1A strives to find its own voice

by Pat Louise

Sixteen days before President Donald Trump opened his administration with his Inauguration speech that declared ‘From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” NPR’s newest radio show and podcast focused on the topic.’

Since Jan. 2 host Joshua Johnson leads discussion on 1A that mostly centers on daily topics with a connection to the First Amendment, which inspired the name of the show.

Now airing 9 to 11 a.m. on the radio, Johnson and 1A replaced the 37-year running Diane Rehm Show. The show airs from WAMU on the American University campus in Washington, D.C.

For those listening to radio via podcasts on their own timetable, the 1A version provides a show between 35 and 50 minutes. Depending on the length of the show, 1A offers one or two podcasts a day culled from the radio show. This review looks at the podcast.

1A started strong. On the Jan. 4 podcast titled “Is the Era of American Humanitarian Intervention Over?” the 47-minute show featured five guests. Before the discussion, the show opened with a montage of quotes and music from such notables as Martin Luther King Jr., Bart Simpson, Bruce Springsteen, Richard Nixon and Jimi Hendrix.

Rather than a round-table discussion with panelists taking an extreme view one way or the other, the show allowed the first two guests to explore the topic solo for seven to nine minutes each.

Up first was Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a Democrat who served two tours of duty in the Middle East. Gabbard made a strong case that Trump’s directive of America First made sense economically by redirecting U.S. resources to solving problems at home instead.

Giving a different viewpoint was St. Louis, Mo. schoolteacher Elvir Ahmetovic, a Bosnian who came to the United States in 2002 as a refugee. He spoke about the need for the United States to act as rescuers for families such as his.

The other three panelists, including Boston Globe columnist Stephen Kinzer, rounded out the show with a thoughtful and balanced outline of how Trump’s new direction could both benefit and hurt on a national and global level. At the end, listener comments praised the show for its give-and-take of both sides of the issue.

1A’s rating on iTunes for that show puts it at the sixth most popular podcast for Jan. 4, a fast jump from two days before when it debuted at No. 25.

Two days later 1A reached No. 3 with the first of its weekly Friday News Roundups, broken into one podcast for domestic news of the week and the other for international.

But since then, 1A has steadily dropped in listeners to No. 77 on Feb. 5 and falling to 95th the following week, to bump back up to 92nd to start the week of Feb. 12. Rankings are based on the number of downloads requested of the top 200 podcasts available through iTunes.

On iTunes, 1A ranked behind Sleep With Me, (59th), a podcast of boring stories to help people fall asleep; Car Talk, (67th), which is all reruns at least 10 years old, and Guys We F****D, (87th), which bills itself at the Anti-slut Shaming podcast.

Which is all a shame in itself, as 1A has some good offerings. Its Friday roundup usually brings it up a few rungs on the daily iTunes chart with a great blend of news and behind-the-scenes looks from journalists and others involved on the topics.

In the Jan. 13 domestic roundup, done one week before Trump took office, CBS News Chief White House correspondent Major Garrett made an astute observation about how journalists should cover the new president. He said journalists need to distinguish between what Trump says that is interesting and what he says that is important.

Since noon Friday, Jan. 20, that statement might well sum up the challenges facing the press corp these days.

Along with trying to drill down on important topics, 1A ventures into some topics of its own design. One show, the Politics of Laughing, looked at political-based humor with a trio of comedians. Another, Revisiting James Baldwin, examined why the author’s work is once again popular.

The show also tapped into the music industry with a couple of music-themed shows. In Do The Grammys Matter. Yes (asked and answered in the title as many listeners pointed out, eliminating the need to listen) the panelists of two NPR music journalists and Simon Vozick-Levinson from MTV, explain the relevance of the awards.

The Feb. 13 show Going Country: The Surprising Success Of Country Music, the podcast called itself a boot-scootin’ 1A. That show drew 67 comments on the 1A website around the question of what one country song would you choose to introduce someone to country music.

Whether venturing off the map of politics to boot scoot through the country music scene helps 1A keep and bring in listeners is unclear. With so much news hovering around the First Amendment and politics, these topics provide a respite – but a respite listener may well find too light to follow.

The single biggest factor for low ratings given by listeners on various review sites is that the 1A podcast does not provide the full two hours from the radio show.

Many listeners point out that Rehm’s full two hours was available as a podcast. Reviewers said they would prefer the full context of discussion rather than chunks of it.

Listeners give the second-most critical comments to Johnson’s style as a host. While some love his laid-back approach to let guests speak their minds, others say he lets too many statements go unchallenged. Other criticisms question whether the show can accept viewpoints not strictly in the liberal line of thinking and whether the choice of panelists shape a preordained thinking on a topic.

One of the biggest criticisms came from a Feb. 7 podcast, Sanford Now, taking an early five-year look back at Sanford, Fla., where Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighbor. Along with Matthew Peddie, assistant news director at WMFE in Orlando, the other panelist was Paul Butler, Georgetown University Law Center professor, former federal prosecutor and author of the forthcoming book “Chokehold: Policing Black Men.”

Listeners said Butler’s well-known viewpoint (he has spoken out about a number of incidents when a young black man has been shot, including Ferguson) brought nothing new to the discussion. Instead, the suggestion was to have included someone in authority from the Sanford community to explain changes over the five years.

The other podcast from the Feb. 7 1A radio show was Rest In Power: How Trayvon Martin Transformed A Nation. His parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, co-authors of the book Rest In Power, were the only panelists and discussed their lives since their son was shot Feb. 26, 2012. They talked about their book, their son and a foundation set up in his name.

Most of that fell by the wayside. The 355 comments on the 1A website degenerated into name-calling and charges of racism among commenters.

It might be that in striving to give everyone an equal platform to exercise their First Amendment rights, 1A has overlooked finding its own voice in the discussion. While NPR certainly will not give Johnson the 37 years Rehm had to do so, the show’s hits outweigh its misses and should be granted time to grow and improve.