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Jan. 23, 2017, 1:43 p.m.
Reporting & Production

With Indivisible, public radio stations hope the call-in format will help Americans find common ground

The show is “about understanding the values that we hold and how we want to be — what are our shared hopes and dreams for who we want to be in the world and how are we seen,” says WNYC CEO Laura Walker.

These days, it seems as if the only thing that unites Americans is a shared appetite for partisanship. The 2016 presidential election revealed the wide gulfs that divide the country, a reality that does not bode well for today’s politics or tomorrow’s democracy.

Public radio wants to do its part to help bridge those divides. With Indivisible, a new nightly call-in show that premieres Monday night at 8 p.m. ET, WNYC, Minnesota Public Radio, and The Economist will cover the first 100 days of the Trump administration, tracing the major issues that divide Americans, and hopes to help bring some of them together.

To that end, Indivisible will rotate its four hosts, each of whom will cover different topics and, ideally, bring in new groups of listeners. WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, for example, will cover politics’ “new normal.” Charlie Sykes, a longtime conservative radio host, will focus on ideological divides in the country. WNYC’s Kai Wright along with The Economist’s John Prideaux and Anne McElvoy will take the global view on topics, and Minnesota Public Radio’s Kerri Miller will cover the changing picture of American identity. The program will air Monday through Thursday until April, and will be published as a podcast as well.

“Public radio is truly unique in the sense that it has deep roots in thousands of communities around the country, at the same time it’s also a national force,” said Laura Walker, president and CEO of WNYC, which is spearheading the project. “And it’s also live and about the power of the voice. I don’t think anyone else can do this the way public radio can.”

I spoke to Walker about media coverage of the election, media’s role in creating common ground for public discourse, and radio’s unique ability to humanize people with different viewpoints.

Ricardo Bilton: How did this project come about?

Laura Walker: We laid the groundwork for this during the election season, where we did a bunch of both national and local talk programs where we really tried to think about how we get people to talk to each other in a way that’s civil. We wanted to model a different kind of public discourse and think about the questions of commonality, how we frame debates — not just who are you voting for.

Brian Lehrer did a big national talk program on Super Tuesday where he asked people in the states that were voting what was inspiring them to vote, and what issues they cared about. We also did a range of narrative journalism projects, such as “The United States of Anxiety,” where we looked at different populations and talked about what was motivating them to vote.

Bilton: What would you say is the most unique thing about what you’re trying to do with Indivisible?

Walker:To me, it’s about framing and convening conversations among many different kinds of Americans. Each day we’ll have a different focus, but none will be echo chambers of like-minded people. It’s about opening a dialogue and being as interested in what’s felt in the red states as in the urban centers. We’ll have participation all around the country, from places like Little Rock and Des Moines and Philadelphia and Chicago. It’s going to be a very different thing, overall.

I think it’s something that public radio can uniquely do. We’re not ratings-driven; we’re not in it to just put pundits on the air. We’re in it for reasons of mission and values. We’re in a moment where trust in the media has been shaken and more and more people are consuming self-reinforcing media and are in their own echo chambers. So there is a need for a larger convening force that can bring Americans together, which we’re hoping to do.

Bilton: One of the biggest narratives about the election was that the political conversations and realities weren’t overlapping. Likeminded people were talking amongst themselves, and so opinions drifted to the extremes. You also had the media flogging itself over not really capturing what was happening in the middle of the country, and being caught off guard by the magnitude of Trump’s support. How much of that inspired this project?

Walker: We look at a country that’s more divided now than it’s been in a long time. One thing we’re going to do after the first 100 days is explore the history of the culture wars in the United States, because these issues we face are not new. From the inception of the country, there have been a lot of divisions, and we want to look at that and hopefully shed light on where we are now.

I think there are very few places where you’re able to model the right kind of public discourse. You find yourself going to public gatherings or family dinners where the election or policies are off-limits because it’s hard to talk about any of it. We’ve got to figure out our commonalities and the solutions, as well as the differences.

Bilton: Take me through some of the specific ways that you’re trying to further this idea of finding common ground. How does, for example, the host lineup you’ve chosen fit into that?

Walker: Charlie Sykes is one host we’re thrilled to have join us. He’s been a very popular talkshow host with a conservative perspective and he has a great ability to frame conversations in a way that gets people to talk. We are hoping he’s going to bring a lot of his audience with him, because we want to increase the diversity of the public radio audience even further. He’s also going to be looking at conservative principles and how they will function within the new administration. He will be able to draw a lot of people together to talk about values.

Charlie is the quintessential Midwesterner, but we also have Brian Lehrer, who is is your quintessential New Yorker. So we’re going to be able to bring in a lot of different perspectives.

Bilton: Why was the call-in part of this so important? One thing that was clear during the election was that there was a lot of “other-izing” on both sides. People kept finding that they never knew anyone who supported the other side, so it was very easy to dehumanize people who disagreed with their views. How much of this approach is just letting people hear the actual voices and concerns of others?

Walker:Yes, it was really about showing that many of our concerns and values are very similar. We want people to see each other as human. Hopefully that will inspire people to start other kinds of conversations in their own families and their own lives. None of this is about trying to criticize the Trump administration. It’s about understanding the values that we hold and how we want to be — what are our shared hopes and dreams for who we want to be in the world, and how are we seen? This is about the huge changes that are going on in our country, and we want to understand them.

Photo of Trump Tower by Giuseppe Milo used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 23, 2017, 1:43 p.m.
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