The Michelle Obama Example: Why Book Publishers Should Make Podcasts With Their Best-Selling Authors

I’m listening to Michelle Obama read her audio book to me. I’m on my own with my headphones and so is she.

I picture the former First Lady sitting upright and calm, with good posture, in a small sound-proofed recording booth with a cool glass of water by her side, alone with her thoughts and carefully chosen words, as she tells a 19-hour-long story that lifts a curtain on her utterly remarkable life.

What a quiet contrast to that night in 2016 when she rocked the hall and wowed the crowd as she gave her electrifying speech to the Democratic National Convention.

During a 16-minute address, Michelle Obama’s short, clear sentences and confident but never cocky manner impressed the nation. She won a jump-off-your-seat standing ovation from the crowd.

It’s no surprise that in a Gallup Poll, released last week, she was named the woman Americans admire most.

Her critically acclaimed memoir, released in mid-November is a smash hit, selling more than two million copies in the first 15 days after its release. “Becoming” is the #1 selling book of 2018.

Sentence-by-sentence the story reveals much about her upbringing in “a family of strivers” in a working class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Shore. For middle-class white readers like myself, the book is a revealing, fascinating and also humbling glimpse at her family background.

“One of the great gifts of Obama’s book is her loving and frank bearing-witness to the lived experiences of the black working class, the invisible people who don’t make the evening news and whom not enough of us choose to see,”  wrote journalist and author, Isabel Wilkerson in her powerful review of “Becoming.”

“She recreates the dailiness of African-American life — the grass-mowing, bid-whist-playing, double-Dutch-jumping, choir-practicing, waiting-on-the-bus and clock-punching of the ordinary black people who surrounded her growing up.”

The audio version of the book has the added bonus of Ms. Obama’s voice. Unlike many book authors, who vocal professionals to do true justice to their words, Ms. Obama reads well, with relaxed polish and warmth. We can hear the passion, precision and humor in her voice.

But I wish that “Becoming” was also a podcast, because the curtain would have been lifted a lot higher on a life that many of us want to know a lot more about.

If pushed to choose between a finely-crafted, well-edited audio book and the spontaneity of an extended series of podcast interviews, I’d pick the latter.

They would have been even more revealing, more intimate, and perhaps more honest than the book. When a good interviewer asks questions there are unplanned for moments.

“Podcasting is the slow food movement of the media world,” says RadioPublic CEO, Jake Shapiro. Our medium “treats listeners with respect, gives publishers a direct relationship with audiences, and gives voice to new talent and communities long missing from the airwaves.”

Here’s hoping that in the new year to come book publishers and their best-selling authors will use in-depth podcasts to establish deeper, stronger and ever more personal contacts with readers and listeners.

Best-selling books need podcast companions.

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On podcasting: the small picture

The other day a young man in his 20’s told me something very sad.

While he has a strong moral sense and believes in the necessity of profound political change, and would like to do something to make the world a better place, he doesn’t know where to start.

My friend sees no connection between his actions and how to be part of a movement to promote justice, trust and greater social harmony. He feels powerless and dispirited. Disconnected.

The best advice I could think of was to throw a pebble into the ocean.

Look at the small picture.

Do something— anything— I suggested, that might help someone less fortunate than yourself. For instance, it could be as simple as signing up for Reading Partners, a non-profit group that trains volunteers to give one-on-one tutoring for 45 minutes, twice a week, to school kids who are behind their grade level in their reading.

The experience of volunteering can change your outlook on life.

From church groups to social causes, there are countless local, neighborhood efforts happening now to knit together the social fabric that we need to build a more caring, sharing society.

Maybe this young man should use his own skills to teach others what he knows: Promoting their sense of curiosity and wonder.

For me it was podcasts.

After three decades of covering breaking news at a national radio network, I was also frustrated. For a long time I had found the fast-paced daily work to be fascinating and even at times, thrilling. My career had been a gift.

