David Plotz , John Dickerson, and Emily Bazelon / Image ©Slate
This ongoing feature offers expansive interviews with influential figures in emerging fields of artistic and intellectual inquiry. Speak, Speculation takes for granted that an innovative practitioner’s most prescient reflections may never find their way into print form without the coaxing of cordial conversation.
In early October I interviewed David Plotz, host of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast, on the poetics of dialogue. Founded in 2005, the Political Gabfest quickly established the parameters for countless discussion-based podcasts to follow, proving influential in its intimate affect (emphasizing informal discussion by a small group of returning journalists), in its deft yet erudite pivots between current political concerns and broader policy/legal/cultural topics, and in its expansion beyond the recording studio to a diverse array of live events. By the close of its first decade, the Political Gabfest, consistently ranked among the most popular podcasts on iTunes, had attracted a weekly audience in the hundreds of thousands, had reshaped conceptions of how a digital audience might most constructively absorb its news, and (as our interview suggests) had reinvigorated the arts of dialogic exchange.
Following Donald Trump’s surprising election victory, podcasts in the Political Gabfest vein have received substantial criticism for having cultivated a purportedly breezy, insular, in-group approach to political discourse—a conversational mode unaware of its own limitations, and unable to see beyond its particular demographic clique. In our interview one month prior to that election, however, Plotz had impressed me with his timely critique (both in the negative and the positive sense) of this emergent discourse he had helped to shape.
As we begin to think through responses to the Trump presidency, and the structures of discussion best positioned to inform, engage, galvanize a broader public, Plotz’s inventory of podcast media’s success and failures at mobilizing an active citizenry provide a lucid perspective from which to start.
Andy Fitch/ I’ve read several interviews addressing what makes the Political Gabfest successful. I guess it interests me more to discuss what makes the Gabfest good, if that distinction seems reasonable. And “good” here could mean a few different things of course—in relation to intelligence of the conversation, constructive social impact, etcetera. You have at times stressed the importance of something like civic engagement on the podcast. One time you even made your audience sing at a live show, if I remember correctly.
David Plotz/ I’m a huge fan of group singing. As a non-religious person, I consider it a moment of transcendence. I love group singing, so I thought: When else will I have an occasion to have a group that is feeling well-disposed and will listen to me? And so I proposed that we do it. I actually love doing it, and would do it at every show if John Dickerson and Emily Bazelon would let me, but they don’t.
AF/ So hopefully it won’t sound too corny for us to discuss the overall Gabfest phenomenon as a form of civic engagement. You three come out of journalism backgrounds, but I didn’t know if journalists often consider this type of engagement their primary mission, or if that impression just came from movies.
DP/ No, I think that is certainly a big piece of the story of the Gabfest, and of what we’re doing. I would be very glad to talk about it.
AF/ Great. I know that you, Emily, and John all have discussed the deep emotional connection (even joy) that your listeners experience in relation to the show, and I would love to trace that overlap of both informing and bringing joy to audiences.
DP/ That all sounds good.
AF/ The Gabfest prioritizes a particular type of conversation and, to begin with, I’ll hope you can describe and contextualize that type of conversation. For example, if I had to give my own slightly idiosyncratic continuum for interesting forms of dialogue, on one side I’ll love, in an interview (or even a dialogue in theater, film, fiction), when one person mishears the other, or misrepresents the other, and all of these shadow narratives and false narratives start overlapping, and dialogue becomes basically a form of collage or bombardment—with no clear sense of closure coming. But I also appreciate constructive dialogue leading to actual implementation of specific policies, or to unanticipated forms of real-life consensus. So my own personal continuum would run from prurient aesthetic/intellectual voyeuristic pleasure, to participating in some broader public reckoning and collective decision-making. Could you fit the Gabfest onto a continuum like that? Or could you outline your own continuum of different ways in which dialogue can be exciting and/or useful?
