the industry

The 2016 Election Shaped Podcasting. Will Podcasts Shape the 2020 Election?

The hosts of Pod Save America. Photo: Courtesy of Crooked Media

Three months before the 2016 elections, iTunes welcomed a curious new addition to its podcast charts: With Her, otherwise known as the official podcast of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

Technically, With Her wasn’t exactly the first of its kind. John Edwards, the former Democratic senator who embarked on failed White house runs in 2004 and 2008, is thought to be the first presidential candidate to have started a podcast back in the prehistoric days of 2005. But the Clinton pod was unprecedented in that it was substantial. For one thing, the episodes were expertly made, having been produced by Pineapple Street, the noteworthy podcast studio. Furthermore, the podcast also actually drew some press attention when it came out. Slate called it “charming and gutless propaganda.” Politico regarded it as yet another gambit by Clinton to avoid the press. Wired characterized it as Clinton’s attempt to appear … chill.

In hindsight, With Her is a fascinating artifact. It’s a unique document of a well-known politician in the midst of an active presidential campaign that they would, of course, go on to lose. It was also the capstone for what turned out to be a significant moment in the contemporary rise of podcasting.

The 2016 presidential elections kicked into high gear about a year after Serial’s myth-making debut season, and the news moment offered a wide spectrum of media companies an opportunity to try and catch the emergent podcast wave. The producer Jody Avirgan, then with the stats-driven FiveThirtyEight, had described the situation pretty succinctly at the time: “There’s this perfect storm of people who think that podcasting is an easy money thing, and there’s big news cycle event coming, and so they just put the two things together. I’m sure if this was Brazil and the World Cup was coming up, you’d see a lot of World Cup podcasts.” Such were the conditions that led to the flourishing of the election podcast subgenre.

But while the 2016 presidential election cycle was consequential to podcasting, the impact going the other way around is less clear. Has podcasting become big enough to shape election politics?

By the time With Her hit the podcast charts, there was already a bumper crop of podcasts from myriad media sources serving up episodes that rounded up and analyzed the latest election news. There was Slate, one of the earliest institutional players in the podcast space, with the Slate Political Gabfest (the O.G. of the format) and later, Trumpcast, an early progenitor of the Trump-focused subgenre-within-a-subgenre. Politico had its own insidery show called Off Message, while the Washington Post sought to get in on the action with Presidential, which promised stories told through a historical lens. Meanwhile, conservative-leaning #NeverTrumpers longing for the older days of politics could find solace in Radio Free GOP with Mike Murphy. Polling nerds had their pick between the FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast or The Pollsters. Public media lifers had the NPR Politics Podcast, which would interestingly become a staging ground for the organization’s future front-of-mic talent (such as Sam Sanders), while those a little tired of the whiteness of it all could find some value with Politically Reactive, which features comedians W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, or Futuro Media Group’s In the Thick, hosted by Maria Hinojosa and Julio Ricardo Varela.

Some of the podcasts that debuted during this time would directly contribute to the creation of major audio businesses we know today. In March 2016, The Ringer’s then-nascent podcast network introduced Keepin’ It 1600, which featured two former Obama staffers behind the mics, Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, joined later by fellow Obama alums Tommy Vietor and Jon Lovett. In the wake of Trump’s victory, three of them would go on to create Crooked Media (with Pfeiffer still a regular presence behind the microphone), thought to be one of the bigger podcast companies today. That same month also saw the launch of Chapo Trap House, nowadays known as the pillar of the Dirtbag Left. Several months later, the New York Times would introduce The Run-Up, an election podcast that gave America its first taste of future voice-of-the-paper Michael Barbaro.

The 2016 election season, fueled by the insane pace of Trump news cycles, also pushed podcasting to become newsier. In quick fashion, the election podcast sub-genre came to normalize the concept of the “emergency podcast,” challenging the default broadcast radio mindset of prioritizing a rigid weekly publishing schedule. In order to adequately address the “everything is happening all the time” news environment, these podcasts leaned into the on-demand nature of the medium to hit audiences with information as quickly as they could after processing it.

The final month leading up to election day was a particularly formative period in this regard, with the FiveThirtyEight Elections and NPR Politics podcasts — which had both become quite popular by that time, with the latter hitting one million unique listeners per week — formally switching to a daily publishing schedule to cover the home stretch. It can be hard to remember now, but the very idea of a podcast publishing every day, let alone a “daily news podcast” a la The Daily, was still a somewhat novel concept back then. Indeed, you really don’t get this modern age of daily news podcasts without the innovations of the 2016 election podcast subgenre.

