The Podcast and the Public Conversation: Considering the Slate Political Gabfest

Curator's Note

A great deal has been said about what distinguishes podcasts from other media, for example, radio. After “ten years of podcasting,” however, just as interesting is the variety within the medium: the different genres of podcasts and their relationship to an audience and media ecosystem. The accompanying clip, for example, provides one testimonial from Steven Colbert about his strangely intimate relationship with Slate’s Political Gabfest. Colbert isn’t alone. Gabfest fans line up around the block to attend the program's periodic live shows.

The Political Gabfest is an archetype for the upper-middle-brow roundtable genre. Slate pioneered the format and continues to invest in podcasts. Its longest running podcast, the Political Gabfest weekly covers three current political topics in 15-20 minute segments, discussed by its hosts Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz. According to Andy Bowers, the program’s producer, it aims to capture the wit and spontaneity of an editorial meeting or reporters talking at a bar after work. In this sense, the Gabfest offers its listeners the voyeuristic experience of overhearing journalists offer unguarded opinions in a convivial but rigorous conversation. The Gabfest has an unmistakable centrist-left orientation, but the hosts, particularly Plotz, revel in playing devil’s advocate and happily muse about the soundness of their own views, inviting objections from their colleagues (as they did in a recent episode mulling over whether Pam Geller is a free speech hero). Erika Fry has reported that the hosts, by design, aim to keep their conversations spontaneous. Fry writes, quoting the hosts, “Dickerson likens Gabfest conversations to story meetings or ‘puzzling out something’ in public. ‘We all feel very comfortable not being sure of an answer and working things out,’ adds Bazelon.” The current economics of podcasts are such that they cost little to produce and distribute, can be relatively long-running, and need only attract a niche market to be successful. Unlike NPR programs, native digital podcasts need not put on the pretense of centrist “objectivity” for fear of offending a broad audience. The Gabfest’s length and open conversational format also means that it, unlike explicitly partisan “news” sources, can ask hard questions without resorting to canned sound bites or rhetorical hobbyhorses.

Podcasts as a medium might offer exciting possibilities for reimagining the public dialogue, especially in politics. However, most of top news and politics downloads on iTunes are familiar names in familiar formats: NPR, BBC, Meet the Press, The Economist, Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow, Glen Beck, etc. It is an open question whether, after another ten years of podcasting, the conversation will look much the same or much different.

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