New Ann Arbor podcast aims to make civic engagement accessible AF

The co-hosts of a new podcast called "Ann Arbor AF" hope to use a fun, accessible tone to inspire people in Washtenaw County and beyond to get more engaged in local civic affairs.
Jess Letaw, co-host of a new podcast called "Ann Arbor AF," says she and her collaborators chose that name because "we wanted something that would show the community that talking about politics can be fun and accessible."

With a laugh, co-host Molly Kleinman adds: "And we're frequently motivated to profanity when we think about Ann Arbor politics."

On the podcast, which launched in December, co-hosts Letaw, Kleinman, and Michelle Hughes cover a variety of topics related to Ann Arbor civic affairs. They originally planned to release a podcast about every other week to discuss an upcoming city council meeting agenda, but Kleinman says the collaborators felt they "couldn't effectively talk about the agenda without helping people understand the backstory to the issues and how some of this stuff works."

So, in addition to having episodes dedicated to city council agendas, the co-hosts also record what they call "Deeper Dives" into subjects like boards and commissions, budgets, and even how to read and understand a city council agenda. The podcast has also hosted special guests to talk about their more specific interests, such as an episode that featured local activist Trische' Duckworth discussing policing. The co-hosts hope to have more special guests in the future. 
Jess Letaw, Molly Kleinman, Michelle Hughes, and Jarod Malestein of the Ann Arbor AF podcast at Larcom City Hall.
However, the discussion of council agendas seems to resonate particularly with listeners. An episode about how to read an agenda is among the most popular episodes so far. Letaw says the co-hosts discussed the rationale behind previewing a council agenda rather than reviewing it after it's over.

"We don't want to get caught up in personality dynamics. It's not about individuals but about the issues," Letaw says.

Hughes says she has live-Tweeted council meetings in the past and finds that "sometimes you miss the forest for the trees when you do it that way."

"You get caught up in the circus, in the spectacle, just like council members do," Hughes says. "With this podcast, we are saying, 'Let's take a step back and look at the issues and discuss them in a more sober way.'"

"Ann Arbor AF" spun out of Letaw's plans to start a podcast project in 2020 related to her Building Matters nonprofit, which sought to be a community resource on architecture and provide tours of Ann Arbor's historic buildings. 

"I was all ready to go, and the weekend I was supposed to go into the podcast studio to start, everything shut down [due to COVID-19]," she says. "I had all this podcast energy idling, and Molly made a comment a few months later asking, 'When are you going to do that podcast?'"

Letaw said she'd do it if Kleinman agreed to participate. The lineup of co-hosts was completed when their friend Hughes, who had hosted a radio segment called "Civics Party" for University of Michigan radio station WCBN, came on board. Completing the picture, Letaw's friend Jarod Malestein offered to help out on the technical side, editing and uploading the three co-hosts' weekly conversations to Zoom.
Jarod Malestein, Molly Kleinman, Michelle Hughes and Jess Letaw of the Ann Arbor AF podcast at Larcom City Hall.
"It's important because more people should be involved in local politics," Malestein says, noting that many people only vote in national elections and skip the local races on the ballot. 

The collaborators' original intent was to educate their fellow Ann Arbor residents about city politics, but they've been learning a few things themselves along the way.

No matter how mundane a city council agenda might look, Letaw says "there's always something to learn," a sentiment echoed by her co-hosts.

"One thing I've learned doing these council episodes is about the progression of an issue. Something will come back to council three or four times, and I'm not even talking about postponement," Kleinman says. "I've picked up that these threads are part of a longer conversation, and we're hoping to help listeners get into the same rhythms and progressions."

Hughes says the creators of "Ann Arbor AF" have received lots of positive feedback from the community. They are steadily gaining new followers in Ann Arbor and further afield.

"Ann Arbor is such a powerful force and has such an effect on the whole county, like our housing decisions," Hughes says. "I hope that the podcast is reaching people elsewhere and inspiring people who live in the whole region to get involved."

The co-hosts say they hope the podcast will inspire people in Washtenaw County and beyond to bring the civic engagement America saw at a national level in 2020 to the local level. 

"There's been this huge wave of energy and interest in engaging civically, and a lot of folks are accustomed to following on the national level. Some of them are turning to local politics for the first time, and local politics can feel really opaque," Kleinman says. "Part of our motivation is to help those folks get oriented and acclimated to local issues. We'd love to see local podcasts like this pop up everywhere."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.