Audio Astra: Political conversations on race, abortion and COVID-19

July 30, 2021 3:33 am
Outgoing Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, ends a 30-year career in the Legislature with a plea that be vigilant protecting the vision and the founding principles that have made America the most prosperous and entrepreneurial nation on earth.(Kansas Reflector)

Outgoing Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, ends a 30-year career in the Legislature with a plea to be vigilant protecting the vision and the founding principles that have made America the most prosperous and entrepreneurial nation on earth. (Nick Krug for Kansas Reflector)

Audio Astra reviews recent audio reporting on Kansas news, including podcasts and radio stories. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

Kansas politics overwhelms other topics in the audio reporting space, but especially this week as podcasts from the Reflector, KCUR and the Topeka Capital-Journal discuss different slices of the political world with drastically different approaches. From a long-form interview to a polished audio production to a lighthearted chat about a deadly topic, Kansas podcasters try many approaches this week.

Commission on Racial Equity and Justice 2021 interim report

Kansas Reflector, July 26, 2021

The Kansas Reflector podcast this week provides an interview with the co-chairwomen of the commission. Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of Topeka Public Schools, and Shannon Portillo, a Douglas County commissioner, provide an update on the effort to produce greater equity in Kansas, an initiative spurred by the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

The presentation by the two commissioners reminded me of a long-ago friend and his vehement pet peeve. He was constantly frustrated by the use of the word “community.” How is “community health” different from “health?” And how is a “community stakeholder” different from a “stakeholder?” The word “community” peppers this entire 31-minute episode as Anderson and Portillo preview the contents of the final report.

My point about word choice might seem trivial here, but I think it is significant. The next steps in creating equity in Kansas as suggested by the commission are progressive steps. To my ear, the word “community” is a progressive word in politics. Think about the conservative appeal of “family values” played against the liberal phrasing of “community values.” Taborda’s written story summarizes the topics in the interim report as a wish list of liberal initiatives: teacher diversity, early childhood education, vaccine equity and maternal health care. That list reveals progressive values that I enthusiastically applaud.

So, the word choice and political language during interviews like this one is vital in marketing the efforts to the rest of the state. All of these suggested next steps will need buy-in across Kansas to produce results. And buy-in from the overwhelmingly conservative politicians of Kansas will demand careful writing and media appearances. That persuasion might be in the Statehouse, at county commissions, or city councils. But I suspect that conservatives will attack any idea — regardless of how well-intentioned and thoroughly researched — if it aims to help a “community.” Politics in 2021 is unfortunately built on reflexes to such buzzwords.

Summer of Mercy (rebroadcast)

My Fellow Kansans, July 20, 2021

I have been dutifully checking the podcast feed from “My Fellow Kansans,” hoping that the September 2020 episode would not be the last. While we don’t get a brand-new episode this week, the Kansas politics podcast re-released a 2018 episode titled “Summer of Mercy.” Jim McLean narrates, writes and reports on how the abortion protests in Wichita during the early 1990s provided Republicans with political foot soldiers who eventually flipped counties from blue to red. The format here resembles NPR’s podcast series “Throughline” and its exploration of historical events and their reverberations onto today.

McLean traces the ripple effects from the “summer of mercy” to many of the last decade’s themes in Kansas politics: the election of Sam Brownback as a conservative governor, the abortion litmus test of politicians, and the rise of Statehouse powerbrokers like Susan Wagle, who served two terms as Senate president.

The storytelling of this episode rises above many of the other podcasts centered on Kansas podcasts because it uses archival footage, background music and tight audio editing to compress time (and huge ideas) into a tidy 21-minute package. For some listeners, it will be a way to discover the podcast for the first time. Although these older episodes do not appear on the podcast’s Spotify or Apple podcast feed, you can find them on the KCUR website using their search bar.

The COVID-19 latest

Chillin’ in the Statehouse, July 27, 2021

Jason Tidd joins the podcast created by the Topeka Capital-Journal to map out the web of decision-makers who will decide on the community health measures that will be taken in response to this summer’s coronavirus surge. The disjointed and often conflicting government response has been an obstacle from the first days of the pandemic, starting at the Oval Office and cascading down to middle school principals. Tidd and host Andrew Bahl explain how state regulations and local politics will influence everyone from local school districts, county health commissions, the governor and more.

The lighthearted intro to the podcast helpfully introduces Tidd, but also creates some tension with the serious subject matter for the rest of the episode: a deadly pandemic and a state response being handcuffed by political turf wars and useless rhetoric. The podcast’s inside jokes, word play and silly jabs aren’t as helpful as the Statehouse expertise and background knowledge (for instance, we learn that only 34 of more than 300 nursing homes have achieved benchmark vaccination levels for their staff).

Just as we experienced in 2020, the news is moving fast here. Tidd and Bahl couldn’t know that additional Kansas school districts would mandate masks, including Shawnee Mission Schools. Unfortunately, we will all be monitoring the dance of COVID cases and local regulations again this summer and fall after assuming that we had the virus “beat” through vaccinations. This episode reminds us of the powers that the governor and counties have, along with their limitations.

How U.S. Presidents Stack Up Against Each Other

Up To Date, July 23, 2021

A quick recommendation for political junkies: Steve Kraske interviews two presidential historians about a recent ranking of U.S. presidents. The local connection is the rise of Missouri’s Harry Truman and Kansas’ Dwight Eisenhower as they climb in the view of academics. The timely connection is the low ranking of Donald Trump almost immediately after he left office in January.

Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids Wants To Change ‘The Birthday’ Rule

Up To Date, July 22, 2021

Kraske’s interview with U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids is worth a listen as she explains that — this is absurd — a newborn baby is sometimes enrolled in the health insurance of the parent who has the first birthday. She has proposed legislation that would eliminate the “birthday rule” by requiring providers to ask parents (why wouldn’t they?) whose insurance is used for their new family member.

What did we miss? Email [email protected] to let us know of a Kansas-based audio program that would be interesting to Audio Astra readers.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.