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“Everything that is #Trump is made into a podcast.” It sounds like an elevator pitch from hell, but Timo Uusi-Kerttula has turned it into a reality.
The founder of ReadEar Ltd., a company that hopes to make it easier for those with vision or reading problems to access the news, Uusi-Kerttula put two demo podcasts on his website for potential customers last June. One features a female British robot soberly reading BBC News headlines, and best showcases ReadEar’s mission.
The other podcast is called Robo Trump, in which a male robot voice reads tweets that appear under #Trump, one at a time. The podcast releases dozens of episodes a day, most of which last only 10 seconds. One representative edition features a deep and scratchy-voiced robot sharing an abridged, and suddenly far more terrifying, adaptation of a social media missive: “A tweet from Cher: Trump has given go ahead to mine Alaska, Possibly kill.”
The abridging was not intentional; robots are apparently bewildered by emoji and links. And the confusion creates an oral history of an average day in Trump’s America that feels like a shockingly accurate tone poem. Listen to enough in a row, and the outrage and strawmen fade, leaving behind a blur of nonsensical white noise. “Tweet from Fox News: Animatronic pound sign Trump joins Disney World’s Hall of Presidents.” “Tweet from God: All I want for Christmas 2017 is for Donald Trump Jr. to be indicted by Robert Mueller. Pound sign Christmas miracle.” “Tweet from Not a Wolf: Let’s not shame Trump for not knowing how to drink water out of a glass some adult humans are just super bad a t i t and we should just never a.”
The voice used in every single RoboTrump episode, Uusi-Kerttula says, is the least soothing of all 100 at ReadEar’s disposal. “I wanted to pick the weirdest sound there is,” he says. “It sounds like a guy who’s been drinking whiskey a lot.” Despite the fact that this podcast is only a product demo, nearly 800,000 people downloaded an episode on SoundCloud over the past 90 days, according to its creator.
“I don’t know why,” Uusi-Kerttula says, adding that he never saw these kinds of numbers when he uploaded content to SoundCloud while running a talk radio station in Finland. “I have no idea.”
That same befuddlement could be applied to the whole ecosystem of Trump-focused podcasts, which seem to grow like unwanted mold in the damp of our discontent.
Slate has a Trump podcast. The Washington Post has one called, “Can He Do That?” There are podcasts devoted to discovering Trump’s effect on the environment, constitutional law, social justice and the Resistance. Some podcasts about Trump are just a spinoff of books about Trump. Another one is called, “Trump Stakes.” It is illustrated with a photo of Trump Steaks. One, called “Trump Dad Podcast,” features conversations between two brothers and their Trump-loving dad. There are comics working on their impressions. And there are many more, before you even get to the never-ending supply of general interest and political podcasts, like Pod Save America, that also spend their time discussing our president, while not following his cue by putting his name prominently on all the real estate.
Nick Quah, who runs the newsletter “Hot Pod,” has noticed that the Trump podcast market deserves a flood warning. “Podcasting is still young, and there’s a low barrier to starting one,” he says. So when a trend becomes visible, many people jump on the bandwagon, eager to go viral before the hunger fades. With true crime, another common frame used for audio narratives, Quah says “there is at least some marginal novelty” with each series, even if the basic contours remain the same. With Trump, though, who is already submerging us in all other mediums, can you say the same? “At a certain point,” Quah says, “you have to ask, what are we doing here?” At the moment, it feels like the only thing these podcasts are doing is bringing us closer to a media environment where everyone who wants one can find their own personalized Trump podcast, massaging their confirmation bias in the most comforting way possible. Even some of the listeners keeping these podcasts alive seem exhausted by their continued existence, or at least the fact that they feel necessary. “I love the podcast but…,” one iTunes store reviewer noted, “I hope it’s not around for much longer!” Five out of nine listeners found this wisdom helpful.
There are enough that “Grab Them By The Pod” co-host Jesse Schoolnik has been silently analyzing the future of Trump podcasts when not examining Trump on his podcast. “Which one of these is going to stand the test of time?” he asks. “In a year, are all of these still going to be around?”
Schoolnik, a former lobbyist, congressional staffer and Republican, and his co-host, Kevin Brown, a high school history teacher, feel as though their respective careers, plus a 17-year friendship, make their podcast—which they’ve been taping in Connecticut since February—special. They pepper their episodes with historical and pop culture references and try to be moderate, in an attempt to woo as many potential listeners as possible. The pair earnestly cares about politics; they even ran for local office last year. And yes, they are learning that it is sometimes hard to find a new way to talk about the same insane story week after week. “We’d love to have something else to talk about,” Schoolnik says, with Brown adding that the repetitiveness is necessary, as they “can’t normalize the insanity.” (Although listening to podcasts explaining exactly how weird the world might be is, perhaps, its own kind of new normal.)
