“Bernie Speaks with the Community” was produced from late 1986 until mid-1988. It aired more or less weekly for about a year during Sanders’ third and fourth terms as mayor, on what was then Channel 15. The opening song of the show is, naturally, a folk anthem, typically “We Shall Overcome” or Woody Guthrie's “This Land Is Your Land,” as recorded by Pete Seeger in Burlington in 1986. Its opening image is usually a chalk-outline illustration of a TV set with Sanders’ head talking inside it. The credits often appear to be hand-lettered on white poster board. The episodes usually range in length from 30 minutes to roughly an hour. Topics include Plato, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, the “immorality” of the war in Nicaragua, the “stupid” property tax, the effects of the looming nuclear apocalypse on children, Burlington’s waterfront, Burlington’s trash dump, Burlington’s snowplow operation, the “incredible increase” in crime, the close-fisted state Legislature, the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and the reasons that punk rockers wear black.
The aesthetic of the entire series, all wood paneling and high-waisted jeans and perms, matches the era. Sanders’ suits, too, tend to fit the theme. The best one is either powder blue or white. It’s impossible to tell which color it is, exactly, due to that yellow light washing over every episode.
The series is not just a nostalgia trip to a time before Sanders was famous. It’s an early, somewhat personal picture of a candidate who these days is so relentlessly on-message that it’s hard to imagine he didn’t emerge fully formed as a political superstar. On the shows, it’s possible to detect a young—well, young compared to 2019—Sanders crafting his democratic socialist message, refining the populist parts, shaving off the more extreme elements and figuring out how to sell it to the masses. And you get some very unusual footage of what it looks like when an idealist tries to perform constituent services.
As much as anything, “Bernie Speaks with the Community”—which on some episodes is shortened to “Bernie Speaks” and subtitled “The Mayor’s Show”—is part of Sanders’ four-decade end run around the media. Thirty years before President Donald Trump won the 2016 election by taking his message directly to voters, and by fighting the mainstream media instead of courting it, Sanders figured he should bypass reporters and simply star in his own show. Today, the media strategy he pioneered is in the playbook of every candidate who announces on YouTube or Facebook Live, and it’s central to Sanders’ ambition to take the White House.