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Political Podcast Showdown!

I love following American politics. I spend time every day reading Politico, Slate, FiveThirtyEight, and other news sources. I talk about the issues with whomever will listen, and track the horse races closely.

I also love podcasts. I listen to hours and hours worth of podcasts every day. They help entertain me, keep me up-to-date on US sporting events, and fill the hours during driving, washing dishes, and exercising.

So it’s no surprise that when you put these together, I really enjoy podcasts about American politics. Podcasts are booming right now, and given that we’re in the midst of a presidential election, it is natural that there has been a surge in new podcasts about US politics.

Most follow a relatively set formula: three or four people sitting around once per week, talking about a few different topics in the news that week, and wrapping up with a freebie round, where the participants get to talk about something of interest to them. The style, overall, tries to mimic what Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon pioneered on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” where they basically just have on-camera conversations that they were having in the Washington Post’s sports newsroom. And the best ones succeed at this, making me feel like I am eavesdropping at a restaurant on a table full of smart, knowledgeable friends who are talking about the week’s news.

Given this boom in podcasts, I’ve been listening to a whole bunch of new political ones, and am happy to present my ranking of the podcasts, from worst to first.

Don’t Bother

The Axe Files: I first thought of writing this review of political podcasts a couple of months ago. Intrigued by the explosion in them, I subscribed to all of the podcasts on this list, and promised myself I would listen to them all, at least through the conventions if not the full summer. The Axe Files was the only one over which I had to break my promise; it’s dreadful. This was a surprise to me: I generally have had warm feelings towards the host, David Axelrod, who was one the key architects of Obama’s two presidential elections. I think he’s acerbic, knowledgeable, and well-connected. This podcast showed that he is all of those things….and old. Very, very old. Old is fine in terms of age, but he’s old in terms of attitude and not having a clue about what podcasts are or how to produce an effective one. From his jazz-era intro and the weird woman’s voice introducing him, it feels like he thought podcasts would work best on the “Johnny Carson interviews his friends about the good ol’ days” formula. You know what? When we are in the middle of one of the most newsworthy and exciting elections in decades, maybe we don’t need to get nearly-retired journalists telling stories for an hour about the election of 1968 (Yes, that really happened, fueling my dread of the inevitable 50th anniversary stories in two years. Damn baby boomers need to get over themselves already.). I gave up on The Axe Files after listening to three or four largely repetitive, boring, and uninformative episodes that are divorced from the current election. Avoid this one completely.

Politico’s 2016 Nerdcast: Politico is required reading for me, both the daily “Playbook” email and most of the articles on their website. So why oh why is their podcast so bland, generic, and uninteresting? Nerdcast follows the formula that I outlined above: usually hosted by Kirsten Roberts, four or five people discuss the week’s news. Given the quality of Politico’s reporting, especially on the horse race aspects of politics, this has the potential be a fantastic addition to the podcast world. But there are a few key problems that keep it from reaching its potential: first, these are not friends. These are colleagues, and it’s unclear if they like one another at all. Instead of having a conversation, in which they listen and respond to one another as friends do, they act as co-workers jostling around a conference table, trying to impress the boss: they tend to monologue, one after another, waiting to get in their pre-rehearsed point. Second, they are journalists, which means that they feel a need to play it right down the middle, which means that they take their personalities out of the conversation. That’s not what a group of friends would do, and their bland opinion-bereft reporting gives me no reason to listen to these specific people. Third, they employ a weird gimmick in which they base their conversations around “the numbers that mattered this week,” which I suppose is a nod to the rise of statistics and polling in campaigns, but the numbers they choose don’t actually mean anything, and are just an excuse to get to the topics at hand (which are the same things everyone else is talking about). Here’s an example: in mid-August, these were their “numbers that mattered this week”:

  • 6: the number of swing states in which Hillary Clinton has a double-digit lead

  • 37: the number of public events Trump/Pence have held in swing states since the end of the conventions, almost double the number of Clinton/Kaine

  • 12: the number of days since the Trump campaign said that it might remove its reporter blacklist

These are numbers as trivia questions, not data points. Making campaign stories into Harper’s Index is not riding the wave of statistics, it’s rearranging the furniture.

Making it worse, they have a tendency to veer off of talking about the events of the week into how the media is covering those topics. Of those three bullet points above, the first turned into a gripe-fest of the rigors of reporting from the road (6am wake-up calls! The horror!) and the last morphed into a discussion of whether reporters should also write opinion pieces. Is there anything less interesting than the media staring at its own bellybutton?

And finally, Nerdcast gives a microphone to the constantly annoying Ken Vogel, whose every utterance is designed not to illuminate the week’s stories, but to try (unsuccessfully) to impress the listener with his background and connections. Ugh. Politico, stick to writing and leave the podcasting to others.

