Every four years, election season arrives to dust Americans with campaign attack ads, doomsday op-eds, and enough political memes to choke a donkey (or an elephant). The 2016 go-round has brought the conversation to another forum: political podcasts. And there's something for everyone -- whether you vote straight-ticket Democrat or think it's clever to write in the name of your pet. Here are the shows and episodes that earned our respect this season.
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Caucusing, Supreme Court appointments, delegate counts, fighting for Florida -- how did we get here? And what really matters? FiveThirtyEight's Elections has you covered. Talk that you take in your pocket, Jody Avirgan and Nate Silver's show drops the pretension and presumption that you know everything that's going on. Unlike polished, in-deep political writing, these guys use the lingo colloquially and casually, which only furthers listeners' education. Elections will supply the talking points. You can take all the credit.
Each episode of this Washington Post podcast profiles a different president, starting with George Washington and ending with the TBD 44th POTUS. Presidential's focus is the character of each leader, even asking the never-gets-old question to Julie Miller of the Library of Congress, "What would it be like to go on a blind date with this person?" As we move out of the era of glorifying the founding fathers -- the podcast doesn't flinch at taking shots at favorites like Thomas Jefferson -- host Lillian Cunningham reexamines the colossal figures of American history through research and interviews, which range from David McCullough to Jon Meacham. Our presidents were real people, and this show offers three-dimensional portraits.
When a politically volatile event lights up the national dialogue -- think Justice Antonin Scalia dying -- the hosts of PoliticalGabfest, New York Times Magazine's Emily Bazelon, Face the Nation's John Dickerson, and Atlas Obscura's David Plotz, jump on the issue with reasoned discourse. The show is the perfect marriage of pundit and political addict. Don't let the "gab" fool you either; the three-topic conversation can get prickly as the panel tackles everything inside and outside the Beltway with vigilance.
If you love geeking out on the minutiae of policy and politics, The Weeds is for you. Hosted by Vox.com's Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff, and Matthew Yglesias, the podcast devises realistic policy solutions to problems plaguing Washington. Whether it's tax reform or Medicaid expansion, the three explore the issues in a detailed, practical way, and are the first to admit when a solution is not politically feasible. The show tends to skew to the left, but the hosts do their best to beat back their own biases and offer honest takes on some of the most important political problems of our day -- and with the right amount of showmanship.
Judging by the vote, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's plan to build a wall along the Mexican border and make America "great again" resonates with voters. Reveal took it upon itself to investigate who the followers are, and how the anti-politician found his footing in the 2016 election. "Pumped on Trump" dives deep into Trumpmania, where political correctness is a failing, and apologizing is a sign of weakness. Are they talking about America or themselves? This revealing Reveal makes the case for both.
If Candidate Confessional had a theme song, it might be Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time." Each episode features a failed political candidate reflecting on the moment(s) when his or her election campaign fell off the rails. The show is rich with regret, and chock-full of remorse. Topics include Howard Dean's primal scream in Iowa that spelled the end of his '04 run and the time Tim Pawlenty smugly concluded, "Super PACs? They'll fade away like the morning fog," before Romney outspent him all the way to the Republican nomination. Candidate Confessional's politicians are on the other side of their careers, where voters don't really matter and truth can come out. In one episode, featuring Wendy Davis, who became a household name after she filibustered at the statehouse in Austin, Texas, over women's abortion rights, listeners can hear the disappointment in her voice over the choices she made in her failed run for governor. Politicians can be emotional, after all.
Though Bandwagon follows the campaign trail and supporters of Bernie Sanders, it also aims to expand the window through which we view Sanders' messages, and ipso facto, any politician's message. One episode discovers musicians who write Bernie-themed music. Another focuses on an immigrant family broken up by what Sanders supporters consider to be unfair immigrant policies. Bandwagon's human interest pieces serve as a reminder that policies have consequences and that every political story runs deeper than the politics at its center.
Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield think you can do better than 24-hour news churn. Their podcast On the Media pulls back the curtain on the biggest headlines, investigating the stories behind the stories. From the Zika-pesticide connection scare to the debacle over the Supreme Court nomination process, OTM endeavors to create base knowledge so listeners can devise their own opinions. The show features a diversity of voices and angles of a story, but don't expect Gladstone and Garfield to keep their opinions to themselves. When it comes to the spread of misinformation, they're mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore.
When it comes to the debt, politicians talk big talk. Yet, for as much as the conversation focuses on national debt, few understand how the country runs up the tab. The debt, despite some horrible PR, has a good reason to exist, as this Planet Money episode cleverly explains. For advanced students of government dysfunction, there's a history lesson on the debt ceiling, a policy that Congress has taken a shine to in recent years for political grandstanding. The episode also provides the answer to a perfect trivia question to fire off at people obsessed with spending: which president paid off our national debt? Planet Money excels in taking big-ticket economics and shrinking them down to the mom-and-pop storefronts. America is a giant hurdle, but one they easily jump.
Who better to unpack American politics than the president of the United States? Glenn Thrush sat down with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, snow falling on the south lawn, a scene he describes as very relaxed. So relaxed that you may want to listen to this episode at 1.5x the normal speed. Pace be damned, Obama offers fascinating advice for Sanders, Clinton, and even sage words that could help the Republican candidates. With so many talking heads clogging up the airwaves, dissecting every move each candidate makes, wisdom from someone who successfully ran a race for the White House is a nice alternative.
Walk-on songs are reserved for pro wrestlers, NBA and MLB athletes, viral weddings and, much to the chagrin of some artists, political candidates. We've all heard classic rock bands publicly shaming a political candidate for appropriating its music, but Switched on Pop takes it to another level. This episode breaks down the choices like science. On Clinton's choice of Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger," the hosts observe how the lyrics are, while well suited to recount her public history, an aggressive attempt to engage young people. New Jersey's Chris Christie faced a challenge when the public debated whether or not he is even allowed to patron Bruce Springsteen. Then there's the wonderful double entendre of Trump using REM's "End of the World." Switched on Pop provides political talking points for dinner-table conversation, as well as escape routes for a heated debate. There's a musical solution to every political debate: Adele's "Hello."
For the advanced political sect who scour every news source with two blaring televisions and a stream of Twitter political chat, The New Republic offers supplementary coverage through the lens of identity. The talk is serious, in-depth, and smart. Each episode is like a free master class in whatever the subject happens to be: black lives in Flint, Michigan, political fear-mongering, and the intricacies of Hillary's race are all topics of recent episodes. Intersection takes effort on the listener's end -- maybe not your end-of-the-day commute podcast -- but it will stimulate neurons, inspire curiosity, and blur traditional binaries.
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Eric McQuade, Laura Standley, and Devon Taylor run The Timbre, a site dedicated to the emerging art of podcasts. Follow the site on Twitter: @timbretweet.