The Culture

Yes He Did: Relive Obama’s Early Career With This Novelistic Podcast

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I had just finished the final episode of Making Obama, a six-part podcast documentary miniseries on Barack Obama’s public life in Chicago from WBEZ (91.5 FM), which concluded on March 15, when I knew I’d be replaying the entire thing for pleasure as soon as I could manage. (I’ve done it a few times now.) Though there’s nothing at all in it on his presidency or Trump’s, the series depicts a period full of bilious racial division and cockeyed political hope in a way that is obviously resonant today. And the people who made it sound like they’re having the time of their lives.

Hosted by WBEZ anchor Jenn White and produced by Colin McNulty, an American who spent several years making documentaries for BBC Radio, Making Obama is a deeply reported and researched and dramatically paced look at Obama’s early career. But simply as a listening experience, it’s a feast: deeply layered but never cluttered, weaving together crowd noise, interviews, White’s voiceover, and music. The musical choices are spare but well-selected, including snatches of hits that end after just a few seconds to stay within fair use, sometimes to great dramatic effect, as with the foreshortened snippet of “Orinoco Flow” that accompanies an old Obama colleague recounting the future president listening to Enya all the damn time. Making Obama is produced, in the manner of a major-label rock album, as opposed to the no-budget indie approach of most other podcasts.

There is merit to thinking that this sort of thing used to have another name: radio. But according to McNulty, “We were never thinking about broadcast — at all.” Speaking from his office, he and White have the kind of easy, sharp back-and-forth suggested by their work. “You just have to keep people engaged and listening to it, because they will stop,” he says. White elaborates: “With podcasts, people really want to move through a journey with you as an experience that I think is different from how people listen to radio. It changes the way you think about how people are listening along. They’re not going to miss an episode unless they decide not to finish listening to the podcast.”

Making Obama is twice as long as its predecessor, 2016’s three-part Making Oprah, partly because that series was so much more successful than White or McNulty anticipated. Making Oprah, says McNulty, broke down neatly into the Eighties, Nineties, and 2000s. “In doing the Obama preparation, we discovered six pretty well-defined chapters; we knew the appeal was big enough that it would justify six full hours.” Adds White: “We had to tell that story with that degree of detail — especially talking about politics in Chicago, it required a little more in terms of the narrative arc.”

Even without his childhood, his college years, or the presidency — Making Obama concerns itself strictly with the Chicago years — it’s quite an arc. Obama arrived in Chicago in 1985 and worked as a community organizer for three years; twenty years (and Harvard Law) later, he was elected president.

The series makes clear that Obama’s rise was both improbable and inevitable — and could only have happened in Chicago, a point made by the president and, in a cascading stack of quotes at the end of the final episode, about twenty interviewees. The first episode deals with Obama’s life as a community organizer — a job often made fun of by his political opponents (we hear Sarah Palin, of all people, mocking him for it during the 2008 presidential campaign), because, as White notes, its ground-level grunt work doesn’t afford the kinds of photo ops so important to many career politicians. It’s also straight advocacy work; Obama had his sights set on making bigger changes — which meant compromising more than the average community organizer was prepared to.

After moving back east to get his law degree from Harvard, Obama had been inspired to return to Chicago by Harold Washington, who in 1983 became the first African American mayor of a U.S. city the size of Chicago (at that time the second largest in the country); much of the second episode (splendidly titled “Chicago Politics Ain’t Beanbag”) concerns Washington’s epoch, as well as providing an overview of the city’s political history. About five minutes into episode two, we hear Washington announcing his run on a mini-cassette acquired from a reporter on the scene. (Washington’s righteous anger and firm commitment to progressive change — “I approach this job just like any masterful surgeon,” he said of the Chicago backroom dealing he opposed: “When you have to cut out a cancer, I cut it out with no emotion. Get it out!” — are especially tonic in a political atmosphere overloaded with double-talk.) But politics in Chicago, entrenched in the favor-trading Democratic “machine” of Richard J. Daley, have always had serrated racial edges — intra-racial edges, too, which applied doubly to a rookie politician with light skin, a Hawaiian upbringing, and an eager mien.

Nevertheless, Obama was ready to campaign. About sixteen minutes into episode three, Carol Anne Harwell, campaign manager for his 1996 run for state senate and the MVP of this series, describes her initial reaction to Obama: “He was born in Hawaii — whaaaa? —you know, that kind of thing.” He was hazed by his black Illinois senate colleagues, but when State Senator Rickey R. Hendon called Obama out on the floor for not voting with him, a seriously heated Obama invited Hendon into the break room, away from cameras, and got to “a little pushing and shoving — men acting like kids,” says Hendon recalls. Donne Trotter, yet another senator, reports that he finally “got between them and said, ‘We can’t do this.’ ”

Equally intense is the account of Obama’s sole political loss, to ex–Black Panther Bobby Rush in a 2000 run for Congress. Rush’s deeply rooted popularity with black voters in Chicago’s South Side proved the upstart’s undoing. Rush’s voice is labored — he beat salivary cancer ten years ago — but there’s no misunderstanding the tone behind his unstinting belief that Obama was a front by white bosses to unseat him. When White asks Rush how he felt after his win, his answer is simple and damning: “Victorious.”

