In the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, it’s often been difficult to differentiate the merely unconventional from the dangerously abnormal. In light of Trump’s battles with the media, his unconventional cabinet picks, and his refusal to distance himself from his businesses, among many other issues, “this is not normal” has become a common refrain for observers on both the right and left. The problem is that Americans without how a firm grasp of how things are supposed to work aren’t sure what “normal” actually is.
The state of today’s politics helps to explain the overnight success of Civics 101, a new podcast from New Hampshire Public Radio that breaks down the mechanics of the U.S. government for people trying to make sense of the daily tempest of news coming out of the new administration. The show, which went live on Inauguration Day with an episode about the president’s chief of staff, has also covered the White House press corps, the constitutional amendment process, and the National Security Council. Each episode, which features an interviewee well versed in the topic at hand, covers the history of the topic and how recent news events have reshaped or upended it.
It’s proven to be a successful formula: A day after the first episode aired, the podcast reached the sixth spot on the iTunes podcasts chart. (It’s fallen since then, to No. 148 overall, but is still featured prominently in iTunes’ “New and Noteworthy” podcasts section.) Overall, the show has been downloaded over 400,000 times since January 25, “which is unbelievable for us,” said Maureen McMurray, Civics 101’s executive producer. She credited those numbers in part to the “chaos of this new administration,” which was in part the catalyst for the show’s creation. “I don’t think a podcast with this concept would have gone anywhere if we had done it on the inauguration day of Obama or Bush,” she said.Likewise, the show has been successful, in part, because it was designed to be accessible to as many listeners as possible. Every episode, beyond offering a basic, non-partisan introduction to its chosen topics, is kept under 15 minutes, a length that is unlikely to intimidate or drive away new listeners. Furthermore, unlike many popular political podcasts that presuppose a level of familiarity with politics, the show was created for people who hear concepts in the news — “minority whip,” for example — but can’t define them or describe how they work. Civics 101 also takes pains to humble itself and admit when its host or producers are also uninformed about certain ideas.
“The fact that we admit that lack of understanding upfront is a relief for people. We put ourselves out there and make ourselves somewhat vulnerable. We say, ‘We don’t quite understand this either, but we’re going to figure it out together,'” said McMurray. “It helps us connect with the audience in a more authentic way. We’re investigating on their behalf.” (That’s somewhat similar to the mission of Marketplace’s new podcast, Make Me Smart.)
While it was initially pitched as a weekly show that would run only during the first 100 days of the new administration, the rapid success convinced the producers to increase the production frequency to two shows a week. There are also plans to keep the podcast going indefinitely. Civics 101 has also put a heavier emphasis on listener engagement. The most recent episodes all feature the voices of listeners asking their questions, which are collected via audience engagement tool Hearken. Some questions have been evergreen, but others, such as those in the show about the National Security Council, have related more directly to recent events. “We wanted these natural questions that people had to fuel where the episodes would go,” McMurray said.
Host Virginia Prescott says in the show’s introduction that Civics 101 talks about the “basics you may have forgotten or slept through in school,” but it’s equally likely that many of the show’s concepts are those listeners never learned at all. Civics education in the U.S. is in a “crisis,” according to a 2016 report by the nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which found, for example, that only about 20 percent of students knew that James Madison was the father of the Constitution. “It is testimony to the failure of the country’s education system that a high percentage of the voting-age population is simply ignorant of basic facts,” Columbia sociology professor Jonathan R. Cole wrote in The Atlantic in November.
Podcasts, in their own limited way, are helping to fill in some of those gaps. “A lot of the feedback that we’ve gotten from people says something like, ‘We don’t understand how any of this works, and we really want to know,'” said Allison Michaels, the host of The Washington Post podcast Can He Do That?, which covers the many ways Donald Trump is upsetting the status quo of the American presidency. “People tell us that the show has already helped give them a greater understanding of what the laws are, what the norms are, and what in history we can compare all of this to.”
Can He Do That? is driven by a similar mission to that of Civics 101: At a time when the boundaries of government laws and norms are constantly being pushed, people are hungry for media that can help define what those boundaries actually are.
“A lot of our listeners say they want to make sure they know the rules and know how the government works so they can do their part to make sure that our democracy is upheld. People just want to make sure they understand the basics of what’s going on,” Michaels said.