Pop In Your Headphones, Oregon Lawmakers Have Discovered Podcasting

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Salem, Ore. May 29, 2019 5:06 p.m.

Over the years, Oregon’s legislature has seemed vaccinated against the podcast bug.


As offerings for downloadable, listen-when-you-want shows have exploded elsewhere, much of Oregon's political chatter has still been reserved to the Capitol's hallways and back offices. It's a building where history is often made, but the future can be slow to catch on.

This year, that's changing.

Since February, three lawmakers have begun weekly political podcasts detailing life in the Capitol. Rookie Sens. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, and Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, have teamed up for a show. State. Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, has a solo effort.

They join Sen. Betsy Johnson, who’s been releasing her weekly radio program in podcast form for years.

"We at one time were apparently the only ones who had done this," Johnson recently said on her longtime show, "This Week." "Now they're sprouting up like mushrooms in the forest."

The shows have a range of production values and individual quirks, but all offer insights on important bills, introductions to characters in the building and even occasional gossip or sharp words for rivals.

It's hardly "Serial," but taken together, the podcasts are a must-listen — or at least a should-listen — for any state politics geek. The legislators involved hope they're more: They see podcasts as a new frontier for reaching Oregonians.

Democratic Oregon state Sen. Shemia Fagan asks Republican state Sen. Kim Thatcher a question in the chambers at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

Democratic Oregon state Sen. Shemia Fagan asks Republican state Sen. Kim Thatcher a question in the chambers at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

“My whole goal as a legislator has been to make the Oregon State Capitol more accessible to regular people,” said Fagan, a podcast junkie who boasts of listening to podcasts from NPR or The New York Times — and OPB, for that matter — while she’s blowdrying her hair.

"When I'm putting my kids to bed, after reading time is over … when it's like lights out, no more talking but you're just laying with them in the dark," she says, "Mama has an earbud in."

Fagan had the idea for a legislative podcast years ago when she was a member of the state House of Representatives. It wasn't until she won a Senate seat last year that she began putting the plan into action, partnering with Golden.

“The old newsletter format didn't seem like it had a ton of life left in it,” said Golden, referring to the email updates lawmakers send to theoretically interested parties far and wide. “We said, ‘What if we set up a mic somewhere and got together whenever we could and try to answer two questions: What is it that we do in this building, and why the hell should you care?’”

The product is "Capitolizing," a show that offers a left-leaning mix of current events, behind-the-scenes details and audio civics lessons. In one episode, Fagan and Golden walk listeners through the finer points of testifying in front of legislators. In another, Fagan recounts bringing pepperoni sticks to hungry representatives forced to stay put because of a lengthy floor debate.

The pair typically records Thursdays at a table in Fagan’s personal office. Sometimes they invite other lawmakers on as guest experts. The most popular episode in the podcast’s short run covered gun control issues and featured House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson. As of Tuesday, it had netted around 265 downloads.

An Episode Of The "Capitolizing" Podcast

“Capitolizing” has somewhat slicker production than the other offerings, including its own intro music. Fagan purchased a mixing board and microphones and hired an aide with multimedia experience to edit the show.

“Honestly, the first few episodes we were trying to be a little bit cheaper with our audio equipment so the first few episodes are a little rough on sound,” Fagan said.

Bonham joined the podcasting fray more recently, releasing his first episode in early May. His podcast, "Mainstreet Politics," typically features interviews with lawmakers or other figures in the Capitol.

An Episode Of The "Mainstreet Politics" Podcast

The show tends toward the personal, often more interested in how and why lawmakers wound up in office than the latest scuttlebutt on a controversial bill. Listeners keen on hearing about the House chief clerk's Texas upbringing or a failed weight-loss challenge between Bonham and Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, will find plenty to charm them.

Which isn't to say that the show isn't political. Bonham and his guests sometimes touch on the same topics as Fagan and Golden — a cap-and-trade proposal meant to curb greenhouse gas emissions, for instance — but arrive at very different conclusions.