After dusting himself off following his defeat, Obama readies himself for another go — episode five details how he won over the allies who’d help back him in his 2004 race for U.S. Senate, including Valerie Jarrett, a powerful attorney who became Obama’s senior advisor in the White House. When she and Michelle Obama tried to talk Barack out of running again after his loss to Rush, he persuaded them otherwise. As Jarrett recalls: “In the space of about two and a half hours, we all went from, ‘Don’t do this,’ to, ‘What a great idea!’ ”

One of the great archival finds of Making Obama comes in episode four (around 39:30), with “Blackout,” a radio ad targeted to Chicago’s black stations during that 2000 campaign. “He’s making the case for all of these things he’s done while in the state senate,” says White. The ad featured an African American couple whose lights go out, as was happening inordinately on the South Side at the time. At the end, following a bit of Obama speechifying, White recalls, “There’s a group of maybe five people trying to give this rambunctious cheer: ‘YAAAY!’ I said, ‘I think one of these people is Barack Obama.’ ”

“We can’t verify that that’s Obama,” McNulty makes sure to note.

“When you listen to that ad, and then you listen to the ads that David Axelrod produces for his U.S. Senate race — the difference in the sophistication, the professionalism, is telling,” says White.

According to McNulty, an even funnier vault find occurs in the podcast only as a snippet: a disastrous Obama radio appearance to promote his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father. “The guy keeps mispronouncing his name the whole time: Barrick Obama,” says McNulty. “Somebody calls in and says, ‘I don’t know what this is about, but there’s a lot of noise in my neighborhood with the boom boxes and all that.’ It’s completely separate from the topic of Obama’s book. You hear him really struggling to engage with this person.

“Then a phone call happens later. I realized that voice was [Harwell]. She didn’t identify herself as his campaign manager. She says she was not his campaign manager at the time. I couldn’t tell if she was a plant or not, because the timing was kind of weird. It was funny to hear how ragtag the whole thing is. Him struggling during the interview is kind of sad, but it’s pretty revealing, just how different his life was ten years [before] he’s a United States senator.”

The Axelrod ads were where Obama first tried the slogan that would eventually help put him in the White House. In episode six, around minute nineteen, we hear the U.S. Senate campaign radio spot that introduces the slogan “Yes we can.” Obama worried it was too corny. “He turned to Michelle and said, ‘Mich, what do you think?’ ” recalls campaign manager Jim Cauley. “She had her chin in her hand and she just sort of slowly shook her head and said, ‘Not corny.’ ” His TV spots, Cauley says, made him go “from ‘Who?’ to The Man.” We later learn that Obama’s first draft of his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech was thirty minutes long, eventually cut to eighteen: “I struggled with that,” Obama says. “There were a lot of good lines in there that got put on the chopping block.” The excerpts of his DNC speech are still stunning, and its unbridled belief in a United States that had more in common than not, in the wake of everything that’s happened since Obama left the White House, now sounds almost unbearably poignant.

A Detroit native, White joined WBEZ two years ago. “I didn’t come to ’BEZ saying, ‘I’ve always wanted to do a podcast,’ ” she says. But then McNulty, who’d been hired as part of WBEZ’s expansion of its on-demand content unit, approached her to work on Making Oprah with him, promising, “It’ll be really easy.”

“He lied!” White says, laughing uproariously. “It was not easy, but it was a lot of fun. And professionally it made me rethink what the future looks like for me.” Podcasting gives her the chance to “be more responsive to what the story really needs, what it’s asking for, because we don’t have to be attached to hitting a certain time post. As a person who on the other side of my job has to watch the clock, I really enjoy that freedom.”

That playfulness exemplifies McNulty’s approach. At the BBC, he says, “I made a lot of shows called The Archive Hour, which was very sound-rich, tons of layering going on.” A good example of this approach at is purest can be heard on the McNulty BBC production Sounds Up There (2015), a narrator-less 28-minute exploration (that’s the word for it) of the first-ever space walks.

“I think the tradition of doing multilayered features for broadcast in the U.K. is pretty advanced compared to the two-way model here,” he says. With Making Obama, he says, the goal was “to be as comprehensive as possible, in the way of a novel, where it’s constantly switching between clips, and building and building and building something. There’s so many friggin’ podcasts out there, thousands of them, and in order to get out of the chaos of it, you have to have a really high bar for what this thing is. I kind of go big with everything.”

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