Conversations and Media: a vision, an idea

On Monday, February 6, I am beginning a new experiment: a community-created podcast series, produced in partnership with my beloved public library.

It is a podcast with some twists.

The above outlines the what, but here are some reasons why this project enthuses me:

First, the series aims to be constructive. I am an avowed advocate of critical thinking, second-guessing the obvious, and weighing opposing viewpoints. I love debates for the very reason that they force me to hear ‘the other side.’ However, I am concerned that ‘critical’ has become synonymous ‘controversy’ in today’s sensationalized pop-news environment. We do not promote counterpoints because we hunger for truth yet realized, but rather because conflict and dispute sell advertising space. Socially valuable criticism — the kind of critical thinking needed in civil democracy — also needs to be constructive: it needs to help us move our discourse from where it is by forcing us to wrestle with choices and actions.

For me, this podcast is a way to (hopefully) foster some constructive conversations. I do not want to shy away from controversies, but rather bring some semblance of sober, critical inquiry to bear upon them. I want to make controversy as unsexy as possible; as if blunting sensationalism with an infusion of dull, rational contemplation. In other words, I hope this podcast produces the kind of conversations that most mainline media corporations simply cannot afford to produce for broadcast: discussions that constructively address divisive issues instead of pouring gasoline on them or snowballing them into magnitudinous, populist frenzies.

What if the true social value of an idea does not necessarily correlate with its likelihood of ‘going viral?’ What are we missing in our effort to distract one another with competing headlines? It feels like most prevalent models of media consumption incentivize turning everything into a soundbite, including the most complex social issues and the variable contingencies of scientific data.

Speaking of the media, the journalism landscape in my city is experiencing a bizarre and swift metamorphosis. By no means whatsoever do I purport to be a journalist, but I hope this project is valuable due in part to the fact that no other entity in the current media ecosystem could reasonably justify funding for a program like this in a budget cycle. As far as I can tell, it has zero prospects for profitability. This idea is entirely untested for market. But this is fine. The whole idea here is to tell stories and facilitate conversations that current media revenue models leave untold.

Since the American presidential election, I have wrestled with the question, ‘What do I do now?’ This project represents my best, feeble answer at present: gather people who have a manifest commitment to building an equitable and equal society, and do everything in my meager capacity to join my voice with theirs. At this point, I just do not know what else to do.

Like I said at the outset, this is an experiment. A very public experiment. The library and I are mutually committed to a three-month ‘prototype trial’ through April to gauge the viability and practicality of this initiative. I have no brilliant plan for sustainability. I haven’t the foggiest clue how many people will be interested in attending the live events at the library or even listening to the podcast. This initiative is just a good ‘ol, classic case of believing that something needs to happen and foolishly trying it. (But hey, worst case scenario, there is so much to be learned from failure, right?)

At a minimum, from February to April, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to engage with some remarkable and thoughtful individuals. I am deeply grateful to (in order of appearance) Susan Toth, Matt Ross, Rowa Mohamed, Jeff Preston, Gerda Zonruiter, Javeed Sukhera, Abe Oudshoorn, Jacqueline Specht, and Cassandra Cervi. All of these people willingly accepted my pleas to be guests on the podcast, and thereby became fellow collaborators in this experiment as well. Also, thanks to Carolyn Doyle, Lindsay Harris, Ellen Hobin, and David Caloren for facilitating this vision on the library side. To everyone: I am grateful for your willingness to try something a few steps off the beaten path.

The first episode will be recorded live on Monday, February 6, at 7pm, at the Central branch of the London Public Library. Come be part of the experiment, too.

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