Bianca Martin is a “full, across-the-board nerd.”
At least, that’s how she styled herself in an interview Monday ahead of the launch of City Cast Madison, the daily podcast she’ll host beginning next month.
Martin said she started the Chess Club and Science Club at Baraboo High School, and went on to the University of Wisconsin where she couldn’t quite decide what to do next.
“I started wanting to do philosophy and psychology and I ended with international studies and culture and comm arts,” she said. “I am a full, across-the-board nerd. I was auditing classes. I just couldn’t make up my mind, maybe English, maybe poli sci. I actually looked down at my record and was like, ‘Wait a second, I almost have a communications degree.’”
While finishing that communications degree with an emphasis in radio, film and television, she worked at the community radio station WORT as a producer. Then when she graduated in 2014, her nerdiness took her in another direction, to the office of US Senator Tammy Baldwin.
“The opportunity to see how government works was really exciting to me. I’ve always been kind of a civics nerd,” she said.
She knew pretty quickly that wasn’t going to last, though.
“(Capitol) Hill was so fascinating. There’s so much to learn,” she said. “I had this moment where I thought, this is not where I’m going to be most effective. It’s a very transactional mode of operating and I wanted to be closer to the stories.”
This was also during the 2016 presidential campaign, when the polarization that now defines American politics was really beginning to ramp up.
“It was hard on my nervous system, to be honest,” Martin said. She turned in her resignation at about the same time Donald Trump was elected president.
That’s when she moved into radio, joining Washington, DC’s public radio station WAMU as a producer on the new news and issues talk show 1A, which debuted in January 2017 and was distributed nationally on NPR and as a podcast. It was there, over the next two years, and two more years working on shows and projects in Chicago, that Martin said she really learned the power of radio.
“I’ve seen the power of radio and the power to hear a story that changes your life, or somebody hears a story and wants to connect and help,” she said. “I’ve seen just a lot of beautiful human connection.”
She also said working on 1A and other projects allowed her to amplify some voices that needed it.
“My thread is bringing underrepresented voices to the radio and to podcasting,” she said. “That’s been my career.”
Now back in Madison to be closer to family, Martin recently reconnected with Molly Stentz, an old friend from her WORT days, who had recently joined City Cast as the executive producer of its new Madison venture.
What is City Cast?
City Cast, founded by former Slate editor David Plotz, launched in 2020 with daily podcasts and email newsletters in Denver and Chicago with the goal of enhancing already rich media environments and to help people connect with their communities.
“We think those two media forms (podcasts and newsletters) are incredibly good at connecting people to their community and connecting people to their city,” Plotz said in an interview from Washington, DC on Monday. “You would never use a podcast to figure out what’s in the city budget. That would be a really bad way to listen to a podcast. But what podcasts are really good at are making people feel more strongly about the story, a person, a thing, a community. We want to use the daily podcast to help people feel more connected to the city that they’re in.”
Plotz added that City Cast ventures aren’t necessarily intended to compete with existing media outlets.
“We’re not a primary news source. (Podcasts are) great amplifiers of the work that other people are doing. Our goal really is to come in … and help amplify work that other folks are doing and bring attention to stories that are being covered elsewhere,” he said.
Madison is City Cast’s 11th market to launch in the past two years, and is unique in that the company will not launch a new newsletter, opting instead to partner with the existing Madison Minutes daily newsletter.
“We’re going to have really meaningful conversations”
Stentz, the longtime producer and news director at WORT, had signed on as City Cast Madison’s executive producer, and encouraged Martin to step out from behind the microphone. Martin was already familiar with the company – she even had some preliminary talks about working there when she was in Chicago – and decided to lend her voice to the new show.
“I’m really excited. I’m thrilled. It’s what I wanted to move towards,” she said. “I think I’ve had enough experience to see different kinds of shows, develop different kinds of hosts, different styles, to step into the role and hopefully be able to immediately start making it my own … In my free time, I am engaging with people. I’m an extrovert. I’m having these conversations anyhow. And now to be able to do it as a job, I’m very thrilled.”
Stentz would later round out the three-person team by adding longtime Isthmus reporter Dylan Brogan as producer.
“Molly Stentz and Dylan Brogan are one of the most exciting parts of this podcast,” Martin said. “I feel profoundly lucky to get to do this with them.”
Plotz said Martin has the right personality for the gig.
“She’s this wonderfully vivid person,” he said. “My strong sense about what makes podcasters work, what makes certain podcasts successful (is that) they have to be people who evoke an emotional response and emotional engagement, and I am a million percent confident that she is such a person.”
He said City Cast hosts are people who love their cities but aren’t necessarily cheerleaders.
“My goal for our hosts is (to hire) someone who loves the city more than anybody else, and also simultaneously thinks it’s more (expletive) up than anyone else,” he said. “We want the people who, when they are joyful, their joy is totally infectious and that makes people feel so great, but also when the city has really screwed the pooch, that it makes people activated and angry about the failure of the institution or failure of some particular person to do what they’re supposed to do.”
Martin knows that in Madison, that’ll mean at least occasionally addressing some ongoing racial disparities – something she intends to do with authenticity.
“I very intentionally wanted to be in this space as a Black woman, as a mixed race woman, to shine light and bring other women of color, other people of color onto the show regularly,” she said. “I think there are so many conversations that need to happen in Madison about change, and how about how to go about change in a way that’s respectful and honest and not damaging … as the host, I’m going to be speaking authentically. That’s the whole plan for this show is to be sincere. It’s going to be a connecting space.”
Beyond that, though, it’ll take on just about anything happening in the city, in just 15 minutes a day.
“The show is gonna be an opportunity to highlight and celebrate people in Madison and all the innovators, scientists, bakers, everyone that’s doing amazing work. It’s going to be politics, offering people the information they need on the candidates who are running for election, offering a space for any sort of political debates that are happening,” she said. “It’s a news culture talk show. It’s going to be highlighting the music scene, the food scene, the art scene, along with politics and development on the South Side, racism, any topic. It’s going to be a variety, like most talk shows, just covering what conversations are happening in our city … we’re going to have tough conversations and we’re going to have really meaningful conversations about all of the policies and legislation and how they impact humans. It’s going to be a place for people’s stories as well as the latest news and it’s going to be meaningful.”