think about politics and culture? Question our identity or tribe. Take a fresh look at the views of those we hang out with.

After the dramatic results of the Trump election, Brexit in the U.K. and now this week the vote in Italy, it’s time for the chattering class to go back to the drawing board – especially those of us who were surprised or deeply troubled by the electoral eruptions of 2016.

Voters smashed the china. We have to find new ways to put it back together again.

That’s the starting point for “How Do We Fix It?” – our podcast about ideas and solutions. Jim Meigs and I are political independents, who listen to many different opinions – especially guests who are able to come up with creative, undogmatic fixes for the problems they’ve considered.

We have a lot of fun doing our show. Playing in the sandbox of ideas.

This playful abstract painting (above) illustrates the point. It was completed in the 1920’s after artist Stuart Davis spent a whole year focusing on three objects on a table – an electric fan, an egg beater and a rubber glove.

He observed them solely on the basis of color, plain and their spacial relationships (at least that’s what I’m told by curators who studied his work!)

These objects became flat plains of color. He mixed things up, creating a fantasy space. This painting – now part of an extraordinary retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington – is the result.

“I see the artist as a cool spectator,” said Davis in 1957. A “reporter in an area of hot events.”

Isn’t it time for us adults to create our own fantasy space? See the world from different points of view? Right now, at the end of this crazy year is a great time to try.

 

How Do We Fix It? What I’ve Learned Since Donald Trump Won.

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I’m one of those damn fool East Coast journalists who was stunned by the results of last week’s election.  I didn’t see it coming.  I thought that we’d elect our first woman President.

So why should you bother to read this? Because I’m listening and learning from others who may be a bit smarter than me.

That includes our podcast co-host, Jim Meigs.

“We have an entire institution of media and opinion who misunderstood the country,” he told me the morning after the election on “How Do We Fix It?” “The sense of anxiety that was out there was not taken seriously.”

“This was the Caddyshack election,” said Jim. “In our popular culture, the idea of rich, sophisticated Ivy League-educated people often is met with a certain amount of resistance and cynicism by people who consider themselves salt of the earth.”

In “Caddyshack” (released in 1980) a brash, vulgar, nouveau riche land developer (played by Rodney Dangerfield) offends all the well-healed, preppy guys at a ritzy country club.  “That’s who Trump is,” says Jim. “People got a kick out of him tipping over the apple cart and causing trouble. They’re responding to a trait in our culture where we tend to distrust the polished elite.”

No, that doesn’t mean most Trump voters are racist or anything else -ist. In fact, Trump got more votes from people of color than Mitt Romney did.  There was no great surge of white voters for Trump.

In the words of George Packer of the New Yorker (his book “The Unwinding” is a must-read if you want to understand what the hell happened), this was a middle-finger election.  A lot of voters – especially late deciders – saw Hillary as elitist and more of the same. Pissed off, they decided to give the other guy a try.

One week before the election in “Bring the Right Wing Into the Mainstream Media,” Megan McArdle of Bloomberg View made the case of more diversity in newspapers, magazines and on the networks.

“The media is overwhelmingly liberal,” she wrote.  “It tends to mirror the left-to-center-left spectrum of the social class from which most journalists are drawn. That affects coverage, which right-wing readers pick up on.”

Most of the bias is subconscious, not deliberate, McArdle argues.  Those inside the castle gates of the Mainstream Media look down on those in flyover country with mixture of disdain and horror.

“Whoever is to blame for the problem, yelling at the residents of the swamp to behave themselves is probably not going to fix it,” wrote McArdle.  “What would fix the problem is if the folks in the castle made a concerted effort to open the doors and persuade some of the swamp-dwellers to move inside. Not just to move inside, but to help run the place, pushing back on liberal pieties and dubious claims with the same fervor that liberals push back on conservative ones.”

None of this is meant to excuse Donald Trump for what he said during the campaign nor suggest that we should “sit and down and shut up” for the next four years.  But right now – at least for the next few weeks – a little humility is in order. First understand. Then act.

And never assume we know what’s coming next.  As Janan Ganesh wrote this week in The Financial Times:  “The only intelligible lesson of 2016 is that William Goldman’s verdict on Hollywood – “Nobody knows anything”, said the screenwriter – applies to matters of state.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 5 Things I Learned About Leaving a Job In Corporate America For a Brand New Startup.

    

It’s been just over a year since I left steady employment in corporate America, jumped off a cliff and launched a podcasting start-up. My work is now more exciting and purposeful, but at times I’ve been scared and uncertain about what to do next. 

