Podcast Review: Behind the News with Doug Henwood

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A split screen of Trevor Noah speaking to Doug Henwood
Doug Henwood speaking to The Daily Show's Trevor Noah. Photo: YouTube

A few years back, I was visiting a friend in his home in Wexford and he had a radio on the table in the kitchen. I didn’t know what it was he was listening to and he told me it was something called ‘internet radio’. Standing back from daily reality for a moment, I asked him what he meant by internet radio……. “you know, there’s this thing called the internet?” I think I needed reminding, when we are all drowning in digital formats, login options, passwords and platforms that digital radio is a thing. Doug Henwood’s show Behind the News is one such thing: a weekly, scheduled radio show from KPFA, part of the Pacifica Foundation’s network of media outlets. Not only is Behind the News good radio, it is always current with an international focus. 

Each week Henwood introduces two topics, typically one in response to that week’s news stories and the second of a longer term nature. These topics are addressed by his guests: union organisers, authors, bloggers and sometimes academics. Each segment is about 30 minutes long and usually starts off with the why, why and where questions and then expands as Henwood asks more probing questions: what are the formations that allowed this? Who are the major political forces involved?

While we might be a little tired on this side of the Atlantic of US elections, Henwood’s most recent content about the presidential races, attempted insurrection and inauguration has been refreshing for its lack of fawning over the Democratic victory. He’s more interested in how recent events fit into larger trends and longer term issues around political economy, class and material conditions. The two parts are separated by his ‘musical break’, usually a blast of Beethoven or a late ‘70s punk band. 

All done with no ads or appeals to subscribe. 

It has been Behind the News that reminded me again that currents rise and fall across issues, domestic and international, but the struggle remains constant. 

It brings the local to bear on the grand sweep of history and yet he manages to ensure that all of his guests stay focused on that week’s events. 

Henwood’s interviewing style is never patronising (a refreshing change from how RTÉ and others interview here) and I have never heard him talk down to his audience in a way that has become all too familiar to Irish listeners. This is radio that wants you to learn but at base, just hopes for you to stay current, politically and socially.

Recent episodes on the attraction of Navalny’s rise in Russia and new trends in working from home are always placed in the context of how capitalism works across and within boundaries. (Navalny, by the way, is no more an opposition leader in Russia as the execrable and diminutive Justin Barrett is here in Ireland.) Another recent episode recounts how the use of the word ‘taxpayer’ has its political origins in post-civil war Reconstruction politics; a moment when southern US capitalists and others tried to maintain hegemony in areas where African Americans started to gain political power. In other words, using ‘taxpayer’ in lieu of citizen or resident draws attention to how power comes from property ownership, not rights. 

Behind the News is a weekly internet radio thing, which, I know now, is also a podcast about political struggle, US and international. The Latin American segments on the show are better than anything British mass media produces. 

Name: Behind the News

Release: weekly, on Thursdays

Length: 1 hour

Available from: KPFA.org and from podcast apps searches.