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Time to talk: Students use podcast to delve into ideas, events

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High school seniors Prem Thakker (left) and Bassel El-Rewini, Grand Forks, host "The Laymen Podcast," a platform for members of the public to voice their opinions on issues of the day. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 3
High school seniors Prem Thakker (left) and Bassel El-Rewini, Grand Forks, recently launched "The Laymen Podcast" to provide a platform for open and civil discussion of current events and issues. Their guests have included public figures and social activists, but their primary goal is to give "regular people" a voice. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 3

Local high school seniors Prem Thakker and Bassel El-Rewini of Grand Forks saw the need for a place where the positive exchange of ideas and viewpoints on issues could take place.

So, they recently launched "The Laymen Podcast" as a way to promote open and civil discussion on current events and world issues.

"We noticed that a lot of discussion surrounding the issues was not productive," Thakker said.

"There are plenty of good ideas and well-reasoned positions out there, but a lot of that gets lost in unproductive conversations," Thakker said.

"There's such polarization in the political landscape. Many people want to believe in what they believe in. They are not comfortable hearing positions that are different from their own."

The podcast "is a response to what we see as a problem," Thakker said.

Their goal is to give "regular people, not just media hotshots and political all-stars," a platform to voice their ideas, opinions and perspectives, he said.

The pair wants to offer a "fair and open environment for discussion and debate," as an alternative to "the screaming that happens so often," Thakker said. In all of that, "the 'normal' people got left behind."

Their podcasts, which run from 45 to 60 minutes, are accessible through their website (www.thelaymenpod.com), Facebook (The Laymen), Twitter (@the_laymen), iTunes and SoundCloud.

Their first podcast, released Feb. 3, featured a conversation with two Grand Forks women, Tory Johnson and Jane Croeker, who organized a local event that mirrored the Women's March on Washington in January.

Other guests have included Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Grant Shaft, a Republican who represented Grand Forks in the state Legislature.

With Heitkamp, they talked about how she as a Democrat works and negotiates with Republican senators to find solutions to problems that plague North Dakota, as well as the country as a whole.

Freedom of speech, whether on campus or in the Oval Office, was the focus of their conversation with Shaft.

"We have focused a lot on politics, but we're open to a lot of things," Thakker said.

In an effort to highlight a range of diverse opinions, they host political and social activists, high school and college students, business leaders, public figures and others.

"We want people to begin thinking about things in a different light," Thakker said.

The audience for the podcast is mostly local, but listeners in Fargo, Bismarck, Minneapolis, as well as other parts of the country also have tuned in.

"We would like it to grow more," Thakker said, adding that phone interviews and traveling to meet and talk with guests in person are steps they'll consider taking.

Developing project

"The Laymen Podcast" is no overnight project.

"For the past few years, we've been wanting to do something, beyond schoolwork, to impact people," El-Rewini said. "For example, we worked on some apps, but that didn't really get off the ground."

When they began to consider a podcast, they started by focusing on events and politics.

So, equipped with microphones, a computer and a quiet room, the pair has engaged guests in conversations about a variety of topics including women's rights, nativism, prejudice and cultural diversity.

At the Ramada Inn, in space made available by Thakker's father, the hotel owner, the students have created a comfortable atmosphere where they can have informal conversations with guests and explore the reasoning behind their positions.

"We don't know a lot about a lot of things," Thakker said, "so we learn along the way."

"There are a lot of guests we'd like to talk with," El-Rewini said. "We hope people will approach us with their ideas," or recommend potential guests.

Political climate

El-Rewini and Thakker, who have been friends since middle school, were motivated to start the podcast, at least in part, by the 2016 presidential campaign.

"It was a pretty remarkable election season which gained a lot of attention, because of the media—information is so accessible," Thakker said.

He and El-Rewini were struck by the polarization that marked the campaign and still permeates American society months after the election.

"People don't really consider viewpoints other than their own, especially people our age," El-Rewini said.

Because people operate with "default settings" they don't question information they receive, or they only accept information that confirms what they already believe, he said.

"One of the most visible ways you can see people get entrenched in their own views is politics," El-Rewini said. "We want (podcast listeners) to know that other people could have other viewpoints that may have good reasons behind them."

"We don't think disagreement is a bad thing," Thakker said. Through the exchange of views, which people feel passionate about, solutions can be found and "that's when progress happens."

So far, the podcast has received "a pretty good reaction," Thakker said. "People who've listened to it are impressed with the quality."

He's noticed that his peers often are not as up to date on issues as they should be.

"Millennials are not as informed (as older citizens)," Thakker said. "I'm surprised that there's a lot of that."

Some have thought about issues and do have opinions, he said, "but maybe they haven't communicated that before, maybe they haven't voiced it.

"Plenty of people do think about things but don't have a platform to share their views," Thakker said.

He and El-Rewini are optimistic that "The Laymen Podcast" will fill that void and offer guests a "safe atmosphere" to discuss their viewpoints.

"Hopefully more and more people will start to listen in. We think we have decent content," Thakker said. "We're just two people who just want something different, and to be involved in making that happen."

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