Interview With Jennifer Briney Of The Congressional Dish Podcast
July 12, 2016
Jennifer Briney is the host of Congressional Dish, a podcast that exposes corporate influence in the bills and laws passed by Congress. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Communications Studies from Loyola Marymount University and can often be found listening to congressional hearings while wandering Walnut Creek, California aimlessly with her dog. I asked her a few questions...
1. Describe the Congressional Dish podcast for somebody who may not have heard it before.
Congressional Dish is a podcast that focuses on governing, as opposed to campaigns. Specifically, the podcast examines the details of important legislation, providing context discovered in Congressional hearings, so that voters can judge the job performances of their representatives.
2. How did you become interested in politics?
By accident. I was studying abroad in Bonn, Germany during the Spring 2003 and experienced the launching of the Iraq War from overseas. I witnessed massive demonstrations against the war and was constantly peppered with questions about the rationale behind the war by Europeans; I was ashamed that I had so few answers. When I started researching what was happening in the United States, I discovered how little I actually knew and every answer only lead to more questions. Then in 2006, there was big story in the United States when the press told the American public that the Bush administration's assertion that Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium from Africa was untrue. The problem was that I had known that for years; it was reported in Germany before the war was even launched. That's when I really started questioning the media and realized that if I wanted accurate information while living in the United States, I'd have to look at primary sources myself. The corporate media couldn't be trusted to provide all the facts.
3. How did you become a podcaster?
After I had discovered so many interesting stories about what was happening in the world, I desperately wanted to share them. I tried blogging but I don't particularly enjoy writing. Once podcasting became technologically simple enough for me to do it, I knew it was the best medium for me. I find it so powerful to be able to share the words of people in power spoken from their own mouths. It's just impossible to deny that something was said when you're able to hear it for yourself.
4. Tell us about how you prepare for each episode.
This process evolves constantly. I can tell you what I do now but this probably won't be valid by the time you publish the article. For the moment, I start an episode by picking a bill or a set of bills and I read them, linking to individual provisions that catch my attention. Then, for context, I download hearings that will help me understand the motivations behind the legislation that I've read. When I listen to the hearings, I note the timestamps, speaker, and general topic of what is being said and then send the resulting list to my audio engineer, who creates the audio clips and transcribes them for me. While he prepares the clips, I research everything, including the back story on the bills, what organizations are lobbying for and against the bills, and if those same organizations are funding the author's campaign (and they almost always are). The day before I record, I take the bill outline, notes, and audio clip transcripts and copy and paste them into an order that makes sense. Then I press record.
5. How has the podcast evolved over time?
In the beginning, I knew nothing about Congress; that was kind of the point. It occurred to me sometime during my unhealthy obsession with the Bush administration that very little of the damage they did could have been done without Congress. Congress controlled the money. Congress has the power to declare war. Congress is the check and balance to an Executive Branch run amok, and yet amok they ran. Once that occurred to me, I realized I knew literally nothing about Congress; I didn't even know who my representative was. How can we hold Congress accountable if we don't know what they do?
Therefore, in the beginning, I decided to read every bill that passed the House of Representatives in the 113th Congress. I mean, the Congressmen have to read every bill before they vote on them, right? If they can do it, so can I. So naive. At first, I wasn't sure that there would be enough content because there were so few bills being passed, but in June of 2013, the House started passing appropriations bills that were hundreds of pages long, one after another. There were a lot of tears in the summer of 2013; it felt like my whole life was reading legislation and I just couldn't keep up. I tried hard for years to read every bill but the 114th Congress finally broke me. Now, I filter the topics. I try to focus on the legislation that is the most impactful to our lives and the legislation that makes it into law. I know that there is so much information and so many good stories that are getting by me, but there's only so much that one person can cover.
6. Politics can be a very divisive topic. What are the reactions that you get from your listeners?
Shockingly friendly, positive, and supportive. In general, I almost never say the words 'conservative', 'liberal', 'libertarian', or 'progressive', and I only say the names of the political parties if there is a voting pattern that can't be ignored... if a Party is voting in lockstep for example. Instead, when I talk about a person in Congress, I'll tell the audience where that person is from - the district they represent. By refusing to present the information as a narrative about one team against another team, I've dodged so much of the ugliness that plagues people who cover politics. As a result, I get emails and financial support from people in all 50 states, who vote for every political party - mainstream or otherwise. It turns out that my fellow Americans are as hungry for straight, non-partisan information as much as I am. I've discovered a beautiful element of the United States electorate that gives me so much hope every single day.
7. Do you get reactions from politicians or journalists?
I'm still blissfully under their radar. I'm pretty comfortable being the girl in the back of the room cracking jokes and throwing spitballs. I know if I do my job correctly, I'll draw the eyes of the powerful eventually, but I'm in no hurry to deal with that.
8. Your podcast is listener-supported and it is your full-time job. Can you tell us how that works? What have been the challenges with that model? What lessons about it can you share?
It's quite simple: Once per episode, I tell the listeners that the podcast is listener-supported and ask them to return the value they receive in some kind of financial form - whatever they consider fair. Then I list their payment options. The reason that I think it works is that I truly believe in the idea behind it. I truly believe that one of the reasons our corporate ad-funded media is failing us so miserably is because of their corporate sponsors. The ad-funded journalists don't want to bite the hands that feed them. I don't either, but the hands that feed me are my listeners, so I'm accountable only to them. As long as I'm honest, provide my sources, and admit my mistakes, my listeners are happy. The relationship between listener and podcast isn't based on money; it's based on information. That is so key.
The most challenging thing about a listener-supported model is the time it takes to build. I didn't make any real money from the podcast for three years; it's only recently that I've been able to hire help and contribute financially to my own family - and it's still not much. However, as the podcast audience grows, so does the donor pool, so the next step for me is to focus on marketing. I've done almost no marketing at all. The most important lesson I've learned is that it's crucial to provide original information if a listener-supported model is going to be successful. It's all about value. If you provide it, people will pay for it. The honor system is alive and well.