With ‘Our Body Politic,’ Farai Chideya opens a new conversation about American politics

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Farai Chideya has a lot going on.

Chideya, the veteran independent journalist and creator/host of Our Body Politic, a weekly radio show and podcast, has been focused on preparing her team to cover the final weeks of the midterm elections. But unlike most other journalists covering this political moment, she and her staff are explicitly centering women of color in their coverage.

While celebrating the release of Our Body Politic’s 100th episode in September, Chideya and her growing team of producers and reporters were working to expand the show’s format by integrating local coverage from independent and station-based journalists while exploring an opportunity to collaborate on producing radio documentaries. Further down the road, the team looks to add roundtable segments featuring regular contributors and analysts. 

The expansion aims to refine and build on an interview-based show that launched in fall 2020 with startup support from three California public radio stations — KQED in San Francisco, KCRW in Santa Monica and KPCC in Los Angeles — and philanthropic funding. Carriage has since expanded to more than two dozen licensees while Chideya, a former program officer for the Ford Foundation, has taken on all fundraising responsibilities for the show.  

“I intend to use all of my different backgrounds — my background as a reporter covering extremism, who’s interviewed the Klan, Aryan Nation … as a former program officer who can help make the case to grantmakers that this effort is worth supporting, and as someone who has my own news outlet,” Chideya said. “So it feels really good at this stage to be able to use the different sets of skills I have.”

Chideya doesn’t know how long Our Body Politic will continue beyond the next presidential election cycle. For now, she said, she’s focused on serving her audience and evolving along with the changing public radio landscape, which has begun to feature more independently produced programs like hers. She started the show with the belief that women of color were not getting the  attention they deserve on public radio, particularly during the 2020 presidential campaign and general elections.

Our Body Politic’s coverage of Black women and the voting behaviors and political perspectives of other women of color helps listeners better understand America’s overall political climate, said Paul Bennun, a media consultant and former CCO at KCRW who was involved in supporting the show’s startup. The stories it covers ultimately are of great importance to all voters, he added.

For example, “the stories around abortion and border autonomy — those are covered extremely broadly, extremely widely at the moment,” Bennun said, describing media coverage in general. “However … there are certain perspectives in those stories that aren’t being covered, and I think that that’s what this show does. It brings a hugely important context that allows the listener to recontextualize the implications of these stories in fundamentally important ways.”

Another way Our Body Politic stands apart from other programs is by its overall sound, including Chideya’s interviewing style and the show’s choice of music, Bennun said. Chideya has a unique delivery because she’s both relaxed and direct with the guests that she interviews, he added.

Spensley

The ease with which Chideya interviews guests is attributable to the team that helps her prepare for them, as well as her depth and breadth of knowledge from decades of news experience, said Nina Spensley, co-EP and GM of Our Body Politic, who joined the show this summer. On any given week, about 20 people are helping with the show, including about eight core employees, plus additional part-timers, freelancers and three people from a separate engineering house, Spensley said. 

“You can talk to Farai about the environment, outer space, futurism, the digital era,” Spensley said. “She also just has this ability to pick up on everything that’s out there and digest it in ways that other people aren’t. Another unique way in which she sort of comes to a lot of these conversations is that she has this ability to kind of look into the future and then track back.”

‘Rooted in life experiences’

To bring more voices into the program and report on key political races, Our Body Politic recently hired Anoa Changa as political producer. The movement journalist and retired attorney is assisting with election coverage and will possibly stay with the show after the midterms are over, Chideya said. Before joining Our Body Politic, Changa was an editor at NewsOne and an electoral justice staff reporter at Prism. She’s also contributed to publications such as Rewire, Essence and Ms

Chideya and her team also want to collaborate with independent audio producers and radio stations to feature original reporting from local communities, she said.

The show is already working with freelance journalists to produce short segments of on-the-ground reporting from Pennsylvania, Arizona and Wisconsin, according to Spensley.

Our Body Politic features many traditionally credentialed interviewees, but Chideya wants to work with stations to find local voices whose expertise is rooted in life experiences, she said. The team is looking for the sweet spot between creating coverage that is inclusive and fits public radio values yet doesn’t duplicate the local reporting that stations would produce.

By incorporating unexpected perspectives and new voices from the field, Our Body Politic seeks to explore what midterm campaigns and elections reveal about the issues that concern Americans — and how those issues are shaped by voters’ identities, Spensley said.

