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Podcasting Is the New Soft Diplomacy

How American values find their way around the globe and into international ears

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My friend Lynne Haultain is one of the smartest Australians I know. A dark-haired former radio host, she can boil down just about any complicated subject to a single, delicious epigram. So not long ago, when she told me her theory of the media and globalism and Donald Trump, my ears shot up like Tom Friedman’s. “Podcasting,” Haultain said, “is the new soft diplomacy.”

The idea, she explained over lunch this week, is simple. Haultain always maintained a relationship with America. For decades, that relationship was forged through watching The Wire and reading books like The Art of Fielding and stacking up back issues of The New Yorker next to her bedside. Haultain’s husband and daughter can recite every line from the Australia episode of The Simpsons.

But around the time Donald Trump announced he was running for president, podcasts began to elbow their way into that relationship. These days, the person explaining the wonders and outrages of America is as likely to be New York Times podcast host Michael Barbaro as it is Homer Simpson.

“I listen to The Daily,” Haultain said. “I listen to Up First on NPR. I listen to Trumpcast. I listen to Ezra Klein on Vox. I listen to Mike Pesca on The Gist. Then I have a whole bunch of historical ones. I just listened to Slow Burn on Slate.”

She has also listened to This American Life, Serial, and the Bela Lugosi–Boris Karloff episodes of You Must Remember This.

Haultain works for an Australian foundation that focuses on legal issues, so her media diet can’t be totally American. She listens to local news while riding the light rail to work each morning. But on the way home — and at night, and on weekends — the voices in her ears are Barbaro’s and Pesca’s and Steve Inskeep’s.

“The amazing thing is I don’t know what any of these people look like,” Haultain said. “And that is so unlike the rest of my experience with American media. We always knew what Letterman looked like, and Colbert. I have no idea what Leon Neyfakh looks like.”

At lunch, Haultain pulled out her phone, clicked on the feed for Vox’s The Weeds, and stared at the driver’s-license-sized photo of Klein. “That’s apparently what Ezra Klein looks like,” she said. She raised an eyebrow. “He just looks like every other guy.”

An American who spends time abroad inevitably reports the same discovery: that foreigners know more about our politics and culture than we do. In the month I’ve lived in Melbourne, I’ve learned a new corollary to that rule. Foreigners not only know more about America than we do; they are also more caught up on The Daily.

“Are you listening to Slow Burn?” Haultain’s husband, the radio host Francis Leach, asked during dinner last week. Later, he got to talking about how much he loved The Daily’s Tonya Harding episode.

Jeremy Hartcher, who runs PR for the National Basketball League’s Sydney Kings, listens to more than a dozen American podcasts, including WTF and Revisionist History. Like just about every other basketball-mad Australian, radio producer Luke Sicari is a fan of The Lowe Post.

Gareth Parker, a Perth-based radio host, listens to a dozen American podcasts, including 99% Invisible, Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing, and Joe Posnanski’s PosCast.

American podcasts aren’t just background noise in Australia, like the Big Bang Theory reruns that play on cable. Australians are active, demanding listeners. Patrick Horan, who works for the governing body of Australian cricket, told me that whenever Chris Ryan tries to speak in an Irish accent on The Watch, he actually speaks in a Scottish accent. I’m not sure I’d noticed that myself. (I got a few votes for British pods, like My Dad Wrote a Porno.)

Australia has its own domestic podcast industry that, like its movie industry, punches well above its weight. Kellie Riordan, the audio studios manager for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (Oz’s answer to the BBC), said that when the ABC put out a call for pitches last October, it received more than 1,200 submissions.

Osher Günsberg — the Ryan Seacrest of Australia — has a pod here. There are longform interview shows like Conversations and true-crime whodunits like Bowraville, a five-part series about the murder of three Aboriginal children in New South Wales. The Guardian called it “Australia’s Serial.”

Australia has sent its share of podcasts abroad. A podcast called Science Vs was scooped by the American company Gimlet. WNYC Studios coproduced a season of the ABC children’s ethics podcast Short & Curly. The Americans gave the coproduction a more benign, de-Australized name: Pickle.

For decades, Australian movie directors found that no matter how good their films were, they still had to jockey for attention in multiplexes that were flooded with imports. Glance at Australia’s iTunes charts and you find the same phenomenon: domestic shows sitting next to S-Town and Dirty John. “If you make a podcast here, you’re competing with NPR and Serial for ears,” said Eric George, a multimedia editor at The Australian newspaper. “There are no oceans to divide people.”

Over lunch, I asked Haultain to give me capsule reviews of her favorite hosts.

“Let me tell you about Michael Barbaro first,” she said, “who’s clearly not very well at the moment, because his voice is much lower and smaller than it usually is. He’s got an extraordinarily — soothing’s not the right word. He’s got just the right voice for what he does. … Although there is this really annoying American habit, which is not contained to him, of repeating an answer” that a guest gives him.

“Then you’ve got people like Sarah Koenig, who spins a yarn magnificently, and also has that very appropriate tone of voice. Mike Pesca on The Gist is much louder, much stronger, much more bombastic. But you know what you’re in for and that’s kind of fun.”

When I asked about Klein, Haultain gave a playful swat of the hand. “There are times when I want to give him a bit of a hurry-along,” she said. (The show isn’t called The Weeds for nothing.) But Haultain likes the diversity of Klein’s guests. When I mentioned Trumpcast’s Jacob Weisberg and Virginia Heffernan, Haultain laid her hand over her heart. “I love them both,” she said. “They were so early in my pod life.” She noted how a show that largely mocked Trump the candidate had morphed over the last year-plus into one that was trying to reckon with Trump the president.

Haultain’s one frustration with American podcasts is the ads. She listens to plugs for home food delivery companies and men’s clothiers that, as an Australian, she has no access to. “I can’t buy sheets from Boll & Branch,” she said.

If podcasts have become the new soft diplomacy, Haultain said, it’s because they can offer things that the old standbys of American culture mostly can’t.

“The perspective from the rest of the world of the U.S.,” she said, “is that you’re either New York or San Francisco or you’re a hick.” It’s like the American who thinks there are two types of Australians: Cate Blanchett and Crocodile Dundee.

The rare show like The Wire or movie like The Florida Project gives Australians a glimpse of an unseen corner of America. Now, Haultain gets that every week on This American Life.

“It’s a very clichéd thing,” Haultain continued, “but I think podcasts — perhaps more than any previous expression of soft diplomacy — can really smash that. … You hear normal people, and the diversity is fabulous.”

Whatever appeal American podcasts might have had in Australia is doubled if they offer an explanation for the Trump phenomenon. A lot of Australians wonder how Trump got elected, and how he maintains even sub-40-percent levels of support. Moreover, Trump generates so much news that Australian newspapers and TV shows often don’t get deeper than the outrageous headlines. A podcast — like it does for Americans — offers the “forensic detail,” Haultain said.

At its core, soft diplomacy is about transmitting American values around the globe. In the podcasts she listens to, Haultain hears new American values.

“I’m really interested in the way Trump impacts the way Americans think about being American,” she said. The old line, in Australia and elsewhere, is that Americans don’t much care what the rest of the world thinks of them. In podcasts, Haultain has detected ,  if not quite a full-on apology,  at least more engagement with the question. “You’re not so self-assured as a nation — you seem now to have doubts about your place in the world like the rest of us — and that’s a refreshing change,” she said.

American podcasting serves a final diplomatic function. It not only explains Trump but is an antidote to him. Where Trump is insular and anti-intellectual, podcasting is a reminder that a large swath of America isn’t. “I don’t want to sound trite about this,” Haultain said, “but it saves your reputation.”