Watch now: How some Illinois elected officials are venturing into podcasts


SPRINGFIELD — During the spirited effort to pass legalized sports betting in the waning hours of the 2019 spring legislative session, state Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside, became a semi-regular presence on Chicago sports radio and podcasts — explaining the ins and outs of the legislative process and the contents of the proposed legislation.

In a sense, he helped people understand how the sausage was being made, like why, for instance, wagers would not initially be allowed on Illinois collegiate teams. Or why daily fantasy sports operators like DraftKings and FanDuel faced more barriers to entry than brick-and-mortar casinos.

This ability to bring important information to a larger audience, along with the impressive storytelling conveyed in Chicago public radio’s six-part podcast series “Public Official A,” which chronicled the rise and fall of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, earlier that year, gave Zalewski the audio bug.

The suburban Democrat fulfilled his “two-year dream to host a podcast” last month with the debut of “Have All Voted Who Wish?” — named after the phrase the presiding officer shouts during a floor vote.

In his debut episode, Zalewski said it would be “an opportunity to talk about things in a longform way without having to go through the typical filters.” He and co-host Chris Crisanti of the Illinois-centric think tank Prairie State Policy, offer an insider’s view of state government, giving listeners a peek into the heart of Illinois politics and government along with those who participate in that ecosystem.

“It’s a labor of love,” Zalewski said in an interview. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Both as an avid podcast listener and somebody that is consistently looking for different ways to get in front of my constituency, podcasting seemed like a really good idea. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s far more labor-intensive than I gave it credit for.”

But Zalewski is not the only one getting in on the podcast game.

Of course, there are several podcasts dedicated to state government from news organizations, including NPR Illinois’ “State Week,” and Capitol News Illinois’ “Capitol Cast.”

But now, every legislative caucus under the Illinois Capitol dome now has some sort of audio presence as they seek to directly reach constituents through one of the fastest growing digital mediums in the United States.

According to a report from Edison Research, the number of Americans aware of podcasts has risen from 22% in 2006 to 78% in 2021. There are an estimated 120 million podcast listeners in the United States, a number that’s projected to grow to 160 million in 2023.

More than 41% of Americans surveyed said they had listened to a podcast in the last month. About 28% had listened within the past week, with those listeners consuming an average of five unique podcasts and eight overall.

“We know that different people get their news in different ways,” said Brandy Renfro, communications director for the Illinois Senate Democratic Caucus. “We have the talent on staff to produce and important issues to discuss so it makes sense to expand our reach on this medium.”

‘People look at you like you’re a dinosaur’

The Illinois Senate Democrats were relatively early innovators in this regard, debuting the “Sound of the State” podcast in 2018. Renfro said it started with relatively brief episodes that were essentially recaps of their longstanding caucus e-newsletter.

These typically four-minute long snippets remain a feature of the caucus’ podcast, with each episode titled “The Majority Report” and whatever date it runs. But the podcast is now also peppered with longer issue-oriented discussions featuring the caucus’ members.

There’s now a five-member team, including an audio manager that works on the caucus’ podcast that generates ideas, sets up interviews and promotes it.

Renfro said being in the audio space was simply about meeting constituents where they’re at, comparing it to how the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter changed political communication.

“Years ago, government entities using Twitter seemed new and different,” she said. “Today, we have more than 22,000 followers and if you don’t have a Twitter account, people look at you like you’re a dinosaur. So we are always looking for new ways to communicate.”

Earlier this year, the Senate Democratic Caucus’ campaign arm followed suit, debuting “In Session,” an issue-oriented podcast hosted by a rotating cast of state senators on a less-frequent basis.

“I think it’s meeting people where they’re at in some capacity,” said Jack McNeil, digital director for the Senate Democratic Victory Fund. “You’re not going to reach everyone on the podcast form, but audio is a massive, massive and continually-growing space. I mean, there’s a reason that your Spotifys of the world are giving podcasters millions of dollars to give exclusive streaming.”

McNeil said the podcast has allowed members to speak directly to their constituents, something that became impossible at times this past year due to restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said the podcast has been downloaded in 185 cities, mostly in Illinois. It’s a niche audience, with each of the 11 episodes averaging between 150 and 300 listens. They just passed 1,600 downloads. But those who do listen are getting through 80% to 90% of each episode.

“But what I found heartening is that for a new project like this, we saw that people were listening pretty deeply into the episode,” McNeil said. “And I think that was more of a signifier to me than just looking at the numbers (of total listeners).”

Shared on social media 

On the other side of the aisle, the House and Senate Republican caucuses have taken a more traditional approach to staying in touch with constituents, such as calls and letters responding to individual inquiries, press releases, an audio news service for local radio stations, newsletters and town halls.

Still, the Illinois Senate Republican Caucus debuted an eponymous podcast channel earlier this year on Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud that features short-form interviews with senators and highlights from GOP press conferences.

Oftentimes, episodes of these podcasts will be shared by lawmakers on their social media accounts, allowing them direct contact with their constituents. It helps fill in gaps where they exist.

“Let’s face it, we have 41 Senate Democrats,” Renfro said. “They all have something to say. They all represent unique areas and communities. But we both know there aren’t 41 different statehouse reporters. So, the senators and our staff have taken responsibility for developing and delivering information back to those communities using the increasingly diverse formats available.”

Though Zalewski said it is not his goal to be a replacement source of statehouse news, he said “there’s times when I think it’s good to tell your own story.”

In his second episode, he interviewed state Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, who will be retiring after completing his current term. He said the longform style allowed to cut deeper than perhaps how Batinick would otherwise be portrayed.

State Rep. Mike Zalewski is shown in 2017. He started the podcast  ”Have All Voted Who Wish?”


“An objective media observer would say he’s a Republican, stood up with Rauner and has pension ideas and his career is going to end and that’s the story of Mark Batinick,” Zalewski said. “When you listen to that stuff, none of that tells the whole story. It’s such an evolution and a personal human interest story about a guy who came in one way and is leaving and quite the other.”

Zalewski said he is in the process of making his third episode, which is produced by Boxless Media, a suburban Chicago digital marketing agency. He does not have a set timetable for when episodes drop, but he said to expect a mix of timely talk about what’s happening in the Capitol along with some deeper dives.

“I do like the blend and I think it’s gonna work well,” he said. “And I do think it’ll lend itself to a session when you have both timely things happening and then people can talk about their backstories.”

“I think a lot of people assume they know about members, and then they really don’t,” Zalewski said. “So I think I can really flesh some of that out, which I’m excited about.”

He said his podcast is geared towards his constituents and people in and around Illinois government. He believes “there’s more people interested in this stuff than we give credit,” but the number of listeners isn’t particularly important to him.

“I don’t do it for any other reason than it’s fun to do,” Zalewski said. “And I have any expectations for it other than someone listens to it — a person listens to it. But I’d like to grow organically and make it something people can listen to and get something out of and enjoy.”

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December 10, 2021 at 06:38PM

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