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Trump Podcasts, The Product Of A Confusing Presidency, Face An Uncertain Future

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The Trump presidency was one of the most covered chapters in American history, a relentless media phenomenon. Podcast critic Nick Quah says the relative backwater of the podcast world was not immune to its effects.

NICK QUAH: A few weeks ago, the acclaimed podcast series "Trump, Inc." from WNYC and ProPublica published its final episode, marking the end of its almost three-year investigation into the many conflicts of interest surrounding former President Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "TRUMP, INC.")

ILYA MARRITZ: As Donald Trump leaves the White House against his will, the unresolved conflict of interest that's at the heart of the "Trump, Inc." open investigation will disappear. The sitting president will no longer be a businessman with an active business, so we're ending this podcast.

QUAH: It wasn't the only Trump-themed podcast to hang up its mic in recent days. Among others, this month also saw the end of Slate's "Trumpcast," which dedicated each episode to covering every twist, turn, nook and cranny of the Donald Trump experience. "Trump, Inc." and "Trumpcast" were both part of a robust podcast cottage industry that first emerged during the 2016 presidential election cycle. This subgenre was dense, fertile and in more than a few cases, pretty lucrative, with these shows drumming up revenue from podcast advertising, listener donations, live tapings and even merch.

Many of the prominent Trump-themed podcasts were efforts of service journalism, typically working to help listeners better navigate what was often a confusing presidency. "Trumpcast" was perhaps the clearest avatar of the subgenre, rounded out by other shows like the Washington Post's "Can He Do That?" which used its titular question to unpack the political news of the day.

Aside from explainers, the wave of Trump podcasts also produced genuine feats of investigative reporting. "Trump, Inc." was a strong example of this, winning a duPont-Columbia Award for its efforts, including drawing attention to tens of millions of dollars in unexplained spending at the president's inauguration. Another show worth noting was "The Heist" from the Center for Public Integrity. Both shows share an interest in the intersection between money, corruption and political power. But "The Heist" focuses on the ways in which the Trump presidency helped the rich and powerful get even more rich and even more powerful.

It wasn't all investigations and service journalism, however. By the end of the presidency, the Trump podcast cottage industry got plenty weird, minting a bevy of unexpected stars. Consider, for example, the case of Preet Bharara, the former federal prosecutor fired by President Trump in 2017. These days, Bharara has leveraged that controversial dismissal into a media career, which includes a budding podcast empire. Consider, also, the case of Trump's former fixer, Michael Cohen, who's attempting to salvage his reputation with "Mea Culpa, a podcast where he comments on the latest political news of the day with an anti-Trump skew. That show is thought to have attracted a strong following.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MEA CULPA WITH MICHAEL COHEN")

MICHAEL COHEN: As President Biden finishes his first full week in the White House, a palpable sense of relief has settled across Washington as the White House now returns to a place of normalcy. We also witnessed the deliberate and forceful rejection of Donald Trump's legacy in a record and stunning 17 executive orders which undid most of Trump's divisive legislation in a single stroke, proving that, once again, the pen is mightier than the sword.

QUAH: As some Trump podcasts call it a day, others will continue to live on. A few shows - like "Can He Do That?" - are already repositioning themselves, working on the assumption that the frame that they used to cover President Trump could equally be used to cover President Biden. Most of these reboots probably won't work. For one thing, the lowered pace and drama of the Biden administration feels incompatible to shows that grew up during breathless, granular coverage.

The Trump presidency may be over, but listeners whose news appetites were deepened during the Trump era still have plenty of podcast options to choose from. Those hungry for a documentary can turn to Axios' "How It Happened" in which political correspondent Jonathan Swan offers a beat-by-beat look at the final days of the Trump presidency, complete with new reporting. They could also turn to Leah Sottile's "Two Minutes Past Nine," whose examination of right-wing American extremism and the 1996 Oklahoma City bombing is helpful in bringing greater context to the insurrection that happened at the Capitol earlier this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "TWO MINUTES PAST NINE")

LEAH SOTTILE: If I've learned anything about domestic terrorism, I know one thing is true - the past isn't the past. The past is right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: There are now armed vigilantes claiming they're protecting property.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Can draw a straight line from the incidents of today right back to Timothy McVeigh...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Twenty-five years later, we've left it alone. We've moved on. I think we would rather not deal with it.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Freedom, freedom...

QUAH: Of course, political news hounds can turn to the wide array of daily news podcasts that came of age over the last four years or the deep bench of political roundtable podcasts that's available for all sorts of people across the political spectrum, from KCRW's "Left, Right And Center" to "Hacks On Tap" with David Axelrod and Mike Murphy.

Looking back at all the Trump podcasts, it's perhaps reasonable to wonder if they collectively ended up adding to the chaos rather than help listeners better understand it. I, for one, have mixed feelings about the whole thing. But whether or not this cottage industry was detrimental in the moment, the shows are a series of time capsules. Who knows? There's a decent chance we'll live through a version of the last four years again someday, so listeners might revisit them. And what they'd find would be historical records that clarify a confusing past and tools that might help them confront an even more chaotic present.

GROSS: Nick Quah is a podcast critic for New York Magazine and Vulture. He's the host of the podcast "Servant Of Pod" from LAist Studios, and he writes the Hot Pod newsletter.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Ellen Harper and her son Grammy Award winner Be Harper, about their family folk music center or with New York Times reporter Jim Tankersley about the decline of the middle class and Biden's economic plan, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberto Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this piece, Nick Quah incorrectly states that the Oklahoma City bombing took place in 1996. In fact, it occurred in 1995.]

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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