There’ve been some painful mistakes that I don’t want others to make. So here are five things that I learned about making the switch: 

1.  Prepare, prepare, prepare. Do as much as you can before quitting your corporate job to get ready for the future. Talk to an accountant or financial advisor. Form an LLC. Speak to friends who run their own businesses.  Rehearse your new role and give yourself time to let the initial excitement wear off.  Your current job might be boring, but since becoming my own boss I have a greater appreciation for that old regular, steady paycheck. 

2. Once you’ve truly decided to make the move, tell all your close friends and family.  From time-to-time, they’ll ask  about your plans, making it harder for you to procrastinate or put your ambitions on hold.  As one friend told me: “Stop talking about your dreams. Pull the trigger.”

3. When you leave your job – especially if you’ve held it for a long time – be prepared for a psychological shock. Your  daily routines are in for a big change and so is your sense of identity.  The startup you’ve given birth to is this organic thing.  It will change you. Instead of being an employee you’re now an entrepreneur.  In my case it was longtime network correspondent becoming podcast startup guy. 

4. Don’t be a loner.  Have a “no bullshit” committee.  It could be your spouse or good friends. They will sound the alarm when you’re selling yourself short or getting in a rut. I know a guy who always gets his wife to negotiate prices on consulting gigs.  She understands his true worth.  He’s likely to underestimate his value and experience.

5. Remember that you gave up your day job to follow your passion.  Put yourself out there every day, calling and emailing new contacts.  Be good to people, especially to those you work with. Build a community around you. Stay true to your goals. But also know that you will make mistakes and be open to change. Unlike that big employer you’ve just left, you can turn on a dime once you’ve discovered the next big thing for your startup. 

Richard Davies is Director of DaviesContent, a New York based firm that makes podcasts for companies and non-profits. For 29 years he worked as a news correspondent at ABC News. Reach him at daviescontent@gmail.com.

How Do We Fix It? When Did It Become Cool To Be So Angry?

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Why are so many of us so damn angry?

Signs of fury are everywhere.  The national mood has darkened and it’s doing nothing to improve our democracy.

From chaotic scenes last weekend in Las Vegas when Bernie Sanders’ supporters threw a hissy fit at the Nevada’s Democratic Convention, to Donald Trump’s string of outrageous insults, it seems perfectly acceptable to claim that those who we disagree with are evil.

Yet these eruptions come at a time of modest improvement in many aspects of American life.  President Obama has been a disappointment, even to many supporters,  but his approval rating  – 51% says Gallup – is pretty decent for a President close to the end of his second term.

The jobs and housing markets are far from great, but they’re in much better shape today than when Obama first took office after the worst financial crisis in nearly 80 years.

The Affordable Care Act, while flawed, has not been the utter disaster claimed by many critics. Many more people are signing up and the U.S. uninsured rate is at a record low.

The “flood” of Mexicans surging across our southern border is a myth.  Since 2009, more Mexicans left the U.S. than entered the country.

Terrorism is always a threat, but the worst attack on U.S. soil happened nearly 15 years ago.

And he many of us are gripped by a deep sense of malaise and insecurity.  More than 7 in 10 Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country.  Cultural divisions, income inequality and a decline in living standards for non-college educated Americans threaten to pull is further apart.

All are reasons why Trump and Sanders have attracted huge crowds and surprising levels of support. But their policy prescriptions are simplistic.  We have very little idea of what they would do, if elected.

Who would pay for Sanders’s sweeping pledges of free health care and college education? How would Trump deal with China, The Middle East, immigration, job creation or the details of tax policy?

After his recent meeting with Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “Going forward, we’re going to go a little deeper in the policy weeds.” Too bad that hasn’t happened already.

Perhaps, Yuval Levin is right.  In his new book, “The Fractured Republic,” he argues that our politics have been paralyzed by nostalgia for the 1950’s and 60’s.  Liberals hanker for a time of greater income equality, before “the rise of the rest” meant that our workers had to compete in the resurgent global marketplace.  The right is nostalgic for cultural cohesion and  “traditional values”.

But those days of post-World War 2 U.S. dominance will not return. Our politics must address the technological and global challenges of today, instead of wallowing in the past.  We need to move beyond the primal screams of anger and work together, across party lines for a better future.

How Do We Fix It? What Your Voice Says About You.

   
Most people don’t like the sound of their own voice. Play back a recording and they cringe.

But the good news for wannabe podcasters and public speakers is that vocal mechanics don’t matter nearly as much they one did. 

We live in a visual age and a much greater range of voices and accents is perfectly acceptable. Think of well-known public radio hosts or TV news anchors who have less-than-perfect and, sometimes, even irritating voices.  

You don’t need to have the rich, smooth tones that Peter Dinklage brings to his role as Tyrian Lannister on “Game of Thrones,” or the professional panache of Dame Maggie Smith in “Downton Abbey”.

Actors do need vocal lessons, especially for theater performances. But long gone are the days when male radio announcers sounded like the Voice Of God, reading from stone tablets on the mountaintop.

