As the medium has grown over the past decade, so has the desire among our current and former elected officials to get their news to you straight from the horse’s mouth, absent all the pesky perspective and context that journalists bring to the table. Even the normally staid congressional news site Roll Call covered the phenomenon in 2020, saying — sorry — that “Congress wants to get into your earholes.” Some of them are even quite successful: “Verdict with Ted Cruz,” co-hosted with the right-wing gadfly Michael Knowles, consistently ranks among Apple’s top news podcasts, as does the offering from his similarly loquacious former fellow senator, “The Al Franken Podcast.”
But are they any good? As POLITICO Magazine’s de facto podcast critic and somewhat of a guilty and reluctant addict of the medium myself, I set out to answer that question for you, dear reader, with a single-minded dedication: I spent an entire day, from the moment I opened my eyes to the moment at the end of the day when I stepped off the subway in my neighborhood and waved the white flag, consuming nothing but podcasts hosted by our democratically elected representatives. By my calculation I listened to 583 minutes of podcasting in a single day, or nearly 10 hours of programming.
I do not recommend that you do this.
The experience was not entirely without moments of joy or curiosity — although the extent to which this might be ascribed to Stockholm syndrome would require a trained professional to determine — but overall it was characterized by a crushing, mind-melting boredom. To understand why, first consider what makes podcasts enjoyable: an easy group candor and spontaneity, or a deeply specific subject matter expertise, or a willingness to ask trenchant, provocative, uncomfortable questions. In other words, everything an office-holding politician is not incentivized to do.
Still, the incentives for politicians to record these shows — to ingratiate themselves with voters, to simply try something new, to give interns a flashy media project to put on their resumes — are obvious. But they fail as entertainment because they’re at odds with the strengths of the medium itself. The most successful podcasters accomplish something that politicians cannot, no matter how hard they try: to be so consistently idiosyncratic, so personal (and personable) in their approach, that the listener develops a peer-like relationship with them, if only in their mind. To hear politicians try to do this is to better understand how they’re pulled by trend, ambition or mere curiosity toward means of communicating with voters that simply don’t work, and how they fundamentally misunderstand their role in creating the sense of community and social identity that podcasts engender.
Some of the greatest politicians in American history have been our most effective communicators, but the medium is at uniquely cross purposes with the role (and electoral demands) of a political leader. Which means that unless the office-holder you “stan” happens to be dropping new episodes on a weekly basis, there are very few non-academic reasons to tune in to these programs. To find out why, join me in these dog days of summer on a journey to the center of audio boredom, where we will learn about retinal implants, the relative merits of Robert Pattinson as Batman, a lot about the Detroit FBI field office for some reason and, hopefully, a little bit about the strange new media incentives that govern our politics.
To start my journey, I figured: Why not begin at the top, with the best, or at the very least most crowd-pleasing, America’s democratically elected representatives have to offer? It should be noted here that, in keeping with overall media trends that date back to the creation of political talk radio itself, the most successful podcasts by sitting office-holders are uniformly hosted by Republicans. As of this writing, not a single Democratic office-holder pops up on the top “news” charts published by Apple, Spotify or industry-tracking site Chartable, while Cruz and his fellow Texan Rep. Dan Crenshaw consistently rank in the top 100 (with an occasional cameo from Rep. Matt Gaetz, effectively more a media member than a politician).
True to right-wing media form, the first thing that greeted me when I pressed “play” on Cruz’s “Verdict” was the insistently cheerful voice of Liz Wheeler, the former One America News Network host and Cruz’s fellow podcaster on the conservative Soundfront network, imploring listeners to invest in gold and silver with their sponsor as a hedge against inflation. If you’ve done your time in the conservative media trenches, it’ll feel just like coming home.
“Verdict” has a bone-simple structure, executed with high professionalism: Knowles, the Daily Wire podcaster and professional troll, tosses up the day’s outrage chum for Cruz to leap out of the water and sink his teeth into, Free Willy-style, delivering the same kind of lawyerly stemwinders about the evils of Democrat rule that he’s prone to launch into on the Senate floor when the cameras are rolling.
If there’s an interesting dynamic it’s in hearing Cruz walk the tightrope between affirming his outrage at the conspiratorial, deep-fever-swamp content in which Knowles is clearly steeped and his desire to remain a somewhat mainstream politician (and presumably credible presidential contender), something of which he mostly acquits himself well — although one tirade about the perceived iniquity of that FBI field office in Detroit seriously tests the listener’s patience.
And occasionally, something like an actual conversation does break out: One recent episode ends with a casual aside about Texas barbecue in response to a listener question, where Cruz admits to his modest grilling skills before accepting an inexplicable compliment from Knowles about how “manly” it is to simply make a dinner reservation instead.
Overall the experience was about as enjoyable as you would imagine it would be to listen to Ted Cruz speak for three straight hours. So I moved on to his fellow Texan and chartbuster, Rep. Dan Crenshaw, and the contrast was immediate: Instead of a pump-up-the-base outrage hour, “Hold These Truths” is a mellow, chatty interview program, where one episode will feature a Houston-area bioengineer describing advances in brain-machine interfaces like retinal implants that might ostensibly benefit Crenshaw himself. Another might feature Crenshaw’s buddy and fellow Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher gabbing about the CIA’s “remote viewing” experiments, or the relative merits of different “Batman” incarnations. It’s not unlike a decaffeinated version of “The Joe Rogan Experience,” a non-scholarly but deeply curious person trying in earnest to educate his listeners. That’s not to say that the program is utterly lacking in partisan or ideological content; it features plenty of slaps at Bidenomics and “wokeness.” But its lack of stridency and Crenshaw’s easy nature made it the most enjoyable listen of the day.
