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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Daily podcasts are booming. But here’s why some will fail…

In an increasingly crowded field of Monday-to-Friday podcasts, “The Daily” from The New York Times is still the most popular news show, with about 1.75 million downloads per episode. According to one estimate, the number of daily podcasts has more than tripled in less than two years. The competition now includes news shows by NPR, Vox, Axios, ABC News and The Washington Post.

Ever since its launch nearly two years ago, The Daily” has been my daily habit. Here’s why:

The host, Michael Barbaro.

He’s my pal. A buddy in my ear at the gym, in the car, or on morning walks with our dogs.

I’ve never met Michael Barbaro, but he sounds like a genuinely curious, charming and friendly guy. Writing in The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead calls him the “winning, accessible interlocutor of his news-gathering colleagues.”

He has soul, and that’s surprising perhaps, because over the years The Times has been called “the gray lady”, and is widely considered to be a redoubtable pillar of the elite, mainstream media.

Unlike the newspaper, “The Daily” is informal, even intimate, with moments of spontaneity and humor, as Barbaro lifts the curtain on the bench strength of diligent, hard-working Times reporters who cover their beats with dedication, humility, and street smarts.

Unlike many radio or TV anchors, he never pretends to know what he doesn’t. “The Daily” host is also an ombudsman for listeners as he guides us through the latest perplexing twist of the Mueller investigation or the unfortunate saga that is Brexit.

Barbaro gives us this wonderful sense that he’s hearing each reporter’s insights for the first time.

Same thing with “Serial” host Sarah Koenig, who, despite all her research and carefully constructed scripts, manages to sound is if she’s uncovering the story with you right alongside her. At times we think she’s bemused or even a little surprised as she stumbles across another twist in a complex, tangled web of facts.

The journey is the thing. We know where Koenig’s coming from and that’s a huge reason why “Serial” continues to be wildly successful.

Podcast producers can put too much emphasis on building a show with interstitial music, sound effects, and a multi-layered story arc. But the best storytelling on earth can stumble at the final fence if the narrator or host doesn’t connect with listeners.

And so it is with daily news podcasts. Successful shows need heart and soul as well as a good elevator pitch or a sense of mission. Without them they will fail.

The same is true for small, independent productions who have limited budgets and a relatively small following.

“I cannot tell you how many podcasts I’ve listened to where the host rambles and rants on about their life, their misery, their week, or their kids and family,” laments John Dennis in his recent article in Podcast Business Journal. “You can’t expect to grow, or even retain, your audience if you’re wasting their precious time.”

In addition to adding value or benefit to listeners, podcast hosts must be willing to be vulnerable, revealing something of themselves as they answer the crucial question: “Why am asking you to share some of your precious time with me”.

Richard Davies is the co-host of the weekly solutions news podcast, “How Do We Fix It?” and a podcast consultant and media coach at DaviesContent.com.

Podcasts: When The Missing Ingredient Is Soul.

If you want to start a podcast, the barriers to entry are low. Good equipment is cheap and there are plenty of smart, simple “how to” guides to get you and your organization in the game.

But what most experts and consultants won’t tell you is that to be successful, your podcast needs soul. You must say something real.

The medium’s intimacy and authenticity are keys to its success. That’s why your podcast has to be three dimensional— not like one of those old Hollywood film sets with nothing behind the nicely painted fronts of stores and houses.

Your host needs should be honest, hilarious or, at the very least, a brilliant faker.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the hit show “Pod Save America”. But what the smart-ass uber-liberal hosts do have is soul. Their mission— delivered with passion and a dose of humor— is to save America from Trump and his fellow travelers by trashing anyone who doesn’t agree with their view of the world. You know where these guys are coming from.

Your podcast doesn’t have to come with a passionate or political point of view. But the hosts must believe what they say.

Millennials— the target audience for most podcasts— come with finely-tuned B.S. detectors. They know when they’re being duped or played.

Bragging or reminding your audience what makes you special simply won’t cut it. Deliver the goods, and do so with the minimum of fuss.