As a very young reporter in 1980, I was told by a broadcast news executive that I “didn’t have the pipes” for a job in network radio. I was crushed. I still have his dismissive comment that was scratched in pencil at the bottom of my application letter.

My lucky break came a couple of years later, when women broadcasters crashed the party and changed radio forever. Their hard-won victories also allowed tenors like me to slip through the door. No more need for guy vocal fry. Once I finally realized what was going on, I didn’t have to pretend that I had a bass voice that was far deeper than the one I was born with.  

The same is true today for women. Authenticity is far more important than authority. You don’t need to “fry” or crackle your voice to get people to take you seriously. 

In the 80’s, the first generation of women network news anchors were trend setters, bringing a much more relaxed, conversational style to the airwaves. 

Once again, with the exciting growth of podcasting, vocal patterns are changing. There is now a premium on bringing your true self to the microphone. If you have something of value to say, people will listen, especially if it’s a compelling story. Content matters far more than if you speak with a foreign accent or have a high or low voice. 

Most of us podcast fans have them, quite literally, in our ears. We listen alone with ear buds. It’s just you and the podcaster. No other medium is as intimate as this one. 

I’m not suggesting that technique and tone don’t matter. At the first podability.com podcast boot camp during April in New York, I shared some of what I know about vocal performance. A few bullet points:

  • Smile before you speak. Be grateful that you have something to say. Listeners can hear your enthusiasm.
  • You set the tone for your podcast. A positive attitude puts your guests at ease. When interviewing, bring positive energy to your questions. Guests often take verbal cues from you.
  • Getting a good night’s sleep and eating healthy improve the quality of your voice. Look after yourself. 
  • Many people gargle or drink a hot beverage before going into the studio. Techniques vary. Do an online search for “vocal exercises” and pick ones that work for you.
  • Get your blood flowing. Bend and stretch before you switch on the microphone.
  • If you stammer or have a pronounced lisp, you should get coaching. A vocal tick that gets in the way of clear communication is something that needs to be addressed.

What matters most is that you bring your own inner voice and experience to the table. As an Anglo-American, my accent and rhythm of speech often varies according to whom I speaking to. Years ago, I tried to rub this out and copy others. Now I believe that I was wrong.

All of us have our own unique soul. When podcasting, broadcasting or speaking in public, the bravest and best thing we can do is to bring our true self to the microphone.

For 29 years, Richard Davies worked as a news and business correspondent for ABC News. In 2015, he formed DaviesContent, a digital audio production and consulting firm. His podcast is the solutions show, “How Do We Fix It?

Photo: Richard and whiteboard at Podability.com

 

 

How Do We Fix It? Napoleon’s Buttons And Our Crazy Problem With Science

Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous invasion of Russia during the brutally cold winter of 1812 might have gone a lot better if only he’d known about the chemical properties of tin.

“The buttons that were on his jacket were made out of tin,” says materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez. “When it gets really cold, tin undergoes a chemical transformation, changing from one state to another.”
“It becomes dust.”
Because of crumbling buttons, “their coats were open and their pants were falling down. Their buttons were disintegrating” as they tried to fight the Russians. Things went horribly wrong for the invading French army.
The Napoleon example is what Ramirez calls, a “big-ass hook.”  She uses it when teaching, writing or doing her Science Underground podcasts to make her subject that much more interesting – “so that I grab your attention.”
Ainissa is on a mission: to make science fun for kids and adults.  She’s the author of “Save Our Science” and “Newton’s Football,” a lively book about the science of America’s favorite sport.
Just like Napoleon, the failure to understand the basics of science puts us in peril.  “STEM” jobs – requiring skills in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math – are among the best-paid and hottest growth sectors for employment.  But most students graduate college or high school without any knowledge of STEM, which closes off a broad range of career opportunities.
“We all start off as scientists,” Ainissa told us on on our “How Do We Fix It?” podcast. “If you look at a 4-year-old’s hands, they’re completely dirty, because they’re engaging with the world.  But then something happens. School happens and we forget that we are curious beings.  We feel we need to worry about what we get on a test and don’t think about understanding.”
“As a science evangelist I’m trying to get us back with our wonder.”
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Sadly, most of us  lost our initial curiosity about science, including me.  And Ainissa is right. We need to get it back.  As citizens, widespread ignorance of science means we are more likely to fall for absurd vaccine conspiracy theories or for politicians who deny the reality of climate change.
Ainissa says schools and major corporations could help put the sizzle back into science.
Too often schools teach to the test. “That has nothing to do with understanding, learning and wonder.” Science should be woven into projects and stories that children learn in other subjects.
Many kids go to McDonald’s after school to use their WiFi and do homework. “There’s a huge opportunity for there to be science on McDonald’s WiFi system to students,” says Ainissa.
“Walmart has many millions of people coming through their doors every day. If you could get 10% to look at a small screen that shows a science PSA (Public Service Announcement), you significantly move the needle,” One place to do this would be in the electronics aisle, where dozens of new TV sets are turned on.
Ainissa also sees opportunities for citizen action. Flint’s water crisis only became widely known after parents worked with scientists from Virginia Tech to confirm there were unsafe levels of lead . “They couldn’t get the information directly, but by using science kits available at a hardware store they were able to test what was in it.”
“They also tested the water in different regions, so they had good data.”  Parents empowered by science were able “to pushback and show that the water in Flint was unacceptable.”