DP/ Well, let me take a stab at that answer by describing what I think we think we are doing. The Gabfest began with the premise that most journalistic conversation presented to the public is totally artificial—that the punditocracy, the bloviation that characterizes how journalists talk to each other and to the world, is theatrical, highly ritualized, and full of bullshit. The basic premise of the Gabfest from the beginning was to find people who like to talk to each other, people who may or may not disagree about things, but who basically enjoy each other’s company, and then to put them in a situation where the conversation would be as natural as possible (given that it’s still going out to an audience). We were helped by this because, for the first several years we did the show, as we were laying down the grooves that would become how the show worked, we didn’t really realize we had any audience, and so we felt like we were basically talking to each other. We knew that it was a public presentation, but none of us even listened to podcasts for the first three years of doing the show, and we didn’t really know anyone who listened to our show. We had very little feedback, and this allowed us to create a conversation that we felt to be an entirely natural one about issues that we genuinely cared about. Also, because we controlled the show and the playing field, that allowed us to talk about things that we cared about, and so there are all sorts of subjects that the Gabfest doesn’t touch. It doesn’t touch them not because those subjects aren’t important—often they’re much more important than the things we’re talking about. We don’t touch them because the three of us feel that we don’t have anything interesting to contribute. For us to talk about Syria, a subject which is, perhaps, the most important subject in the world, would be empty. Certainly it’s a subject that affects in a terrible way the lives of millions and millions of people, but we don’t talk about it because we know that any conversation that the three of us would have about Syria would be empty of content. It would just be whatever we’d have stolen from the three New York Times articles that we read about it.
So we feel a sense of obligation. We want to be true to ourselves, but we also feel that what we owe the listener is to be honest about what we actually know, care about, and want to discuss and argue about. I’ll point to one particular change we made in the show which reflects that. For the first five years we did the Gabfest, John hosted, and Emily and I were the guests. But about five years ago, Emily and I had this realization that we were in this stupid position where John, who’s the person who actually has the deepest knowledge about politics, the deepest sense of how the political narrative is shaped, and who cares the most about what is happening, was asking Emily and me questions to which he had a much better answer.
Similarly, we realized that the actual dynamic is that I am more of an ignorant outsider. Emily has expertise on a number of issues around law, and John has that same expertise around politics and, to a lesser extent, policy. I’m best in an interrogative mode, or I’m there to explain, and we realized we could really improve the show and the listener’s experience once we recognized that the conversation needed to move from me to them, rather than from John to Emily and me.
AF/ Just as a quick follow-up on the Syria example, do you mean that the three of you truly don’t want to discuss it? When you select topics, does providing a distinct Gabfest conversational trajectory seem most important? Do you just decide: Nah, don’t want to do that one? Do you think: This conversation should happen, but should happen elsewhere?
DP/ Well, it’s obviously a world-historical event of tremendous importance. I think that in this case we are thinking partly of ourselves. None of us likes to talk about issues that we don’t know much about. Certainly John and Emily don’t like to talk about issues that they don’t know a lot about. We all feel unprepared. That’s not to say we couldn’t prepare—we prepare every week, and we definitely could prepare, but we are unprepared. And, more importantly, we just don’t feel that what we would say to our users, our listeners, would justify our taking 15 minutes of their time. They would be better served listening to the many podcasts that do talk about Syria with people who are experts on Syria.
One of the responsibilities of having a large audience that will listen to you is to be frugal with your audience’s time, and to only have conversations that you think are going to give them something which is worth the 15 minutes they’re going to give. We’re hyperconscious of that. If we had the right guest, we might do Syria, but, in a way, that gets to a whole other set of issues. We think the show is good, in part, because users have a trusting relationship with us. The way that people always describe it to us (and I know this from being a listener to other podcasts) is that they’re guests at a dinner party where a really interesting conversation is taking place with people who they really like. The podcast is almost a friendship with people they know and like, and so when we inject another voice into it, a voice that is an expert voice, this massively changes the dynamic. Sometimes that’s worth it, because it’s an important issue and we feel like we have to deal with it and we have the right expert who we know will play into the conversation really well. But most of the time we try not to have guests at all, because of our sense of how people experience the show. They want to be equal. They want to be participants in this intimate dinner with us.