But a few years ago, it started to feel a bit routine. The hourly focus on clashes, contests, calamities and celebrities that is the stuff of broadcast news was becoming more of a grind than a source of fascination. Rarely did we cover those who were calling for constructive alternatives to what was going seriously wrong in our country.

We were not giving an accurate picture of the world. Civics and the critical workings of democracy were not part of the daily news agenda.

But I also wondered about myself. Was I becoming part of the problem— an old and weary grumpy guy, who was perhaps jaded?

I didn’t want to be that person.

My answer was to change careers and became a podcaster, and help others put their message across.

My own pebble in the ocean has been “How Do We Fix It?”— a weekly podcast that I make with Jim Meigs and Miranda Shafer.

On each episode we try to promote empathy, problem solving and constructive ideas aimed at bringing people together, rather than bellowing across the political canyon at the other side.

We also have fun doing it.

Instead of covering the who, what, when, where, why of news, we ask “now what?” Experts are challenged to come on the show and discuss potential solutions to problems that they’ve spent years studying or investigating.

Podcasts are ideally suited for this kind of experiment. They connect the the head and the heart. People usually listen when they are on their own, away from the distractions of their phone and computer screens, when they are likely to be a little more reflective and able to reconsider their view of the world.

Listening to podcasts can offer a way to open your mind.

No matter how small the audience, or simple the format, the best podcasts follow their own path, throwing caution the wind. As a lover of history, one of my favorite examples is the “fireside chat” 4-hour monologues on “Hard Core History”, hosted by Dan Carlin. Each one tells a carefully crafted account of the past. There is not a speck of fat on those shows. They are pure meat.

Anyone who watches TV, goes online or listens to the radio is exposed to a fire hose of information. We are subjected to a mostly negative and overly dramatic view of current events.

The intimate world of podcasting contains an almost infinite range of possibilities to bring us together. Here’s hoping that you will decide to take a dip and jump into the ocean!

Richard Davies is a podcaster and Podcast consultant, who helps people, companies and causes to tell their story through podcasting.

Beyond outrage and anger… Solutions. A podcast for our times.

We’re gearing up for another great year with more independent-minded, contrarian guests — kicking off this week with Claire Cain Miller of TheUpshot, the New York Times and economics site.

After all the recent anger and outrage over sexual harassment our podcast team decided to do a show about how to reduce bullying and harassment in the workplace. What works? What doesn’t?

Employers are paying lip service to the need for change, but until now there has been little coverage in the media about solutions and training: how to make this a teaching moment.

At “How Do We Fix It?” here’s our un-resolution for 2018: What we do NOT want is the obvious: opinions you’ve heard a hundred times in other places and podcasts.

We’re fired up about solutions — ideas to make the world a better place, topic-by-topic.

Future episodes this month will include the well-known author and skeptic, Michael Shermer, who explains why pessimism is a threat to all of us. Michael also takes apart the human zest for utopia.

Stanford University Politics professor Mo Fiorina is also on our dance card. He will tell us why Americans are less partisan than many think — Fascinating subject for discussion and debate in this time of political flame-throwing.

Please weigh in with your ideas, responses and suggestions. And if you have the time, spread the word about our show with lots of likes, shares and retweets on iTunes, Stitcher and social media.

Here’s hoping that 2018 will be the best year every for humankind and that more of us will throw our pebbles into ocean of progress.

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?  You and Me.  Our Role in Partisan Divide

 How many times have you heard someone say: “I’m fed up with the campaign and politics in general.”

That’s hardly surprising at a time when media coverage has focused on personal insults, name-calling and partisan gridlock, instead of governance and compromise.

But much of this is our fault. Not just the politicians.  From older angry white men (Trump supporters) to idealistic Millennials (Bernie backers), voters have repeatedly rewarded candidates who use angry rhetoric and blame others for the country’s problems.  Sanders bashes Wall Street “crooks”, while Trump attacks Mexican immigrants and Muslims.

Among the candidates of left and right who have pushed back against this trend, only Ohio Governor John Kasich has won more support than expected.  

