Slow Burn is set for a return to politics. Earlier this week, Slate announced that its popular documentary podcast series has begun production on its fourth season, with a subject that, yet again, runs straight through to the current political moment: the political rise of David Duke in Louisiana in the ’80s and ’90s, a saga in which an overt white nationalist and former KKK leader made strong pushes for senatorial and gubernatorial positions.
The announcement comes after a successful third season that saw the Slate podcast shift gears genre-wise to focus on one of hip-hop’s biggest tragedies: the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. Hosted by Joel Anderson, the Biggie-Tupac season has brought in over 7 million downloads to date. The eight-episode run wrapped in mid-December, but Anderson is currently getting ready for a brief five-city tour, where he and his production team will stage a completely new episode for live audiences.
Anderson will, however, be taking a break for the fourth season. In his place will be Slate national editor Josh Levin, who is taking over reporting and front-of-mic duties, with Christopher Johnson returning as producer. (The show’s first two seasons were helmed by Leon Neyfakh, who currently works on Luminary’s Fiasco.) There’s no clear release date for Slow Burn’s fourth season just yet, beyond a broad “later this year” description. But it’s an exciting announcement nonetheless, one that comes at an equally exciting time for the Slow Burn franchise: On February 16, the TV adaptation of the podcast’s first season will hit Epix, with Neyfakh once again playing host.
Vulture checked in with Slate’s editorial director of audio, Gabriel Roth, to learn more about the return to politics, the upcoming season’s choice of subject matter, and the creative constants of the Slow Burn enterprise.
Vulture: So, why David Duke?
Gabriel Roth: Well, one of the things that Slow Burn does is find the stories from the past that are broadly known in summary, but maybe not deeply remembered the broad audience. Particularly stories that have a connection to what’s happening in our world in our politics today. And when you’re thinking in those terms, there’s no more important story right now than the resurgence of white nationalism, not only as a popular phenomenon, but as something with a presence in mainstream politics at the highest levels.
David Duke’s Senate campaign in 1991 is one of the foremost examples, within our lifetime, of that type of outspoken white nationalism making an incursion into mainstream American politics.
And so the story is a really gripping one, which we hope people will be hooked by the details of. There are also lessons for us, of course, with connections to everything in the present from how the Duke campaign was handled in the media to how the institutional Louisiana Republican Party responded to the rise of this populist outsider. It’s all very palpable.
Tell me about the choice of having Josh Levin lead the upcoming season.
Josh has been a crucial part of the making of Slow Burn since the very beginning. He was the editor on the Watergate season, along with both the other seasons we’ve done. The way he thinks about reporting where he thinks about storytelling, about gathering and presenting information, really informs everything we’ve done under the Slow Burn banner. You know, he’s been podcasting for a long time, almost a decade, mostly through our sports talk show, Hang Up and Listen. He dipped his toes fronting a scripted narrative podcast with a series based on his book, The Queen, which came out last year, and after that, he was looking around for what would be his next project. So he was really a natural person to head up a season of Slow Burn.
And he has a strong connection to this story, in particular, because he’s a native Louisianan. For instance, he would see David Duke campaigning at LSU football games, and as a member of the Jewish community in Louisiana at the time, I think the threat of David Duke’s rise in local politics was a very urgent and frightening presence in the background of his life. This is a story he had always wanted to tell, and it felt like Slow Burn is the right form for him to do just that.
I was a little surprised to hear about the show coming back to politics, given that the third season choice to go after the Biggie-Tupac story felt like Slow Burn being able to stretch out what it can be. But at the same time, it does feel like a return home. How did you all think through the decision?
I think that’s about right. I mean, our hope is that we’re gonna make a lot of seasons over time. Some of them will be political, and some of them will not be political. All of them will involve stories that are widely known, but shallowly understood.
Really, we didn’t think about this strategically in the sense that, “Well, we’ve done two that were politics and one set within the entertainment industry, now let’s do another politics one, and the one after that will be sports.” Not to suggest that the next one will be sports, but just to name another category.
We think more in terms of “What’s the best idea on the table for next season? What’s the one that feels most urgent right now? What’s the one we’re champing at the bit to do?”
