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SALMAGUNDI: New CNI podcast brings Statehouse news to your ears

Reactions to this year’s General Assembly regular session are justifiably varied, but on a personal note my biggest takeaway was an appreciation for the value of Capitol News Illinois.

The Illinois Press Foundation organized CNI as a nonprofit news bureau to benefit the more than 400 newspapers that make up the Illinois Press Association. That kind of service might’ve been extraneous when individual newspapers and ownership groups could afford to maintain their own statehouse reporters, but in a time when streamlined newsrooms are focusing on intensely local stories, having CNI content available is a true blessing.

Anyone who’s leafed through pages of The Times in the last few months is familiar with CNI bylines. Rebecca Anzel, Peter Hancock and Jerry Nowicki are the most experienced. Grant Morgan, a student in the University of Illinois Springfield’s Public Affairs Reporting program did yeoman’s work as an intern. Then there’s Interim Bureau Chief Jeff Rogers, who spent nine years editing Shaw Media mastheads to become the Illinois Press Foundation director.

But as much as I’ve valued the reporting, this week my focus on CNI turns to Capitol Cast, the bureau’s audio effort that’s the latest focus of my occasional look at podcasts with local appeal.

CNI cranked out 10 episodes over the past two months. They’re all available on SoundCloud, with a link to the show page found on the landing page. The most recent episode, published June 7, is titled “Illinois’ Sharp Turn to the Left,” a fitting moniker for a legislative session that saw wave after wave of Democratic priority legislation adopted in the final (and a few bonus) days.

My first impression is it was a little odd to have essentially a cold open, having to wait two minutes (of a 19-minute episode) for host Hancock to introduce himself and the show. Still, the open set the scene quite well, using an audio clip of Gov. JB Pritzker delivering a summary of the end of the session. There also was a teaser quote from state Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, again identified after we heard her remarks.

“I would say the majority of Illinois does not want this,” McCombie said. “And I do believe you’ll see an uprising of moderates that do not want these progressive changes.”

In summarizing the rash of changes approved this session, Hancock didn’t overlook the minimum wage increase schedule adopted so early on this session that many have overlooked its importance.

He also carefully parsed the issues that passed with bipartisan support — a $40 billion state budget and the $45 billion capital plan — and those that advanced only through the Democrats’ supermajority, including the aforementioned minimum wage bill, recreational marijuana and abortion legislation.

In a one-on-one interview with CNI, McCombie said Republicans were able to exert more influence when they had more legislative seats during the Gov. Bruce Rauner administration, and suggested Democrats flexed some muscle after a 2018 ballot box blue wave. Hancock smartly followed that clip by noting McCombie is spearheading the GOP’s coordinated campaign to win back House seats in 2020.

That spun into a quote from House Revenue Committee Chairman Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, captured with just enough background noise to convey the busyness of a May day in Springfield without sacrificing audio fidelity.

Christopher Mooney, a state politics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, gave a brief telephone interview discussing whether Illinois might be experiencing political whiplash, lurching left after four years under Rauner’s brand of conservatism.

After 10 minutes, Hancock shifted to a panel discussion with Anzel and Nowicki. He summarized his interview with Mooney — unnecessary since it just finished playing — and Nowicki’s insight was a welcome balance, evincing a reporter with an excellent handle on the larger political forces at play before, during and after the Rauner years.

Anzel carefully noted her remarks were information, not analysis, but the journalist in me wanted a more casual roundtable. The written reporting is rock solid and stands on its own, a podcast gives a chance to dive deeper. Likewise, it would’ve been nice to hear more from the representatives compared to the professor, but all three could’ve benefitted from a standalone interview with Hancock.

It’ll be interesting to see how the show, and CNI at large, shift focus with lawmakers off duty for several months. But this podcast is a welcome addition to the quality content CNI delivers, and I hope it continues to grow and improve.

As always, please share recommendations for podcasts our readers might enjoy.

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