Information warfare, really intensely

Thanks for all your Hamilton good wishes last week — I had a great time and I’m so glad a few of you found some new podcasts with which to spin out your 18th century politics enthusiasms a little further.

The podcast column

When I finish reading the news nowadays, I often come away feeling very aware of what I don’t know, even though I’ve just absorbed a whole lot of new information. One subject area in particular where I experience this a lot is with news about Russia: there’s a lot of it, what with the US investigation into election influence and the UK case of the spy attack in Salisbury. My base knowledge of Russia is so low that I feel that I frequently feel like I’m only seeing half of the picture.

I find the She’s In Russia podcast very helpful in my efforts to improve on this front. Started in May 2017 by best friends Smith Freeman and Olivia Capozzalo, it’s a weekly discussion show that both seeks to explain under-reported aspects of Russian life and culture and also addresses the bias present in much western coverage of the country. Both hosts are American, but Capozzalo has been living in St Petersburg since September 2014.

She’s in Russia is in a sense an extension of the hosts’ long-distance friendship (not unlike Call Your Girlfriend in that regard), but from the outset they intended the podcast as a way of sharing the conversations they were already having between themselves about the realities of life in Russia versus its perception in the American media. “We already talk a lot, we talk every Sunday,” Freeman said. “We text every day, and we usually talk on the phone at least one other time during the week.” Although their personal relationship isn’t the subject of the show, their familiarity and personal connection really boosts the quality of the podcast — they have a chemistry that’s often hard to produce when not recording in the same room.

I spoke to both hosts together on Skype, and Capozzalo explained that they had started out with a desire to counteract or correct mainstream western reporting, but had now pivoted more towards trying to create a space “where we can just talk about Russia, whether it’s history or everyday life, or art or culture, not just politics: any way that we can talk about it that will make image of Russia more full and more real and closer to actual life”. “We are trying to emphasise the viewpoint of somebody who’s actually living there,” Freeman added.

To this end, they’ve made episodes comparing Russian and American space programmes, about the Russian government’s attitude to crypto currencies, about the annexation of Crimea and about the Russian rap music scene, among many other topics. Often, Capozzalo said, the choice of subject is governed by what she as the Russia resident wants to tell her friend about that week: “Sometimes it makes sense for me to be like, ‘Oh, I’ll talk about Soviet housing this episode, I’m going to tell Smith about it,’ or, ‘I’m going to tell Smith about Rasputin for some reason’.”

Because they record in English, the intended audience for the show is American. “It’s definitely not targeted for Russians,” Capozzalo said. “ It might just be hard for some people if their English isn’t super-good to listen, because we’ll be talking fast and really casually.” That said, she has had some positive feedback from Russian friends who like the idea that she’s doing the podcast.

During the time they’ve been doing their weekly recordings, relations between the US and Russia have deteriorated further. “It just really feels like the status of the two countries as enemies is just being more and more commonly referred to and assumed,” Capozzalo said. Her experiences of both American and Russian media bear this out. “I feel like it’s information warfare, really intensely.”

The mission of She’s in Russia feels more urgent every time I listen to it. “We’re really trying to push against [stereotypes] by raising the overall nuance of America’s imagination of Russian people,” Freeman said. “If you can help humanise the Russian people, then Americans are going to be less OK with reading this really severe rhetoric and also the potential of going to war is lessened.” One by one, this pair of independent podcasters is using their show to convert their listeners into better informed, more critical readers of news about Russia.

Find out more about the podcast and where to listen to it at or on the show’s Telegram channel

The podcast recommend

Ella writes:

Undercurrents is a new podcast from Chatham House — really insightful and a chance to hear from the experts about the topics that are crucial to society but not often in the headlines.”

Do you have a podcast you’ve been listening to that you’re burning to recommend to someone? Tell me about it! I’ve set up an easy submission form here where you can do that. With your permission, I’ll include the best recommendations in a future edition of the newsletter.

The podcast links

  1. How the iTunes podcast rankings workThe Business of Content

  2. The Podcast App aims to be the simplest way to listen to podcastsTechcrunch

  3. In The World Of Podcasts, NPR Host Lauren Ober Knows BestBoise State Public Radio

  4. Every “Matt Lieber is…” from Reply All Reddit

  5. 5 Reasons You Should NOT Make A Branded PodcastPacific Content

That’s everything for today. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget that you can subscribe to get two extra emails about podcasting from me every week: I do commentary on industry news on Thursdays, and playlists of great shows to listen to on Sundays. Coming up this week — my thoughts on the BBC appointing their first commissioner for podcasts and a playlist of the best episode by episode TV breakdowns.