And this is not the question you asked, but it’s a point that I want to make. I think the success of the Gabfest and other podcasts similar to us has a huge amount to do with earbuds. That’s because listening with earbuds is not an ambient experience. If you’re listening to the radio in a car or at home, it’s all around you, in some ways, but it’s not directly in your ears. When you listen to the Gabfest, in earbuds, it’s like we’re right there with you, and it’s an intensely intimate listening experience. We didn’t intend it or set out to do this, but we gradually realized that that’s how people listen, so we’ve adjusted ourselves to it. We try to make the feeling of listening, the feeling of being in a conversation, as intimate as possible for that reason. People are so close to it. And so I don’t think that when you talk about…when I hear the world “civic,” I tend to think of a large crowd, large audience, which is funny. We don’t really aim the show at a large crowd. We aim the show at one person. A single person listening on earbuds is the audience. The engagement we want with her, with that listener, is a really personal, intimate engagement. It’s not exhortative. We’re not speaking to the crowd. We’re speaking to her. I think you really catch the difference between a live show and a show we’re doing in a studio because, with a live show, we play to the crowd. It’s much more flamboyant, theatrical, and performative. Those are great shows. I love doing them. But it’s a totally different experience to listen to a live show than it is to listen to the regular shows.
AF/ No question. I’ll want to address everything you brought up there. But first, just to take a step back, to start to bridge maybe the intimate and the civic, I wonder if we could talk a bit more about different ways that a listener might engage and participate in your show. For some examples of what I mean, do you think of the Gabfest as a prelude to a listener reading or learning more about a topic? As a supplement to such reading? As a smart and efficient/sufficient substitute to more in-depth reporting? As a form of sifting through and digesting various perspectives on a topic? As a prompt to a real-life conversation your listener soon might have? As a surrogate for the conversation that people can’t, for whatever reason (no time, no interested or appropriate conversation partners), have in their own lives? And what other reasons for listening would you add to that list?
DP/ Those are great. I never stopped to classify. I think all of those are right on. Let me think if there are other ones. Maybe this is encompassed in one of them, but there are times when I feel that the purpose of the conversation is for us to create a safe space for people to have the fight they dare not have, or say the things they dare not say. Particularly with me, and sometimes with Emily, and just for the pure joy of having the fight, I willingly set myself up to be punched down.
AF/ Yeah, you’re generous with that.
DP/ It’s because I want to allow that conversation to play out, and show why this idea I’m offering, which is intuitively appealing, needs to be crushed. And sometimes I think the idea is a good one, and I just want to hear John and Emily spin it out. So there is a kind of intentional experimentation. I do think listeners appreciate that, and that may fit into a slightly different category.
AF/ And then, to get back to the civic and the intimate, I’ll try to give a slightly more detailed sense of how it feels for me to listen to your podcast. I want to see how this fits for you. It has something to do with finding the correct proportions on how to frame a topic. Or maybe I should compare it to mixing a music recording, fiddling with the dials, getting the volumes balanced right, giving the appropriate weight to all the different perspectives and ideas and voices and potentially competing concerns. I’ll hear you three address a subject, and I won’t want to be totally meek or passive when this present topic arises in my own conversation. And I won’t want to be a blow-hard. So I’ll search out the right proportions. That’s what impresses me most, I guess, when someone gabs well. Anybody could be an impassioned idealist, and rigidly argue his or her point. Anybody can be a pedantic know-it-all. But I consider it much harder to get the balance right between those poles, and add some sort of clarifying traction to a complex conversation. It’s especially hard, at certain points of life, to practice that skill, especially, as you said, on a touchy topic. So when you three take on such a topic, I’ll sense, most of all, you informing me by example about how to handle this many-headed hydra of a topic, how to handle the many-headed hydra of potential social implications within that conversation. For me, this experience feels both insular (intimate) and public (civic).
DP/ That definitely makes sense as an idea. I’m just trying to think of if, when I listen to other podcasts that are not my own, whether I perform the same action, and I think I do. One of the funny parts is that often things that John says are attributed to me, because we both have male voices. There’s a way in which, as people listen, sometimes they’re not hearing it as a distinct this position, that position, this position. It all sort of runs together. Obviously Emily is different, because people immediately know it’s her. But there’s a funny way in which we get the benefit, and sometimes the punishment, of the other’s position.
