9 podcasts worth listening to this election season

Photo by Patrick Breitenbach

Podcasts are, at their best a cross between radio and the alternative press: Like radio, they traffic in audio and retain its intimacy; like the alt-press, they take advantage of lo-fi production and low expectations to make room for a more personal journalism. Podcasters have a penchant for intellectual honesty, but in the end they are willing to wager success on the force of their personalities. If you don’t like a particular podcast, fine—it’s not for you. Find one that is.

This election season—this insane, unprecedented, head-snapping, nerve-wracking election season—has seen the political podcast come into its own, sometimes on a daily basis. 

Let’s celebrate this evolving form’s malleability, strengths, and oddities. Here’s a rundown of the ones I’ve been checking in on regularly, and the particular zen that makes each worth listening to.

Off Message, Politico

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Politico’s Glenn Thrush sits down each with week with a major player in the election. Off Message started out strong—a chat with President Obama in the Oval Office, a conversation with Ben Carson during which Carson said Obama was “raised white”—and then petered out. I perversely enjoyed Off Message because of Thrush’s distinctive personality, just a hair’s breadth this side of being a hopelessly self-absorbed reporter. He’s one of those interviewers who wants to hear what he himself thinks more than the people he’s interviewing, and is at his most amusing as he compulsively namedrops previous guests or starts questions with lines like “I was getting an award the other night, and…” The best episodes feature true campaign insiders, like McCain’s Mark Salter or Bernie Sanders’s Tad Devine; Thrush’s many years of reporting melds well with their knowledge base and has provided some nice insights into the campaign.  

Presidential, The Washington Post

Presidential is a project of The Washington Post, hosted by a reporter in its business section, Lillian Cunningham. It’s a sweeping exercise; every Sunday for the past 44 weeks, Cunningham has given a 30- to 45-minute portrait of each US president in order, starting with George Washington and ending, this week, with Barack Obama. There are interviews with biographers and other experts (sometimes hard to come by for some of the more obscure presidents), and some nice aural touches, like varying musical takes on “Hail to the Chief.” Even with larger-than-life figures, Cunningham finds ways to get us to look at the man differently; she tackled JFK by looking at three ways death and mortality had touched him throughout his life. She does her best to make the dusty characters come alive. You can imagine some of the gruff old boys looking askance at one of her tropes, in which she routinely asks biographers, “What would [this particular president] be like on a blind date? What would you tell a friend about him if she were going on that blind date?” Cunningham can get a little too cute, but her tactics often make the experts think on their feet. And the most memorable ones are about the presidents we don’t know that much about—Millard Fillmore in particular.

Keepin’ It 1600, The Ringer

This is not for hardline GOP’ers. Keepin’ It 1600 is generally hosted by former Obama staffer Jon Favreau and one or more of his former White House colleagues Dan Pfeiffer, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor, with guests such as Jake Tapper or Chuck Todd. These guys are obviously on one side, and—how to put this?—they are writers, so they have a way with a barb. (A wound-up Lovett on Trump in the second debate: “What a slog that was—a rambling nutbag wandering around the stage, a creepy menace, a big heavy-breathing, angry, deranged, uniformed man wandering around, heaving in and out of the camera’s vision.”) Given their careers, their perspective and insight is about as high level as you can get. Targets of scorn include Trump, of course, but also Republicans they see as inconsistent or fainthearted. (Paging Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan.) These guys have seen it all, and their disparagement is as based on politics as policy; they are as exasperated by Trump’s pratfalls and poor political strategy as they are by his actual positions. The star here may be Lovett, whose amused disdain for Trump occasionally leads him to aperçus of a Wildean aspect: “He’s an untalented narcissist. A useless combination.” Imagine a podcast with The West Wing’s Sam Seaborn, Toby Ziegler, and Josh Lyman. If that makes your heart go all a-twitter, this is for you. 

The Axe Files

David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s right-hand man, left the White House to do his own thing—running the Institute of Politics at his alma mater, the University of Chicago. His weekly show is an interview with a big name—and given his status, these are bigger names than most, starting with The Times’s Maureen Dowd and scaling up to folks like John Kerry and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Like the man himself, the show is soft-spoken with a tough core. Its relaxed nature makes for some intimate moments, but in the end it’s overly chummy.

Politico’s Nerdcast

This effort, started in May, features some of the site’s younger reporters running through the issues of the week, all supposedly tied to numbers—over which they “geek out,” we’re told. That forced contrivance aside, it’s a good listen. One of the great things about podcasts is that the premium is on smarts, not necessarily delivery or texture, so you get folks whose voices are very un-NPR-like. It’s hard to keep track of who’s who, but this crew gives some deep insight on the impressive detailing of polling and fundraising numbers, with the site’s national editor, Kristin Roberts, barking orders and keeping things on track.

