The Podcasting Millennials in Cedar Rapids Who Keep Scoring Interviews With 2020 Candidates
Putting a big person in a small venue is still a staple of Presidential-campaign politics. The senator in the coffee shop. The governor in the living room. Especially in the early-voting primary states—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina—candidates still practice retail politics, even as the Internet and cable news have enabled them, from the jump, to run always-on national campaigns. This helps explain how, in the early weeks of the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination, “Political Party Live,” a two-year-old podcast produced by a group of young Iowans, with an average listenership of just a few hundred people, found itself hosting Presidential contenders.
Last Friday afternoon, Stacey Walker, one of the show’s hosts, was looking over the Cedar Rapids venue where, a few hours later, he and his co-host, Simeon Talley, would record an episode with Beto O’Rourke in front of an audience. The venue’s staff—the event was happening in a novelty apparel store called Raygun—was setting up chairs. O’Rourke’s campaign staff was walking in and out. They had relayed a request from O’Rourke: the candidate wanted to share a beer with the hosts before the show. “He’s adamant about getting a drink,” Walker, who holds an elected position on the local county’s board of supervisors, told his co-host. “Before?” Talley said, amazed.
Walker, who, at thirty-one, is earnest, assertive, and well-liked in Iowa Democratic politics, talked about how this all had come about. Last Tuesday, he got a text from Norm Sterzenbach, a veteran Iowa political hand with whom he’s worked in the past. Sterzenbach was preparing to act as a kind of political tour guide to O’Rourke when he visited the state to kick off his Presidential campaign, and he wanted to know if Walker would like to have the candidate on “Political Party Live.” “And I was, like, ‘Yeah, man. When were you thinking?’ ” Walker said. “And he was, like, ‘Friday.’ ”
In February, a similar set of circumstances brought Kamala Harris to the show. Harris’s Iowa campaign chair, Deidre DeJear, is an old friend of Walker’s—they met at Drake University, in Des Moines, when both were members of the school’s small black-student union. (Last year, DeJear became the first African-American nominated for statewide office in Iowa, when she ran for Secretary of State as a Democrat.) DeJear talked to Walker about the senator coming on the show during her first full swing through the state. In between Harris and O’Rourke’s appearances, Andrew Yang, the former tech entrepreneur running a long-shot campaign as a champion of universal basic income and “human centered” capitalism, appeared on the show. “I have a feeling our listenership is going to grow this year,” Walker said.
Up is the only direction the show could really go, in terms of listenership. “Political Party Live” grew out of a conversation among a small group of activists and political types in the wake of the 2016 Iowa caucuses. Many, including Walker and Talley, were veterans of Barack Obama’s campaigns in Iowa. (“The remnants of 2008 and 2012 are definitely an added advantage for our state,” DeJear told me. “That’s a part of President Obama’s legacy.”) They wanted to encourage voters, especially younger voters, to stay engaged with politics all the time. And, in a state that is more than ninety per cent white and getting increasingly conservative, they wanted to provide an outlet for nonwhite voices and to promote progressive issues. They began throwing parties that featured political discussions. Then they started recording the discussions.
The hosts don’t pretend to be journalists. Walker and Talley (who is thirty-five and owns an upscale-goods-and-crafts store in Iowa City) originally had a third co-host, Misty Rebik, a community organizer. But she took a hiatus from the show just before the O’Rourke taping—she’d been tapped to be Bernie Sanders’s Iowa campaign chair. “We are not Charlie Rose. We’re not NPR. We’re not HBO Vice, though, right?” Walker said. “We’re short of that, but we’re kind of in that middle ground somewhere—where most of our questions are going to be policy-specific, policy-driven. But you’re going to get questions about, ‘What are you reading right now?’ ”
Yet both the Harris and the O’Rourke episodes made news. Harris’s comments about a former San Francisco policy that resulted in undocumented kids who had been arrested being reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement were later interrogated by CNN. And O’Rourke used his appearance on the show as an opportunity to apologize for a joke he’d made about his wife, Amy, raising their children “sometimes with my help.” Race also featured in both episodes, in ways that don’t always happen during Iowa campaign stops. “We make up about three per cent of the population, but, like, a quarter of the jail and prison population in the state,” Walker said. “That’s an issue for Iowa. I’m sure it’s probably an issue in other states, but we’ve got to take care of that.”
Campaigns need venues, and “Political Party Live” ’s sudden prominence (a relative term; most people I asked about the show at campaign stops around Iowa this weekend hadn’t heard of the show) has a lot to do with its ability to get a few hundred Iowans into the same room at the same time. Whether it can become a fixture of primary season, like Iowa Starting Line, a political news blog run by a former Democratic campaign staffer named Pat Rynard, is a question. Walker—who currently funds the episodes mostly out of his own pocket, with each one costing around three to five hundred dollars—is thinking about different revenue models. “We’ve got some customer discovery we have to do,” he said. “We make no bones about it; we’re trying to elevate progressive voices.”