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As local news shrinks, government fills the void with podcasts – and some P.R.

Local news is dying. But, fear not, Durham Sheriff Clarence Birkhead has a new podcast to tell Bull City about the long history of sheriffs, the highlights of the county jail, and many other programs that make the agency “a noble office.”  

The first episode of “Star Talk” (presumably named after the traditional star-shaped sheriff’s badge) transports listeners to an era of feudalism. The sheriff originated in ninth century England where it was known as the “shire reeve” (basically, someone who did the king’s bidding), Birkhead explains. In the 1600s, English settlers brought the shire reeve to America to “keep the peace.” Thus, “shire reeve” became “sheriff” and is sometimes referred to as “peacekeeper.” Now, we can call him “podcast host.” 

There have been five episodes so far, produced with the help of North Carolina Central University’s communications department. Birkhead praises a variety of programs managed by the sheriff’s office such as the jail, school resource officers and the animal services division, which handles all things animal-related from attacks to capturing strays. 

The sheriff’s office isn’t the only Durham agency that creates its own programming in an age of shrinking news. Other examples include a monthly show called “In Touch with Durham County” that offers ongoing coverage of the county government’s services, programs, and people. 

The city government has its own YouTube channel featuring programs with names that sound like they could be local news shows. “Bull City Wrap” releases new videos every Monday recapping what’s going on within the city hall; “City Life” is a monthly talk show that explores city issues; and the daily, minute-long “Bull City Today” clips highlight stories ranging from crime statistics to police satisfaction survey results. 

The nationwide decline of local news has led to less coverage – and scrutiny – for the government. Government agencies have stepped into the vacuum to put the word out with their own podcasts and social media content. 

Local governments often want to reach their constituents wherever they are… it stands to reason that government officials will try to use [social media] platforms to get their messages out,” said Danny Hayes, professor of political science at George Washington University and a co-author of the book, “News Holes: the Demise of Local Journalism and Political Engagement.”

“97% of residents say they respect Durham police officers, and most trust and have confidence in them,” says a “Bull City Today” episode from September 13. 

With a robust news media, that kind of boast by the city government might face further scrutiny. But without independent coverage, local officials can craft their own narratives.

That’s more likely these days due to the spread of  “news deserts.” According to a 2022 report by the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University, a fifth of the country’s population lives in an area with no local news organizations, or at best, a singular, endangered local news outlet. 

We need a vibrant local news media to make sure that residents know not only what government officials are doing and saying, but also to make it harder for local officials to mislead or hide important information from the public,” said Hayes. 

This doesn’t mean government offices shouldn’t tell citizens about their programs, said Pope “Mac” McCorkle, a professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy. “We shouldn’t be criticizing efforts like the sheriff’s to get the word out. It just underlines the need to get other voices out there,” he said. 

“Star Talk” is as much a “Help Wanted!” poster as it is a podcast. Each episode is punctuated by an ad that says the office is hiring. (Durhamites need only be 21 years old with a high school diploma.) 

If you want an “opportunity to improve the quality of lives of our citizens!” while being “in a profession that is noble!” contact the county jail. The podcast indicates they are constantly recruiting. 

The podcast segment on the jail, officially known as the Durham County Detention Facility, explains its role in the criminal justice system and in Bull City. Chief of Detention Services Johnny Hawkins notes the center’s proximity to “two internationally recognized edifices,” the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the Durham Performing Arts Center. 

Hawkins’s view used to be “large landscapes and perimeter fencing and patrol vehicles and towers.” Now, “the detention center sort of rises out between the arts and the sports,” Birkhead says. 

Sometimes, individuals sit in the facility for up to five years awaiting trial. (“And keep it in mind, for our listening audience, the sheriff has no bearing… on how fast a trial can happen,” says Birkhead.) There also is 24-hour medical care. (“But for the most part, we have a healthy population who are in jail,” says Birkhead.)

The podcast wraps up with getting “folks really excited about doing this work.” The next episode can be expected in October. In the meantime, job applications are happily being accepted.