When Brexit and Trump sent transatlantic politics into a spin in 2016, many searched frantically for a handrail in the darkness. The times demanded fresh perspectives – and they appeared in the shape of political podcasting. As a medium, the podcast was poised for adaptation, offering a range of furious, original, funny, marginalised and independent voices when the political going got weird.
Suddenly, everything was up for grabs: if Donald Trump could enter the Oval Office, surely nothing was off the table? Could a socialist become US president? The Bernie Sanders ultras on the self-proclaimed “dirtbag left” certainly thought so. Pods such as Chapo Trap House and Red Scare – a mix of radical politics and irony – found sizeable niches, using abrasive humour to tap into a disaffection not represented by mainstream broadcasters. In the centre, Pod Save America – former insiders from Obama’s White House horrified at Trump’s rise – was soon averaging 1.5 million listeners per episode. On the Republican side, Steve Bannon and Raheem Kassam’s War Room feels disconcertingly like being in Donald Trump’s head, while John Ziegler’s Individual 1 vocalises anti-Trump conservatism.
In 2020, political podcasts have become increasingly important, and in the run-up to the US presidential election they are sure to be a significant battleground, with aspiring candidates lining up to be grilled on them. They are big business too: tours and book tie-ins underpin the business model of the likes of Chapo. Crowdfunding platforms such as Patreon, which enable fans to support their favourite pods and unlock extra tiers of content as a reward, have made independent profitability possible. Crooked Media, which hosts multiple shows alongside Pod Save America, is arguably becoming a new media empire.
The UK has followed suit. Pods ranging from Trashfuture (a response to the “continuing psychic trauma of capitalism”) to Novara Media’s TyskySour have extolled the virtues of Corbynism. The Remainiacs podcast (centrists who suddenly found themselves on the outside looking in) and their second, less Brexit-focused spin-off The Bunker, have become the voice of despairing liberalism. On the right, there is the podcast arm of online magazine Spiked (which recently interviewed privilege-denying thesp Laurence Fox) and The Delingpod, in which journalist James Delingpole does his tendentious, climate crisis-sceptic thing in surround sound.
The much-mocked “mainstream media” has responded with pods of its own, in the process often making it clear why their competitors had to happen in the first place. The BBC’s Political Thinking With Nick Robinson boasts titles suggesting the least appetising Friends episodes ever (The Nicky Morgan One; The What Does Boris Johnson Really Think One) and actually uses its extended duration as an excuse to get even cosier still with prominent politicians. These pods don’t exactly go out of their way to dispel the notion that conventional political journalism is frequently a self-perpetuating Human Centipede of quid pro quo banality.
Conversely, the success of independent political podcasting is in large part due to the energy generated by outsiders grabbing a platform without permission. Political podcasts thrive on insurgency, on opposition to jaded official voices. “Unmediated, unscripted, direct and authentic content is hugely appealing,” says Dr Lance Dann, who co-wrote Podcasting: The Audio Media Revolution with fellow academic Dr Martin Spinelli. “It’s a raw energy and anger that people can express in the moment.” The traditional media has struggled with balance, so in the face of the absurdity of Trump, Johnson and Brexit, these unguarded and incredulous voices have felt not just refreshing but necessary.
In fact, the unashamed lack of balance is part of the fun. In an era of correspondents parroting the briefings of anonymous government sources, they feel honest: vigorously and proudly partial. If you are starting to doubt official versions of the truth, it is thrilling to find you’re not alone. “The form itself is incredibly free,” says Spinelli. “There are no gatekeepers, there are no rules, the fear of defamation is virtually nonexistent, and podcasters have been experimenting in developing relationships with their audiences based on these attributes. That’s a key point: podcasting is really about a relationship rather than the spoken word.”
But relationships can become too cosy, and insurgency can curdle into isolationism. Jessa Crispin, whose Public Intellectual podcast in the US explores a variety of outlooks, recently hosted an episode whose title suggested that You Can Talk to a Conservative Like a Normal Human Being. It was a reaction to a consensus in which, she says, “audiences are mostly looking for a podcast that agrees with what they already believe”. These podcasts’ hosts, she adds, try “to turn everything into a punchline. Everyone is trying to follow the Chapo model; guys shouting over one another, eager to make the best joke. If I wanted to listen to men from privileged backgrounds who think they know best about everything, I’d turn on the cable news.”
In fact, one of the most notable problems with some of the “dirtbag left” pods is how light on policy discussion they have become. Rather than being a meaningful part of a battle of ideas, they can sometimes feel like hipsterism manifesting as political punditry, what Sigmund Freud called “the narcissism of small differences” rendered streamable. Some of the hard-left podcasts often seem more animated by their loathing of “centrists” than by adversaries on the right. Similarly, few liberal podcasts manage to hide their scorn for the Corbyn project. As Crispin puts it: “There’s a lot of territorial behaviour. ‘This is what I believe; if you don’t believe it too, get the hell out.’ There’s very little bridge building. The thing I get from most of them is not just a lack of humility but a lack of curiosity. There’s the assumption that they have the right opinions.”
With that in mind, it would be fascinating to see how the likes of Chapo might react to actually getting what they want. The show’s host, Will Menaker, recently sparked controversy by pledging to refuse to vote for anyone but Sanders in November. But if Sanders were to win the Democratic nomination, Chapo would be forced to move on from thinking up insults for Pete Buttigieg (“Ratfuck CIA operative,” being a recent highlight) and on to discussing policy detail. They would move from the outer edges to the inside track.
For a glimpse of how tricky this mainstreaming process can be, it is worth considering the opposition. Take the pugnacious provocateurs over at The Spiked Podcast. A recent episode titled The Woke Stasi spoke volumes about their determination to continue obscuring dry policy issues with emotive cultural ones. But its shtick is now predictable to the point of tedium; straw men constructed for the sole purpose of presenting themselves as the contrarian opposition to what they term “cultural Marxism”.
However, the problem with evoking the Stasi is that the Stasi were the government. Their power was tangible and frightening. Whereas “wokeness”, “political correctness” or whatever other lazy identifier you might employ to avoid discussing systemic inequality, is currently under siege like never before. If Spiked ever offered an outsider perspective, those days are long gone; its viewpoint is now represented at the heart of the establishment. How much more culturally dominant would the performatively populist right have to be before its outriders accepted that they were policing the status quo?
And yet the medium retains vast potential. The best political podcasts boast wit and irreverence while allowing space for the informed deep dive too. With its generous tone, Ed Miliband’s Reasons to Be Cheerful pod is the sound of a man bringing a plastic picnic knife to a gunfight – but it has established a niche, and it is set apart by its open-mindedness and emphasis on policy and ideas. Likewise, for his Getting Curious podcast, Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness conducted an impressive, humanising interview with Elizabeth Warren.
Fascinating material can emerge in unlikely places. Podcasting behemoth Joe Rogan (whose audience runs into millions per episode) is best known as a politically unaffiliated libertarian comedian; a weed-smoking, bench-pressing, deer-hunting avatar of red-blooded male America. And yet his conversation with Bernie Sanders was as thorough an interrogation of Sanders’s actual policy as any of the radical left pods have managed, and will have reached parts of the electorate that previous Democratic candidates can only have dreamed about.
November’s US presidential election may mark a turning point for political podcasts. Can they use their energy and large audiences to make a difference, and convince those outside of their echo chambers?
“People listen to podcasts for a sense of community, for companionship and, in terms of politics, to have their views confirmed,” says Dann. “As such, podcasting has become the perfect embodiment of the dangers of social and web media bubbles. Audiences are listening in. They need to force themselves to listen out.”