Opinion

Audio Astra: Podcasts reflect changing face of media and journalism

October 8, 2021 3:33 am

Kansas Reflector senior reporter Tim Carpenter hosts a podcast episode in September 2020. The Reflector is one of several nonprofit news outlets in Kansas to record podcast series. (Sherman Smith/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.

About five hours into my listening of Kansas podcasts this week, I paused the audio. As the Kansas farmland blurred past my rearview mirror, I asked myself, “What am I listening to here?” Of course, that is the central question I ask myself each week in writing this recap of the best audio journalism about Kansas.  

However, the listening this week struck me as a departure from what I heard 20 weeks ago when I started this column. I hadn’t noticed the shifts as clearly before now because the changes had happened incrementally over these five months. 

The changes are real, though. And those shifts reflect what is happening in journalism and media more broadly. 

Nonprofits own digital audio news

The most newsworthy podcasts covering state news are free from corporate ownership, for the most part. There are efforts such as our very own Kansas Reflector podcast, plus public radio stations like KMUW and KCUR that are churning out weekly podcasts. In the case of the newly launched Kansas City Today, we now have daily listening from public radio in our podcast feeds. Another reliable podcast — the Streetwise podcast — comes from the Pitch KC, an alt-weekly.

The audio offerings from the largest newspapers lag behind. Sure, the Kansas City Star headlines are available to be read by an automated voice each morning. To me, that’s not quite podcasting. The Star reliably posts two sports podcasts, including one by a columnist. But news podcasts are absent. The Wichita Eagle has been without its audio headline service for nearly two years. The Topeka Capital-Journal produces “Chillin in the Statehouse” but often goes weeks between episodes. 

News isn’t always delivered by journalists

Reviewing my listening from this week, it’s striking how many podcasts that provide great newsworthy chatter are not from journalists with a capital “J.” The producers of these podcasts unearth timely issues and discuss them at length, sometimes from the comfort of their own basements. Some don’t have the backing of a media organization, while others are untethered from any larger organization. Consider podcasts such as “Lawrence Talks,” which this week hosted a discussion about the census and congressional maps. The Legislative Post Audit podcast provides another newsworthy podcast about how cavalier school districts are with data — and how much additional support they need to safeguard it. Or the dudes from the Wichita Podcast talking about the Wichita State University football plane crash.   

That lack of a formal journalism degree often strengthens the expertise and delivery of these podcasts in unexpected ways. (And that sentence comes from a journalism instructor at the state’s largest journalism school.)

Journalism and mass communications schools are smartly considering how to create expert media professionals whose jobs may not rely on reporting as heavily as the newspaper beat reporter of the 1990s. As listeners, we gain from hearing non-journalists do the interviewing. For example, who could ask better conservation questions than the wildlife and science experts hosting the Flatlander podcast? While they haven’t covered much specific Kansas news, the interviewing skills of the Ritz brothers from State Your Line merit a listen and rival those of any J-school trained host.

Diversity of topics

The lack of corporate pressure on these podcast producers frees them to dig into stories about undercovered populations and narrow issues.

My listening this week included an interview with a Lakota runner from Haskell University, a contemplation of how LGBTQ foster kids may be overlooked, Afghan refugees coming to Kansas and the possible abuse of Native Americans at the Shawnee Indian Mission. Kansas-based news podcasts seem more concerned with stories about the marginalized than their print counterparts, and much more than television news producers.

Simply more podcasts

Kansas audio producers are heating up production during the past year. These 6 podcasts started since the beginning of 2020: 

And these have started since the beginning of 2021: 

Of course, this is just one week. Some of these trends will shift from week to week. However, 20 weeks ago I struggled to find four podcasts worth recapping. Now, as shown by the confetti of hyperlinks above, there is so much more listening here in Kansas, and it is the product of an exciting, informal and enlightened universe of audio producers.

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.

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