Unlike You Tube Channels, TV or even broadcast radio, podcasters don’t need bells and whistles to be successful. Most listeners start at the beginning and will stay with you for the entire show, especially if the episode is under 25 minutes.

From Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” to “Armchair Expert With Dax Shepard”, top-rated podcasters know that a simple interview format can work just as well as “The Daily”, “Invisibilia” and other intricately-produced programs.

Podcasts are wonderful ways to enhance your reputation as a thought leader or innovator. But when you open the mike, make sure you speak from the heart.

Richard Davies is a podcast host and consultant. His firm, DaviesContent, designs, produces, and edits podcasts for clients.

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: Time to Stop Sneering At Donald Trump Voters.

imageRetired steel workers union boss Lou Mavrakis is the Democratic Mayor of Monessen, Pennsylvania.  In 2008 he campaigned for Barack Obama.  This year he’s supporting Donald Trump.

“You’re in the heart of where steel and coal was born,” Mavrakis told Martha Raddatz of ABC News. But most of the good jobs have gone and this faded town’s population collapsed from 25,000 at its peak to 7,000 now. Monessen and countless other communities in “rust belt” America are places of pain – plunged into crisis by decades of decline.  Globalization, foreign competition and technology had a devastating impact on working-class Americans.

Asked if Trump could bring back lost jobs, Mayor Mavrakis replied: “I don’t think any one of them could do anything for us, but he’s saying what I want to hear and what everyone else around here wants to hear.”

“I haven’t heard Hillary Clinton say we’re going to bring back steel.”

Mavrakis believes Trump will win more votes in Monessen than any previous Republican Presidential candidate, – telling the Financial Times  voters are rebelling against the establishment just as Brits did during Brexit.

But far too many Democrats – my friends included – shake their heads in amazement about how anyone could be lunatic enough to support him.

“In the land of NeverTrump, it turns out one American is more reviled than Donald Trump. This would be the Donald Trump voter,” writes MainStreet columnist William McGurn in The Wall Street Journal.

The same thing happened during Brexit.  Voters who bucked the metropolitan establishment and decided to opt out of the European Union are sneered at for being anti-immigrant, jingoistic racists.  No doubt, some are.  But people who’ve seen their living standards decline, their dreams fade to gray and their communities fall apart in the past few decades are understandably frustrated by the failure of politicians to address their concerns.

Even if you are disgusted by Trump and believe he’s an unprincipled opportunist, it’s time to look beyond the messenger.

Instead of “contempt for the great Republican unwashed” – as McGurn puts it – a conversation is needed about what many American people are trying to tell us.

 

 

 

 

How Do We Fix It? How Bill Clinton Smashed the Passion Gap 

  

Unscripted comments often give us the worst moments of the Presidential campaign. Look no further than the embarrassing Republican debate in early March, when Donald Trump bragged about his penis.

But once in a while a tense, uncomfortable encounter can turn into a civics lesson.

And so it was when Bill Clinton stood up during an event for his wife in Philadelphia Thursday and faced down protesters from Black Lives Matter. They complained vigorously about anti-crime legislation that the former President signed in the early 90’s: a time when the crack epidemic led to a terrible spike in homicides, especially in African-American neighborhoods.

Instead of merely dismissing the shouts and signs of his detractors, or taking a politically correct vow of silence, he engaged them with a series of remarks about policy and the changed political landscape.

“I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children,” the former President said wagging his finger. “Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She [Hillary Clinton] didn’t. You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter. Tell the truth.”

The tone may have been somewhat hectoring, and he sort-of apologized for it the next day. But the President’s passion was real. You don’t have to agree with him or his record to be impressed by the outburst of substance.

Far too much of this campaign has been about easy slogans, from Bernie Sanders’ simplistic break-up the big banks (thoroughly dissed in a New York Times column by liberal Paul Krugman) to Trump’s build a wall and make Mexico pay.

The biggest problem Hillary Clinton has been her apparent lack of passion. It’s why she has under-performed, and also why Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio failed to catch fire. 

