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Employee Benefits Podcasters Pepper Policy Talk With ERISA Jokes

Aug. 28, 2019, 9:22 AM

Parsing the nitty-gritty of employee benefits is what binge listening was made for.

Because who doesn’t appreciate policy discussions sprinkled with insider jokes?

Over a half-dozen industry professionals have accepted this particular challenge over the past 20 months, spawning a crop of work-related podcasts designed to turn typically dry shoptalk into easily digestible material.

This microcosm of budding broadcasters includes Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) attorneys, financial advisers, former administration officials, human resources personnel, and others determined to loop in colleagues who have had it with mind-numbing webinars.

The growing chorus of voices covers everything from best practices for compliance officers to how much “pawternity leave” is appropriate for pet owners. Whether running through daily headlines while working out or absorbing legislative updates on their drive home, fans are hanging on every word.

“I don’t have any illusions that people off the street are gonna be interested in learning about employee benefits. But I think there is an audience among people in our orbit in talking about these issues in a way that doesn’t put them to sleep,” is how Jason Hammersla, spokesman for the American Benefits Council and host of the trade group’s eponymous show, explained his incursion into on-demand programming.

Some hosts tap authors and researchers to share their recent findings. Others drill down on legislative agendas and regulatory updates. A few round up office mates to catch up on current events. The goal they have in common: Shake up the benefits scene.

All Ears

“We’ve received many comments that folks like listening on the way to work, to the airport, on the way home, etc.,” Edward Fensholt, co-host of the nascent “ERISA is a friend of mine” show, said of the feedback he has garnered since taking to the airwaves in January.

He and fellow Lockton Benefits Group lawyer Scott Behrens launched the biweekly gabfest, he said, in order to bring the benefits community up to speed without boring anyone to tears. “We were simply looking for another channel through which to provide ERISA compliance education to busy people, and hopefully do it in an engaging and entertaining way,” Fensholt said.

So far, that mission has driven the freewheeling duo to plow through topics ranging from cross-border drug importation to all things health saving accounts.

He billed a breakdown of the “Medicare for All” proposals being bandied about by the slowly shrinking field of Democratic presidential hopefuls as the most downloaded show to date. An episode dedicated to medical marijuana sparked interest as well.

Former benefits broker Dennis Carlson launched his “Benefits Influencer” show last summer, marrying his past life and a passion for figuring out the future.

“People seem hungry to hear what’s going on and what’s coming next,” he said, citing the stream of benefits advisers, insurance agents, and employers he’s connected with since slipping behind the mic.

The two shows he said listeners latched onto so far include a discussion about “disrupting voluntary benefits” as well as alternative funding strategies for employer-sponsored healthcare.

WL Benefits Group Inc. President Paul Burt and co-host Mike Rittenhouse carom from serious topics (marijuana use in the workplace; check-ins with regional Health and Human Services officials) to droll observations during their show, “Benefit U,”

“Insurance can be too darn serious, no?” Burt mused. He said listeners appreciate hearing from thoughtful guests (“the most compelling listen,” per Burt).

Compliant with Alliant” co-host Kristine Blanco understands the importance of digging deeper into what’s splashed across your Twitter feed. She and co-host Diana Craig have been podcasting about the state of the Affordable Care Act since late 2017.

“We realized webinars don’t work for everyone and want to meet people where they are,” she said of their move to the trendy medium, adding that “a back and forth discourse was a more nimble way to discuss the complexities and nuance of the repeal and replace efforts.”

Podcasting neophyte Angela Antonelli launched “The State of Retirement” earlier this year. The executive director of Georgetown University’s Center for Retirement Initiatives program said she joined the fray to get her message out beyond the Beltway.

“It is sometimes too easy to forget that the most important audience is the one that is outside of Washington, D.C., and podcasts help us do that,” she said.

Though she sticks way down in the weeds—episode 2 was titled “Is it possible to build a better target date fund?”—Antonelli reports that listeners are tuning in from all over. “I am constantly surprised by the people around the country and internationally who have told me they have listened to one or more of our podcasts,” she said.

Looking for a sassier recap of the benefits world?

The communications team for trade group the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans regularly cuts loose during the “Talking Benefits” show.

The plucky panelists weigh in on everything from helpful substance abuse programs to strategizing about open enrollment, weaving personal experiences in with topical surveys and recent developments (covered in their “news from nerds” segments).

“Many of our podcast brainstorming meetings stir up personal stories that often inspire our next episode theme, like student loan repayment, elder care benefits, or helping a loved one with a mental health/addiction issue,” wrote co-host Anne Patterson.

Meanwhile, podcasting workhorses Rick Unser (“401(k) Fridays”) and Chuck Hammond (“Content That Moves the Needle”) have been drilling down on retirement issues for several years.

Make Some Noise

Hammersla said he plans to build on his membership’s insatiable desire to peek behind the curtain of politics—his most downloaded show featured former House Democratic tax staffer turned lobbyist Janice Mays—by reaching out to the lawmakers eyeing the Oval Office.

Blanco is more interested in what’s happening down the road at Internal Revenue Service headquarters on Constitution Avenue. “There is an absurdly bright and funny IRS attorney, Stephen Tackney, who presented at a number of conferences in the height of ACA implementation who we would be thrilled—in only the most nerdy benefits compliance fashion—to have as a guest,” she wrote.

The IFEBP crew was split on who they’d love to corral. The biggest professional get, Patterson said, would be 401(k) architect Ted Benna. “As cheeseheads, our other dream podcast guest would be Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers,” she noted.

Fensholt said lining up feds to suss out surprise billing and drug pricing makes the most sense.

Still, he said he’d much rather pick Willie Nelson’s brain about, well, whatever the legendary country singer and marijuana enthusiast cares to shoot the breeze about.

To contact the reporter on this story: Warren Rojas in Washington at wrojas@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloomberglaw.com; Brent Bierman at bbierman@bloomberglaw.com

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