Hey Congress: The Playground Was Never This Bad!

  

The way Obamacare is being debated is infantile.  

Instead of a detailed prescription for change, we’re hearing slogans.

Despite claims to the contrary by Republicans and Democrats, The Affordable Care Act is neither an unmitigated disaster nor a glorious triumph.

The truth lies between the two extremes, which is so often the case. The delivery of healthcare is complex and the law was only passed after Democrats responded to widespread demands for fundamental reform of the previous system.

“We have decreased the rate of the uninsured by about a third,” says Megan McArdle, an Obamacare critic and columnist at Bloomberg View.  That’s an impressive achievement. More than 12 million people who did not have coverage before the reforms are covered now.

Nevertheless, McCardle told our podcast, “How Do We Fix It?“, Obamacare is “much more expensive and much less comprehensive than its architects and certainly the people who supported this politically…. were expecting.”

UnitedHealth, the nation’s largest health insurance firm, is losing money on the government-run exchange and has warned it may have to pull out if market conditions don’t improve.

“What people are doing is they’re gaming the system.” Some with health emergencies, who have inadequate medical insurance are “signing up for a few months, using a ton of services and then dropping it again,” says McArdle.

While Obamacare has lowered rates for many people with pre-existing conditions and helped millions of young prople under 26 stay on their parents’ plans, costs are rising and too little thought has been given to the efficient delivery of needed treatment. 

Demand for healthcare often exceeds supply. Many Americans have unrealistic expectations about the cost of coverage. Rationing, whether by insurance companies or government employees, is inevitable.

American consumers should be more involved in cost decisions. But the inconvenient truth is that whoever wins in November, there is little appetite in either political party to start all over again. 

It would help if the messy complexities of healthcare were more openly discussed.  We need serious fixes a lot more than catcalls from the political playground.

 ISIS, Lord Voldemort And “He Who Must Not Be Named”.

  

The Dark Lord was one mean dude.  The witches and wizards in the Harry Potter books and movies were so paralyzed by fear that they didn’t speak his name.

Voldemort was referred to instead as “You Know Who” or “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”.

Now, says British anti-terrorism campaigner Maajid Nawaz, President Obama and other well-intentioned liberals are paralyzed by political correctness.  They refuse to speak of ISIS and other Islamist groups by their proper names.

“We’re unable to say ‘Islamist extremism’ as distinct from Islam the religion,” he told us on “How Do We Fix It?

“Add ‘ism’ on the end and it’s already clear that we’re not talking about Islam the faith. We’re talking about the politicalization of the faith.” 

If we don’t use the right name for those who wish to impose their beliefs on others, Maajid says, “what we’re doing is disempowering those Muslims who are attempting to re-claim their faith from Islamists.”

  

Nawaz is a Sunni Muslim and knows of what he speaks.  In his late teens and twenties, he was a leading member of Hizb ut-Tahri, a British-based Islamist group.  His rejection of religious dogma came during four years in Egyptian jails, while serving time for political activities.

 After returning to the UK in 2006, he co-founded Quilliam, a leading think tank devoted to upholding democratic values and combating extremism. 

Language and messaging are a crucial part of his fight.  The goal is to isolate insurgents from other Muslims, Maajid told us.  “It doesn’t help that to deny it.” 

“We know of no other insurgency that can survive without a level of support within the target communities they seek to recruit from.”

Jihadism has become a brand, which no longer depends on organizations to inspire young Muslims. “A bit like back in the 60’s people would wear Che Guevara on their tee-shirts, now it’s about raising the black ISIS flag.”

Unless President Obama and other leaders clearly speak out against Islamists, they are denying themselves a powerful weapon.  By refusing to mention them by name, Maajid says, “the only thing we have to fall back on is the very thing liberals have been critical of – more assassinations and more war and more killing and more invasions.”

Maajid Nawaz wrote the book Radical: My Journey Out of Islamic Extremism.  With Sam Harris, he co-authored Islam and the Future of Tolerance.

Photos: Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1. (top) Maajid Nawaz (above)