“It is about digging deep” into the ways the midterm campaigns unfold and how “that tells us more about what the state of America is today,” she added. 

Plans to collaborate on radio documentaries are in the early stage and under wraps for now, according to Chideya. Her team is talking with Dana Coester, founder of the 100 Days in Appalachia nonprofit newsroom, about producing documentaries under the Our Body Politic banner. Looking beyond the midterms, Our Body Politic plans to add roundtable segments and contributors ahead of the 2024 election cycle, she said. Possible contributors include Washington Post opinion columnist Karen Attiah, Georgetown University law professor Tiffany Jeffers and The 19th founder and editor-in-Chief Errin Haines. 

“I did not start this just to pump up my own career,” Chideya said. “I’ve been a journalist for three decades. I’ve done it all, really. I’ve done data journalism and written books, TV host, TV reporter, radio host, radio reporter, print reporter.

“… I’m not trying to be saintly, but I’m here for women of color and for people in general. And I think about the next event, how can we bring more voices into it? I never get complacent about what we do or why we’re doing it.”

‘Nuanced system-level view of change’

Bennun remembers Holly Kernan, CCO at KQED, bringing him into her conversation with Chideya. KPCC’s Kristen Muller was also at the table when the stations agreed to invest in the show. 

They also helped raise funding during its first three months, Chideya said. Additional support came from foundations. 

The stations’ agreement with Chideya was structured differently than most programming deals, Bennun said. Chideya retained full rights to Our Body Politic, and the stations waived shares in future revenues it might generate, which is unusual for media investors backing a new program. In this case, the station partners agreed it was more important to acquire broadcast rights to the show and assist Chideya and her producers in getting their stories out to the public, he said.

Our Body Politic “was appealing for a lot of reasons,” said Muller, CCO of KPCC and LAist. “It was timely because of politics and also because all of our systems were kind of being upended by COVID. And Farai was presenting this very nuanced systems-level view of change that felt really resonant for the moment. So it was an easy decision.” 

Muller

“As the demographics of the country evolve, this is just going to continue to be a bigger and bigger conversation,” Muller added. “And by centering women of color and their political power, we’re centering voices that are typically not centered in public media.”

Muller said she didn’t receive negative feedback from listeners when KPCC picked up the show, which is considered a win. In fact, the station’s Regional Advisory Council, a group of community members who advise KPCC on its content, was supportive when Our Body Politic joined the lineup.

Muller recalled being surprised by how easy it was to get the Our Body Politic off the ground simultaneously as a podcast and radio broadcast. Before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted public radio’s traditional content development process, getting final approval took multiple meetings and production of pilot episodes. With Our Body Politic, there was not nearly as much contemplation, she said.

Kernan of KQED observed that public radio stations would be able to nurture more independently produced shows like Our Body Politic if the fundraising process wasn’t so challenging. Finding independent and talented producers with good ideas is relatively easy, she said. 

“I would like public media to have a massive new programming venture fund so that we could be piloting and seeding dozens of new programs annually to serve and support the public with public service journalism and entertainment that … inspires our communities to be active in society and our democracy, to make the world a better place,” Kernan wrote in an email. “Programming that is … representative of our demographics and that centers communities that have been historically under-represented. We could begin to fulfill the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967’s promise,” she added.

Since the launch of Our Body Politic, stations in 93 markets have begun airing the weekly show, according to a news release celebrating completion of the 100th episode. Its audience has grown to an average of 350,000 weekly listeners. Stations that have picked up the series include Blue Ridge Public Radio in Asheville, N.C.; WUNC in Chapel Hill, N.C.; KTOO in Juneau, Alaska; and New Hampshire Public Radio. 

WHYY in Philadelphia began airing the series this summer. So far, listeners’ responses to the show have been neutral or positive, according to John Mussoni, audio GM and interim VP of news

WHYY was looking for a show that could fit in its Saturday afternoon schedule between Freakonomics, which airs at 3, and Weekend All Things Considered with Michel Martin, which airs at 5. Our Body Politic was the ideal transitional show, Mussoni said. It wasn’t “necessarily in-your-face … hard news,” he added, “but it at least gives you that ability to think.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Michel Martin as host of Weekend Edition. She is host of Weekend All Things Considered.

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