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For the Love of Pod: Wanna Know Idaho

Listeners become reporters on this BSPR podcast

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The still-recent history of podcasting dates back to 2003, but it was Serial, the Peabody Award-winning series first produced by This American Life, that set the standard. To date, Serial episodes have been downloaded nearly 200 million times.

"Serial really is the definitive demarcation in the podcast landscape," said Frankie Barnhill, community engagement manager and award-winning reporter for Boise State Public Radio. "Like a lot of people, I vividly recall listening to that first season of Serial episodes in 2014."

Barnhill's personal admiration for Serial intersected with her professional life when, during Serial's second season (2015-2016), she produced Speaking of Serial, a BSPR podcast about the podcast. The 10-episode arc took a deep dive into Serial's latest subject: Idaho-native and Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was then facing a military court martial.

Over the past three years, a few BSPR podcasts have followed, including You Know the Place (see BW's Lex Nelson's story of that BSPR podcast by clicking here). But one of the station's most popular series is Wanna Know Idaho, which recently launched its second season.

"I'm lucky to be the one hosting the second season. The first season was basically un-hosted, but this past summer, I approached our General Manager Tom Michael and said, "I'd like to take Wanna Know Idaho and push it even further than we went last year,'" said Barnhill. "It wasn't necessarily that I wanted to be the host, but I think that my job as community engagement manager naturally has me wanting to involve the community as much as possible."

Indeed, that is Wanna Know Idaho's unique MO: It bills itself as a "people-powered podcast." Simply put, it's based on the public's curiosity. For example, in its first season, listeners asked, "What would it take for train travel to return to Southern Idaho?" "What's up with the Abe Lincoln statues in Downtown Boise?" "How do the bands for Treefort get picked?" and "How did Idaho get that name?" And Wanna Know Idaho answered.

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Wanna Know Idaho's second season began in late August, when listener Mary Reiman asked, "What's in the fire retardant that's dropped on Idaho's wildfires?" The question couldn't have been more timely, what with Idaho still in the throes of wildfire season.

"She was pretty excited because I took her into the offices of the National Interagency Fire Center," said Barnhill. "Now, as a reporter, I can enter NIFC, but members of the public don't always have that privilege. It was also pretty great to see the excitement on her face as she got to ask all the questions. It took me back to the days of being a cub reporter and being so excited."

The NIFC visit resulted in a fascinating season premiere episode, which ran about nine and a half minutes.

"Of course, you can subscribe to the podcast, but we also feature the episodes on Morning Edition and Idaho Matters," said Barnhill, pointing two of BSPR's flagship broadcasts.

Up next came a question from listener John Lawson: "Why are gas prices so expensive in Idaho?" It's a query that has been echoed throughout the Gem State for decades, particularly recently, as prices at some Idaho stations are 30 to 40 cents higher than in neighboring Wyoming.

Lawson drove his 2016 Chevy diesel truck to a Kuna gas station, where he met Barnhill.

"Sometimes I wonder, 'Gosh, I wonder what people think when I walk up to them with all of my recording gear,'" said Barnhill. "John was great, because he actually did quite a bit of research for the episode."

That particular Wanna Know Idaho podcast episode dropped online Oct. 3. Without revealing any spoilers here, the episode is a fascinating explainer of how taxes, geopolitics and even weather events impact Idaho's prices at the pump.

As far as what's next, Barnhill said she's soliciting questions from listeners in central Idaho, possibly from the McCall area.

"We'd love to hit the road and take another listener on a trip where their questions get some direct answers," said Barnhill. "Who knows what it will be? But if our previous visits with listeners are any indication, it's got to be good."

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