AF/ Yeah, I think of going to art galleries and not bothering to find out which artist made a given piece, but just taking it all in, and having your outing offer an overall impression, rather than these neatly compartmentalized bits of facts and information. And this is what I wanted to get to, in terms of live audiences and their experience of the show. When I try to clarify what I learn from a Gabfest episode, it typically doesn’t involve specific facts or a single persuasive argument. It has much more to do with how I ought to listen to a variety of voices on a given topic. For me, that begins to address the internal experience of the podcast— of listening on one’s earbuds. When I listen, I internalize all these voices, and I try to arrange them into a meaningful whole. That’s where the event of the Gabfest happens for me. So I can understand, for example, why listening seems important in distinction to watching. You’ve mentioned in the past how live Gabfests can be alienating for people who can’t attend, who have to listen at home. But I wonder if live shows can feel alienating even for someone who does attend. You three may seem in some ways much closer than ever to this audience, but all the sudden you three are also beings in the outside world, rather than voices in one’s head. The audience might become more aware of just passively sitting there absorbing stuff. Whereas, if I listen from home, it can seem like the four of us take part in a conversation. But it also can seem like I, by myself, am at least doing something, not just kicking back, if that makes sense.
DP/ I think that’s exactly what is happening. Those are three distinct states. There’s the state of I’m the fourth person in this conversation, and a lot of people describe to us that they’re actually talking back at us, that they themselves speak as they’re listening to us because they’re outraged or agreeing. They express that out loud, knowing, of course, that it’s ludicrous and that we don’t hear it. But, in fact, part of their experience is the dialogue they have with us. So that’s one.
I think the one you described, where it’s all internal to yourself, is another one. It’s not my own experience of the show, so I don’t know exactly how it feels, but I can see that. And yeah, I think the way you describe what happens with the live audience is right on. I think the live experience is fun for people. We are all theatrical and performative, and are willing to pander to that audience. We’ve actively pandered to the live audience, but it definitely creates a different kind of relationship with the listener and with a watcher than we have when we’re just doing it one-on-one. I think that the people who are watching us in a theater don’t have that feeling of being the fourth person in the conversation. They feel themselves to be part of a huge audience watching three people on stage.
There was this moment when Stephen Colbert came up and did a little guest spot at one of the live shows. I can’t remember if he did it live, or if this is just a conversation that he and I have had several times, where he talked about how he’d always avoided the live shows. But he didn’t want to be an audience member. He wanted to be a participant.
AF/ You also mentioned the deliberately casual nature of Gabfest conversations, in contrast to more canned forms of media. So how do people listen differently to the casual? Or what else helps to shape this deep emotional attachment?
DP/ Right. I think you hit on something which is really important: why is there the emotional attachment? One of the reasons we’ve talked about is the intimacy of the earbuds. But there’s also an emotional attachment because John, Emily, and I are so obviously emotionally attached.
AF/ You mean to each other?
DP/ To each other. We so obviously love each other, and so obviously are emotionally cathected with each other, so that you listen and know that you’re in a comfortable place of friendship and love. Some people want to join that, and they stick. Presumably there are people who feel like: I don’t like any of these people, and the fact that they like each other makes me dislike all of them, and those audiences don’t listen, or they listen and they’re turned away and don’t stick with it. You have to actively choose to listen to podcasts, so people only continue to listen if they feel love. I think other media are different. People continue to consume other media ambiently. With podcasts, you’re making a real affirmative choice each time you turn it on, and thus you tend to pick things you feel comfort with.
So I think one reason why they feel comfort and attachment is that we are obviously attached. Another reason is that…what’s the word when your beliefs are affirmed?
DP/ “Validated,” yeah. I don’t think we intentionally set out to validate people’s core belief-systems (and when I say “people,” I think of our audience as largely liberal, educated, urban white people). I don’t think we set out to validate that perspective. But one of the things that happens is that we do end up validating it, because there’s not that much of a range of opinion among us, particularly with the opinion holders, who are me and Emily. John doesn’t really express opinions. But one of the things that happens on the show is that I’ll set up some kind of argument which runs counter to whatever the liberal narrative is, and Emily (and sometimes John) will just punch holes in this counterargument and batter it down. So people leave the conversation thinking: Oh good, the opposition to our liberal opinions…
AF/ We triumphed again!
