Episode 12 - An Interview with Kansas City Mayor Sly James
Thing: "The Mayor's Crowded Desk"
Title: "Time Waits for No One." (from the Rolling Stones song of the same name)
A few people have asked how I managed to get an interview with Mayor Sly James. So, before I go into my reaction on this episode, I thought I’d explain how the interview came about.
After the release of the Harrison Street DIY Skatepark story I messaged Mayor James on Twitter. Not publicly, but through a DM. I told him I tried to get an interview or a quote on the skate park and — although his office said they’d get back to me — no one responded. James responded "I'll look into it. Thanks.” Nothing more.
The following day, his office emailed me and apologized. After a few emails back and forth they arranged for the interview. I didn’t expect to get an interview. Not because James is too important, but because I'm not. I learned if you're polite and don’t seek to shame anyone, good people come correct. So thank you to them for that.
In preparation I read all of the biographical information on James I could find. There isn’t much out there. Between what I read and what I already knew, I formulated about 10 questions for a 30 minute interview. Too many questions, too little time.
For the interview I took a pretty minimal kit. I miked the mayor with my Sennheiser MKH40 and myself with my E/V RE50 ND, both plugged straight into my Tascam DR1OO MKIII. I hit “Record” then double checked and triple checked to make sure we were rolling.
My first question was biographical and not very compelling. So it took James a bit to warm up. The biography didn’t make the final edit. So here’s what I learned: James was the only black student at Bishop Hogan High School located at Paseo and 63rd Street. He was also the only male student. He said he spent a lot of time mediating between the all-white student body and the mostly-black neighborhood. He also sang in a band called the Amelia Earhart Memorial Flying Band (they opened for Jefferson Airplane).
James said there was no seminal moment that made him want to run for mayor. He said it was an evolution; the continuation of his experience as a professional mediator and serving in various community leadership positions.
When we got to my questions about citizen engagement at the skate park, the homicide rate or childhood reading and education in Kansas City, James dug in. You can hear in the tape his command of the data, and the circumstances. People don’t come by this kind of understanding without being invested.
When I talked to him about the different ways the skate park builders were working with the kids in the neighborhood, Mayor James connected the skate park and the community initiatives he works on. He seems to sincerely understand the value of the skatepark to the neighborhood.
When James talks about what he’s learned as mayor it feels like he's pulling back a curtain on his strategy for dealing with the cynicism of modern politics. His answer revealed a political strategy I'd never considered. On the tape, James says he would make sure that any program that benefits people and solves problems should be designed in such a way that it can be sustained outside of government.
It’s almost like hearing a dirty little secret of politics in this era, and then a strategic philosophy on how to deal with it if you’re a politician who really cares about the problems you’re trying to solve. Makes sense.
When new people take office, there's a lot of that “Not Invented Here” syndrome — any program invented by the previous administration could take away resources from your initiatives. So rather than starve your programs, kill off the old ones.
It's likely a new administration will dismantle the preceding programs. So, if you want these programs to survive, they have to thrive even if the new administration neglects them. James explained this using Obamacare. He also explained it through Turn The Page KC.
It's an acknowledgement that the larger political system can choke a program that makes a difference in peoples’ lives. You have to design your programs in a way that they don’t succumb to that political cynicism.
A mayor doesn't have the luxury to fight that political reality. They have to create programs that do good for people regardless. James described a strategy where you use pragmatism in service of the less-fortunate, rather than using the less-fortunate in service of pragmatism.
I had some misgivings about releasing this as a straight interview episode rather than a story with arcs and a narrative through line. But this is the story of an interview; how I chased it, how it came, and how it went.
I'm pleased with the interview. Not only because it actually happened, but because I had a subject who was engaged and seemed to sincerely value what I am trying to do.
In these blog entries, I've decided to include a little gear inventory. Anyone looking for information on podcasting techniques, equipment, etc. can use these episodes as a resource. So here is what I used for this episode:
Again, for Mayor James I used a Sennheiser MKH40. This is the mic I’ve used for all my interviews since Episode 9 “Run Baby Run.” For my interview mic I used an E/V RE50 ND. This is my carrying around mic. It’s bullet-proof, has virtually no handling noise, is quiet and sounds good. Not as neutral and honest as the Sennheiser, but at a fraction of the price it's safe for carrying every day.
I always use a Rycote Super Softie on the Sennheiser. For plosives, it’s bombproof. Anything short of gale-force winds won't find a way through it.
I recorded the ambient audio on the Tascam using the Omni mic.
For the Mayor's color portrait I used my Fuji XE1 digital body with PicturingJuj's 10-24mm Fuji X mount lens. The black and white film portrait was shot on my Leica M6 with the Zeiss 50mm Sonnar on Ilford HP5 35mm at box speed #staybrokeshootfilm. The shots of City Hall and the Federal Courthouse were taken with my iPhone 7.
For this episode, I recorded my Voiceover with my Advanced Audio CM87 with the Lundhal transformer option. I've been using this for years and it can't be beat at its price point. I've been using it a lot more than my RE27 lately. I prefer it. I have a treated isolation booth so an LDC is fine in there. If you have an ambient room you will want to stick with a dynamic.
If you haven't heard the episode, here it is.