Terry Prone: Dr Fauci was clever in his choice of podcasts to ensure he went viral

Terry Prone: Dr Fauci was clever in his choice of podcasts to ensure he went viral
Dr.Anthony Fauci: Doing as many podcasts 'as humanly possible'. Picture: AP

Lay your bets, ladies and gentlemen. Lay your bets on which Irish podcaster first gets Dr Anthony S Fauci on their show. 

Will it be the engaging Stefanie Preissner, economist David McWilliams, or Mike Murphy, who’s fenced off the senior market?

Now, Dr Fauci might have geographical reservations about an Irish podcast, but it would still be worth a try, because he is such a global figure and because he has copped on, big time, to what the podcast has to offer. What seems to have happened is the law of unintended consequences asserting itself. 

First. Trump’s White House decided to rid themselves of this turbulent public health expert, which is understandable. If you have a mask-free president who suggests the virus has a nationality (Chinese) and can be countered by malaria medicine or swallowing bleach, you sure as hell don’t want a medic with the quiet authority earned in decades of frontline work contradicting that President and making him look a fool. 

So you politely turn down requests from the media big boys and girls for his presence. 

“You want Fauci? You mean the guy who’s been director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984? That guy? Oh, sorry. Not available.” 

If the media goes behind the back door of the White House press office, it does them no good, because Fauci has to be authorised to do mainstream media.

It was as effective as stuffing a bundled-up rag in Fauci’s mouth, sticking his Covid-19 face mask on top and putting him on the seriously naughty step. What’s a medic who’s pushing 80 going to do, in that situation? The short answer is that he’s going to do podcasts by the dozen, because nobody has to give him permission to participate in that kind of thing. 

And so it was that a few people producing minority-interest podcasts tossed invitations in his direction more in prayer than in real intention. These were people running the podcasts for abstruse medical publications, minority in appeal and minuscule in their listenership. 

Here’s just one example: 'This Week in Virology'. Not the kind of show you’d be leaping out of bed to access on the day it’s uploaded, unless you’re a petri-dish-carrying virologist yourself, although, give the podcast its due, it did gain a few more listeners because of the pandemic. 

Vincent Racaniello, he being a Columbia University professor who is one of the co-hosts of the podcast, decided nothing ventured, nothing won, and sent Dr. Fauci an invitation to appear on it. Racaniello’s hopes weren’t high. 

He figured Fauci would be way too busy to find time to appear, and also, because the gag/mask/seriously naughty step story was out at that point, he wondered if Fauci would be allowed to do it. He got lucky. 

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive for his acceptance speech to the Republican National Committee Convention on the South Lawn of the White House, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive for his acceptance speech to the Republican National Committee Convention on the South Lawn of the White House, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

According to the New York Times, since the beginning of April, the White House Press Office routinely stamps on any requests for Dr Fauci from mainstream media, but “no such review process” is in place for podcasts. Fauci came back to him in short order and did a 30-minute update on aspects of Covid-19, including what Big Pharma is doing to develop vaccines. The downloads hit 100,000.

It wasn’t that Racaniello was special. Fauci also did podcasts with Julia Roberts and Matthew McConaughy, plus dozens and dozens of other, less well-known podcasters.

“Given the urgency of the situation and the need to get correct information out, I was doing as many as humanly possible,” he says.

Now, these days, podcasts are like noses. Most people have one. But what Fauci worked out was that what he had to say was newsworthy and that even if he articulated it on some minor podcast rather than on MSNBC, news reporters from all sides of media would listen to it, incorporate what he said on it in their reports, and serve as magnifiers without him having to do anything but provide the original data. 

It is a phenomenal understanding of modern communication by a man who’s not in the first flush and who’s been in the same job at the top of the same pivotal organisation, for 36 years, providing a possibly unique contradiction to the current governance dogma that people at the top should be toppled quickly because they go stale.

Fauci isn’t stale, either on current science or on how to reach people. He understands that even with a presidential control freak backed by a department full of “communications experts” all devoted to silencing him, media is porous and interdependent, and one of the most useful weapons in his armory is the podcast. 

It doesn’t matter that some of the presenters of these podcasts have maddening amateur habits good training would have knocked out of them. What matters is that they are a conduit by which to deliver the data and that other media will pick up that data and diffuse it.

The pyramid of media has upended itself. In the recent past, someone who said something important on mainstream media could expect it to be picked up by “secondary media,” including, potently, in Ireland, local radio. 

Now, mainstream media is watching social and other media like a predatory rabbit — eager to grab what’s usable, while terrified of its growing power.

It is not, therefore, just a coincidence that politicians in this country have suddenly copped on that the place to be is on one of perhaps five podcasts, for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that some of these podcasts would like their listeners to learn something about the human reality of the politician and may accordingly do two things rarely encountered in mainstream media: They may ask a non-accusatory question and actually listen to the answer.

Podcasts have other emerging advantages for politicians. The sponsors get profile for mostly smallscale expenditure, but, like all sponsors, want beneficial public association, and so the people producing the podcast post press releases and issue audio or video clips.

Right now, politicians are tending to use the podcast as something of a corrective to national radio interrogation, but — maybe even before the next general election — it’s predictable that some politicians, particularly in government parties, may do a Fauci, using podcasts to get out information they want to promulgate while being heard (albeit by a smaller, self-selecting audience) as human beings.

 Mainstream media outlets, and more importantly, mainstream media presenters are under constant pressure to “ask the hard question” and be heard to fearlessly barrack political interviewees. 

However, this is based on an assumption that the very people selected by the electorate are, by virtue of that very selection, rendered villainous and suspect, rather than potentially interesting. The end result is that politicians find themselves undergoing hostile cross-examination, which, even survived, adds to public perception of them and their peers as venomous, venal, uncaring, unprincipled, lazy, and stupid. 

Increasingly, podcasts provide breathing space away from that.

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