Eric Thomas traces the most important Kansas stories of 2021 through the medium of podcasts. (Thomas Vogel/Getty Images)
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.
People often ask me for my podcast recommendations, because I am insufferable about quoting podcasts in conversations. The number of podcasts that I hear can make a particular recommendation difficult. Matching a podcast to the taste of the person asking (call me a podcast sommelier) can complicate it too.
However, the temporary nature of most podcasts — that they are offered to be almost instantly discarded — can make it difficult to remember specific episodes. There is not a stack of magazines to reference or a bookcase to thumb through.
So, to guard against our forgetting the storylines of 2021, here are the biggest ones of the year. I am not necessarily highlighting the best individual episodes, but instead the year’s centerpiece Kansas issues, as told through podcasts.
THE PANDEMIC THROUGH EXPERTS
Lee Norman, formerly of KHDE, and Steven Stites, chief medical officer of the KU Medical System, continued to be the voices of the pandemic in Kansas — even more than Gov. Laura Kelly. Through their well-earned bully pulpits and as sources for much of the region’s reporting on the pandemic, they both briefed the public with their expertise.
Stites cited caseloads, counted open beds and tracked trends, while also reaching for new rhetorical phrases to express the severity and urgency of each week. Last week, he said that hospitals were “full, full, full” and “I’m just gonna warn everybody: Things are on fire.” His KU Med briefings were popular videos but also released as “Open Mics with Dr. Stites.”
Norman’s role and ultimate demise as KHDE director was one of the state’s biggest stories to wrap the year, yielding interviews with the Kansas Reflector and Kansas News Service. Before then, his candid interview with Tim Carpenter gave a window into his decisions, stresses and frustrations.
THE COVID-19 DIVIDE
Twelve months ago, almost every Kansan was waiting on a COVID-19 vaccine. The appetite seemed insatiable because we all wanted to safely resume our lives. We competed to get vaccine appointments, flooding apps and websites with our frantic attempts to be first or, at least, not last.
A year later, statistics show that fewer than 60 percent of Kansans have been fully vaccinated. Radio reporting and podcasts captured the political posture from conservatives: Oppose mandates, rally against masks and weakly endorse the vaccine. Their opposition to almost any public health measure angered some public health officials and forced others from their jobs.
Of course, the divisive climate also threatens to define 2022 as catastrophic as the omicron variant becomes dominant. Who knows how many mutations we could have avoided with more robust vaccination? How many upcoming variants could likewise be prevented?
OUR SCHOOLS IN FLUX
Kansas podcasts and audio reporters provided perhaps the most comprehensive look at education issues in 2021, of any topic. That’s in part a credit to Suzanne Perez of the Kansas News Service. Her excellent reporting described the myriad controversies in Kansas schools as they appeared: funding higher education in a pandemic, separating Critical Race Theory from classroom lessons grappling with race, the learning gap created by virtual schooling for kindergartners and the challenges of summer school.
Other podcasts helped us understand how the political wars that previously flirted with the day-to-day operations of our schools were now married to academic life. Kansas City Today and others tracked library censorship efforts. The “KSPrincipals Listen Up!” podcast provided an inside view of how administrators are managing the schools days of 2021. And “All Things Considered” aired Jodie Fortino’s story on how local schools are reconsidering Native American mascots.
THE ABORTION DEBATE
While the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett happened in fall of 2020, her presence on the U.S. Supreme Court made 2021 the year of action and reaction in the debate over legal abortion.
In 2021, “My Fellow Kansans” re-released an episode on the “Summer of Mercy,” which was one of the most memorable listens of the year. There are few audio stories that have helped me better understand the extremes that still define the abortion debate.
However, a recent episode of “The American Life” narrated the most personal and complex point of view on abortion that I have heard through a podcast. Adapted from a story in “The Experiment,” the story profiles a woman who performs sonograms on new mothers and traces her torturous journey through pregnancy and loss. The most valuable political lesson here? Most Americans feel like the young mother does at the end of the story. Her point of view — like that of most Americans — is that neither absolute, whether pro-life or pro-choice, is unfailingly correct for every pregnancy.
KCUR’s “Kansas City Today,” explains how the abortion debate is shaping up in Kansas. And “Up To Date” describes how Missouri is considering a bill that would mimic Texas’s SB8, which is currently being contested.
Perhaps the second-biggest cost of the pandemic — besides all of the direct suffering it has created through death and illness — is how it has distracted us from climate change. Kansas podcasts and audio reporting has provided some specific reporting on efforts that may unfortunately seem weak to future generations.
David Condos reported on the Oggala Aquifer, which threatens to dry up rather than nourish the crops of western Kansas for another generation. Each time that I learn more about this looming water crisis for Kansas, I feel more dread for the economics of the state.
One hopeful note (we need it!) came from Brian Grimmett’s reporting on how people of faith were incorporating sustainable lifestyles into their religious lives.
THE DEATH OF BOB DOLE
The state paused to grieve, celebrate and chronicle the life of Bob Dole, the presidential candidate, senator and vice-presidential candidate who died at age 98 on Dec. 5. His conservative influence and political successes created many institutions in the state, including the Dole Institute at KU. The institute exhaustively documented his legacy through audio with a series of 73 episodes interviewing his contemporaries, including Walter Mondale, George McGovern and Trent Lott. Following his death this year, local podcasts like “Kansas City Today” explained Dole’s significance.
IN ALL . . .
The links above create a complicated playlist that depicts 2021 as a year of division after 2020’s distinction as the year of isolation. Both pandemic years call us to meet in the middle to solve our biggest problems — problems that seem to gain strength from our polarization and physical distance.
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.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.