Voters already know that the former Secretary of State, First Lady and Senator from New York has a deeply impressive resume and an intelligent grasp of governance and foreign policy, but much of her campaign has been canned —  on auto pilot. It’s as if she thinks she can glide to victory without taking risks. Without being a fighter.
But today’s media and political environment has changed. Americans – especially millennials – are increasingly bored with complacent, canned remarks. An occasional flash of humor or even anger can be refreshing and even change minds. 

Bill may have put his foot in it sometimes, but his spontaneous outburst in Philadelphia is a lesson for Hillary and a solution for her wobbly campaign. Fix the passion gap.

If you want to convince skeptical voters that you’re not a crook, put away the script and speak from the heart.

How Do We Fix It? What Elites and Pundits Don’t Know About The Rest of Us.

  

The results are in from the latest batch of primaries.  Once again, the year’s most surprising trends persist: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are doing far better than pundits, pollsters and elites had expected.

Despite a furious and well-funded campaign against him by the Republican establishment, Trump trounced his rivals in Mississippi and Michigan.  Sanders scored a major upset win in Michigan.

Both are the blame-the-other-guy-candidates.  

For Trump, it’s poor Mexican migrants who are storming across the border and taking our jobs. Or crazy Muslims who are claimed to be a danger to us all.

For Bernie, wicked Wall Street and evil billionaires are to blame for our troubles.  And it’s time to teach them a lesson, even if business is crippled as a result. 

Both are dishing out what their worried, weary, and above all distracted, followers want to hear.  

And the rest of us, who are either stunned or appalled by the election results so far, can learn something very interesting about how most people form opinions and make up their minds on the big decisions in life. 

Emotions and feelings play a much bigger role than most of us realize. 

In his recent book, “Copy, Copy, Copy,” Mark Earls, a British writer and well-known consultant on marketing, communications and human behavior talks about the  “I’ll have what she’s having” phenomenon from the 1989 movie, “When Harry Met Sally“.  That’s what the woman who’s sitting nearby says after Meg Ryan’s very public and fake orgasm. 

The widely held view that we make decisions on our own and in a rational way is a complete myth.  Instead, we vote and buy stuff by copying others – our friends, family and our neighbors.

Donald Trump is “much smarter than we give him credit for,” says Mark on our podcast. “He gets that people need to feel stuff rather than think about it.” 

Much of Bernie Sanders’ appeal is about personal integrity and authenticity. He clearly says what he believes and that may seem very refreshing, even though his left-wing policies made in a loner in the U.S. Senate. But that doesn’t matter one bit to his adoring tribe. Sanders won a stunning 80% of the millennial vote in Michigan.

With Donald and Bernie it’s not about detailed policies.  Or what might happen after Election Day. Their appeal is based on group identity and emotions. 

The sooner “rationalists” and “experts” realize that, the better.

Top: Front page of “The Economist” magazine.

How Do We Fix It? 2 Cheers For Compromise 

  
Ready for a word that Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders would consider to be an obscenity?  

Compromise.

Insults, anger and disgust are in, while deal-making, compromise and governance are so old school.  We’re all too busy having a national hissy fit to sit down and do the boring, important stuff. 

My friend Mark Gerzon, author of the fine new book, “The Reunited States of America“,  puts it this way. “We can’t solve any of the problems we face if we’re tearing each other down the whole time.”

Ratings for the Republican debates shot up this year and cable TV networks are loving the slugfest. Watching candidates exchange insults can be entertaining, even if we are appalled by the spectacle. 

But the news media obsession with clashes, controversy and contests only get us so far.  If politics is a permanent campaign, when is it time to govern?

“There’s a whole America out there that’s not getting any news coverage. And that’s the America where Americans work together,” Mark tells us in the latest episode of our podcast, “How Do We Fix It?

He’s right. My years of business reporting taught me that when successful executives face four bad quarters, they throw out the old rule book and re-think what they’re doing. Flexibility and pragmatism are essential to their survival.

Only if Congress would do the same.  