Bonham insists partisanship is not the point.

“I wish everybody would listen to all of these,” he said. “I think what we do here at the Capitol becomes such a bubble. To do anything to break that bubble and to reach Oregonians ... that would be the dream.”

State Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, points to the gallery from the House floor at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, April 11, 2019.

State Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, points to the gallery from the House floor at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, April 11, 2019.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Bonham’s interest in podcasting came in part from long drives around his sprawling Central Oregon district — treks that left him desperate for new material to listen to.

“I put over 30,000 miles on my personal car last year,” he said. “Everywhere you go in my district is a drive.”

He wound up bingeing episodes of "The Wilderness," a 2018 documentary podcast that detailed Democrats' tenuous position in national politics and offered theories on how they could regain control. As an Oregon Republican, Bonham says, he could relate.

He listened to others, too: a conservative commentary podcast called "The Ben Shapiro Show," and shows dealing with faith. But most important was Johnson's longtime show.

“In all honesty, Betsy's was the first one I found,” he said.

As a new lawmaker, Bonham says Johnson’s podcast has helped him navigate the job. He recounted a time he was able to describe a complicated piece of policy to a group in his district simply because he’d listened to Johnson’s description in an episode.

“They said, ‘How do you know about this?’” Bonham recalled. “I said, ‘I listen to the Betsy Johnson podcast. You guys don’t?’”

Johnson might seem an unlikely place to find inspiration on this subject. She’s a self-described “dinosaur” who prefers face-to-face contact over text messaging. Johnson’s Twitter account is an infrequent assemblage of links. Her personal podcast feed is nonexistent.

“You’re talking to Ms. Flip Phone here,” she told OPB, plunking the evidence onto a table in her office. “I’m the least technologically experienced person that you could probably run into.”

State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, in the Oregon Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Salem, Ore.

State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, in the Oregon Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Salem, Ore.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

This Week

” began 13 years ago, when Johnson began making the weekly radio show that still airs on stations in her coastal district. The show’s host and producer, Michael Desmond, started uploading them to the web in 2010, not thinking much of it. He’s since begun distributing the show via Apple’s podcast app.

An Episode Of The "This Week" Podcast

The show is typically conducted via Skype — with Desmond on the coast and Johnson often in the Capitol during the legislative session — with little discussion ahead of time about what they will talk about. It offers a detailed explanation of the week’s events, including Johnson’s very frank spin on what’s happening.

One example: In April, Johnson remarked on the podcast that this year’s legislative session was “terrible.” She added that her own Democratic Party, which has supermajorities in the House and Senate, was “grotesquely overreaching.” That episode has been taken down.

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“I tend to be pretty blunt-spoken,” Johnson said. “I have opinions and in fact have occasionally been criticized for having opinions on this show. But I think that it's a valuable show.”

The fare can be more lighthearted, too.

"The weirdest place we've ever done it is the tailgate of my car out by the dumpsters at the [Crab, Seafood and Wine Festival]," Johnson said. "Us and the seagulls back there."

Johnson stresses that it takes effort to produce a show every week for more than a decade, but to the degree, the podcast makes the Capitol more understandable for people, she believes it's doing its job.

And recently, Johnson’s sensed increased interest — a fact that could coincide with the senator becoming a chair of the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee.

“I run into people in the hall that say, ‘My mother listens to your show,' or ‘I listened to your show last week,’” Johnson said. “Apparently, because I held some opinions forward about this session we have picked up heretofore unrealized listeners.”

Which isn’t to say there’s not room to grow. Producers for the three podcasts all said they couldn’t be entirely sure about overall listenership, but episodes that reach between 150 and 250 downloads are highly successful for these endeavors.

For now, that is.

“How many people are driving in cars that have listened to their playlist a thousand times and are looking for just something different?” Bonham said. “My hope is that somebody just comes across it like I did with Sen. Johnson's podcast. I didn't know. I wasn't looking for it. I just found it.”