It was a little before five last Wednesday evening when the “tall Mormon” walked into Antarctica, a bar in lower Manhattan (“where the drinks are big and the memories are short”). “Oh, you’re the tall guy,” David Plotz, Slate magazine’s editor, said to him. “Our tall Mormon.”

The tall Mormon had had apparently spoken to Plotz earlier and promised he’d bring four other good-looking Mormons to the event, which was a happy hour with the cast of Slate’s popular podcast, Political Gabfest. Plotz co-hosts the weekly podcast with Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate, and John Dickerson, chief political correspondent at Slate and political director at CBS.


Gabfest hosts Plotz, Bazelon, and Dickerson at their live show last Wednesday. Photo by Steve McFarland, http://photog.stevetm.com

The session cost $25 plus the drinks (the Mormons abstained, naturally), and offered podcast fans a chance to mingle with the Gabfest hosts before they recorded their live show later that night, at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca. Thirty people bought happy hour tickets, most of them young, urbane men.

The notion of a political podcast from an online thought magazine may sound a bit nerdy and, to the tech-savvy, maybe a little antiquated. But since launching in 2007 2005, Slate’s Political Gabfest has grown an audience of 75,000 weekly listeners, including a dedicated community of active listeners who do things like post long, thoughtful, meaty comments or attend $25 happy hours or fly from Alaska to Grinnell, Iowa, in December to attend a live Gabfest. (Others drove from Kentucky and a class of Minnesota high school students bussed in for the occasion.)

The Gabfest has one of the most thoughtfully engaged audiences I have ever encountered online. After Plotz wondered on last week’s show whether there was any connection between religiosity and family size, for example, two separate political scientists looked into the question and sent him their analyses; meanwhile, a PhD student in statistics, after “playing with some GSS data,” posted his own findings on the podcast’s Facebook page. (A Google search turns up evidence that a number of political scientists are avid listeners). “I don’t think we deserve our fans most of the time,” said Dickerson.

At a time when most media organizations are trying to connect with and grow their audiences through social media tools like Twitter and Facebook (more followers, more likes), Slate has taken a more boots-on-the-ground approach by building communities around several podcasts and drawing them to live shows and happy hours, as well as an active Facebook page. This strategy focuses more on building the strength of ties with members of the audience than on the number of them. (The Political Gabfest is the most popular of Slate’s thirteen podcasts, though not all of them are regular).


H
ere is where I should make an admission: I love the Slate Political Gabfest. I started listening to it when I lived abroad and was looking for news on the 2008 election. I don’t think I’ve missed a show since, and while I listen to most of Slate’s podcasts, I particularly like the Political Gabfest. It downloads to my computer late each Thursday night, and once I listen, the number of days until the next gabfest is something I’m conscious of. On occasion, I have resorted to listening to past, no-longer-relevant episodes for lack of fresh ones.

The format of the show is a discussion of three topics—last Wednesday for example, the hosts tackled the state of the Republican race; the idea of a third party entering American politics; and Stephen Glass, the ex-journalist and ostensibly repentant fabricator, and his battle with the California bar to get license to practice law. The format ends with a final “cocktail chatter” segment, in which each host volunteers some bit of miscellany.

Though it is (broadly) a political analysis show, the Politcal Gabfest sometimes makes me laugh out loud. There was one evening last summer where I was that strange person on the subway, giggling maniacally, unable to stop as I listened to the show. The conversation had turned to dogs and mimes. You had to be there.

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.