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Chapter 4. Formats > Build a Great Political Show

Hack 24. Build a Great Political Show

Blogging changed the way American politics work. Podcasting will extend that reach. Find out how to make a political show that is compelling and entertaining.

Congress repealed the Fairness Doctrine in 1986 and the talk-radio world has never been the same. Before this repeal, the FCC had mandated that shows had to give equal time to opposing sides on an issue. After this was lifted, pundits such as Rush Limbaugh fundamentally changed the nature of talk radio by giving it a hard push in one direction, with no representation of the alternative viewpoint. Throughout much of the U.S., this has resulted in a strong shift toward conservatism on the radio dial. And only recently have newcomers arrived to present alternatives.

Podcasting provides another outlet for this strongly charged political talk-show format, and already a number of podcasts have replicated this formula. The first essential element in a political show is timeliness. The show the listener receives today should be relevant to the news of the day. To do that you need to keep up with the news. Here are several resources for current news and political information in the U.S.:

The White House (http://www.whitehouse.gov/), the House of Representatives (http://house.gov), the Senate (http://senate.gov), and the Supreme Court (http://supremecourtus.gov/)

These sites provide access to the press releases and opinions of the three major branches of the federal government: executive, legislative, and judicial.

GPO Access (http://www.gpoaccess.gov/crecord/index.html)

This is the site for the Congressional Record, where you can find quotes from the floor of the House and Senate updated on a daily basis.

C-SPAN Archives (http://www.c-spanstore.org)

This is where you'll find the video archives of the C-SPAN network. Though C-SPAN is mandated by the government, it is actually a privately held company and the material on this site is copyrighted. You must ask permission before using the material in your podcast, unless you believe it falls within the realm of fair use. An email address for asking permission is provided in the Contacts section.

Google News (http://news.google.com/)

Google aggregates articles from all the major news sources into one easy-to-search interface. In addition, you can subscribe to the news service and get updates when articles are posted that match your search criteria. It's an excellent way to have the news come to you.

CNN (http://cnn.com/) and Fox News (http://foxnews.com/)

These news networks provide a news-alert service that will email you when major news events take place.


If you already have an RSS aggregator, use it to keep up with the news by subscribing to your favorite news sources!

In addition to these sources of timely news and information, you can use archives of historical material in your podcast. The C-SPAN Archives (http://c-spanstore.org) has video archives of all the C-SPAN footage you can use with permission (located under the Request Form link on the lefthand side of each page). The History Channel has a series of speeches of historical significance (http://historychannel.com/speeches/). This material is copyrighted and you need permission to use it. The Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org/) has a wealth of Creative Commons material, including famous speeches that you can use freely in your podcast.

Fair Use of the News

According to section 107 of the U.S. copyright code, you can use material freely if that use is for "comment" or "review." These are deemed "fair use" according to the law. Quoting from articles and news sources for the purpose of giving your own opinion is generally considered fair use. Ideally, you should cite the article, the source, and the author.

4.6.1. Format

Once you have the news of the day at hand, it's time to work on the format. In general, it's easier to get a two-host format [Hack #20] to work for listeners instead of a one-host format. Unless he has credibility, an individual host will sound like he's ranting. With two hosts, listeners get the impression of a dialog, even if both hosts are presenting the same viewpoint.

Political shows run on trust. Listeners trust you with their time because they believe you will present them with news that interests them, and that you will interpret it for them in a way that they can agree with. The two-host format allows each host to interrogate the other by asking the questions they believe the audience would be asking. Every format element you bring into your show should reinforce the message that you are a trustworthy source of valid opinions.

The content trick that works particularly well in political formats is the technique of large-small-large. You start with an idea in the large. Then you provide a small anecdote that demonstrates the larger point. You finish by extrapolating the smaller anecdote back to the larger theme for your listeners. Here is an example:

The economy is really going downhill. I met this guy a couple of days ago who had been out of work for 2 years and he had 20 years of experience in his field. There are people like this all over. I'm telling you, the economy is in a tailspin.

Start with a sweeping statement, followed by a small illustrative example, and then come back to the bigger picture again.

Another way to build trust is to invite the listeners to test you. Tell them to check the stories linked from the blog for themselves. Even if only a few take your invitation to heart, the rest will be impressed by your confidence. This will only serve to increase their trust in you. Segment ideas.

Besides the usual news item with opinion segment and listener mail, you can use a lot of other format elements as periodic features in your political show:


Interviews are ideal for political shows. They give politicians an opportunity to reach an audience with their message, and they provide a way for listeners to get the answers they want to questions on the issues of the day. Because podcasts are time shifted, you should use tools such as your blog to get questions from your listeners by posting ahead of time who your guests will be and asking for potential questions.

The objector

Have a weekly segment during which you talk with a person on the other side of the political spectrum. This type of segment can help your credibility greatly, as it shows how you can dispatch your political enemy quickly.

Specific news item

Cover a particular type of news item, or a news item from a particular source, each week. An example is a "Crazy Conservative Nonsense" or "Wacky Views from the Left" segment.


This is a weekly segment during which you review [Hack #27] a new book or movie from the political angle.

