Farai Chideya, the host and creator of the Our Body Politic podcast, spent years working in public media. Now as her two-year old podcast hits the 100-episode mark, the veteran journalist has come full circle as the indie podcast has grown its distribution to nearly 100 public radio stations nationwide, giving the show an average of 350,000 weekly listeners and the kind of open field of storytelling that isn’t always easy to find.
“We go wherever we want to go. And that's the freedom when you produce your own show, you get to do that,” said Chideya. “You don't have to ask anyone else if it’s weird for us to be talking to a WNBA player one day and a Russia expert the next day.”
Speaking from her Washington home, Chideya said although the mechanics of a podcast on the radio means watching the clock for a one-hour broadcast timeslot, the core of Our Body Politic has remained the same.
“We operate more like a podcast in the sense of just following our bliss. But we are able to reach audiences on both platforms,” she said. In the public radio world, Chideya admits it took some getting used to for some listeners.
“Frankly, we got a bit of shade when we first launched,” she said. “People said ‘this isn't a public radio show.’ And I said I guess my idea of what can show up on public radio is different than yours. And we have proven that we can be on public radio.”
The show now clears on 93 stations including WAMU Washington, WHYY Philadelphia, Colorado Public Radio and Houston Public Radio.
The Hardest Part Isn’t Producing A Show
For Chideya, launching and syndicating an indie podcast meant creating a business mid-pandemic. “That's really been the hardest part,” she said. In addition to her past work on radio, Chideya has also worked in television and as a professor.
Donations and grant dollars have helped the show operate as a not-for-profit, presenting its episodes advertising-free. “Advertising is critical, and we're not anti-advertising. But we said let's become a more mature product so we can really go out and find the right sponsor for this show,” she explained.
While Our Body Politic does have a Patreon component, Chideya is hesitant to move too far down the subscription path. “When you're talking about really bringing in a diverse audience, membership models can be self-selecting,” she said. Chideya said she saw programming decisions made in public radio that were based on who might sponsor the content, putting the needs of wealthier listeners over a broader section of the listenership.
Like a lot of podcasters, Chideya is what is described as a super-listener. She consumes roughly 20 hours of content a week. But Chideya also says she is building a brand that will work beyond just the podcast app or radio, not unlike what This American Life has created. The show may limit itself to an hour or less for broadcasters, but she sees that opening other opportunities. “We have so much content, we have a whole plan for repurposing it,” she explained. That may soon include video, too. Chideya said the show’s “Sipping the Political Tea” roundtable segment with her and two guests “would be an easy layup for video.”
To support the expansion, Nina Spensley has joined to lead business operations and fundraising efforts as co-Executive Producer and General Manager.
Super Heavy Meets Joy And Culture
Chideya has been covering political and cultural trends for years, and long before the current political conversation one of her focuses has been on extremism in America. It has given her a launch point for Our Body Politic, which mixes data, trends, and history alongside personal stories that make the series more relatable to a wider audience.
“Doing the show is really about doing the little bit I can to shore up American democracy,” she said. “I've been probably sounding the alarm longer than most people just because I spent so many years as a field reporter and political reporter. I predicted January 6 on a Detroit radio station before it happened -- and we're not at the peak of it yet.”
Yet while Chideya said they cover “super heavy” topics, the show also drops “joy and culture” episodes.
“We're here for the fun, we're here for the music, and we're here to cover the insurrection,” she explained. “We're here to be real about it all, both with elected officials and, you know, civic leaders and culture mavens and all of it.”