This is the first of a Six Part Series.
Like many of my friends, I became fascinated several years ago with the pleasures of longform audio storytelling as represented by the successful Serial. When that series ended, I found myself searching for other examples of podcasting as an emerging media form, a search that is only intensified as I’ve ended up reviewing a range of podcast and my roles as the jury member for the Peabody Awards. This fall the series of health setbacks left me with more time on my hands, I have fallen even more deeply down that particular rabbit hole. Since I want to share with my loyal readers some of my personal favorites — some of the best examples of contemporary podcast across a range of different genres.
As I reflect on my favorites, I’m still trying to decide what makes a podcast good. People in public radio talk about the driveway moment – times when you have gotten so caught up in a particular story that you do not want to turn off the car engine and come inside. This analogy emerged because of the ways that so many of us listen to radio while driving. We tune into a particular network in search of compelling content as we move around the city and we listen until we reach our destination in most cases. We may form a relationship over time with a particular network or host but for most of us, radio is not an appointment based medium.
The podcast, on the other hand, is an engagement based media. We actively seek out specific series, often searching for them by name at the iTunes Store – which makes it imperative that the podcast offers us something fresh and distinctive, something we will not find anywhere else, something that we will want to return to on a regular basis. In some cases, we are pulled towards niche content, shows that address underserved audiences, shows of narrower but more intense interest than can be supported on broadcast radio. This focus on specialized interest reflects the relatively open market of podcasting today. There are growing number of companies such as Panoply that focus on podcasts. Podcasts are emerging from public institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution which has made a major commitment to public outreach. NPR and PRI are developing podcasts as extensions of their existing programs and as a farm league for emerging personalities. But there also a wealth of grassroots and independent producers working in the space. I’m especially interested, for example, in various fan communities as early adapters and active users of this platform to share content that thrives here but would never reach the airwaves. And we’re seeing rich examples of podcast producers that serve the needs of racial ethnic and sexual minorities including for example American Muslims.
Not only must the podcast provide me distinctive content that I will actively seek out on a recurring basis but the host has to be someone with whom I want to establish a more intimate relationship. The radio host comes to the speaker in my car. I tend to listen to podcasts through my ear buds as I ride the bus, as I walk around downtown Los Angeles, as I’m laying in bed next to my sleeping wife during my frequent bouts of insomnia. For me to want to engage them in this way, the host has to adopt a different tone of voice and a different kind of address than a broadcaster might. I don’t want deep booming voices — I want something that is more casual and conversational. I will listen to a single person tell me a story via podcast in a way that I expect multiple voices and perspectives on a typical radio broadcast.
Each of the examples I am sharing here the six cell by these two criteria – distinctive content and a compelling host that I enjoy spending time with.
How do you identify good podcasts? Well, apart from personal rec list like this one, you can sample from the featured podcast from top charts at the iTunes Store. I certainly try to be aware of the shows generating the most buzz at iTunes but many of my favorites are lower ranking shows that I would never find by that means. A fair number of the shows referenced here were brought to my attention by The Big Listen, an NPR podcast which showcases other podcasts. Each week its host Lauren Ober showcases 5-10 different programs, each organized by shared interests. Sometimes she interviews the host of top-rated programs and ask them to recommend other interesting shows in their space. She also offers her own reviews of programs she finds engaging. Her tastes are eclectic but also refined. I’ve ended up sampling two or three programs from most of her episodes and I found many of my favorite off the beaten path examples in this way. So The Big Listen is an ideal starting point if you want to explore the variety the contemporary podcasting offers.
Through the fall, a good portion of my podcast listening was bound up with the election. I sought regular updates from NPR’s Politics podcast, which during the closing weeks of the campaign was posting new episodes every night, offering contexts for today’s top stories but also going beyond the headlines. A strength of the series is its responsiveness to listener questions, which often encourages the reporters to provide a fuller explanation of how the political system operates than what we found on the evening news. A common complaint is that American journalism offers few points of entry for first-time voters. I can’t say that this podcast fully addresses that problem but it goes a long way towards offering a more transparent version of the US political system while also digging deeply enough to provide new insight for us more hard-core politicos. The podcast output has slowed down twice a week through the transition and the early days of the Trump regime. But they offer more intense updates when breaking stories demand them.
