Ditching the Talking Points

What the Obama-Maron podcast means for the future of media & politics.


When the President’s itinerary contains the likes of Chuck Lorre’s Palisades Roundtable and Tyler Perry’s Beverly Hills Fundraiser, it was unlikely that a detour to a garage in LA’s less than pristine Highland Park would be the most hotly anticipated stop the President make. But that’s exactly what happened last Friday afternoon when President Obama dropped in with niche comedian Marc Maron to record an episode of the “WTF” Podcast.

Marc Maron’s cult status as a comedian interviewer has put the media world on notice with his raw conversational interview show. Maron has fallen into his place as the podcasting industry’s avatar in its rise to mainstream popularity in what many are calling “The Second Podcast Renaissance.” And now that the POTUS’ appearance on “WTF” has resulted in over 1 Million downloads in less than 40 hours, podcasters are finally beginning to see the mainstream respect they deserve. The President’s visit with Maron is nothing less than a watershed moment for the medium of podcasting as well as a high-water mark for the world of traditional media.

Breaking the Barrier

Podcasting’s celebrity and steady climb aside, President Obama’s appearance breaks into the one sector the podcasting world has left wholly untapped; Politics. Save for a handful of shows, like “Slate’s Political Gabfest” and “Common Sense with Dan Carlin,” original and politically oriented podcasting is a barren wasteland.

Close to 88% of podcasting platforms’ political charts are occupied by terrestrial talk radio shows. These shows have been simply pushed to the web without thought or formatting. The sad fact is politicians and politicos alike have been slow to jump into bed with the world of digital audio -despite its unrivaled engagement. Whether it’s institutional or intentional, Washington has always stayed 2 to 4 years behind the cutting edge, but in this case it all boils down to three major hurdles:

1) Politicians’ staffs don’t trust open dialogues

Political handlers and chiefs of staff are more than skittish on the idea of their bosses sitting down to speak openly and honestly without rails or road maps on how to leverage these new formats. Fundamentally, they do not understand podcasting’s difference from traditional radio and TV discussion. The insulation their staffs provide them may help shield them from a surprise gotcha interview from Fox News or 60 Minutes, but in the digital age eschewing the open dialogue and settling for superficial tweets and facebook posts are a road map to irrelevancy.

2) Analysts still overvalue the hold of TV & radio

While “social media experts” continue to hype ad campaigns that penetrate less than .2% in engagement, podcasts show engagement rates nearly double that of YouTube and television. Ad rates for TV, print, and radio are still inflated, but the dirty little secret in the advertising is the numbers just don’t add up. In 2015, there is nothing we don’t attach metadata and metrics to and yet companies and firms routinely are deluded into believing that paper surveys and Nielson boxes are accurate and sufficient feedback on their success.

3) Podcasting hasn’t yet fully matured away from Improv, Interviews, and NPR.

Unfortunately, despite the “Serial Effect” and the flood of producers and content makers to the market, podcasts largely remain stuck in the pigeon holes they carved out in the late 2000s. Improv and comedy shows to boost the hosts’ ticket sales, formatted interview shows with a cheap twist to make things interesting, and the slowest moving giant of them all, NPR programming.

The Authentic Era

In an hour-long organic conversation, President Barrack Obama had one of the most genuine discussions he has ever recorded while president. He candidly spoke about his struggles in the White House. He didn’t awkwardly transition from one cherry picked topic to the next. There was no dead air in the room as the two attempted to find common traits between the leader of the free world and a crotchety cat hoarding comedian. The President spoke honestly about race going so far as to unapologetically use the word “nigger” while speaking on our country’s racial divide. He voiced his real and unguarded view about the 2nd Amendment’s purpose to protect hunters and sportsmen. He was honest.

Like or hate what he had to say, it was completely unvarnished. It’s conversation that would never happen with a Wolf Blitzer, Sean Hannity, or Rachel Maddow. It’s podcasting fundamental difference. While news media plays rating games by soundbiting and recycling stories, podcasts continue to churn out some of the most intimate and meaningful content in the digital age.

Podcasts are making authenticity the new normal. And anyone paying attention can see that those politicians brave enough to take the leap into this new platform will reap the rewards of a new engaged audience not seen before in the beltway. I’m looking at you 2016 hopefuls…

I’ll leave you with the President in his own words.

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