Call-in games

Pick a listener with whom to play a game in which he can win a prize. You can really get creative with this one in terms of thinking up a game that's entertaining but not so difficult that no one can win it.

Format elements such as these can keep people coming back to your show, even if they don't like what you have to say most of the time.

4.6.2. Using the Blog

Making the best use of the text portion of the blog related to your podcast is critical for the political show format to work. Make sure it has links to the resources you talked about in the show, as well as more material that supports your reasoning.

Always keep the comments open with this type of podcast. Furious debates can increase your listener base and get you coverage in the wider press.

4.6.3. What Doesn't Translate

It's easy to think of podcasting as just another way to transmit the same audio that could go over the radio. But you can't just translate the formats that work so well on radio directly into your own podcast. The first difference between the two media is that podcast listeners aren't skipping through the dial, and generally they listen to the podcast from start to finish. You don't need to bring listeners who "just tuned in" up to speed, so there is no need to repeat yourself the way radio hosts need to. If you listen to a radio show, you'll notice that it covers surprisingly little in an hour—at most, one or two topics. If you want your podcast to run as long as these shows, you will be able to cover a lot more ground because you don't have to repeat yourself.

The second difference is the fact that radio shows, particularly talk-radio call-in shows, are live. The live nature of the show allows the host to cover events in real time. This is not something you will be able to do in your podcast. The call-in nature of the show is also different. A live show has is a continuous conversation in which listeners can hear what's said and then call in to respond. With a podcast, your call-ins will need to be scheduled in advance.

Aspiring Rush Limbaughs or Al Frankens need to understand the differences between radio and podcasting media. You can make podcasts succeed in the political spectrum, but the format of these shows will be dramatically different from their radio cousins.

4.6.4. Great Political and Opinion Podcasts

To get a better feel for what works and what doesn't work for political and opinion show formats, I asked some podcasters to share their insights with me. Two Rights.

Bill Rice and Keith Burwell like to think of their Two Rights podcast (http://tworights.com/) as a more thoughtful and balanced approach to conservative political commentary than what listeners can find in traditional media. Disenchanted with the drama and extremism of radio talk shows, they seek to engage listeners in a dialog.

Each show takes about three hours to produce. There is some preparation time up front during which each host writes his own notes and researches his own topics for the show. The two hosts don't combine their notes because they think the interplay will be more genuine and energetic if they approach the show separately. Recording takes about 30 to 45 minutes. Then come editing, encoding, and uploading.

Their hardware setup comprises a Windows PC, a couple of RadioShack microphones [Hack #13], and a Behringer Eurorack UB802 mixer [Hack #14]. They use Audacity [Hack #50] for recording, mix-down, and encoding.

They tried a couple of different formats, even some with music and advertisements, and they let their intuition and their feedback guide them to a three-segment format. In the first segment, they cover the hot news items of the day. In the second segment, they do reviews and commentary. And in the final segment, they focus on "higher-level" ideological or academic political issues.

They prefer two hosts to one because the interaction of the hosts is more appealing for the audience and results in less of a rant-type show. In the long run, they would like to see the show work its way into the legitimate media, and perhaps even use it as a vehicle for their own political aspirations. The Randi Rhodes Show.

On the professional side of the podcast spectrum is the Randi Rhodes Show (http://therandirhodesshow.com/). It's both a pod-cast and a broadcast radio show on the fledgling Air America Radio network (http://airamericaradio.com/). Air America started in 2004, but Randi was on the air in Florida well before that. Randi works the liberal side of the American political divide with her one-woman radio show that goes for four hours a day.

Four people are on the show staff: the host (Randi); a producer who writes the comedy bits, produces the web site, and performs administrative tasks; another producer who books guests, screens calls, and does research; and a technical director who runs the board and picks music.

Each member of the show puts about four hours of preparation time in before they go live. They edit bits, write scripts, update their web site, and do research. Their sources include the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the BBC, Media Matters, BuzzFlash, and numerous blogs.

The show has mainly a call-in format [Hack #20], with listeners calling in live to talk about the day's events. But they do have some scripted comedic bits. The interaction with the audience is primarily over the phone, but the message board and blog play a big role in communicating with the audience and in building the trust that's so critical in a single-host format. John Edwards' podcast.

John Edwards, the Democratic candidate for vice president in 2004, started his own podcast in 2005. His personal podcast (http://johnedwards.com/) is a combination of policy statements, personal perspectives about his life, his family, and his children, and their responses to the email questions they get.

The technology of the podcast is as homespun as it sounds. They have a microphone on their kitchen table that John and Elizabeth use in combination with a Macintosh running GarageBand [Hack #50]. They use GarageBand to create license-free, podcast-safe sound loops [Hack #63] to run under segments of the podcast. And they use iTunes to do the encoding to MP3.

What excites John about podcasting is how he can talk directly with what he considers a grass-roots political community through the podcasting medium. "Podcasting is an important medium because it lets me have a personal conversation with the grass roots about a variety of issues," John says. "The truth is, we need to strengthen the grass roots' voice in every way possible. Podcasting helps us do that."

4.6.5. See Also

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