Can This Public Radio Show Get ‘Middle America’ to Tune In?

The call came about midway through the show. “I came out to him as transgender and I mean, we didn’t see eye to eye,” the voice said, describing a conversation with their grandfather.

The person said they were a high schooler from the Twin Cities, Minnesota—not your typical caller on a public radio show. They described how the way they identified fractured their relationship with their grandfather, though through time, communication, and their shared love of making hot sauces, it helped them find a middle ground.

“We realized that what we both want for both of us is the best thing that can happen and that kind of extends out,” they said. “If we come into a mindset, we can really find that sort of ground and it’s something that I don’t see a lot because it’s really hard to see that other person and see where they’re coming from because it’s easier to see where you’re coming from.”

One of the people on the other line was former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican and one of the first guests on The Middle, a Larry King Live-like weekly public radio show dedicated to reaching those in the geographic and political middle of the country.

The show was created by Jeremy Hobson, a former NPR host who serves as The Middle’s host and producer. Each episode of The Middle, which airs live on Thursdays on nearly 400 radio stations across the U.S., revolves around a singular topic, with Hobson, two expert panelists, a journalist-turned-DJ—and hundreds of live callers—weighing in with their perspectives.

The cover art for The Middle.

An Illinois native, Hobson found that most radio shows rarely considered those who lived where he was born—residents whose states’ electoral politics often shift presidential elections.

“I’ve been in public media for over 25 years,” Hobson, 41, said. “What I have seen, and I grew up in central Illinois, I feel like these voices need to have a part in our national conversation on a weekly basis.”

The program’s genesis came early last year, just before the summer. Hobson said he found much of modern public radio’s heavily produced, pre-recorded nature grating, as it appeared the hosts were too scripted, sounded unnatural, and pandered to a single worldview. “It’s scripted, because they don’t want to get anything wrong,” Hobson said. “I just think, as a listener, that sounds really bad and it turns people off.”

Hobson’s view was not off-base, a 2019 NPR study found: 54 percent of NPR listeners considered themselves “somewhat or very liberal,” while only 26 percent considered themselves “middle of the road.”

He began pitching the idea of a live evening show geared toward so-called “Middle America,” not to the stations rooted there—such as in states like North Dakota and Colorado—but to coastal stations reminiscent of his time at NPR and WBUR, NPR’s Boston station. After a friend at a Chicago public radio station questioned his approach, suggesting instead he start from a Midwest station and expand outward, The Middle’s name and objective clicked for Hobson.

“I want to be able to give people who are around this country in many different places, across the geographic middle of the country, I want to give them an opportunity to be a part of the conversation,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. So it’s about bringing these voices in that are not typically heard, allowing listeners to take part.”

After a series of self-funded pilot episodes that aired just before the 2022 midterm elections—and a yearlong, individual pitching process to radio stations nationwide— Hobson officially launched the show in September out of WILL-FM, the Illinois Public Media station in Urbana, Illinois. It currently airs across 380 public radio stations nationwide, spanning from Illinois to Minnesota to Los Angeles, where Hobson resides and hosts the show alongside his DJ, journalist and musician Jonathan Tolliver. Hobson believes it is the only public radio program in the U.S. that takes live calls.

“I thought it’d be more of a program where, like, ‘What are those people in the middle of the country thinking?’ But it isn’t,” said Stephanie Curtis, the content director of Minnesota Public Radio. “It sounds like it’s led with real curiosity. I love that it’s not just a question, like, ‘Why are people living in the middle of the country?’ It’s about the biggest issues that are facing the U.S., but then highlighting the voices of people from the Central Time Zone, from Middle America.”

The Illinois station serves as the show’s technical home base, while iHeartMedia distributes The Middle as a podcast the day after it airs—an unusual arrangement by its non-exclusive nature. (Programs by some news organizations, such as Vox’s Today, Explained and The New York Times’ The Daily, originate as podcasts before airing on public radio.)