Some of the best podcast this past year provide in-depth interviews with key political figures, not only the candidates but also their campaign managers and advisors and score journalists and commentators. My favorite was Politico’s Off Message. Veteran reporter Glenn Thrush (who recently left the series) digs deep through interviews with key players from both the Republican and Democratic parties. I stress this ideological diversity because so many podcasts like blogs or online news sites start with partisan bias. But here, my favorites are often conservative figures such as Donald Trump’s current Atty. Gen. nominee Jeff Sessions, Trump advisor Roger Stone, House Speaker Paul Ryan, right-wing talk show host Hugh Hewett, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. His interviews help me to understand who these people are and what motivates the positions they advocate, even where we fundamentally disagree. Thrush’s questioning is rigorous but also cordial and open-minded. The picture that emerges could not be more different from the shouting matches many of these figures engage with on cable news networks. Thrush also explores emerging figures on the left – from current Democratic National Committee chair candidate Keith Ellison to the Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, from rapper Chuck D to New York Sen. Kristin Gillibrand. He also takes us behind-the-scenes to get to know other journalists such as Nate Silver better.
There are other great interview podcast in the political space – for example check out The Axe Files with Obama adviser David Axelrod. Axelrod has great conversations with cultural figures such as Hamilton‘s Lin – Manuel Miranda or Van Jones. But Axe tends to focus on left of center guest and thus I find fewer surprises here then on Off Message. The number of conservative and Republican guests has picked up a bit since the election season.
Another interview series I would recommend would be Candidate Confessional which features in-depth briefings with former presidential and Senate candidates about what went wrong for them on the campaign trail. Among my favorites here are exchanges with Martin O’Malley, Howard Dean, Anthony Weiner and Michele Bachmann, each of whom are much more frank on this podcast that I’ve seen them in other venues.
For those of you who are interested in the history of American politics I have two recommendations – Presidential and Whistle Stop. Across the past year Presidential‘s Lillian Cunningham from the Washington Post has produced a profile of each of the countries presidents down through Donald Trump. For each episode, she interviews key archivist especially the Library of Congress and draws insights from the deep bench of political reporters and history buffs at the Post. Cunningham is at her best when digging into some of the characters than most often are overlooked in our history classes. So check out her account of the disputed election that brought Rutherford B Hayes to the White House, of the complex and secretive emotional life of James Buchanan — our only bachelor president, of the tragedy that surrounded the administration of Franklin Pierce and so forth. She often ask historians what it would’ve been like to go on a blind date with these guys which can seem awkward and inane but often yields rich insights into their personalities.
Slate’s Whistlestop shares an in-depth account of a key moment from the history of presidential campaigns. Host John Dickerson often selected his stories to draw parallels to the contemporary campaign. So for example he uses Ross Perot, Barry Goldwater, and George Wallace to explain the rise of Donald Trump. He prepares us for the debates by discussing Gerald Ford’s biggest gaffe in debate history. He dipped into 19th century campaign history with for example accounts of the disintegration of the Whig party or of the charges that Grover Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child. But he’s at his best when he can fold in a few soundbites as he does effectively in his account of Mario Cuomo’s status as the front runner who refused to jump into the race, of John F. Kennedy’s attempts to address concerns about his Catholicism during the West Virginia primary, or the prolonged struggle at the Republican national convention between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Dickinson is such a compelling storyteller that you listen with baited breath to accounts of events you already know well. He offers insights into cultural context also — for example, how Betty Ford emerges a feminist First Lady. As the campaign concluded, the pace has slowed but he’s beginning to share stories of presidential administrations, again using history to provide background for current events.
Next Time: Cinema