DP/ has been crushed, and I feel better about the world. I honestly think that kind of affirmation is part of what people like in the show. They like the idea that there’s a conflict, but we never have Paul Ryan join us. We have me channeling the little bits of Paul Ryan that I like, and then Emily cutting them down. Emily and John make the best cases. Emily makes the best case for the liberal perspective on a lot of issues. We don’t make the best case for the conservative perspective, and as a result it’s a very inequitable fight, where the liberal perspective generally comes out ahead. Again, this is not planned, but just happens, and thus our audience feels emotionally reassured by it. That’s a big piece of it. But, at the same time, they also feel (and this is why the show needs me): Oh, I’ve heard a bit of a fight. I’ve had the pleasure of at least entertaining the possibility that the case could be slightly different. Fortunately, we’ve come back to the correct perspective, but we were intellectually bold there. It’s very comforting for people.
So as you can tell, I don’t want to give ourselves too much credit, because I think that the result is often confirming what listeners already believe. To me, the best shows are the ones where we pick a subject (which isn’t political necessarily, or at least doesn’t have the natural political valences) and end up having a conversation where even we don’t know where it’s going. We have no idea what we think about it, and end up totally confounded or not in agreement. You can’t do that too much, either, because there aren’t that many issues on which we are all confused. But those ones I like, because there’s much more uncertainty. The thing that disappoints me about the show, sometimes, is that there’s more certainty about what the outcome is going to be than I would like, especially when you’re dealing with the shit-nightmare which is the current election.
AF/ Well, just in terms of your point right now, I’d say that maybe a liberal argument doesn’t always get so clearly validated, but that liberal rules concerning how a conversation ought to proceed do get validated. You, David, may offer an articulate conservative point of view, but you don’t just say, “Hillary Clinton’s a coward and that’s why the Middle East fell apart.” You’ll give a coherent, logically transparent rationale. In a world in which rational arguments get presented in this fashion, maybe liberals can feel confident in their position, but many contemporary conversations don’t proceed that way. So, likewise, most of your guests, regardless of the particular opinions they offer, do seem center-left, technocratic, argument-driven. Would it cause too much friction and dissolve listener trust to bring in guests who make their case in a different way?
DP/ We have an internal disagreement about that. John is extremely adamant that the show works best when it’s the three of us. Part of this is that John actually hosts a show filled with guests all the time, and doesn’t have the same need for guests that we might. I think he’s got a real point, though. I think it is obvious and evident from our experience that the overall thing that keeps people listening to us, as opposed to listening to all the other things they could listen to, or watching all the other things they could watch, is the relationship among the three of us. He’s absolutely right about that. My own view though is that we benefit from outside voices. I personally like it when the outside voices are a little bit off, when we have people who don’t play by the same rules and don’t play the same game that we’re used to. But we don’t do it very often, because John doesn’t like it. He’s right that listeners don’t want that week after week.
AF/ Or they can go elsewhere for that type of confrontational, liberal-versus-conservative discussion.
DP/ Yeah, and not even necessarily liberal-versus-conservative. There are people who are liberals who play in a totally different playground than we do.
AF/ Sure, and still just on this subject of your three voices: I don’t know if this comes across clearly when you tape the show, but I wonder if you can speak about your actual three voices. I mean their tonality. Emily’s voice is higher, and she’s often questioning and adopting a legalistic framework as her means of engagement. John’s voice is kind of in the middle, and he stays in the political middle on the show and performs the role of explaining rather than taking a side. I feel that you oscillate between a low contextualizing voice, opening up a conversation, and then a higher, more jocular, affectionately teasing voice, stirring up that conversation. Overall, I’d say that you’re framing, hosting, introducing, inviting. You’re pulling it all together. Do you think that the actual soundscape of the timbre of these three voices matters much? I’ll note a disruption in that perfect sonic blend when the Gabfest has a guest.