“We live with the dysfunction of partisan behaviors and believe we must and can do better,” says Joan Blades, co-founder of the non-profit group, LivingRoomConversations.org.  She makes the case for personal dialog across party lines, arguing that it’s a key part of changing the way all of us think about politics.

A strong progressive, who co-founded the liberal activist group, MoveOn.org in the late 90’s, Joan says you’ll never convince anyone with an opposing viewpoint unless you listen to them first. 

“One of the problems progressives have right now is that if they run into someone who doesn’t believe in climate science, they roll their eyes.” As soon as you do that, “you’ve lost your conversation,” Joan says. “Nobody listens to anybody.”

Americans need to find new ways to speak about our differences and visit websites with opposing political opinions from their own.  Speaking with those you don’t agree with is part of the solution.

 “It’s actually really fun having a living room conversation,” she tells us on episode 44 of our podcast, How Do We Fix It? “They’re more fun than if you have a bunch of people around and you what they’re going to say.”

LivingRoom Conversations.org has simple for ground rules for each meeting – encouraging participants to be curious, show respect and take turns.  

Listening to people is the best way to get people to listen to you. These conversations are not debates. Instead of winning, the aim is come up with solutions.

The group’s guidelines are open-source. People can use whatever works for them. I want to host one.  What about you?  And what topics might work in these settings?  You can find examples at  LivingRoomConverstions.org.
   

What We Can Learn About Ourselves After the Paris Attacks

  
To a greater or lesser extent, we all live in filter bubbles.  Only truly shocking events shake up our view of the world.  
The 11/13 Paris attacks were the latest assault on our senses.

Intelligence officials, police, politicians and the rest of us are dealing with a new reality  – that ISIS and its hateful, nihilistic celebration of death are a greater threat to our way of life than most of us had assumed.

“The Paris terror attacks suggest that the U.S. and its allies overestimated recent successes against Islamic State while underestimating the group’s ability to strike far from its Middle East stronghold,” is the assessment of analysts who spoke to The Wall Street Journal.

The attacks are reminders of past U.S. intelligence failures – in Vietnam during the 60’s, Iran with the fall of the Shah in 1979, and the rise of Al Qaeda before the 2001 attacks. Institutional confirmation bias prevents us from viewing events through a different lens. 

Perhaps it’s time for a little collective humility about our ways of viewing the world. “In psychology they call thinking that you see the world as it truly is, free from bias or the limitations of your senses, naive realism,” says David McRaney of the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast.  Our “facts” are often little more than opinion, says McRaney, a recent guest on our show, “How Do We Fix It?”.

With the events of the past few days, even politicians would do well to reassess some of  their views. 

“The assault on Paris has thrust national security to the heart of the Presidential race, forcing candidates to scramble,” writes Jonathan Martin in today’s New York Times. Perhaps voters will react as well, prompting them “to reconsider their flirtations with unconventional candidates and to take a more sober measure of who is prepared to serve as Commander In Chief.” The demands on the candidates will be more exacting, writes Martin.

But what of our own views of freedom and tolerance?  Will we become more fearful and less hopeful about what the future can bring? Hopefully not.

Our horror and helplessness “we will overcome and quickly,” writes Bobby Ghosh in the online journal, QZ. “Our society is redoubtable and resilient.”

But hate is what we must be most careful to guard against. “Hatred is political currency, coveted by Al Qaeda and ISIL, but more dangerously, by right-wing groups among us,” says Ghosh in his perceptive article.  

It’s time to be calm, strong and open-minded about the views of others, but also resolute: Recognize the lethal threat that a relatively small number of Islamists present to us (and, yes, call them what they are). Yet also be confident about democracy’s strengths and the values that the great majority of us share.

The Friday night lights of young multi-racial, multi-ethnic Paris before the carnage struck were symbols of western civilization’s trust, joy and strength.  They must not be snuffed out by the actions of a few.

(Above: CNBC coverage of today’s Moment of Silence for the victims of the Paris attacks)