But everyone else making these podcasts also hopes that their recorded observations will be around for posterity. They all hope that they have discovered the one frame that the world desperately needs to better understand this strange moment. Except for Robo Trump, which, as its creator freely admits, exists only so “you can have this weird voice talking about #Trump.”
At the University of Sussex, American Studies professors are using the critical distance that the Atlantic Ocean provides to look at the Trump administration from an academic angle. Their podcast Trump Watch Sussex has taped five episodes so far, covering big picture items like Populism 101 as well as more specific event-based analysis, such as the episode prompted by Charlottesville. Placing Trump in historical context, while also reflecting on how few analogies seem apt on a day when the president of the United States tweets, “Also, there is NO COLLUSION!” is their mission, although they have other coverage planned, like an episode with British students studying abroad in the United States. “Academics,” says American Studies program director Doug Haynes, “do have things to say that are sometimes useful.” But how does knowing that they’re only going to get listeners for less than an hour every few weeks, during which time they’ll be exposed to an overwhelming amount of hyperbole, anecdote or simply an inordinate number of breaking news alerts, make them feel? Haynes thinks for a moment, and answers: “Hopeless?”
Other academics have also tried to add their research to the podcast canon. Stanford University recently did a project called “Reading After Trump.” The hosts wax podcastily on George Orwell, Nathanael West and Jonathan Swift, looking for a listenership interested in critical reading while covering a topic that partly exists as podcast fodder because America can’t even agree what critical reading means.
Although these podcasts try to occupy a different niche, their definitions of success in this crowded sphere look similar. “Even if we only reach a number of students,” Trump Watch Sussex host and historian Melissa Milewski says, “I think it’s important no matter how many people we reach.”
“I don’t know if it’s going to be one person or one million people who change their views because of us,” Schoolnik says, “but if it’s that one person, I’ll call it a success.”
They could perhaps learn useful tips to help them reach their goals by listening to yet another podcast. “Lessons Learned From Donald Trump.” It is hosted by Steve Sipress, a self-described profit maximizer whose home page bears the title, “Do You Have A Burning Desire To Create An Extra 5- Or 6-Figure A Month Stream Of Income?” The show begins by announcing that it is “the greatest, most outrageous, incredibly fun podcast on the internet,” and each of the more than 80 episodes that have been uploaded so far attempts to extract useful small-business tips from the political flotsam. In recent episodes, the way that Trump has dealt with both ISIS and Kim Jong Un have been rendered into marketable fodder for would-be real estate legends. (“Sometimes you want to do things in business where people think you are out of your mind.”) The lessons range widely, from “How to Do the Right Thing” to “How to Attract Raving Fans By Being Yourself.” Sipress admits that he and his co-host are running out of new lessons, though. That doesn’t mean they run out of things to talk about. Just as other podcasts keep talking about the same things as a way of not normalizing, so does Sipress use the latest tweet or scandal to reiterate a familiar lesson in marketing. Where others see politics, he sees brand management know-how that any small business owner could use. Sure, they could have done a podcast about a local marketing genius: Lessons Learned From Joe the Car Salesman. But why would anyone listen?
Trump “makes sure all the attention is focused on Donald Trump,” Sipress says, launching an insane tweet into the news if anything gets too quiet. “He purposefully creates chaos.” And so they tried to borrow a bit of the spotlight, even if it ends up reflecting back onto the White House in the end.
Other Trump podcasts had a natural lifespan, one that already ended. Kyle DeLaHunt, founder of the Math Is Hard podcast network, created a Kylo Ren voice filter last year, mostly to impress his two stepkids. Eventually, the Star Wars nerd made the realization that the voice filter might make a hilarious podcast if paired with the tweets he was obsessed with at the moment, courtesy of a still-laughable presidential candidate. The 13th episode of Kylo Trump, only 38 seconds long, features a robot-esque voice saying, “Robert Pattinson should not take back Kristen Stewart. She cheated on him like a dog & will do it again — just watch. He can do much better!” He started the podcast for fun, but also because he hoped that 11 friends might tune in instead of 10, and that maybe setting this crazy world into an even more ridiculous scenario might convey how insane the world felt. DeLaHunt kept going for 54 episodes, until July 2016, when he didn’t think it was funny anymore. “At a certain point, I just felt like, I don’t know what purpose this is suiting.”
One robot voice died, and yet another one stepped in its wake a year later. It might not be clear how these podcasts help us understand the world any better yet, but there are still at least three more years of trial and error. And, as Sipress says, “Why stop?” They’re only following their subject’s lesson plan: “It will continue to get us attention.”