DP/ I totally agree. This is the portion of the interview which will sound even more egomaniacal than the rest of it. I absolutely think that’s the case. I think we each have a really good audio voice. Emily has a beautiful voice to listen to.
DP/ I love listening to her. She’s also such a clear thinker and speaker. John is similar. And I have a really deep, resonant voice, especially when I’m doing the lower and slower parts. People really like it. It’s got an ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) quality for a lot of people. I absolutely think those are critical tools. There are a lot of shows I give up on because I don’t like listening to them, to the sound of someone’s voice. That’s just luck in our cases.
AF/ Yeah, and high-pitched intro questions can sound desperate over time, so it helps that you ask the most intro questions. And then, to return to some interesting topics you raised earlier, here again with live events in mind, and how at first you three didn’t think of the Gabfest as performing for an audience: what untapped potential for the show became immediately apparent when you went live the first time? What unanticipated capacities did you immediately have to acquire for that live performance to work, and which of those did you then decide to bring back to the studio? Did the live performances make you more performative in the studio as well?
DP/ Yeah, that’s definitely the case. And again, this is going to make me sound like an egomaniac. I don’t mind sounding like an egomaniac! It reflects my actual personality. But there was something that clicked in all of us when we realized that actual human beings listened to the show. And it was not that they just listened to the show, but they were willing to stand outside in the cold by the hundreds, just for the chance to come watch us tape a podcast. It was a form of ego gratification, the likes of which I have never felt in any other thing I’ve done. Nothing else that I have done comes close to the sense of ego gratification I feel when I show up at a venue. Usually it’s not even when we go on stage. It’s when we show up at the venue, and you see there’s a line of hundreds of people waiting outside to come see us.
AF/ Like Beatlemania or something?
DP/ Exactly. It’s Beatlemania. So first of all, that made us aware. We felt a sense of civic responsibility to our listeners that we hadn’t felt before we started doing live shows. When we realized there were actual people listening who were giving us an hour of their time every week, I felt like: Shit, I owe these people something. Better not half-ass it. I better think of something that’s worthy for them. It serves as a reminder to not phone it in. It’s the most incredible part about this show.
We’ve been doing the show, basically weekly, for 11 years. That’s an incredibly long time for anyone to do anything with that consistency. And we would never have stuck with it if we didn’t have that direct connection with the audience that we get from doing the live shows, and then the feedback we get from that. It keeps our morale up. In terms of those performances influencing us in the studio, we probably do more light stuff or funny stuff than we would have without any live audiences. We definitely do it at the live show.
AF/ Pandas come up more.
DP/ Yeah, pandas come up. We try to have cocktail chatter that we know is going to make for a great live show, because we know it’ll be funny. And I think that’s also made the studio show a little bit funnier (we all like to joke around, so that probably would have come out anyway, since when you do something long enough, you can’t really hide your own self). And I can’t tell if we fell into the roles we’ve fallen into just because they are our actual selves, or because we see them work with the audience. I think we do it because we see that they work with the audience. So if you go back to the beginning of the show (and this is most true of me), I’m much less of an instigator and a jerk—that kind of provocateur. But also part of it is that I have a low threshold of boredom, and I need to keep myself entertained. One way I do that is by saying things that don’t make any sense, or just playing out crazy arguments in my head just to see what will happen. But part of it also is just that we’ve got the audience, and they want that. We could see this when we did the lives shows. We realized: Oh, these moments of Plotz’s combat with Bazelon, or John’s mockery of Plotz, work really well, so let’s try to find a way to institutionalize that. And again, we never had a strategy meeting, but…
AF/ It just happened?
DP/ It happens.
AF/ Well I find it admirable that you haven’t fallen into self-parody either, which, in terms of phoning it in, easily could happen. You also mentioned a couple times some questions of efficacy and efficiency with the show, like wanting to condense as much as you can into these 15-minute segments. And emotional attachments have come up several times. So, going back to the standard idea of wanting to be the guest at the dinner party, of wanting to be part of the conversation, should we address the fact that, in empirical terms, audience members don’t in fact participate? Or when you describe trying to pack a lot into this particular timeframe, I wonder about my own timeline as a listener and reader of news media. I spend about an hour of my day, every day, absorbing news. And often I’ll wonder: Why do I do this? If this activity was supposed to have some desired impact on me, why hasn’t that happened by now? Haven’t I already read enough and listened enough for one lifetime? So for a concrete question here, does the Gabfest ever feel like not the ideal form of political conversation or news show? Or when does listening to a podcast not seem like the right form of civic engagement? It’s definitely somewhat vague and unfair for me to ask this, so you don’t have to answer, but when do people listen for what you might consider the wrong reasons, especially in relation to emotional attachments?
