On November 9, millions of Americans got up, came to work, and talked to their colleagues about president-elect Donald Trump. Jacob Weisberg was one of them, but his conversations were overheard wellbeyond his office’swater cooler: As host of Slate’s Trumpcast, Weisberg broadcast his workplace speculations to thousands of listeners. The results caught me flat-footed, says Weisberg, who did not anticipate continuing the podcast past election day. Doing the podcast is therapeutic for me—its a way to talk to people who I think are smart, and start to move forward again.
Throughout this grueling year, political podcasts have also offered therapy to listeners, proving that young people have an appetite for spoken news and political commentary when delivered by a casual, trusted voice. Over the next four years, as all ears remain on Washington, podcasts have a unique opportunity tohelp bring together abifurcated America—as long as they take measures not toreinforce the echo chambers.
Keeping Younger Ears Engaged
For many media companies, the past year of political podcasts has provided a solution for how to get a younger audience to consume news. Because of the low overhead, a team can produce an episode a few hours after a debate or scandal, with flexible lengths and guests calling in from a cell-phone. Thats the beauty of the podcast space—were there when listeners need us to be, says Beth Donovan, who oversaw NPRs election coverage as NPR News’senior Washington editor. If theres a story we need to talk about, well be there—thats a very different model for news.
At NPR, which has long tried too combat its radio content’sever-aging audienceby developing a younger audience through campaigns like Generation Listen and the NPR One app, the successful experiment of the NPR Politics podcast provides a model across the company. Downloaded over a million times a week since October, the podcast skews remarkably young: 70 percent of listeners are 18-34, and 22 percent are under 25. Much of that young listenership comes from a personal relationship with the hosts. On Morning Edition, listeners hear Sam Sanders deliver a tightly packaged, pre-produced story; on NPR Politics, he and his co-hosts laugh and ask questions. There are things I would never say on a radio story that I can say on the podcast: what type of music I like, what clothes I wear, when I get sick, says Sanders. Its a format that works. The politics podcast has proven to NPR that young people like the looseness of the format, they like that were just talking, he says. I wouldnt be surprised if you start to see this conversational model seep into NPRs newsroom.
That casual, trustworthy delivery will be especially important in the uncertainty of a Trump administration. If Hillary Clinton (or, really, any politician with legislative experience) had won, the political framework would have likely gone undisturbed; with Donald Trump already upending Beltway protocol, listeners will need knowledgeable interpreters to explain the purpose of a White House press pool or how presidential appointments work.
As such, the reporters and hosts who might otherwise be enjoying a vacation this week are finding themselves scrambling to adapt. Usually, publications would move resources away from politics, but I dont think well have the usual downturn, says Weisberg, who, beyond hosting Trumpcast, is also the editor-in-chief of Slate Group. And throughout the next four years of ongoing political coverage, podcasts will continue to provide a way for publications—Slate, NPR, The New York Times, The Ringer, Vox—to be more off-the-cuff and opinionated. Its not just a new medium, says Weisberg. Its that news organizations can do something in podcasts that they havent figure out how to do before.
Puncturing the Echo Chamber
Of course, the same conversational style that draws in listeners also risks separating listeners according to their political views, especially for shows closer to punditry than reporting. Our conversation was like Jon [Favreau] and I talking on the phone or in a bar somewhere, says Dan Pfeiffer, co-host of Keepin It 1600. But while the two friends and former Obama aides might try to buckeach other up at a bar, their confident predictions carry a different weight when millions of listeners turn to them as a factual political news sourcea quandary they explored in their first post-election episode. Left-leaningpodcasts have the same pitfalls as conservative talk radio:isolating their audience inside a bubble of reassurance (or even fear).
But the inherent intimacyof a podcast also offers something that divided America needs now more than ever: A place to have thoughtful conversations, even across huge differences in belief. In this election, each side created a caricature of the other in their minds—there wasnt the necessary understanding and cross-pollination, says David Axelrod, former chief strategist for Obamas presidential campaigns. On his own podcast, The Axe Files, he has had conversations with people across the political spectrum, from Karl Rove to DeRay Mckesson, and hopes to do so more throughout a Trump administration. In a democracy, we have to be able to hear each other, even if we disagree, Axelrod says. We have to hear a multiplicity of voices.
During the election, podcasts provided a flexible format for people with similar beliefs to have casual, unscripted conversations about politics. Liberals did so on a slew of podcasts: Political Gabfest, Keepin It 1600, Trumpcast, The Weeds, The Run-Up. Conservatives did it, too, like on The Ricochet Podcast, hosted by two National Review contributors and one former Reagan speechwriter. Every week was a debate about Trump, from people on the right who are pro and anti, says Ricochet CEO Scott Immergut. But not anti-Trump people on the left. We dont need to do that. The Ricochet podcast network offered a different range of political viewpoints—but not a wider one.
Post election, the Ricochet team is considering bringing liberals onto their podcasts. If this election proves nothing else, it proves that we are a bifurcated country, says Immergut. People tend to listen to things that confirm their point of view, but thats how we end up with elections like this. Podcasts offer a path forward, a way to understand our country through frank, difficult conversations. Two weeks ago, Rob Long, a Ricochet host and never-Trumper, talked to Ira Glass about reconciling Reagan Republicanism with Trump on This American Life; now, people on the left and people in Trumps right need to talk, too.
Podcasts offer a flexible, intimate format for Americans to have respectful, curious conversations with each other—unless we only use them to talk to ourselves. Over the next four years, both conservatives and liberals will be talking about politics, and to move forward, they need to find spaces to talk to each other. We have to get beyond an exercise in sloganeering, to go longform and explore something in-depth, Axelrod says. Podcasts can fulfill that role. Or at least, they can provide a template. To actually move forward as a nation, were going to have to take out the earbuds and have those conversations ourselves.