I’ve always found my attachment to the show and its hosts’ on-air personas—David, the cantankerous, panda-bashing contrarian; John, the rambling, poll-loving square; and Emily, the legal expert of many minds and digressions—to be a little weird. So I was glad to find at Antarctica (and later at the 92nd St Y, where there was a sell-out crowd of 250) I am not alone.
At the bar I met Andrew, a 28-year old PhD student in sociology, who compared his relationship to the show to a “friendship.’”And Ross Gottesman, 29, who works in real estate, blogs at brief-wit.com, and has attended cocktail hour with the Gabfesters before (he says he has also sent them headline ideas, including this one). Ross said spending time with the Gabfest hosts is “like seeing a European football star in America. No one recognizes them. But I really respect them for their incisive and interesting conversations.”
It’s reactions like these that have made podcasts and building communities around them “part of a real strategy at Slate,” says Plotz. “We think that this audience and this way of connecting to an audience is incredibly valuable.” It was the success of the Political Gabfest that inspired Slate’s other podcasts, he says—on sports, culture, women’s interests, digital manners, language, and other subjects, with generally smaller but loyal fan bases around them. “We’re building distinct communities that are the diamond center of the Slate audience. We know these folks are our best readers and our best fans.”
They learn from them too. Plotz says the hosts get lots of ideas for the show and for Slate in exchanges with the live audiences at happy hours and gatherings. They also seem to have fun.
onversations at the cocktail hour ran the gamut: The tall Mormon and Dickerson talked basketball and George Romney; Bazelon discussed her work on bullying and movies that were appropriately non-violent for her son; later Dickerson talked about the logistics of headlines and the prospects for reform of the caucus system.
Interviewing the three Gabfest hosts was a lot like listening to them on air. They joke, interrupt each other, and digress. There is a fluidity to their conversation— they throw out elaborate, organic analogies (see this show, for analogies of Republican candidates to houses)—and share a natural rapport that was established a couple years before the show, when they began working together at Slate.
When the show launched, Dickerson was supposed to host the program alone. Slate’s executive editor, Andy Bowers, envisioned a podcast that would feature conversations like those that occur over drinks, not those that broadcasters have on air, and while he had imagined a rotating set of guests, Plotz and Bazelon started out and had such a good time that they “just kept going.”
This on-air chemistry explains a lot of the show’s following. “I don’t think we have the best political analysis in the world,” says Plotz. “John is a really good political analyst; Emily is a really great legal analyst; I bring nothing to the table. I didn’t realize that the fact that we were friends and the fact that we just sort of bash each other around and be playful with each other is what made the difference.” (Throughout the conversation Bazelon and Dickerson rolled their eyes at Plotz’s multiple assertions that he was the groups “intellectual weak link.”)
The trio says they don’t rehearse for the show; they say they do the opposite, by avoiding certain conversations before they go on air (this is unlike the other Slate podcasts, which are more carefully scripted and produced). 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.
Needless to say, this is a much different approach to political punditry than one tends to get on TV and talk radio. (It’s also less ideological.) Dickerson thinks Gabfest listeners appreciate that. “Occasionally we’ll get people who are angry at us for not having all the facts figured out, but in fumbling to a conclusion, more people appreciate it than are offended. You can kind of rumble around in an idea; you don’t have to be so careful about not looking bad or getting something wrong. And it gets you more creative, insightful results.”