“iHeartMedia was the first one that came back and said, ‘We actually are really interested in this idea,’” Hobson said. “We love this idea and we want to distribute the podcast, but we know that you have to be live on the radio in order to do a live call-in show, and so we’re gonna let you run the show first on public radio stations and we’ll take the podcast after and distribute the podcast.’ Once we had that, we’re like, ‘Okay, well, we’re doing this show now.’”

One of the things we’re trying to do here is dispel the stereotypes of the geographic middle and say no, actually, it’s incredibly diverse, it’s incredibly dynamic.

Jeremy Hobson, ‘The Middle’ host

“When we were introduced to Jeremy and team, and the concept of this show, we felt it could meet a very real need to hear the range of voices on this subject,” Will Pearson, president of iHeartPodcasts, told The Daily Beast in an email, citing a Pushkin Industries study it commissioned that he said found marketers avoided Middle America.

“This is a unique arrangement and we’re excited to see how the broadcast radio program and the podcast can help fuel interest in each other,” Pearson added.

The “we” in question is a production village scattered across the nation, operating on a shoestring budget of roughly $500,000, Hobson said. He retains one full-time producer, associate producer Harrison Patiño, along with five part-time employees including senior producer Joanne Jennings, a former PBS NewsHour producer. (Hobson said he doesn’t take a salary himself.)

The team works each week to determine the show’s topic and book its panelists, locking in the week’s touch points during a Wednesday script meeting. Hobson said he spends other parts of his week preparing grant proposals to secure additional funds.

“It’s similar to a lot of other things I’ve produced,” Jennings said. “I haven’t done live in a little while, and I’ve never done call-in before, so that’s different for me. So there’s a spontaneity there, and you have less control. Producers like to have control. But you let go of it, and we have great callers, so it’s been fun.”

A photo showing Jeremy Hobson with Cynthia Wang during The Middle’s first episode on Sept 28th 2023 at Illinois Public Media in Urbana, Illinois.

Jeremy Hobson with Cynthia Wang during The Middle’s first episode on Sept. 28, 2023 at Illinois Public Media in Urbana, Illinois.

Courtesy of The Middle

The show balances the issues it chooses to cover, ranging from the hyperspecific (such as episodes ranging from the conflict in Israel and Gaza to abortion rights) to the generalized (its most recent live episode examined whether bipartisanship still exists). That array of topics gives multiple openings for listeners nationwide to draw from their personal experiences for their input. The show has seen upwards of 200 calls per show, producers told The Daily Beast, an amount that overwhelmed the technical system that takes in the calls during a recent episode.

“The challenge is to give voice to people who paint this complicated but representative picture of how Americans view a certain issue, whether that’s Israel and Gaza or abortion or whether or not our elected leaders are too old,” Patiño said. “When it works best, you have these people kind of chiming in and disagreeing with each other. Not in the sense that they’re biting at each other, but presenting a complicated outlook on these topics.”

Nearly everyone who spoke to The Daily Beast pointed to the conversation in the show’s first episode between the trans caller and Hobson as an example of the show’s core. John Barth, a consultant who works with Hobson to pitch the show to stations and sat with Gov. Edgar as he called in for his appearance, said the caller’s story evoked a visceral reaction from Edgar, who said in the call that he related to the grandfather but acknowledged that “times have changed and you got to accept it, and hopefully you can go along with that.”

“He was actually physically leaning into the microphone,” Barth recalled. “It was like he was getting closer to the listeners, and after the show wrapped up and we were playing with his two dogs, he said, ‘You know, he said that was really a lot of fun.’ He really—he just seemed looser, and he seemed more energetic than a guy who you would think would be a retired Republican governor. It really kind of, I thought, there’s something physical that kind of opened him up during that conversation.”

Hobson said he hoped to take the show on the road toward the start of the 2024 primary season, beginning with an episode in Louisiana in late January. He and his team aim to air the show in larger markets such as Washington state and in D.C., among others, to lift the actual voices of those within the country’s center to its coasts.

“One of the things we’re trying to do here is dispel the stereotypes of the geographic middle and say no, actually, it’s incredibly diverse, it’s incredibly dynamic, it’s incredibly interesting, economically and in so many other ways,” Hobson said. “It’s a time that people from all walks of life in the middle have a place at the table and the national conversation.”

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