Before March of this year, Bill Bartholomew was known in the Rhode Island music scene as the voice of Silverteeth, but since then he’s also become a voice for independent political reporting. A lifelong politics and broadcast nerd, Bartholomew then-newly launched The Bartholomewtown Podcast quickly shifted focus from interviewing local musicians to in-depth conversations with political contenders, incumbents, and commentators, including Joe Trillo, Allan Fung, and Ian Donnis. We turned the mic on the host to talk covering politics, where his podcast fits in the local media landscape, and what happens to Bartholomewtown now that the election is over.
Why politics – so much of the podcast has been politically focused – and did you feel there was a need for this type of political coverage?
I did feel that there was a need for it in Rhode Island. When I began the podcast earlier this year I had planned to focus on songwriters and musicians, which is more comfortable for me because that’s what I do. But I’m also a Rhode Island politics fan. I felt that within my circle of friends the political discussions we were having were more based on broad issues, which are extremely important, but not that many people knew who Nick Mattiello was, nevermind Kobi Dennis. So I felt compelled, and I was very fortunate to get access to candidates and elected officials without much explaining. The pod seemed to work for itself to grow on the political side.
But it evolved quickly after I launched it in March. I suddenly felt my own happiness and excitement around it. I realized that I knew more than I thought I did and had more of a commentary to offer than I thought I had. In the pod form, it could be delivered to an audience that isn’t going to tune into WPRO or listen to The Public’s Radio or watch A Lively Experiment.
Was that comfort around talking politics a big learning curve for you? How quickly did you find your own voice?
I used WPRO as open mic, the way I used open mic as a songwriter in New York – going into an environment that wasn’t easy and being challenged, which is the case on WPRO when you present viewpoints that are not only somewhat liberal, but that challenge the host. I developed this persona, William in Newport – I was living in Newport at the time – and called WPRO all the time. I read local media in-depth [and] worked backwards through the 2014 and 2010 gubernatorial races. Really caught up on the 10 years I was away from Rhode Island and it just sort of clicked. After about a year of preparing for it, my first political guest was Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee and it just felt comfortable. It felt like I could have a conversation with him that was constructive and informed, and it inspired me to just keep going.
What struck me right away when I saw what you were doing with this podcast was that access you were able to get.
If you know where to look in Rhode Island and can use common sense – you’re not going to show up at the governor’s office and ask to interview her – and think about the other players, how they work, and what their goals are as far as getting their message out, there’s that. But being an independent musician, working as a paralegal in New York City and as an administrative assistant for hedge fund maniacs, I did learn how to write emails well. That’s been very helpful. And being very strategic about how and when I ask guests. The access part of it comes from being familiar with a candidate or an elected official or an artist before reaching out.
You mentioned appealing to an audience that might not tune into WPRO or The Public’s Radio. What do you feel this format, and more specifically this show, has to offer that those outlets don’t?
I’ve always been an unaffiliated voter. I try to be as objective as I can be, while realizing that I have a stake in some of the things people are saying. I’ll push back if Joe Trillo says something off the wall, but also, if someone from the progressive movement says something that seems unsustainable. That’s how I’ve tried to maintain it because I have no sponsorship or anything like that, I’m happy to talk in depth with both Giovanni Feroce and Kobi Dennis. Sometimes I worry when I see that The Public’s Radio has a podcast, or Matt Allen has a podcast and a lot of the guests are the same as mine and he's backed by Cumulus, or the Providence Journal’s been hinting at this, and I think I’ll get steamrolled. But the feedback that I get from people who are running for high offices or friends I’ve had for decades, the people I trust the most, keep reminding me that there’s no other singer-songwriter who moved to Brooklyn and came back and has this approach [to local politics], so I’m just trying to be myself.
I listen to all of [those outlets], and it’s an ecosystem that I think is essential. I genuinely want to be friendly with the guests that are coming in, I’m not looking for any kind of gotcha, clickbait moment, and I think that’s helpful. The approach I take is to be as objective as I can, but [I’m not] trying to nail somebody. This isn’t investigative reporting, I’m just trying to get people to tell their stories. I like to have laughs, I love storytelling. We just did an episode with RJ Heim, and we went through his career as a broadcaster. We put in segments from when he was on the radio, it was this really interesting audio documentary. It was a story and that’s what I hope to get out of each episode. Obviously there’s analysis and that's important too, but you can tell their story and still have that meat there. You can have feel-good storytelling while still digging into issues.
Where does the show go now that the election’s over?
A lot of people, including myself, have been asking “What’s it going to be after the election? Are you going to do more music stuff?” I’d love to, and I’d love to have more media personalities in here, but I’ll have to see where things go. I’d love to do more where I’m piecing things together and telling the story of Rhode Island politics, [which] is amazing. One of the coolest parts of the pod has been having friend from New York text me out of the blue like “Oh man, you think Fung’s going to pull it off?” People who have never even been to Rhode Island are following this stuff because it’s like a reality show for them. That continues way after the election and gets more interesting in a lot of way. But yeah, investigative work, profile pieces, and bringing the human storytelling side of Rhode Island politics. Everybody loves a character, and I think if you put more attention of some of the characters in the political arena, because it is the official sport of Rhode Island, you’d find more voter engagement and a more open dialogue. It’s a way to really learn about a candidate, an elected official, or a person covering them in the media. It’s a way to learn about their story, what motivates them, the specifics about their policies. It gives the listener an opportunity to form a relationship with these people.