‘Democracy in Danger’ Podcast Wins Webby Award Against Stiff Competition

April 28, 2023
Side by side portraits of Siva Vaidhyanathan, Robertson Professor of Media Studies, and William I. Hitchcock, James Madison Professor of History

“Democracy in Danger” podcast co-hosts Siva Vaidhyanathan, Robertson Professor of Media Studies, and William I. Hitchcock, James Madison Professor of History, credit the Karsh Institute for Democracy production crew and podcast guests for the award. (Photos by Dan Addison, University Communications)

A University of Virginia Karsh Institute of Democracy team has won a coveted Webby Award for its podcast “Democracy in Danger,” beating out productions from NBC News, the Washington Post and The Economist.

The production received the Webby People’s Voice award for News and Politics.

“The Webby is a major leap forward for this 3-year-old podcast. It’s affirmation that we have a large and devoted audience beyond the academy,” said show co-host Siva Vaidhyanathan, Robertson Professor of Media Studies. “We had intended the podcast to be used by professors and students, largely as digital course content during the COVID lockdown period. But the audience grew and its influence took off as concerns about the fate and health of democracy around the world grew.”

“One of our main goals in the show is to highlight great scholars who are working on the problems democracy faces today,” said co-host William I. Hitchcock, James Madison Professor of History. “We wanted to help get that academic work out to the broader public, because students and citizens everywhere need context to understand our current democratic crisis. Listeners want the depth and substance they cannot find in a lot of media, and we’re here to deliver.”

The Webby Awards is an international program intended to honor excellence on the internet. Categories included in the awards program range from websites and mobile sites to video, advertising, social media, games and apps.

The awards were established in 1996 and are presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences.

A view from the control booth for the podcast of lecture hall

A view from the control booth as hosts and guests of the Karsh Institute for Democracy podcast “Democracy in Danger” record an episode. (Contributed photo)

“Intercepted,” a podcast produced by The Intercept, took the judges’ award in the News and Politics division, whereas “Democracy in Danger” won the people’s choice. “Into America,” by NBC News Audio; “Post Reports,” by the Washington Post; and “The Prince” by The Economist, were among the nominees in the Karsh Institute’s category.

“How did we beat those other guys? For one, we have extremely dedicated listeners who appreciate the work we do. Our show goes beyond the sound bites and conventional storylines of the 24-hour news cycle,” said Roberto I. Armengol, a UVA anthropologist and the podcast’s producer. “We address pressing issues that are in the headlines, but we go beyond the headlines. We contextualize real and present threats to democracy with deep scholarship, robust arguments and compelling stories about the struggle for freedom and self-governance in the United States and around the world. Sometimes, we’re even funny.”

Vaidhyanathan said the podcast started as the public-facing project of the Democracy Lab that he operated from 2019 to 2022. When the lab project ended, the podcast continued within the Karsh Institute.

“Our breakthrough moment was, sadly, the exact moment when American democracy found itself under attack from domestic enemies: Jan. 6, 2021,” Vaidhyanathan said. “We were teaching a January term course called ‘Democracy in Danger’ when suddenly we were all transfixed by the invasion of our Capitol and the violence perpetrated on law enforcement. Our students and we had an emotionally cathartic class session that bonded us forever.”

Vaidhyanathan said the podcast is not “a dry, academic, theoretical account of various threats to democracy,” but introduces listeners to activists, artists, leaders, lawyers, scholars and even songwriters.

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“Listeners are yearning for content that takes a stand, that cuts through the fiction of journalistic objectivity and is not afraid to make evidence-based arguments in trying times,” Armengol said. “‘Democracy in Danger’ demonstrates what public scholarship can do at its best, when powered by editorial independence, the hard work of scholars and the even harder work of activists and citizens.”

Also working on the podcast team are assistant producer Rebecca Barry, a graduate student from the Department of English; engineer and senior intern Elie Bashkow, from the Department of Music; and undergraduates audio intern Eva Kretsinger-Walters, Department of Politics; sound intern Ellis Nolan, Department of Music; and web intern Bea Webster, from the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

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Bryan McKenzie

Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications