In ‘The Field’ Podcast, Voters Are the Main Characters

In ‘The Field’ Podcast, Voters Are the Main Characters

09/25/2020

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In the summer of 2019, nearly 15 months before the coming election, Andy Mills and Lisa Tobin of The New York Times’s Audio desk began discussing the campaign season to come. Mr. Mills, senior producer for new show development, and Ms. Tobin, who leads the audio team, saw that many voters in the last election were surprised by where many Americans stood on issues.

“People realized that they live in these little bubbles, and they don’t know their countrymen as well as they thought they did,” Mr. Mills said.

The two journalists, who had helped to create “The Daily” podcast, sought to make another show that would reflect the diversity of voters’ viewpoints across the country. With the help of Jessica Cheung, an audio producer on “The Daily,” that idea became “The Field,” a new podcast that focuses on people telling their own stories as they grapple with important questions at the heart of this year’s race.

“It’s our first show where, truly, the main characters in every episode are not reporters or writers or critics,” Mr. Mills said. Instead, the central figures are members of the American public, “trying to determine the fate of the country that they live in.”

The podcast, which began in February, went on hiatus when the coronavirus pandemic brought political campaigns to a standstill. But it resumed on Friday, and episodes will air weekly through Election Day.

“The Field” aims to spend less time on polling and analysis and more time speaking directly with voters, with a particular focus on people in areas of the country that may have been overlooked and undercovered in recent years.

In each episode of the podcast, a few members of the audio team and a reporter from the Politics desk set out to different parts of the country and speak to Americans about how they plan to vote. What they are most interested in bringing to their listeners, members of the team said, are the stories behind those decisions.

“You get to know the people on the show,” said Clare Toeniskoetter, a Times audio producer who works on “The Field.” “We’re getting to know their life trajectories and what has driven them to vote the way they do.”

The podcast’s first episode, released in early February, is an example. It followed Astead W. Herndon, a national political reporter, along with Mr. Mills and Austin Mitchell, another producer working on “The Field,” as they knocked on doors in Iowa. They spoke with Democrats ahead of the state’s caucuses as they grappled with the tricky question of which candidate is most electable.

“We’re pretty sure we’re, um, not 100 percent,” says the first voter the team speaks to when asked if he has decided whom he will caucus for.

“That’s the type of folks we like to talk to,” Mr. Herndon said in the episode. “Tell me the decision process. Tell me who you’re thinking about.”

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Audio, according to Mr. Mitchell, “is a very personal medium.” As voters grapple with their decisions, the weighted pauses and inflections behind each word add meaningful nuances.

“Seeing a quote in print doesn’t necessarily allow you to feel that quote,” he said. But in audio, “you can feel emotion, you can feel hesitation, excitement.”

Producers typically record about 15 to 20 hours of conversations over the course of their reporting. Then, members of the audio team edit the interviews together with narration and other colorful bits of audio — like a dog named Molly greeting reporters at a caucusgoer’s door in Iowa — for each 30 to 40 minute episode.

In the months since the podcast premiered, the coronavirus crisis as well as protests against police brutality and racial injustice have become the issues on the forefront of many voters’ minds.

So as the podcast pivots to focus on November’s presidential election, “there’s a conscious effort to connect this election cycle to these huge things that are happening, and highlight where they actually affect the story of the election,” Mr. Mitchell said.

The episode released on Friday, the first since the hiatus, focuses on policing in Minneapolis, and a later episode will look at how the coronavirus outbreak may affect voter turnout in Arizona.

The team behind “The Field” plans to produce weekly episodes up to the election in November, though what those episodes will be about will be influenced by the news and story lines of the moment. But team members say they want to continue to produce deep profiles, and they hope to visit parts of the country that will be most affected by the outcome of the 2020 election.

“The lofty goal of ‘The Field,’” Mr. Mills said, “is, in an election year that is going to be very polarizing, it can be an instrument that helps us to see and hear one another.”

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