Radio Free GOP

This is everything a political podcast should be. Knowledgeable host? Check. It’s longtime GOP election strategist Mike Murphy. Chip on the host’s shoulder? You got it. Murphy, who ran the Jeb Bush SuperPAC Right to Rise during the primary, is horrified by what he has seen in the subsequent debauching of his party by one Donald Trump, Esq., referred to here as the “Orange Menace.” Personal and iconoclastic? Got that, too. Murphy, a fan of classic Big Boss Radio, shelled out to punctuate the show with some of those old-fashioned radio jingles. If you fondly remember the way the signature “American Top Forty!” jingle was delivered on Casey Kasem’s show, you’ll swoon for the deranged group of big-lunged studio singers belting out lines like these:

He used to have a big career

But now he’s had enough

Podcasting’s like therapy

His shrink says it’s messed up!

Radio Free

GOP!

Murphy’s amusing conceit is that he’s part of a secret GOP underground, podcasting from an “undisclosed location” as he delivers a sharp-tongued analysis and chews over the week’s events with a guest. He’s got some great stories, and some great lines, too, some of which he uses more than once. (Sometimes more than twice.) But his perspective and knowledge are unassailable, and if you like hearing minutiae about the evolution of GOP campaign strategies and infrastructure over the last 30 years, Murphy’s your man. But in the end, the real pleasure here is the forthrightness; Murphy’s not afraid to acknowledge how Trump beat his guy, Jeb Bush. He’s resigned to a debacle on November 8 and promises to be part of the rebuilding. “American politics deserves better,” he muses, but he’s still looking forward to the show trials. 

Political Gabfest, Slate

I’ve had an off-and-on association with Slate since its start. That said, its election podcast doesn’t really work for me. The current lineup features CBS’s John Dickerson—a heavy hitter in his own right but a mainstream journalist, and bound by those timeless strictures. He always has his guard up; his analysis is fine, but it lacks zing. The other folks are as smart as you’d expect from Slate, but since as a rule they aren’t working political reporters, their knowledge base is about the same as their listeners’, feeding on a diet of news from the Times and Politico. That said, the level of discussion is high, and host David Plotz is a strong and probing voice at the center of it all. 

My History Can Beat Up Your Politics

This unwieldy title doesn’t do the podcast justice. It is the work of Bruce Carlson, a freelance historian who reads everything he can on an array of historical political subjects—from the election of 1840 to Chicago ’68, to why the GOP convention came before the DNC’s this year (the answer is a lot more complicated than you might think)—and turns it into an often-compelling narrative. Just a man, a microphone, and a story. Carlson is scrupulously balanced; he’s not interested in convincing anyone of anything, he just wants you to know all the facts so you can form your own opinion. Case in point: His quixotic attempt to make sense of Ronald Reagan in an ongoing series called—I’m not making this up—”A Dozen Ronald Reagans.” (Carlson admits he might not make it to 12, but I’m enjoying listening to him try.) For this crazy election season he’s offered a number of potent tales from the past, including an account of the election of 1824 (James G. Blaine vs. Grover Cleveland), which oddly parallels our own, a history of previous vice-presidential debates, and (if that’s not obscure enough for you), a history of second presidential debates. (Turns out Nixon did much better in his second outing against Kennedy, not that it mattered.) The perfect antidote to bloviating talking heads, My History is thoughtful, nuanced, and highly engaging.

FiveThirtyEight’s Elections Podcast

The gold standard. Nate Silver’s operation puts a premium on a modest aspiration: a probing discussion based on facts. Silver and company have their critics, but this year, their podcast was an achievement. The host is affable Jody Avirgan, with the soft-spoken but insistent Silver on hand. With them are two FiveThirtyEight writers: Clare Malone, who brings insight from her trips around the country and gently prods her colleagues to unpack some of their denser observations, and Harry Enten, invariably introduced as “Whiz Kid.” This sounds insufferable, but it isn’t; Enten, an old soul in a millennial’s body, is able to pull obscure facts—like, say, H. Ross Perot’s percentage of the vote in the two states he ran best in during 1992 election—out of his hat. (Also, he affects disdain for Silver, whom he calls “Nathaniel.”) The four are clever and understated, sometimes jargon-laden (Silver dropped the phrase “virtue-signaling” recently), but capable of getting off a joke without seeming self-congratulatory. They also get points for, alone among the podcasts I listen to, taking on seriously their roles as journalists during an election in which one candidate, as Silver puts it, “might be evil.” He wasn’t saying Trump is evil, just discussing what the implications of that might be. A highlight this year has been the group’s live shows, which sometimes conclude with hilarious face-offs between Silver and Enten over obscure election trivia.

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Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon.com. Follow him @hitsville.