On Monday morning, Joe Biden crossed a threshold thousands of podcasters never have: He made a second episode. This week’s installment of Here’s the Deal With Joe Biden featured Uncle Joe interviewing Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer about her state’s response to the coronavirus and President Trump’s continued attacks on her. Biden’s debut had mostly consisted of an interview with Ron Klain, his former chief of staff and President Obama’s Ebola czar back in 2014. It’s probably not fair to call either podcast an “interview,” not really; it’s more as if Biden speaks for a while, his guest speaks for a while, Biden speaks again, and then the podcast is over. In many ways, the enterprise feels less like an actual podcast and more like a weekly proof-of-life reminder for Biden. He’s still here, promise!
As someone who envisions no scenario in which Joe Biden is not the Democratic nominee for president, and therefore someone who desperately wants to make sure Joe Biden is well and okay so that we do not all die, I am relieved to know that there is a podcast that proves the man is upright, or at least capable of speech. But as a longtime podcast aficionado — and an amateur podcast producer myself — I find the show nearly impossible to get through. In fact, it is so stilted and awkward that it makes me legitimately alarmed: If they can’t get something this simple right, what’s going to happen in November?
Beyond wanting anyone but Trump to win in November, I actually like Joe Biden, and I am just trying to help here. But it is a bad sign that one of my first thoughts upon listening to Biden is, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 podcast was a lot better. So, to contribute to the cause in any way that I can, here are five simple, easy-to-implement ways, both technical and thematic, that the Biden campaign could and should use to improve its podcast. And maybe even make it listenable.
I understand that we’re all locked up in our homes right now, so it’s not like you can just send a campaign surrogate over and have them start yukking it up with the candidate. But asking Biden to host the show himself — to do the introductions and the transitions and “subscribe to us on iTunes” announcements — is a tragic mistake. The big problem is that Biden clearly has no natural affinity with the podcasting medium. He’s uncomfortable with the format — he’s a politician, not a talk-show host — and he ends up mostly sounding like he’s conducting his own monologue while the guest patiently waits for him to finish speaking. It’s easy to understand the animating idea behind the show: Biden talks to experts in the field and on the front line, like Klain and Whitmer, to show that his presidential team would be far preferable to the one currently in the White House. But this effect is harder to pull off when the host and his interlocutor don’t sound like they’re in the same room, or even the same time-space continuum.
This is one thing that Hillary Clinton’s old podcast, With Her, co-hosted by Clinton and Longform host Max Linsky, got right. It put her alongside someone who understood podcasting and therefore could do the heavy lifting, as well as casting her in the not-entirely-podcast-proficient-but-still-game-for-this category, which would also suit Biden well. It also actually helped that Clinton and Linsky did not have a longtime association; it gave the podcast some tension, which is lacking when two old buddies are scratching each other’s backs. Biden would be well served by someone younger and more comfortable in this realm, someone likable who could play off Biden while still showcasing his strengths. Maybe Biden supporter Keegan-Michael Key? Or Kaitlin Olson? Or just a well-known podcaster with a built-in audience, like Linsky was for Clinton. Nate DiMeo of The Memory Palace? Or one of those Ringer people? My point is this: Don’t make Joe drive the car.
This is a technical nitpick. I know that everyone is using Zoom for everything in quarantine world, but even putting aside the malware concerns, the app is terrible for podcasts. There’s an inherent lag between Biden and his guests, and the audio quality is rickety at best; you can tell that Biden’s guests are simply recording their Zoom audio, which makes them sound like they’re at the end of a tunnel, or stranded at the bottom of a well.
There is also no reason for the shows to be recorded this way. The thing about podcasts is that you do not actually need the internet to make one; you only need the internet to post it. For example, my co-host on my Grierson & Leitch movie podcast, Tim Grierson, lives in Los Angeles, and I live in Georgia. But when we tape our podcast, we don’t even get online. He calls me on my phone, and each of us sets up our own microphones on our own computers, simply hit “Record” on Audio Hijack at the same time and capture only our individual audio. Then Tim sends me his audio, I splice them together, and boom: It sounds like we’re in the same room. (This is not as difficult as it sounds. I have no inherent proficiency or understanding of audio production, and I was still able to pick it up in a day.) All Biden needs is a mic and his computer, and that’s all his guests need, too. Zoom just makes the whole thing sound amateurish.
Biden falls back on his talking points regularly during these shows, but it’s tough to blame him for that: He is a politician after all. It is frustrating, though, to listen to a podcast in the middle of a global catastrophe and hear Biden constantly pivot to defenses of his record or — totally justifiable, but still — criticisms of President Trump. (Biden has taken considerable criticism from the left for not going after Trump enough, but his shots are so weak here that they further emphasize that podcasting is the wrong forum for them.) Both Klain and Whitmer, when asked about the woes we’re currently facing, made sure to praise the former vice-president in all of their answers, which makes sense considering that they’re both campaign chairs. But it still lent the production a Dear Leader vibe that, frankly, we get enough of from the daily Trump press conferences. Podcasts thrive when you, as the listener, feel like you are a silent observer of two (or more) people having a conversation among themselves, in which you truly believe they are speaking extemporaneously and honestly. By contrast, both Biden and his guests never miss an opportunity to fall into campaign-speak. It’s exhausting in real life and absolutely deadly for a podcast. This is another time when a co-host, preferably one from outside of politics, would help.
Having Uncle Joe pop up once a week and talk to his friend about how great he is makes the podcast feel like what it actually is: an obligatory nod toward modernity, a token attempt that ultimately just reveals how behind the curve Biden and his campaign truly are. But the thing about a podcast is that it can be anything. Why not make it daily, with Biden showing up once or twice to check in, but the other days filled with a co-host or a campaign surrogate doing a deeper dive on an issue that voters care about? During this epidemic, maybe Dr. Celine Gounder — who is already co-hosting a podcast with Klain about the coronavirus response — could talk specifically about the pandemic, or a campaign reporter could interview emergency-room doctors, or the show could focus on any of the other millions of stories developing at this particular moment in human history? The thing about a podcast with Joe Biden’s name is that no matter who appears, he’ll be associated with it. That’s good! He has some great surrogates who can help hammer Trump without having to wage the usual political warfare. Biden can be on every podcast without actually being on every podcast.
The scariest part of our current moment is knowing that no one is actually in charge: that all the smart people who could save us have been kicked out of the government and that we only have the Kushners and Dr. Ozes of the world left. Trump claims he is a wartime president and then acts like the precise opposite of one; Biden’s podcast could be a glance at what an actual leader would do in a time of crisis. Have Klain give daily updates on the pandemic. Have talented endorsers and surrogates talk about why a Biden administration would be different. Give advice to counter the disinformation that Trump pumps out. Provide an alternative.
The absence of a functioning executive branch is a central reason the pandemic spread so out of control in this country in the first place. Biden has an opportunity to show precisely how his executive branch would be different. His campaign has shown frustration with its inability to get news coverage in the wake of the coronavirus, while Trump reserves an hour of live television for himself every day. But so far, the Biden team hasn’t provided much evidence that it has enough material to fill an hour of coverage itself. A podcast can be a testing ground: It can be proof of concept. But you have to take it seriously. And so far, the Biden campaign isn’t.
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