Whether all that actually contributed to a more informed electorate is subject to debate. Indeed, some would even argue that the opposite was true. Shortly after the elections, a reporter named Josh Nathan-Kazis argued in a Twitter thread, perhaps understandably, that the elections podcast subgenre was distinctly the wrong format for the moment. “The intimacy inherent to podcasting made them addictive: Hang out with the smart kids each week and they’ll tell you all you need to know,” he wrote. “It turned out the smart kids were wrong. Some were flagrantly, smugly, obnoxiously wrong. Others were a bit wrong. They weren’t uniquely wrong. But there’s something about that intimacy that makes their particular wrongness feel almost like a betrayal.”

As strong as that feeling of betrayal may have been, however, it didn’t end up killing the format. As a Trump victory turned into a Trump presidency, the election podcast subgenre gave way to a new generation of political podcasts, one that was set up to cover the infinite news cycles of the weeks and months and years to come.

Cut to the present, and the podcast world is now bigger, richer, and more established. At the New York Times, The Run-Up paved the way for The Daily, nowadays a formidable revenue engine and fashionable public face for The Gray Lady. Crooked Media is now a huge multi-platform enterprise, anchored by a flagship podcast called Pod Save America, which doubles as both a vehicle for liberal political discourse and a counterpoint to the vast galaxy of right-wing talk radio.

Meanwhile, the relationship between politics and podcasting has become noticeably deeper — and not to mention, more complicated. Joe Rogan, the prominent podcaster controversial for his “freethinking” disposition whose reach is widely believed to be substantial, was recently treated as a significant political voice, with his endorsement of Bernie Sanders becoming the subject of voracious debate. Similar treatments have been applied to Chapo Trap House, which in recent years has become increasingly taken as a viable window into the mindset of the enthusiastic Sanders base.

The presence of politicians in podcasts has also become more of a thing. In April, a communications adviser to the Buttigieg campaign told CNN’s Reliable Sources that she felt podcasts were “underappreciated” and “really hot right now,” which probably explains Mayor Pete’s appearances on two Vox podcasts: The Ezra Klein Show and The Weeds. The wildly improbable, long-shot candidacy of Andrew Yang lasted into the first stages of the primaries, with his success being attributed in part to a fluency of digital communities, including those of various podcasts. (Yang had appeared on Rogan’s podcast last February.)

None of this stuff with politics and podcasts is new, of course, but it’s never felt more substantial. And as we head deeper into the 2020 election season, it seems like we’re set to relive a few things. We’ve already seen the flourishing of another subgenre: the impeachment podcast, which drew participations from WNYC (Impeachment: A Daily Podcast), BuzzFeed News (Impeachment Today), NBC (Article II: Inside Impeachment), and CNN (The Daily DC: Impeachment Watch). Even two Republican figures have gotten into the mix: Ted Cruz (Verdict With Ted Cruz) and Rudy Giuliani (Rudy Giuliani: Common Sense). Now that the impeachment process is officially over, many of these podcasts will likely switch gears into election-coverage mode, bringing us full circle back to the days of 2016 election podcast.

Like the world around it, podcasting has changed since the last presidential elections. The medium reaches more people, arguably possesses more power, and feels more integrated with broader media diets than ever before. But the big question remains: Will these podcasts actually contribute to a more informed electorate this time around? Or will they simply exacerbate the noise?

For the most part, the 2020-minded wave of election podcasts doesn’t seem to be fundamentally different from the wave that came before. There’s just more of it now, a conspicuous fact at a time when there has never been more suspicion of “The Media.” Most of these podcasts look and feel like the subgenre did four years ago: rich with roundtable discussion and punditry, grounded in a sense that maybe they’re just speaking to audiences that already believe in them.

If there is any glimmer of genuine evolution, it can perhaps best be found in a podcast like Stranglehold. Produced by a small team at New Hampshire Public Radio and launched in the run-up to the New Hampshire primaries, Stranglehold is an audio documentary that sought to ask basic, fundamental questions about why things work the way they do. For them, that meant asking why their state, the very small and very white New Hampshire, gets to hold so much power and influence over the nomination process?

The podcast is sharp, critical, and thrillingly unflattering. Lauren Chooljian and Jack Rodolico, the tag-teaming hosts, don’t pull any punches in their interrogation of the mythology around the New Hampshire primary, eager to point out its absurdities and the inequities caused by its existence. They received considerable antagonism for their efforts. The podcast received criticism and pressure from the state’s powers that be, including the state’s leading newspaper and secretary of state, and, as they told the New York Times, the team soon found themselves losing friends.

But by taking a huge risk and standing their ground, Stranglehold ultimately captured a changing spirit of politics as it was happening. This is, after all, the presidential cycle that had a high-profile Democratic candidate, Julian Castro, openly question why New Hampshire, along with Iowa, gets to wield so much power. This election podcast stood out, not just because of what it was able to do, but because of what it said about the work that’s still to be done.

Will Political Podcasts Affect the 2020 Election?