Actuality‘s most recent episode, “Undocumented” was a surprisingly great listen. I say “surprisingly” not because the show is normally a bad listen, but rather because I was, at first, loathe to listen to anything else about leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s immigration plan. If there are any topics that have been done to death in the past few weeks, Donald Trump and immigration reform are chief among them.
Actuality, for the uninitiated, is a relatively nascent bi-monthly joint podcast production between Marketplace and Quartz. Marketplace, a radio program and network, is the most widely heard business or economic programming in the country. Quartz is a “digitally native” news website that primarily focuses on the economy. Though occasionally centered on interesting subject matter, Marketplace interviews can be underwhelming, constrained by all of the typical limits of a half-hour, nationally-syndicated program. Actuality resolves this by by way of a more focused approach: a single issue in our economy, told in way which skillfully combines Marketplace’s radio know-how with Quartz’s laser-focus on data-driven journalism.
Trump, as you know, has been dominating the news cycle, with each news network mentioning him so often you’d think they were trying to meet a quota. Right now, his main platform issue (and, in turn, engine of controversy) is immigration. Though immigration reform has been debated hotly for decades, Trump often takes credit for bringing this issue to the forefront of the primary season. To that end, he released a six-page reform plan—which is where Actuality comes in.
In “Undocumented”, co-hosts Sabri Ben-Achour (Marketplace) and Tim Fernholz (Quartz) illustrate why this production marriage is so interesting. They waste no time in calling Trump’s plan and rhetoric “politically potent but not exactly totally factual.” They use each expert guest on the show as a vehicle to give context on how we should be approaching the feasibility of Trump’s plan and the current status of the issue. Jeffrey Passel (Pew Research Center) gives us the demographics of the current undocumented population; Doris Meissner (Migration Policy Institute) lays out the roadblocks in building the wall Trump wants Mexico to build and political history of immigration reform; finally, John Carney (Wall Street Journal), casts doubt to the argument that without these undocumented workers farmers will have labor shortages.
Ben-Achour and Fernholz ask poignant follow-up questions, the sort that Trump supporters might have, to keep the guests on point. Each interview isn’t bogged down by political sentiment, but rather a precision-cut delivery of the most important facts and figures. It takes skill to choose the right people to ask the questions to, and the Actuality team does a great job picking–which, in turn, leads to one hell of an episode. Compare “Undocumented” to a recent segment from WBUR’s Here and Now, where Marketplace alumnus Jeremy Hobson interviews Professor and unsuccessful Republican Senate candidate Jan Ting. The interview replicates the same conversation about immigration reform that we hear ad nauseam on television, Ting’s argument is steeped with feelings, moods, and outrage, and I was left yearning for the data behind the behind the story.
Actuality does what it what it sets out to do, making the “stories that used to wither and die on the business pages of serious publications” accessible and conversational. Still incredibly early in its career, it occasionally gets lost in the numbers, something I suspect it will outgrow quickly. If you are looking for a show that will dissect a single economic issue using studies and strong interviewees, like a topical, data-obsessed cousin of Planet Money, Actuality is where to look.
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