DP/ I don’t think that’s the wrong reason at all. When you laid out the various ways people listen to the show, their modes of receiving it, the most tenuous is: I use this as a primary or secondary information source to understand the issues of the day. I’m not saying that you won’t get something out of the show that way, because you certainly will. But it’s a bank-shot effect, because you would get a lot more out of reading the New York Times for an hour, or listening to more intentionally dense podcasts or radio shows like All Things Considered. You would get a more substantive and thorough understanding of the news and even of the issues that we’re talking about.
So I don’t think our purpose is efficiency in the sense that we have to pack as much information into a show as possible. When I talk about efficiency and not wanting to waste the audience’s time, it’s that we have to give them the best use of their time—the thing that we do best. It’s much more about entertaining people. Hopefully, from that entertainment, we are giving them ways to think about issues, to argue about issues, and we are perhaps reassuring them that the world is comprehensible and that there’s a community of like-minded people around the world for them. It’s rarely about: We are using this to educate our listeners so they then can carry out action in the world around a particular issue. That’s not to say that this never happens, but insofar as listeners are explicitly educated by us, it is generally not intentional that we’re doing that.
AF/ Yeah, that makes sense, and that’s what I meant to say—that you want to distill the distinctive Gabfest experience into this compact span of time. And this distillation has much to do, as suggested earlier, with the particular friendship you three have, and with your sharing of that friendship with the audience (whatever “sharing” might mean here). We already have touched on this, but it works really well when you three disagree and get persuaded by each other. I would assume your audience totally projects itself into that, and your audience will say “David’s mean to Emily” and things like that. But we do sense a family-like form of trust in which this type of teasing becomes tolerable. And particularly with that sense of trust in mind, I admire your ability to broach difficult subjects together. A conversation about extremist religious violence came up recently, for example, in which you, David, made the point that, in most contemporary circumstances, such violence emerges in relation to Islam. You admitted that this was an awkward topic to address, and then everyone continued in that vein, acknowledging the awkwardness, but a non-polarizing conversation took place. Maybe, to some listeners (and given, say, anti-Muslim terrorist plots that subsequently have been uncovered), it would seem stereotypical and oppressive from the start to associate Islam and violence, especially since you could be misidentified as endorsing much more drastic and dangerous associations of a type we’ve heard far too often lately. But, to me, your collective approach seemed a reasonable one, in which you all relied on giving each other credit and the benefit of the doubt for what each other had to say. Any one of you could have decided to demonstrate moral superiority on the topic, and to distance him/herself from this association. Or you all could have pointed to an endless but overlooked history of violent Christian extremism, and proved your progressive bona fides and cut it there. But if you had done something like that, this would have showed, it seems to me, a lack of confidence in your own abilities to push beyond safe stances. This may have, from an audience member’s perspective, betrayed the friendship that you three possess and profess. So in what ways does your relationship with Emily and John push you to take concrete risks on the show? Would you three feel you had disappointed yourself and/or us if you didn’t try for something difficult and then work it out together?
DP/ Yeah, I think we would. We absolutely all feel that way, and I think it’s most true for me and Emily. One thing that’s happened is that, as John has become so much more expert about politics (he’s so far ahead of Emily and me on a lot of politics, especially in this election season), there’s a lot more explanation coming from him, so the risks that are put on him are less. There’s less occasion for him to have things that he needs to take risks around. But it is totally the case that we each look for ways to have those conversations, to press each other, and to get each other to say the awkward sentence or say the sentence that we’re afraid to say. We do it because if Emily says some crazy shit, she knows I’m going to make fun of her about it, and she knows that we’re then going to talk about it and maybe have a fight about it, but that it’s always in the context of a totally loving relationship, and that even if we finish by disagreeing, we disagree with a huge amount of clear respect and admiration for each other’s view, and an attempt to understand why the other holds that view. It’s never: you’re crazy, you’re wrong, or you’re morally incomplete. That allows us room to provoke without feeling like we’re being total jerks or ignoramuses about it.
