“Listen Up” vol 2: Four Bulgarian Podcasts and One Recorded Live

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The third and final day of the podcast festival “Listen Up” vol. 2 took place on 10 December. The focus of the last day fell on the authors of four podcasts produced in Bulgaria. They were followed by the recording of a live episode of Periscope, the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria‘s own podcast.

The guests were welcomed by the Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty Martin Kotee, the Program Director of the America for Bulgaria Foundation Lenko Lenkov and the Chairwoman of AEJ-Bulgaria Irina Nedeva. Kotee, who used to be a reporter in the past, said that for him audio journalism has always been the best method for spreading ideas and this is the reason why audiences embrace the podcast format nowadays. “Think of podcasts as a kind of renaissance of radio journalism. Through them, you get people to focus and imagine different ideas as they listen,” Kotee said. Irina Nedeva, who is a radio journalist by vocation, said the podcast format does not compete with radio but complements it. “In the podcast we have the chance to look at a topic in depth, it’s like a book you immerse yourself in,” she said. Lenko Lenkov, for his part, thanked AEJ-Bulgaria for the organisation’s efforts in the fight against vaccine-related misinformation in the country.

The first podcast presented during the event was that of radio journalist Nikoleta Atanasova from the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR). After postponing it for years, in 2020 she launched her own podcast, “The Place”, which is being published by the independent online media Toest. “In Bulgaria, most podcasts follow a dialogic format and I wanted to make one that tells personal stories, and through them to describe social phenomena,” says Atanasova. “When you tell a big issue through personal stories, you give listeners the opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of the character. Dramaturgically, it’s structured like a film or a book, you start with the strong message, then build up small conflicts, followed by a plot twist and then the strong finale comes into play,” she adds. In the first four episodes of “The Place,” Atanasova follows two young people who take an active part in the protests against Boyko Borissov’s government and Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev in the summer of 2020. “I was able to follow them for three months in tent camps and on marches, I talked with them in different environments,” she adds. In subsequent episodes of the podcast, she tells the story of a soldier during World War I… through the eyes of his grandson.

The Аmerican Eric Holsey, author and host of The Bulgarian History Podcast, a serial show that tells Bulgarian history from the Middle Ages to modernity in English, spoke next. Holsey stepped into the role of a “historian from the future” and narrated the turbulent events of 2021 from an inside perspective, focusing on the most significant political and social events of the year, which is soon coming to its end.

The third participant in the festival was Katerina Vassileva, who presented her podcast “Polifem”, dedicated to women’s participation in politics. She began with a call for support for crisis and counselling centres for victims of domestic violence, and then talked about how  she was inspired to start her initiative. “I asked myself – what does a future Bulgarian Jacinda Ardern need? Theory and statistics about women’s participation in public life are unlikely to inspire her – but stories are. She needs inspiration, and that comes most often from the personal stories of people who have trodden the path,” Vassileva said. The subjects of her podcast have included Belarusian activist Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, her personal inspiration, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and Bulgaria’s first suffragette, Dimitrina Ivanova. “In their successes and failures, hesitations and worries, I discovered myself. We admire these women now for their strength, but they were ordinary people who feared every step they took. For me, this is the power of stories – they make us feel less alone in the world, they convince us that a better world can exist and they push us to become part of the fight for it,” the young journalist, who is among the first authors in the platform for journalism work of highschool students Scoolmedia.com (one of AEJ-Bulgaria’s projects) concluded.

The last ones to present their podcast were Svilen Georgiev and Martin Grahovski from the travel podcast InStories of InGlobo magazine. “We’ve talked about travel as salvation, sustainable travel, we’ve discussed the mysteries of ancient Egypt,” Georgiev said. The duo then shared what their favorite stories told on the podcast were. Among them are that of Stanley Stoyanov, an aeronautical engineer who has travelled to 60 countries, and Martin Stefanov, a mountain ultra-runner and hiking guide in Lapland. Then the hosts shared which were their own favourite adventures – a long-awaited trip to Namibia for Georgiev and making a documentary about Iceland for Grahovski. “It’s not just travel stories, but stories about people’s lives and even – about life lessons,” Grahovski concluded.

In the final part of the festival, Irina Nedeva moderated the live recording of an episode of the AEJ-Bulgaria podcast Periscope. The topic was “The role of journalists in a world of misinformation,” and the panelists were the editor-in-chief of Dnevnik.bg, Velislava Popova, the chief health inspector, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Angel Kunchev, and Nikoleta Daskalova, media expert at the Media Democracy Foundation. The first to start was Dr. Kunchev, who shared his personal experience of a literal “victim” of fake news – when an anti-vax activist spread the rumor that Dr Kunchev, who was vaccinated, had died of Covid-19 and the state was hiding that fact. “One particular case showed how far people can go when they defend obviously wrong ideology,” he said. “The truth is that we have reached a peak of misinformation. A group of active and aggressive anti-vaxxers has formed. If they were a small vocal group of 2-5%, it would not be a problem, but in Bulgaria the three political campaigns this year mixed politics and pandemic, and some people and parties have constructed their entire images on anti-vaccination rhetoric,” he added.

Nikoleta Daskalova, for her part, described two main “doorways” that allowed the uncontrolled spread of misinformation in the country. “It is official information coming from institutions and the medical community that was not consistent. The media has suffered from low credibility for years and, corroded by years of bias and internal struggles, has failed to win decisively the public’s trust. The other very important channel was the alternative publicity of social networks, where the messages of all kinds of ‘heroes’ intersect with the fears of the audience. We all produce content and are co-responsible for the outcome,” she said.

Velislava Popova also drew attention to the tendency on social networks to express emotional and quick reactions to any news and shared some of the dilemmas facing professional journalism due to the influx of fake content on the internet. “If we haven’t written a piece related to a certain popular misinformation topic, why should we refute it afterwards? There are also cases where readers alert us to important misinformation topics and then we have to comment on them,” she said. 

Pictures: Zdravko Yonchev