Q&A With David Plotz, Co-Host Of The Slate Political Gabfest, On The Podcast's 10-Year Anniversary
January 12, 2016
Few podcasts can boast that they have been around for a decade, but The Slate Political Gabfest just celebrated its tenth birthday. I have been a fan of the popular podcast for many years, so I asked David Plotz, one of the co-hosts, to reflect on the show's success.
1. The Slate Political Gabfest just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Tell us how the idea for the show came about.
Andy Bowers came to Slate from NPR to help figure out an audio business, and he cottoned on to podcasting almost the moment it began. One of his first ideas was a political show, but with the participants talking in the way they might in a bar after going on a cable news show. He tried out with a few different people at Slate, and then in late 2005 / early 2006, there began being a regular lineup of John Dickerson, Emily Bazelon, and me.
The chemistry worked with us: We were friends in real life, so we got on well. We had different areas of expertise: John, politics; Emily, law; me, nothing. And we were happy to mix it up with each other, and play around with each other. One of the reasons the show developed a natural rapport was that we assumed no one was listening. So we literally just sat around a table and chatted. Sometimes one of us would take a phone call. Or we'd start talking about some random other subject. It was so loose, and so conversational. Listeners felt like they had stumbled into a real conversation - because they had. Also, I think listeners really appreciated the thinking-out-loud nature of the show. We often puzzled out our own views during the course of the conversation, and frequently changed each other's minds.
By early 2006, it had regularized, and from there we grew.
2. For people who are unfamiliar with the show, tells us about each of the co-hosts and the format.
Emily Bazelon was formerly a legal writer at Slate, and is now a senior writer for the New York Times Magazine, a book author, and a teacher at Yale Law School. John Dickerson was formerly Slate's Chief Poltiical Correspondent, and is now host of Face the Nation, a writer for Slate, host of the Whistlestop podcast, too. I was formerly the Editor in Chief of Slate. Now I am CEO of Atlas Obscura, a digital media startup.
For the format of the show, we have three topics that we discuss for about 15 minutes each, reacting to the week's political news. One is usually straight up politics. One is often legal / judicial. And one is a wildcard. Then we have a segment called Cocktail Chatter, where each of us riffs on something briefly. It might be recommending a book or movie. It might be a weird story we read. It might be a rant.
3. What was the podcasting landscape like when the show launched? How has it changed?
There was no landscape when we launched. There were barely any podcasts. I didn't even listen to podcasts until five years after we started doing the show. But now, of course, everyone has a podcast. Your cat has a podcast. And there are lots of great political podcasts, some of them very much like ours, some of them stuffier.
4. How has the show changed over time? What has stayed the same?
It's surprisingly consistent. We have been doing three topics and cocktail chatter pretty much since the beginning. I took over hosting from John about five years ago, because it became clear that, since I don't know anything, it was weird for John to be asking me questions when he had the answers. The show was getting creepingly longer for awhile, but we stopped that expansion. And about 18 months ago we added a Slate Plus segment - a bonus segment for Slate Plus members.
5. How is the podcast received by politicians and other political journalists? Has that reception changed over the last decade?
I don't think it has a strong profile among politicians who, as far as I can tell, can't tell a podcast from an earmark. Journalists have long been a core audience for us - journalists discovered podcasts earlier than the general public, and I think journalists loved the totally straightforward, conversational nature of the show. There is so little artifice compared to other kinds of punditry, and they appreciated that.
6. When did you know the show was a success?
For me, there were a couple of moments. The first was in 2008, when I was walking down the street in Columbia, Missouri - a city I had never visited - and I was having a conversation with my friend. A person near us, without breaking stride, pointed to her earbuds and said, "I'm listening to you right now." Since that time, I am recognized by my voice at least once a week wherever I am. Which is weird!
The second was in 2009, when we almost carelessly decided to tape a version of the podcast live in Washington, D.C. during Obama's inauguration week. We booked a theater and invited listeners to come, and we received nearly 2000 RSVPs! It was bananas.
7. Periodically, Slate hosts live versions of the Gabfest. What is involved behind the scenes in those events?
We now do about four live shows a year, and have probably done 30 in all, everywhere from Grinnell, Iowa to Boston to San Francisco. We've done a ton in Washington, D.C. and New York City. We've done them in churches, bars, synagogues and Broadway theaters. They're delightful for us, a chance to interact face to face with people who know and really like us.
There's actually very little behind the scenes, since the live show is more or less the same as a regular show. We may look for funnier topics, since funny does well live. And we generally do a cocktail party with fans before or after the show, which is at once superfun and exhausting.
8. Slate has launched several other podcasts, eventually giving rise to the Panoply Network. Tell us about that evolution.
Slate bet early and heavily on podcasts, and around 2013/14, it was clear that the bet was paying off. Ad rates were rising. Listenership was rising. There was a surge in interest in doing podcasts. And so in mid 2014, around the time I left Slate, Jacob Weisberg, Andy Bowers, and Brendan Monaghan decided to build a quasi-independent podcast venture to produce and distribute podcasts for others, and to sell them. I don't work at Slate anymore so I don't have details, but from what I am hearing, Panoply is thriving.
9. You have a very famous fan: Stephen Colbert. Tell us how that relationship developed.
We discovered this around 2011. I was in my office one Friday afternoon, and for some reason we had taped the podcast on Friday morning rather than Thursday afternoon, so it went out to listeners 12 hours late. My phone rang. I picked it up, and the voice said, "This is Stephen Colbert, and I'm calling to complain that you posted the Gabfest late this week, and so you made me look stupid in front of my staff at our Friday meeting."
My response was, "This isn't really Stephen Colbert." But it was. He had tracked me down. It turned out that a producer of his, Allison Silverman, had turned him on to the Gabfest and he had become a superfan. A kind of crazy fan. I don't know if he still listens - he's busy - but for years and years, he listened to every show, and remembered everything. John, Emily, and I struck up a friendship with him. He cameo'd at a live show a couple years ago - a surprise cameo - and has been to another live show. He snuck a Gabfest reference or two into various segments on The Colbert Report. He's a lovely, lovely man, in addition to being the funniest and most talented performer in the world.