For the past 4, 8, 16 years, mainstream politicians have been fighting over the same old stuff. Their goal is simply to score points at the expense of the other guy. 

No wonder we’re fed up.  

But outrage will only get us so far.  What’s really constructive in the messages and speeches that we’re hearing from Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders?   Beyond talk of building walls or making health care and college free, how will these “outsiders” turn their promises into reality? After all, the nation’s founders did invent separation of powers with checks and balances.

The first step to radical reform of government, Congress and our political culture is to reform ourselves. The most radical thing many of us could do right now is to ask questions.  

In business it’s often called brainstorming.  

“Do you want to get drunk on being right and enjoy that feeling of being with the people you agree with and bad mouth the people you don’t?,” asks Mark. Maybe yes. But a nasty hangover may be the result.

Perhaps we’re at a national turning point. It’s time to sit down and spend time with those we disagree with.  Listen and learn from the other tribe. Not declare and defame.

Smoke filled rooms, anyone?  

(If not, maybe vape-filled rooms would do.)

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.

Our Gun Control Debate Misses The Target. We Need A New Conversation.

  

I do a podcast called “How Do We Fix It?.”  And it would be good thing if we could get a conversation going about gun crime. One that went somewhere and introduced some new ideas.

But I’m not sure it’s possible.
It’s been a week since the Umpqua Community College massacre in Oregon and America’s debate over guns is still poisoned by anger, fear and incredulity. It is possibly the worst example of how polarized our politics have become.  

One side pretends the Second Ammendment doesn’t exist, while the other insists that levels of gun ownership have nothing to do with America’s very high rate of gun deaths.

Both are wrong.

The ease of buying weapons and our longstanding gun culture lead to large numbers of disputes being settled by firearms. Americans own about 270 million guns, which is more than one for each adult.  About 10,000 people have been killed by guns so far this year and more than 20,000 were injured. 

The toll in the U.S. is far worse than in almost any other industrialized nation.  But ever since white settlers first arrived in the early 1600s, guns have been a fundamental part of the American story.  The frontier was settled with guns.  

Writing in The National Review, Rich Lowry is right to point out that banning semi-automatic assault rifles and closing gun show loopholes would do little to reduce the number of homicides or horrific mass killings. 

Also, you may argue that the U.S. Constitution is a deeply flawed document in this regard, but it very clearly states: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Gun rights opponents often say the bit about “a well regulated militia” confuses the meaning of the second part of the sentence.  But let’s say the Constitution gave completely a different reason.  Doesn’t matter. The right to keep and bear arms still remains.

The only way to implement strict gun control would be to strike down or alter the Second Ammendment. And that’s not going to happen anytime soon. 

Hillary Clinton has called for tighter gun-control, including expanded background checks, but Congress is in no mood to approve them.  If elected she’d also consider executive power to achieve her goals. That may please supporters and help win Democratic primaries, but the growing use of executive orders by Presidents of both parties is damaging to our democracy.  

Support for gun rights is strong.  Many believe passionately and perhaps wrongly that having several guns in their homes makes them safer.  The NRA is strong because it has a very large and passionate membership. 

As The New York Times reports, in Roseburg, Oregon, the site of last week’s massacre,  “Some said they were planning to buy guns. Others said they would seek concealed-weapons permits. Others, echoing gun advocates’ calls for more weapons on campus, said the college should allow its security guards to carry guns.”

Others argue that having guns in churches, schools and supermarkets comes at a terrible cost, making us more suspicious, fearful and less safe.

“Firearms are America’s Pandora’s Box,” writes Justin King in an article with the headline  ‘The Facts That Neither Side Wants To Admit About Gun Control.’ The box is open and more legislation won’t have a major impact, he argues. “If you want to change society, you have to actually change the whole of society.”

That’s a conversation that would be worth having.  Perhaps it can begin with an honest, compassionate debate about how we treat mental illness and better enforcement of the background checks that we already have.

Photo (above) Jim Wrigley Photography on Flickr Creative Commons license