Seeing as how Slow Burn is generally designed to speak to the present moment, do you get any anxiety over the fact that it can take a long time — months and months — to get these seasons out?
Oh, sure. I mean, that goes with the territory of doing things that are more ambitious and needing the kind of lead time we’re talking about here. I think everybody who spends time working on something, whether it’s a novel or a movie or a narrative podcast, they’re placing a bet on the future — on what the world is going to look like when you’re ready to show a thing to people.
How was the third season received, given its shift away from politics? What do you think about that experience?
It came out great. The audience was great, and we got a lot of terrific feedback, which we are pleased about. We knew going in that it was going to be a switch from the first two seasons — we had a different host, a different kind of story — and so we weren’t expecting the big fans of seasons one and two to be identical to the big fans of season three. I think some people jumped off the train and others jumped on the train, people who were interested in the history of hip-hop and in the Biggie-Tupac story specifically. We found out that a bunch of people came to it because they were interested in the Biggie-Tupac story and ended up going back through the archives. That was gratifying.
After building two seasons with Leon Neyfakh, who basically invented the show’s format and brought a tremendous amount of talent to the show, it was really interesting to work on it with Joel Anderson, who has an overlapping but different set of skills. Part of the work was extracting what aspects of Slow Burn was continuous regardless of the story we were telling or who was telling it, and what aspects are specific to particular seasons. That was a really fun puzzle to work through.
And how would you describe those continuous aspects?
It’s about recapturing what it felt like to live through these events, what it felt like to follow them in real time. Whether it’s Watergate or Biggie-Tupac or David Duke, there’s a sort of package-received capsule version that most of us carry around in our heads. But when you unpack that, it’s much more complicated and interesting, and there is a way of unpacking the story to mimic a feel for the audience that they don’t know how it ends. I think people respond to that really strongly.
Do those elements carry over to the TV adaptation?
You know, I wasn’t really involved in making the TV version. I looked at some scripts and saw some early stuff, but that’s about it. But I do think they did a great job of taking the work we did in the first season and recapturing the same sense of surprise and unpredictability, twists and turns. But it’s hard for me to watch it without comparing the thing to the audio version I have in my mind. It’s not a great position to assess how effective it is for an audience that hasn’t heard the podcast. I just hope a whole new set of folks are gonna watch the show and hear Leon tell the story, have them gripped in the same way that the podcast audience was.
What’s Joel up to now, as Josh breaks ground for season four?
We’ve got the Slow Burn season three tour is coming up in February: four live shows in New York, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles, plus an appearance at South by Southwest. So Joel is preparing for that. It will be an entirely new story that adds to the podcast and features a bunch of great guests who he’ll interview onstage.
That’s where Joel’s head is right now. And then after that, we have a short list of topics for future seasons that we’re interested in and he’s going to do some research on. We’ll spend some time talking about that. But, really, he’s going to take a break after the live shows, because he’s been going pretty much full tilt since we started up season three in the fall.
Any hints about what’s on the short list?
Well, if I tell you, then somebody else might go after them first. I mean, nothing good would come from me talking about right. So, nah.
So, there’s a meme that pops up among certain Twitter circles: Sometimes, there’s a crazy piece of political news, and someone will go “Slow Burn Season 46,” or something like that. First of all, how do you feel about that? And second, do you see the news these days through the Slow Burn lens?
Firstly, I love it. Obviously, I like it when things we make exist in people’s heads in a way that occurs to them when they follow the news or look at Twitter. Yeah, it’s very satisfying.
On the other thing … yeah, no, I’m not scripting the Trump administration season of Slow Burn in my head. But sometimes, something smaller will jump out at me from the present. Like, I can imagine WeWork being a great season.
The Trump administration just feels too big right now. Now, if, you know, in 25 years, we’re in a position where there’s still a podcast industry and enough of a civilization to make it possible to look back at the Trump administration and break it up into an eight-episode script, then I’ll consider that a great success for the human race.
Well, there’s always Quibi, which will definitely be here in 25 years.
Right. It’ll be seven minutes on the Trump administration, and then seven minutes on which of your relatives to eat first.