Audio Astra: Podcasts provide recipe for post-pandemic conversations

December 17, 2021 3:33 am

Gina Kaufmann, right, has a conversation with Lauren Hughes during an episode of “Real Humans by Gina Kaufmann” feature for KCUR. (Carlos Moreno/KCUR)

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.

Lee Norman on managing the pandemic and being fired

Kansas Reflector Podcast, Dec. 13, 2021

Painting a brighter day for Quindaro

Real Humans by Gina Kaufmann, Dec. 12, 2021

Frankie Shayne Pearman 

That Podcast in Hutch, Dec. 9, 2021

During the 20 months the pandemic has derailed our lives, I have noticed one social skill atrophy: the ability to have meaningful conversations.

Before the pandemic, University of Kansas journalism students often waited in a line that stretched down the hall to meet with me during office hours. Now, even though I have the same expectations for the same assignments, only a half-dozen students came to see me during the entire 16 weeks of the semester. Students, when I can convince them to come, often seem markedly more nervous and less comfortable making eye contact.

I get it. After months of only seeing my immediate family, I sometimes struggled to relax and settle into the kinds of long chats that were common in pre-pandemic life. After all, Zoom screens became our work places, happy hours and birthday parties. Having a conversation sometimes seems to trigger a timer in my head, and after a few minutes, I shut down.

That vital skill of connecting to each other has been dinged up, if not obliterated.

However, podcasts — especially a few particular Kansas podcasts — provide the conversations that many of us have been missing in our daily lives. Jason Probst’s podcast, “That Podcast in Hutch,” introduces us this week to Frankie Shayne Pearman, a joyful guy happy to share all about weightlifting and music. One of the joys of interview podcasts like this is learning about something unexpectedly interesting. Pearman’s journey in weightlifting is great storytelling, regardless of your relationship with barbells and bicep curls.

On this week’s Kansas Reflector Podcast, Sherman Smith’s conversation with Lee Norman, the former secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, allows for both newsworthy banter and personal reflection. Norman explains his surprise at the timing of his being forced from his job as the de facto COVID-19 czar for Kansas. The start of the interview also features a scene that could easily serve as the start of Norman’s personal memoir: Two years to the day before the interview, Norman was in Puerto Rico explaining the possibility of a pandemic to incredulous legislators who would soon be shown the ferocity of the coronavirus.

Also this week, “Real Humans by Gina Kaufmann” tells the story of muralist and sign painter Lucky Easterwood. In her podcast for KCUR, Kaufmann finds extraordinary folks in the Kansas City area (on both sides of the state line), blending their words and her thoughtful writing.

So, who better than Kaufmann to chat with about the skill of having a chat? Interviewing her was a “meta” experience: having a conversation about all of the qualities of having a conversation.

Since beginning “Real Humans” in January, Kaufmann has profiled dozens of people about big ideas that are central to each person’s identity.

“I have felt that the conversations have been very intimate,” Kaufmann told me. “No matter what you are talking about now, no one is totally separate from (the shared reality of the pandemic). They are conversations between two people trying to figure out life right now, figure out the world right now.”

While some podcast producers provide unedited back-and-forth dialogue, Kaufmann provides smaller bits from her sources interspersed with her observations.

“I am trying to get the whole story of what’s usually a long conversation and sometimes more than one conversation,” Kaufmann said. “I’m trying to give it to the listener — just give them the story, but give them the story in that conversational voice of the person whose story it actually is.”

In her story about Easterwood, the listener gets profound small quotes from Easterwood. 

  • About the size of the wall he used for a mural: “I had to have a big wall, because there was a lot going on.”
  • About a swimming pool closing in the Quindaro neighborhood: “It wasn’t that long ago. And change happens quickly. What’s quick to die can be quick to rebuild on.”
  • On the power of images over words: “I learned early in my career that you could read letters all day long and it wouldn’t have the same effect. You could be hungry and read a menu. But once you see a picture of a hamburger, you start wanting what you see.”

Kauffman deliberately employs an unfiltered approach when she is doing her interviews.

“I have real conversations when I interview people,” Kaufmann said. “I am not a withheld interviewer. I don’t keep my cards close to my chest. I want people to be very real with me; I don’t think that if I am withheld that they are going to do that. The vulnerability I am asking of people requires some on my end too, I think.”

“I’m not withheld in my outrage, if they say something that makes me outraged,” Kaufmann said. “I’m not withheld in my empathy. I’m just not a withheld interviewer. It is a real conversation.”

As a listener and journalist, I see podcasts as uniquely able to deliver conversations. No other medium can deliver hours of one person in the same way. Kaufmann, who previously hosted a live radio talk show, explained how constrained on-air conversations can be when there is “a giant clock counting down the seconds” and other distractions. Magazine profiles, which were the closest thing to a conversation with interesting people, can’t match the sheer length of a podcast conversation.

Kaufmann sees another strength of podcasts: flexibility of form.

“The story can decide for me how long the story is,” she said. “That, I think, is totally new for journalism because whether you are talking print or audio the format has always existed for the journalist to put content into. And the fact that we can customize the length is really huge.”

In considering what is next for “Real Humans,” Kaufmann says she is grateful at getting to meet all of these people herself.

“Just getting the chance to be present with them and listen has been awesome,” Kaufmann said. “Right now it feels like these kinds of intimate conversations are working for people. And I think they are working because there is a lot happening in the world that is super dehumanizing for, I think, everyone. These flashes of humanity, they feel important to me right now.”


Another noteworthy podcast

Conservatives see critical race theory in anti-racist schooling and they want it gone from Kansas

KMUW, Dec. 13, 2021

The award for headline writing this week goes to whoever wrote that beauty above. Its factual clarity reflects Suzanne Perez’s continued reporting on the issue from every different angle and nearly every week. In the audio version of the story, the exchange between a state legislator and a state school board member shows the animosity brewing on this issue.

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.