For all of us, the intellectual purpose of the show is to play around with ideas that we otherwise don’t get to play around with. I have not even the slightest bit of interest in doing a show where I comment on the issues of the day. What has interest for me is to have some place where I can intellectually play around and experiment with people who I enjoy being with. That’s why we do the show. All of the other reasons for all of us are secondary. It’s an intellectual gym where we get to work each other out. That is what turns us all on.
AF/ So we ended up getting pretty Platonic after all. But in terms of more contemporary media, do you consider it more than coincidence that this show has become so popular during an age of social-media trolling and shaming? It seems like the Gabfest often presents the opposite phenomenon. On your show, a statement never gets taken without any context, with no embodied connection to the speaker, who then might get judged rashly. Or I’d assume the show’s listeners include many 30-ish/40-ish, semi-settled-down people. Do younger audiences, raised amid different forms of media, different types of conversations, have the same enthusiastic response?
DP/ I don’t know. I doubt it. The audience is definitely us. It’s people from 35 to 55. Not exclusively, but that’s definitely the sweet spot. I don’t really know about social media. All of podcasting is born in an age of social media. When this show started, in fact for its first four or five years, social media were not much part of our world.
AF/ Good point. But your performance of non-combative conversation really stands out right now. I’ve watched one YouTube video recording of a studio episode, and found it especially revealing to see how you’ll communicate with each other nonverbally—whether John will look at you or not when you ask him a question up close. Or I loved to see how, when you read a commercial, John and Emily are totally ready to take off a sweater, massage their eyelids, stretch their shoulder blades, check text messages. To close, and since you brought up gyms, could you talk about the muscle memory of the show? I don’t mean just in terms of strain or skills drilled in, but in terms of bodily ease, familiarity, comfortability, mutual receptivity, mammalian sociality. I wonder how much the three of you feeling relaxed, sitting around almost goofing off together (especially in relation to other professional roles you play) comes across, and contributes to your audience’s experience.
DP/ I think you’re being generous there.
AF/ In what regard?
DP/ A lot of the time when someone is sitting back in the studio, they’re just not paying attention to what…
AF/ That’s part of what I meant! The studio scene actually comes across as weird and dramatic when you watch it on video, because it will look like a body-machine has just been turned off. If you start talking over John, he might just slump, rest. So I’m saying that there’s this other sense of time that I only recognized when I saw you three in motion. I liked getting to watch once, and knowing I normally wouldn’t have to, and that normally you three wouldn’t have to be seen. But go ahead with what you were saying.
DP/ It is certainly the case that we like sitting in a room together, and being relaxed in the room together. We are uninhibited together and, because we’ve been doing this for so long, we know each other’s manners and patterns, and can help each other out. You can actually see that when we have a guest. The show stiffens sometimes because there’s another person literally in the room, in our space. It’s funny: I was at the Slate D.C. office the other day, working in the hallway right outside the studio. Inside the studio Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias and Sarah Kliff were taping one of their podcasts. Those three have been doing that show for maybe a year, and it was exactly the same kind of body language. Ezra was on his phone while Matt was saying something. It was clear someone was talking and the other two weren’t paying close attention. I thought: Oh, everyone just has the same habits on taping a podcast. They all do this. I’m not sure that we look any different than a lot of podcasts look.
David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura, a digital-media company devoted to celebrating and sharing the world’s most remarkable places. He is also host of the popular Slate Political Gabfest podcast. Before joining Atlas Obscura in 2014, Plotz was Editor in Chief of Slate for six years. Earlier in his career, Plotz was also Deputy Editor, Washington Editor, and Staff Writer for Slate. He also worked as a senior editor and staff writer for the Washington City Paper. He is the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife, the journalist Hanna Rosin, and their three children.