For political junkies only

NPR Politics Podcast: Who doesn’t love NPR, right? These people do audio all day every day, so their uninspiringly-named Politics Podcast should be better than it is. It’s good, but not great. Using the exact same formula as the rest -- news topics, friendly conversation, and a wrap-up free-for-all, which they call “Can’t Let It Go” -- it has some of the same pitfalls and downsides of the Politico podcast: the use of reporters, for example, means that they are constantly trying to be neutral in their conversations, which is not very interesting. Where NPR gets it right, though, is in a few key areas: first, their reporters are terrific and immensely likeable, especially frequent host Sam Sanders. The show seems to get that listeners want to see the participants enjoying one another’s company, leading to some of the early episodes seeming forced and stilted (the laughter seemed to come straight off a sitcom laugh-track), but recently the conversations have flowed easily. This team also gets a lot of points for having the most diverse group of participants, and for working damn hard, posting meaty daily updates throughout both conventions (Politico skipped the DNC completely, and the first episode afterwards was on the topic of the impossibly slim chances of a tie in the Electoral College. What?!). This is not a show you have to listen to, as you’re not going to get that much more than you would by following the news carefully, but it is enjoyable and upbeat. I genuinely like these people; I just wish they had more interesting things to say.

FiveThirtyEight Elections: Nate Silver is a golden god, and we are all his subjects. Well, not entirely. But soon. Silver is, of course, the true whiz kid who correctly predicted all 50 states correctly in the 2008 election by aggregating polling data, and whose FiveThirtyEight website has led the revolution in using polling, data, and metrics to predict election outcomes. The reason to listen to this podcast is because the participants -- including Silver himself, who participates most of the time -- focus quite a bit on the use of numbers, data, and polling in the horse race, and therefore take approaches and have conversations that are different from all of the others. The downside to this podcast is that you are listening to a bunch of mathematicians and statisticians sit around and talk, which is….not their forte. They can have a hard time making a point cogently and concisely, and their personalities are what I would call “endearingly weird.” What really ought to happen is for the FiveThirtyEight people to get together with the Politico people: the Politico people have nothing interesting to say and are good at saying it, while FiveThirtyEight is the opposite. I’ll keep listening, while hoping that they get some coaching on how to improve their delivery.

Required listening

Keepin’ it 1600 (from The Ringer): Keepin’ It 1600 is the breakout winner among 2016’s new political podcasts. It’s a little different from the other formats, in that there are just two participants talking, though they usually bring in a guest in the final segment. But those two are fantastic: Jon Favreau, who worked as Obama’s chief speechwriter, and Dan Pfeiffer, who worked on strategy and communications in the White House. These guys are smart, have opinions that they are not afraid to share, tell fantastic behind-the-scenes stories both from their days in the White House and from friends who are still closely connected to the campaigns, and seem to know everyone, which means they get terrific and outspoken guests. What I appreciate most about this podcast is that even though I follow the news closely and read widely, Favreau and Pfeiffer (especially the former, who seems to be the real star) always seem to have a new, different take or opinion that I have not heard elsewhere. It really does feel like you are in a DC restaurant, overhearing two pros/best friends talk about the campaign, and giving you a bunch of insight that you can’t get elsewhere. If you need one podcast to listen to in order to spice up your cocktail party chatter and political opinions, this is the one to subscribe to.

Slate’s Political Gabfest: The Gabfest has been around for more than a decade, and somehow has kept its core group together even as John Dickerson, now host of CBS’ Face the Nation and likely Pres/VP debate moderator, has grown in stature. The Gabfest pioneered the “friends just talking about the news” model in political form, and goes to the top of my playlist as soon as it comes out every Friday. I’m not sure if it is a sign of boredom or well-won confidence that they frequently veer off of the week’s news to talk about not-entirely-political topics like New Yorker articles about teen drinking, but they’re so damn good at what they do that it doesn’t matter. Dickerson is a reporter, and plays the neutral party as much as possible, while host David Plotz and Yale law prof Emily Bazelon are unapologetically on the left (though Plotz occasionally comes out with some head-scratching tirades); Dickerson somehow remains deeply interesting despite his unwillingness to take sides, and his humility, smarts, and willingness to yell back at Plotz make him the MVP of this team. This is the best example of how camaraderie and familiarity make for a good podcast: after hundreds of episodes together, these three are a well-oiled machine. That also means, though, that you can feel the gears grinding when one of them is absent and someone else subs in (except for too-occasional guest Jamelle Bouie, who is a Dickerson in the making). If it is true, as Omar said on The Wire, “You come at the king, you best not miss,” then the fact that none of rest of this list has put a glove on the Gabfest yet means that Plotz, Bazelon, and Dickerson still reign supreme. (And if you buy me a beer sometime, I will tell you the story of how I ended up in a rental car with John Dickerson behind the wheel and Emily Bazelon in the back seat during a freezing cold night in Iowa four years ago, just before the 2012 caucus!)

Special bonus: not enough info yet

The Run-Up, from the New York Times: As I write this, The Run-Up has only aired one episode, which showed some potential. Instead of several people talking about the headlines together, the NYTimes opted for a different format, more radio-style, with host Michael Barbaro interviewing several different people about the week’s news. The highlight of the first one was a conversation with Trump apologist Newt Gingrich, who could only muster up the most hilariously tepid defense of The Donald’s mental fitness for the highest office in the land (“He’s at least as reliable as Andrew Jackson.” Hey, Newt? If you’re trying to help, maybe don’t compare him to the guy who carried out genocide against Native Americans when trying to defend someone who keeps cozying up to racists, mmmkay?). It’s hard to make any judgements about what this will be based on one episode, but it felt a little low-effort to me: why did it take the Times so long to get into the podcast game, and why does a series of disconnected interviews make the most sense for this genre?

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