Fed-Up, Freaked-Out Americans Find Comfort in Politics Podcasts
With five days to go until the election ends, many Americans are ready for someone to tell us its all going to be OK. For that, though, you’ll need close your eyes to the cable news punditry and irate tweetstorms and surreal viral videos, and open your ears to a handful of reassuring voices who can parse the unending deluge of news. Over the past year, a seemingly neverending parade of scandals and servers and sexism have created a need for trusted voices of reason—and podcasters are upending the form’s conventional wisdom in orderto meet that need.
One of podcasts’ greatest strengths is thepersonal connection it engenders between voice and listener. In an election cycle like this one, that connection has proven not just valuable, but sanity-maintainingand in response to their listeners,podcasts are doing everything from answer more listener questions to producing more episodes. Ive never had so much feedback on something, says Jacob Weisberg, editor in chief of the Slate Group and host of Slate’s Trumpcast. Part of the experience of doing a podcast for the first time is a discipline enforced by the listeners.
Deeper Than Cable, Less Buttoned-Down Than Newspapers
Political podcasts arent new. In the 2008 and 2012 elections, early adopters could turn to Slates Political Gabfest, where David Plotz, Emily Bazelon, and John Dickerson have gathered once a week to discuss politics since 2005. Yet, the 2016 election is the first in which a majority of Americans have heard of podcasts. And the new medium is especially apt for an unprecedented campaign cycle.The format of a podcast is particularly well-suited to be in-depth and thoughtful, in a way that you cant be on a five-minute cable news hit, says Jon Favreau, host of The Ringers Keepin It 1600. We still talk about the horse race, but theres time on a podcast to get into nuance and subtlety.
The low overhead of podcastsFavreau and his co-hosts regularly are joined by guests over the phone, and the three Political Gabfest hosts often convene online from separate statesoffers flexibilitynot found in other media, not to mention frequency. 1600originally releasedepisodes once a week, which soon moved totwice a week,and even addedspecial episodes after each of the debates. Nor is itthe only one feeling the pressure to increase output:Several podcasts, including NPR Politics and FiveThirtyEight Elections, have churned outdaily episodes over the past week or two.
For many podcast producers, the space has provided an opportunity for rapid iteration. If you have a microphone and a producer, you can record a show. I came into work on a Monday, and said, ‘lets just do a show today,’ says Weisberg. He had considered doing a podcast on Trump for months, but didnt take him seriously and start the show until March.
Eschewingthe measured coverage of many political podcasts, Trumpcast is focused on one man, and doesnt try to suppressits bias. We didnt have to play by the equal time, neutrality formula of conventional media, says Weisberg. Instead, lets try to illuminate the phenomenon of Donald Trump. Each week, Weisberg brings on different guests to dissect the Donald: Washington Post journalist David Fahrenthold about his investigation of the Trump Foundation, historian Nell Irvin Painter about Trump and white supremacy, comedian John Di Domenico on how to impersonate Trumps voice.
Assuming Trumpcast doesnt need to become PresidentTrumpcast, Weisberg says hell end the show after a few post-election wrap-up episodes. He sees the transience as part of the appeal: a podcast can pop up without a lasting commitment or deep infrastructure. With a finite quantity, theres an appetite for it, he says. Youre not adding permanently to your media diet.
A Voice You Can Trust
Aswith Dan Rather or Walter Cronkite, or even Jon Stewart, much of the appeal of aweekly (or daily) political podcast comes from a familiar host: its journalism explained by someone you trust. But a podcast, playing directly into your ears, invitesthe listener toa more candid discussion. On cable TV, everyone speaks in sound bites, says Favreau. My friends and I have regular conversations about politics—why not have authentic conversations where other people can tune in?
In 1960, as broadcast on the first televised debate, the affable demeanor of John F. Kennedy triumphed over the substantive answers of Richard Nixon. In 2016, that radio-to-TV transition has been inverted: the podcast format helps high-profile guests appear relaxed and relatablein a way thatstaged appearances on TV talk shows can’t. Listen to Barack Obama on WTF with Marc Maron, secretary of labor Tom Perez on Keepin It 1600, Hillary Clinton on her own podcast, With Her. Sitting in a room with someone, you feel more liberated than in a studio with cameras pointed at you, says Favreau. And in the last year of accusations and scandals, listeners need a medium that prides itself on authenticity and intimacy.
The same outrage and fear that have made this political season excruciating have created an ideal environment for podcasts. This is an unbelievably theatrical, dramatic election, says David Plotz, who has spoken weekly on the Political Gabfest since GeorgeW. Bush was in office. People are genuinely frightened about the future of the country, and that isnt an especially joyful place to podcast from. Thats true—but its that same fear that renders the intimacy of reassuring, familiar voices especially necessary.
After November 8, some of the voices of reason will continue to stream through our earbuds, including the hosts of Political Gabfest and Keepin It 1600. But hopefully, American listeners wont be in such dire need—even a voice of reason needs a vacation.