What started as a way to adapt university talks to COVID-19 precautions may continue as a new forum for Latter-day Saint history and culture.
Podcast “The Foyer” began last year as Patrick Mason was looking for ways to continue discussions about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the larger movement of Mormonism. As Utah State University’s Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon Studies, Mason felt a responsibility to keep bringing people content that they could normally get from the school’s religious studies guest speakers and panels.
“When the pandemic shut everything down this past year, we were no longer able to have on-campus events like we normally do,” Mason said. “So ‘The Foyer’ was a way that we thought about how do we still reach out to the public, because of course USU, as a state university part of its mission is public outreach.”
Mason joins guests via Zoom video conferencing call about once a month to talk about a variety of topics related to Mormonism. Later, the calls are published as podcasts on Spotify and other platforms.
Although the podcast is new and listenership is still relatively small, Mason’s position at the university has brought in some big names. The latest conversation, coming soon to the podcast, was with “Murder Among the Mormons” director Jared Hess (who Cache Valley residents may know as the director of Preston-set film “Napoleon Dynamite”).
As a Netflix documentary, “Murder Among the Mormons” retells the story of Mark Hoffman, a purported Mormon historian who resorted to a desperate series of Salt Lake City bombings when it began to surface that some of the documents he’d been selling were elaborate forgeries.
One of The Foyer’s listeners, Southern Utah University Dean of Library Services Richard Saunders, worked at USU as the Hoffman drama unfolded.
“I was at work in Special Collections when Jeff Simmons came out of his door and said someone blew up Mark,” Saunders said. It later came to light that Hoffman had survived a bomb he’d built himself.
Saunders said when he’d heard about Hoffman was “the only day I ever missed classes.”
Saunders, a history professor who’s worked in Latter-day Saint history, was particularly impressed by the podcast’s first episode. Mason spoke with Marlin K. Jensen and Steven E. Snow, both talking about how practices developed over each of their tenures as the church’s official historian.
“Nobody really gets to hear that (kind of conversation) unless they know one of those two men, and here we had both of them musing on their experience,” Saunders said. “That’s just a very nice, transparent way for people to connect and hear that no, there’s not a dark cabal that’s trying to bury records or something like that, and in fact it’s exactly the opposite.”
Saunders was referencing criticisms that the church has not always been forthcoming with some aspects of its history. Venues for more open conversation like The Foyer can help counter that perception, Saunders believes.
“That kind of transparency and engagement is what defuses — or tends to defuse — suspicion,” Saunders said. “When people can talk openly and fairly. This is just one small sliver of doing that.”
Another of the podcast’s most high-profile guests is Brandon Flowers, lead singer of The Killers.
“That was by far our most popular episode, because they promoted it through the band’s social media channels,” Mason said. “It was terrific. He’s a really thoughtful guy. Very humble, very approachable and down-to-earth. This was by far the longest and most in-depth interview he’s ever given, I think, talking specifically about his faith and the way that it relates to his music and his lyrics.”
Another listener, Ann Johns of Providence, said she’s been particularly interested in hearing the podcast’s women guests.
“I’m an active member of the church, I would consider myself to have a strong testimony,” Johns said. “I am just interested in looking at issues with women in the church and I believe there are some things that are happening already and that could continue to happen that would be beneficial to women.”
Johns said she was fascinated by a recent episode of the podcast centered on the Latter-day Saint belief that humans have a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father. Guests for that episode included Maxwell Institute Research Fellow Fiona Givens, author Bethany Brady Spalding and poet Rachel Hunt Steenblik, all of whom have written extensively on the topic.
Although The Foyer was originally a way to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic, Mason plans to keep it going even as precautions lift and it’s more feasible to bring guests to campus.
“We’re going to stick with it,” Mason said. “It really was meant to be kind of a Band-Aid. It was a temporary measure. But it’s been successful enough and the feedback has been really good, that we’re going to continue it, probably on a once-per-month basis.”
Saunders said that’s smart.
“As tough as COVID has been, I’ve been able to go to conferences literally all over the world without having to leave my office … Yes, I would rather travel, but this is really not a bad way to do things,” Saunders said. “It’s a really smart thing, and Patrick is wise to move this direction.”
The Foyer is currently available to stream for free on Spotify, and Mason said they hope to expand to other podcast platforms soon.