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A New York Times Election Podcast Returns to Life

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Not quite a trailer, not quite a full episode, the thirteen-minute long debut of The Run-Up released yesterday more resembles a mission statement. It begins with a ringing phone — the go-to mechanic for New York Times Audio to open scenes — and when it’s finally picked up, we’re made privy to the details of our host: Astead Herndon, the political reporter and emerging star at the Times who’s been popping up on The Daily and other corners of the Times audio universe with some regularity for a while now.

A woman’s voice comes through the other end. She’s older, coded as conversative (though where exactly she sits on the right-wing spectrum remains unclear); when Herndon explains that he’s trying to get a sense on what voters across the country think of politics these days, she’s initially reticent. The New York Times is too liberal for her, she says. But she’s willing to talk it out, and so they press on.

Since this isn’t quite a complete episode, we don’t get the full conversation. Instead, we shift into a montage overlaid with Herndon’s narration establishing the intent of the show. To paraphrase: the current state of the American polity is polarized, siloed, fraught, frayed, and simmering towards a boil. Surely you already know this. But as we barrel into the upcoming midterm elections, Herndon and his team ask: What if we pushed past the horse-coverage of the cycle to extract a broader, deeper, picture about what’s actually happening in this country and how we got here?

This is not a particularly novel question — it tends to be hemmed and hawed about every election cycle — even if most attempts at a sustained answer don’t end up meaningfully breaking through. And with The Run-Up, the New York Times Audio assumes a position native to the traditional news institutions: working from the belief that common ground can and still exists; that a clarifying and unifying political narrative can still be built from it; that this narrative, packaged by and delivered through this news institution, can somehow contribute to the stabilizing of the American societal fabric. I admire the belief in the first two things. I wonder about the feasibility of the third.

It’s been a while since the political podcast genre has taken center stage. The scene has been pretty much entrenched for years: Crooked Media as well as an ever-expanding universe of edgier podcasts on the left; Ben Shapiro and the extended Daily Wire universe on the right; election horse race-casts ebbing and flowing with the cycles; various politicians with vanity podcasts on the fringes; a vast spectrum of media companies and independent politicos scrapping for followings everywhere else. Being a traditional news organization with the most prominent audio operation in the business (NPR aside), the New York Times stands as the anomaly; since their entry into the format in 2015, they’ve always stood as having the potential to build something genuinely interesting and new — particularly with respect to long-form political audio documentary, a genre that only This American Life has explored with any regularity. (Customary reminder, at this point, that there’s now a formal link between the two operations: Serial Productions is now a New York Times company; This American Life has a marketing relationship with the Gray Lady; and former veteran TAL staffer Ben Calhoun is now the executive producer of The Daily.) The Run-Up, then, presents another shot at this specific goal.

You might recall The Run-Up has been around once before. The show represented the Times’ earliest stab at long-form audio reporting in the modern podcasting era, first launching back during the 2016 presidential election cycle and featured hosting duties, in part, by one Michael Barbaro. I tend to view that iteration of The Run-Up as a precursor to The Daily, which officially launched a few weeks after Trump’s win. I’m curious, and hungry, for The Run-Up to resume the project, if only for the promise to destabilize and revitalize the political podcast genre. And even if the project doesn’t ultimately do that, at the very least, it’ll formally cement host Astead Herndon’s status as a figure to keep your eye on.

The first full episode of the podcast dropped last week.

Meanwhile …

➽ Our fall podcast preview list is up!

➽ Did you hear that Björk has a new pödcast discussing the “discussing the textures, timbres and emotional landscapes of each of her albums”? Well, if you didn’t, now you do. And I’m pumped.

➽ The journalist Leah Sottile, of Bundyville and Two Minutes Past Nine, has a new project with the producer Georgia Catt that’s out this week: Burn Wild, which threads together a story of eco-terrorism, environmental activism, and the question of “how far is too far to go to save the planet?” I love Sottile’s podcast work, but you should also note that she has a new book out, When the Moon Turns to Blood, which has an associated story that recently ran in the magazine.

➽ Speaking of elections and politics podcasts, don’t miss FiveThirtyEight elections host Galen Druke’s Grub Street Diet. The guy’s a lovely writer.

➽ By the way, I recently spoke to NPR’s Neda Ulaby about a seemingly growing pop culture trope: the “morally dubious podcaster.” Full credit to Ulaby for coining the concept; it’s a good one.

➽ Another entry in the annals of true crime pods: Chris Dawson, the subject of the Australian series The Teacher’s Pet, was found guilty of murder last week. Dawson was initially arrested back in 2018, after the podcast, hosted by investigative journalist Hedley Thomas, drew attention to the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Lynette Dawson. The trial itself was a pretty sticky situation: as Caroline Crampton wrote in Hot Pod back in 2020, the publicity sparked by the podcast caused all sorts of complications around the possibility of a fair trial. And as The Guardian notes, the judge remains not too happy about that.

➽ In case you missed it, Jon Bernthal has a podcast, called Real Ones, and for one reason or another, Shia LaBeouf was a guest recently, where he alluded to the allegations of abuse from his former girlfriend, FKA Twigs. LaBeouf, as you might know, was also in headlines recently as part of the whole Don’t Worry Darling imbroglio that’s currently taking over my Twitter feed. Gotta say: that Olivia Wilde situation is some of the most interesting celebrity messes that’s popped up in a while.

A New York Times Election Podcast Returns to Life