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June 16, 2016, 11:40 a.m.
Reporting & Production

For its new personal finance podcast, FiveThirtyEight set up voicemail to hear from listeners

“There’s a key aspect to all of this policy discussion that’s about our everyday lives, and it’s important to make that connection in a very visceral way.”

The current presidential election race has been full of big headlines about big politicians talking about big issues. How those big issues actually affect regular people, on the other hand, has often taken the backseat.

Kitchen Table Politics, a new limited-run podcast series from FiveThirtyEight, shining a light on the on-the-ground reality of these issues. The series, which launched Thursday, examines what electoral politics and public policies mean for the average American. The episodes, airing over the next five weeks, will follow specific personal finance issues that nearly every American faces at some point. The first episode looks at childcare and paid family leave. Future episodes will examine higher education, jobs, healthcare, and retirement. (The series will run within the FiveThirtyEight elections podcast feed.)

“Our audience is already very policy-minded and able to deal with high-level policy and economics discussion, but we also want to make sure that the human stories are there, too, because that’s the connection we’re trying to make,” said Farai Chideya, the show’s host. “There’s a key aspect to all of this that’s about our everyday lives, and it’s important to make that connection in a very visceral way.”

To ground the policy discussions in the concerns of real people, Kitchen Table Politics set out to hear from listeners directly. Ahead of the show’s launch, the producers set up a dedicated phone number that people could call to share their stories and perspectives about each week’s topics. For each episode it offers a simple, but open-ended prompt, the responses to which are excerpted and discussed by the show’s hosts and guests.

An increasing number of podcasts have turned to this tactic in an effort to get listeners more engaged. WNYC’s Note to Self got 1,700 voicemails earlier this year when it asked listeners to share their new year’s goals. BuzzFeed’s Another Round, CNN, and The Washington Post have also created voicemail systems to connect with readers.

For politics, though, hearing directly from listeners takes on a particular significance. “One of the complaints journalists hear constantly during the political season is that we spend more time talking about the candidates than we do drilling down on the issues,” Chideya said, adding that the show has already gotten “way more calls” than she expected it to. Some of these have added some key context to the discussions. One caller who worked in the childcare industry, for example, challenged the popular notion that childcare should be inexpensive, which, the caller argued, would create a race to the bottom and devalue a very difficult job.

While Chideya said that there’s an “almost infinite number” of topics that Kitchen Table Politics could cover, she plans to put the show on pause after the first five episodes, ahead of the Democratic and Republican conventions in July. FiveThirtyEight is open to bringing the show back next year and may figure out new ways of applying the model, such as extending it to some of the site’s science coverage.

“We have reporters who are topic experts and do a lot work that translates well to this kind podcast format,” she said. “This is a nice way to cover ongoing big-picture stories and revisit topics. It’s not off the table that we’ll continue it later.”

Photo of a kitchen table by Liz West used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 16, 2016, 11:40 a.m.
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