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Center for Documentary Studies professor receives second Peabody Award nomination for podcast re-examining American democracy

<p>John Biewen at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies.</p>

John Biewen at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies.

From deep within his self-described “pillow fort,” John Biewen records his narration inside the guest room of his Durham home. It is March 2020, and the WUNC 91.5 studio where Biewen usually records his podcast has been shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Biewen is five episodes into the fourth season of his renowned podcast “Scene on Radio.

Surrounded by pillows, Biewen sits in his impromptu home studio, creating the twelve-part series that would become his second George Foster Peabody Award nomination in May 2021.

This season, “The Land That Has Never Been Yet,” reevaluates the United States’ political foundations and analyzes the voices that are often left out of the nation’s history. Through interviews with leading historians, Biewen questions whether the U.S. was ever truly a democratic nation.

Biewen came to Duke in 2001 after working as an audio journalist for National Public Radio’s Rocky Mountain West and American RadioWorks. Through his work, he established connections with the Center for Documentary Studies. 

At the time, CDS lacked an audio documentary program. CDS told Biewen that they would provide office space as he worked to create a new audio program.

“I created a new job for myself,” Biewen said.

Biewen joined CDS as a full-time audio director in 2006. In addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate level audio documentary courses, Biewen says creation has always been part of his job.

For years, he produced works in collaboration with National Public Radio and other national outlets but gradually became frustrated with what he called the “gatekeepers” of the broadcast industry. Biewen said public radio had limitations for lengths of work and formats that were acceptable for broadcast, and he felt these limitations curbed some of his creative ideas for new audio works.

Podcasting presented an opportunity for creative freedom without time or restrictions, Biewen said. The podcasting industry has grown substantially in the past few years, with an estimated 116 million Americans listening to podcasts every month.

In 2015, he started “Scene on Radio” through CDS. Biewen says the podcast gave him complete editorial control but presented a challenge in terms of garnering listenership. Little did he know that six years later, “Scene on Radio” would attract millions of listeners across the globe and two Peabody Award nominations.

The George Foster Peabody Awards program honors innovative and storytellers for their artistic works and dedication to elevating social issues. The program was established in 1940 by the National Association of Broadcasters to recognize exemplary radio broadcasts. Today, awards are given for excellence in news, entertainment, documentaries, children's programming, education, interactive programming and public service. 

“Scene on Radio” explores a variety of American experiences through diverse perspectives. Biewen hosts and produces the podcast, oftentimes bringing on guests and co-hosts. In the podcast’s four seasons, it has amassed coverage by The Today Show, Salon, Vulture, and The Guardian, among others.

During the second season of “Scene on Radio,” Chenjerai Kumanyika, professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, joined Biewen to discuss whiteness in America. The episode, “Seeing White,” was nominated for a Peabody Award in 2018. 

Biewen and Kumanyika collaborated again for “The Land That Has Never Been Yet,” which aired from January through June 2020. The title is borrowed from Langston Hughes’s poem, “Let America Be America Again.” 

“O, let America be America again-/ O, let America be America again— / The land that never has been yet— / And yet must be….” Langston writes. 

Skeptical of the democratic origins of the United States, Biewen poses the question: Has the United States ever had real democracy?

Biewen says a constant theme that ran throughout the series was the relationship between democracy and capitalism. 

“We’re used to thinking of capitalism as one of the great forms of freedom in our country,” Biewen said, but it turns out that “even the founders of the United States in the 1780s saw democracy as being kind of in conflict with capitalism.”

According to Biewen, political leaders in the United States had to “rein in” democracy to some extent in order to maintain the capitalist structure of the country. He says that even some of the most powerful figures in the United States exhibit anti-democratic tendencies.

The podcast explores questions such as “What problems were the framers of the constitution trying to solve?” to “How does objective journalism play in the failings of American democracy?”

In addition to thought provoking and somewhat impossible to answer questions, Biewen faced another challenge to the production of his podcast: a global pandemic.

When COVID-19 struck in March 2020, Biewen had luckily already conducted most of the interviews needed for his twelve part series. He says the elements of the podcast which required travel and would have been shut down by the pandemic had already been recorded. The remaining interviews he was able to do virtually.

For Biewen, working from home was not a setback. His state-of-the-art microphone combined with his fortress of pillows provides a semi-soundproofed space that mimics a studio set-up. 

Biewen and Kumanyika produced the last two episodes of their podcast during a national movement for racial equality and police reform. George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. 

Though they were unable to address Floyd’s murder and the following racial justice movement immediately, Biewen and Kumanyika felt compelled to speak about these issues and released a bonus episode around the 2020 election that connected themes of the prior season. 

In the height of racial injustice protests in the summer of 2020, many white Americans wished to educate themselves about racial privilege and systems of inequality. Biewen says episodes from all seasons of “Scene on Radio,” but particularly “Seeing White,” were downloaded over five million times in summer of 2020.

In addition to gaining a mass following, “The Land That Has Never Been Yet” also received a 2021 Peabody Award nomination in the Podcast and Radio category.

Though “The Land That Has Never Been Yet” was not selected for an award in 2021, Biewen and Kumanyika are honored to have been nominated for the award. Their podcast has given a platform for diverse stories to be heard as listeners reconsider the founding principles of the United States and its claims of democracy.

For Biewen, it is important for listeners to understand that just because the United States was formed as a turn toward democracy, individual freedom and liberty did not progress for all directly after the founding of the country. 

“The country has only become more democratic to the extent that it has because people have struggled and struggled,” he said. “It took civil war, the civil rights movement of the 1960’s [and] the women’s suffrage movement” among other historical movements for the country to inch closer and closer to democratic principles. 

“The Land That Has Never Been Yet” can be found on the Center for Documentary Studies website as well as Apple Podcasts.

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