Pod Save Us!
I have seen (and heard) the future of political commentary – and it is ‘Pod Save America’.
This follows a recording I attended a few days ago, in London of the US-based podcast which was in the UK as part of its, ‘Pod Tours the World’.
‘Pod Save America’ is leading the audio arm of the ‘resistance’ against the Trump White House, and the Congressional Republican Party which has replaced conservative principle with hard right opportunism.
The podcast was begun just over a year ago, by a bunch of thirty-something former staffers from the Obama White House – Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor, and Dan Pfeiffer.
The format is simple. The hosts cover the latest US political news through quick fire notes on events of the past few days. They provide an intelligent, caustic, hilarious and sharp-eyed commentary about the – beyond satirical – state of the American government.
They are uninhibitedly partisan wearing their liberal credentials as a badge of pride, and bringing political heft to their perspectives having worked at the highest level of government. But while they rail against the actions of the right, they can also be also critical of those on their side of the aisle when occasion demands.
Pod Save America is not just ‘infotainment’ it is also an unashamed call to action for volunteers, donations, and support around the country.
Their formula has won mass audiences – an estimated 1.5 million listeners per episode – and has spawned spin-off programmes, including ‘Pod Save the World’ and ‘Lovett or Leave it’, both of which are also compulsive listening.
I began following Pod Save America while living in the US, and became rapidly addicted. But having moved back to the UK I have only listened intermittently. Attending the recording in London, was a reminder of the programme’s potency and importance, and the power of podcasts in connecting with audiences.
The event was held in a packed 1000 seat auditorium normally used for sober classical music recitals. The audience was overwhelmingly composed of T-shirt clad millennials – a demographic that until recently was notable for its political apathy. When Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor emerged on stage they were greeted like rock stars, the audience whooping and hollering before the hosts had uttered a single word.
There followed an hour of chat, commentary and banter between the hosts and with members of the audience that hovered in tone between hilarity, anger, seriousness, and celebration. The programme delivered success in every way – entertaining, informative and motivational.
In many senses ‘Pod Save America’ shouldn’t work. Individual episodes sometimes run for over an hour, diverting into conversational non-sequiturs. The presenters don’t follow scripts, instead work off briefly sketched bullet points. Guests – may or may not – be part of the show, and when they are, interviews are often conducted on crackly phone lines. But the programme not only works – it thrives on the beer sipping spontaneity, wit and insight of the hosts.
And therein lies the key to its success – the chemistry of the presenters, combined with their grasp of the subject matter and their understanding of what the listeners wants to hear. People have not come for measured commentary, but for the sense that they are privy to an honest, opinionated conversation. F-bombs abound, along with scathing verbal take-downs, and authentic emotion.
‘Pod Save America’ has undoubtedly been aided by the uniquely unsettling and bizarre presence of Donald Trump in the White House. It is an unanswerable question as to whether the podcast could have achieved success if Hillary Clinton had become President, but it’s fair to assume it would not have won such widespread recognition.
There is no real UK equivalent to ‘Pod Save America’ in tone or audience size. But sitting in the midst of the London gathering were Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd – presenters of its closest British podcast relation.
The former Labour leader and his co-host present ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’, a programme that is billed as being ‘about ideas’. In reality, it’s about political alternatives to the current inequalities and injustices of certain aspects of British life – in transport, salaries, tax and more. It may sound dry, but Miliband and Lloyd deliver up analysis with witty asides, sharp observation and much self-deprecation (a very British ingredient).
‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ has reportedly gained a substantial and growing audience and proves – in the British context – that there is space for opinionated, partisan and intelligent political audio programming.
After the recording of ‘Pod Save America’ the feeling was of being uplifted and motivated. The presenters are succeeding in winning audiences as well as new recruits to the political fight in the US. The question is if that that same formula can also work on this side of the Atlantic.
But there is one certainty – podcasts are becoming the stage upon which the ideas and passions of our febrile times are being played out.
Richard Miron (@richardmiron1) is Founder and Director of Earshot Strategies