In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.
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MICROTONES by Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher
If there’s one public figure in Madison who absolutely does not need more of a platform, it’s Madison Police Department Chief Mike Koval. He has expressed his resistance to oversight and reform by throwing tantrums in city meetings, behavior that prompted calls for his resignation. He’s admitted (and apologized for) mistreating the grieving relatives of Tony Robinson. Giving the guy his own apparently unfiltered blog has been a publicity disaster—he’s used it to threaten elected officials and downplay the notion of the school-to-prison pipeline. If you’re handling his PR, you probably don’t want to create additional opportunities for Koval to embarrass himself and our city. Nonetheless, the chief has his own podcast, which debuted in April 2017.
“Chief Koval’s Podcast,” available on all your usual podcast platforms, takes a filtered approach, positioning MPD public information officer Joel DeSpain, a local celebrity in his own right, as host and Koval as a normal, reasonable person. Instead of regressive shit-fits, the podcast focuses on various facets of the department’s work—from policing the Mifflin Street Block Party to SWAT negotiating to the opioid crisis—and conversations with community leaders inside and outside MPD.
Since I became aware of Chief Koval’s Podcast, I’ve only had a chance to subject myself to a few episodes. What’s most striking to me so far is the banal, low-level patter that fills up most of the discussions here, even when the podcast tackles issues of substance. The episodes kick off with cheerful, generic music featuring that acoustic-guitar-plugged-directly-into-mixer sound. Koval and DeSpain occasionally shoot the shit about their high-school days and trade gentle jokes; at one point Koval refers to his wife as “she who must be obeyed,” har har har. So far there have been at least two episodes about sex offender registries , one about horse cops, and a handful that cover issues related to mental health, stress, and trauma.
Local political fights do make their way into the feed, though. An August 2018 episode about police and the LGBT community is an obvious response to the growing insistence that cops stay out of Pride events. As activists and the Madison Metropolitan School District Board fought a bruising battle over the role of police in public schools—one that’s still going on—Koval and DeSpain sat down for an October 2018 talk with Zulma Franco, a school resource officer at East High. The Wisconsin State Journal later focused on Franco in an editorial headlined “This police officer most definitely belongs in Madison’s schools”—using Franco’s admittedly inspiring story as an anecdotal rejoinder to the no-cops-in-schools movement’s deeper systemic arguments.
Koval, DeSpain, and guests often suggest that cops are misrepresented in the media, and there’s even a reference or two to the chief’s own misadventures: “I deal with the politics and I do it very badly,” Koval laughingly says in an October 2018 episode about Dane County’s sex offender registry. Think of this audio content as a form of soft, slow damage control.
Perhaps you can learn some things about MPD from Chief Koval’s Podcast. The problem is that putting a friendly face on Koval just creates a more grotesque contrast with his acts of pointless public aggression. Sure, people are complex—even people who work within an inherently harmful and biased system of policing. So much of the work the social safety net should do gets dumped off on cops, with profound consequences for all involved, and there are people who bring good intentions into the field and try to do the right thing. But let me put it this way: Have you ever seen a photo of Richard Nixon grinning from ear to rage-hardened ear? How did it make you feel? Because that is how Chief Koval’s Podcast will likely make you feel, at least if you’re familiar with his overarching public persona. When you try to make a bullheaded, reactionary leader look nice, you end up with something that just feels demented.
New this week:
Chicken Lips is a great bar name, but it’s been taken away from us.
Our first look at the 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival lineup.
Cellist Alison Chesley, aka Helen Money, talks with us ahead of her March 8 set at the High Noon Saloon.
In a podcast short, Reid Kurkerewicz discusses his reporting on new Madison venue The Winnebago.
We’re having a record sale on March 16 at Communication.
Tone Madison also welcomes Assif Tsahar and Tatsuya Nakatani to Café Coda on April 6.
Elsewhere on the Madison internet: Deerhoof has announced an April 20 show at The Sett. Madison band Miyha releases the first single from its debut album. On Wisconsin takes a brief look at the state’s vinyl history. Sci-fi great Kim Stanley Robinson will speak at the Nelson Institute’s Earth Day Conference on April 22.