The next program on the list was entertaining enough, if you’re among the faithful — Rep. Matt Gaetz’s “Firebrand,” where the Florida congressman gets a jump on his future as a Fox News host by monologuing at length about the evils of the college-educated elite and the Democrat deep state’s desire to spy, Stasi-style, on its political dissenters. He also invites on utter loons, like the former Trump administration staffer and full-time conspiracy theorist Darren Beattie, to lie on their backs in the grass and point out menacing shapes in the chemtrails overhead.
If you believe in every one of Gaetz’s premises, it would be only right and natural to remain outraged on the edge of your seat at the ongoing law enforcement-led fascist coup overtaking the country. But to let in even a crack of doubt transforms Gaetz, “Wizard of Oz”-style, from a new-American paladin into the tedious bloviator he obviously is.
It’s very easy to understand why this form of right-wing talk is successful in meeting a market demand. But elected Republicans, Gaetz included, are stymied in satisfying the hardest-core consumers of conservative media — see Cruz’s labored detours away from conspiracy, or Gaetz’s wincing insistence that he’s a “little more optimistic” than a guest like Beattie with his bloody visions of a liberal coup, or Crenshaw’s personable unwillingness to simply bash away at the Democratic piñata, Limbaugh-style.
This is not a partisan exercise, however. Far from it. The Democratic podcasts I listened to were for the most part even less enjoyable than their Republican counterparts, the inherent sterility of a politician-led podcast ramped up to 11 by the hyper-professionalism and rhetorical piety that define the party in its modern incarnation. By the time I crossed the aisle, so to speak, in the early afternoon, I was desperate for a change of scenery — something to break the monotony of stale Nancy Pelosi jokes and when-we-beat-them-in-November, get-out-the-vote politicking. Be careful what you wish for.
It started off promisingly enough, with “The Al Franken Podcast” from the former Minnesota senator. Franken is easily the most talented and experienced broadcaster of this bunch, an Emmy-winning former “Saturday Night Live” writer and, notably, two-time Grammy-winning orator for the audiobooks of his pre-Senate political tomes. Franken is personable, in his deeply prickly way, and isn’t afraid to crack wise at the expense of both himself and his guests — as is on display, for example, in a meandering but winsome anecdote about a now-forgotten late-2016 gaffe committed in front of Mark Liebowitz.
Unfortunately, the format hems in even Franken, especially as he contemplates a political comeback. The most recent episode of the program, an interview with two authors of a recent book about George Floyd, features an audibly tentative and awkward Franken as he clearly strains to defer to his guests and avoid saying anything that might inadvertently result in a second cancellation. It’s a textbook case of an older, white, male liberal navigating the rhetorical minefield of a world very different from the one in which he came of age — not without pathos, but not exactly an edifying interview, either, as the authors are teed up for nothing beyond the stock book-tour pitch.
After spending a couple of hours with Al, for reasons of scarcity I went back into the archive and re-examined “The Defining Decade,” a forward-looking miniseries produced in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election by now-Secretary of Transportation (and obvious presidential-ambition-harborer) Pete Buttigieg. He is often maligned among young progressive-leaning voters, unfairly in the opinion of some podcast reviewers, as an automaton, or some genetic experiment by McKinsey & Company to see how much cringeworthy earnestness it can pack into one person while maximizing shareholder value. He doesn’t do himself any favors in that department as a podcaster.
The quotient of “Democrat-speak” — a commonly-used term for the kind of stilted, platitude-ridden, focus-grouped rhetoric that many credit for dragging down the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign — reaches dangerous levels with, well… his series-closing interview with Hillary Clinton, 34 tooth-grinding minutes of mutual compliments and wonk-talk that evaporate from one’s head instantly upon entering the ears. If you are the kind of person for whom deep enthrallment at a conference panel is the norm rather than the exception, run, don’t walk to listen to this conversation.
Surely it was educational for Buttigieg to hear Clinton’s pointers on exactly what he should hope or ask for in his secretarial brief, and the former First Lady and Senator has authentic experience to bring to bear. For anyone else, however, it’s deadly. If Buttigieg, who truly can be engaging in his own right, hopes to hone his skill as a retail politician, he would do well to listen back to most of these conversations as an example of exactly how not to capture the attention of the American people.
The overall impact of nearly 10 hours of politician-generated audio entertainment was, predictably, exhausting. I wasn’t quite prepared for an entire day of listening to speech that was carefully crafted not to make any news. So why do they do it?
It’s too glib to simply say that politicians podcast because modern media incentivizes them to create a “brand.” After all, the vast majority still don’t, and plenty of them thirstily build that brand by other digitally assisted means on Twitter, TikTok or elsewhere. Podcasting politicians most likely choose that format because of what it implies: A learning and bonding experience, where important information is passed along to the listener like a friend or peer invited into the room to share in the discussion. At their core, podcasts exist to fill space and make us feel less alone, like the radio programs of Delilah and Art Bell before them.
Politicians, definitionally, cannot do this — they are precluded from the level of candor and personality necessary to forge that bond by the demands of their office. Even Obama couldn’t do it. But listening to Ted Cruz, or Pete Buttigieg, or the hosts of any of the podcasts in my regular rotation for hours on end doesn’t make them my actual friends, and if podcast listeners are completely honest with ourselves we don’t retain or learn half as much from them as we think we do, even from the most ostensibly informative ones.
Each effort thus far has been a failure, then — but a joint failure. Politicians are incapable of rising to the level of personability necessary to make a great podcast, yes. But even the best podcasts don’t ultimately deliver what we want from them: A sense of connectedness and community; to know fundamentally that we have a friend.
That sounds a lot less like something that can be accomplished by entertainment than… well, a political project. We don’t need politicians to be our time-wasters or our educators or our friends. We need them to lead, and to use the power they actually do have to build a world where we feel more connected in real life.