Rep. Keith Ellison’s work schedule is nearly identical to that of any other busy member of Congress, but between the floor votes, committee hearings, interviews with press, and trips back and forth to the district, he fits in an unusual thing: recording a podcast.
For over a year, the Minneapolis Democrat has recorded and produced “We the Podcast,” a semi-monthly series in which Ellison, along with guests, dives into issues like criminal justice reform and voter ID laws.
The mission of the podcast, Ellison says, is to shed light on how politics and policy affect the economic livelihoods of working Americans. The product is what you might expect if you’re familiar with the liberal lawmaker: a lively, candid conversation that amplifies Ellison’s unapologetic, populist progressive ideology.
Like a ‘radio op-ed’
According to Ellison, he first got the idea to do a podcast while talking to a friend about the state of the mainstream media. “I was complaining about how the mainstream TV doesn’t really address economic issues that affect regular people,” he says. “They’re great about telling us the Dow Jones industrial average, but beyond that, what are we learning?”
The idea to record a podcast, aides say, simply came from the congressman’s love of the medium. Ellison told MinnPost he regularly listens to popular podcasts like This American Life and Serial, along with political ones like the progressive talk show The Young Turks and the Counterspin podcast from liberal media watchdog FAIR.
Since January 2015, Ellison has produced 14 installments of We the Podcast, which range from six to 43 minutes in length and focus on a broad range of issues. Typically, Ellison chooses the topic and conducts all the interviews, but aides do the editing and technical work. (The congressman often chooses the eclectic intro music himself.)
The show follows a straightforward formula: Ellison explains what the topic is and his point of view on it, and then brings in guests — policy experts, activists, and ordinary people with some personal experience — to support and add depth to that view.
In some episodes, Ellison tackles big, red-meat issues for the progressive base, like the importance of employee unions, the scourge of money in politics, and the flaws of “right to work” laws.
Other episodes dive into underreported topics that don’t grab a lot of headlines: one from last month focused on the affordability of diapers, while a pair of episodes from last year looked at the perils of franchising fast food restaurants, and the high cost of phone calls for people in prison.
Some episodes are less issue-of-the-week and more big-picture: in an April installment, Ellison held a conversation with a nun, a Christian theologian, a rabbi, and an imam about how faith and religious practices figure into the economy.
Listeners hoping for robust back-and-forth and disagreement between Ellison and his guests will be disappointed: there’s a lot of friendly agreement and vocal approval of ideas and talking points. Ellison described the podcast as more like a “radio op-ed” than anything else.
But it’s not a glorified stump speech or political ad, either. Ellison’s style as a podcaster is, at times, your outspoken progressive doing battle on cable news; at others, he’s your affable high school civics teacher shepherding a thoughtful discussion.
Getting people into politics
While a good many members of Congress have backgrounds in radio, like Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer, few keep up a regular show after arriving in Washington.
Very few, actually: Ellison is one of the only members of Congress who regularly puts out a podcast or radio program. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Maryland, has a podcast but has not released a new episode since last summer. (Sarbanes also appeared on an episode of Ellison’s show.)
Members’ schedules are packed, and their time is precious, but Ellison says he devotes a few hours per month to the podcast because he sees it as an important extension of his work as a lawmaker.
“My constituents want to know what’s going on,” Ellison explained, and added that he picks topics for the show based on what constituents tell him when he spends time in the Fifth District. “If I wanted to feature something that comes up, it’d be through the podcast… Highlight the issue, get more people focused on the issue.
“It focuses attention, which helps what I do legislatively. If people don’t know what you’re doing, you’re not gonna get it done. If people do understand what you’re trying to get done, the podcast helps you do it.”
The listener base for the show is small, but growing, according to Ellison’s office, which says that the episodes have been played 8,500 times on iTunes and Soundcloud, though the number could be higher due to incomplete analytics. (On iTunes, We the Podcast has a five-star rating based on six reviews.)
Ellison said he hopes the show catches on among his constituents in Minnesota before reaching a more national audience. The show, though, is clearly geared toward a casual listener anywhere in the country.
At its essence, Ellison wants We the Podcast to provide listeners some basic — though opinionated — explanation on an issue, while inspiring them to dig deeper on specifics. Kind of like John Oliver, but not as funny.
“What I’m trying to do,” Ellison said, “is say, look: if you’re not into politics, you better believe politics is into you. Just because you don’t hear this kind of thing on regular news channels doesn’t mean it’s not important to a whole lot of people. We’re trying to get people into politics by plugging them into information about something that affects them directly.”
“We can’t dump facts on them, there’s gotta be decent music, clever construction, some engaging guests. Part of it is trying to make it as interesting as we know how to make it.”