In Pod I Trust

The Podcast Killed Kevin Williamson, But God Save the Podcast!

The week-long Atlantic scribe got done in by something he said on a podcast. There’s a reason—people are more open on podcasts. That’s just why we need them.

In the wake of Kevin Williamson’s being fired by The Atlantic (and also on the heels of the Bari Weiss controversy at The New York Times), a big debate about the utility of opinion columns is taking place.

In this milieu, a certain newsroom narrative has emerged that says media companies should “hire more reporters, not more opinion/take writers”—as The Washington Post’s Mark Berman averred (in what was, ironically, a pretty provocative “take”).

Part of this debate involves media outlets asking whether there is an audience for thoughtful, but not gratuitously provocative, takes. And the answer is yes. You just have to listen to them—not read them. 

That’s not to say that there aren’t still good columns and essays to be found. But it is to say that, the best place to turn now days for civil conversation and thoughtful commentary is not to the opinion section of your newspaper, but to iTunes or Stitcher.

“I’ve thought a lot about why podcasts—mine and others—have done so well,” says David Axelrod, the former senior advisor to President Obama who now hosts The Axe Files podcast. “What I’ve concluded, based on what people who download my podcast volunteer to me, is that they are hungry for an antidote to all the noise and the low-calorie junk food that litters the media environment.”

People hungering for a serious intellectual nourishment found it recently when Jamie Weinstein interviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates on the topic of race. It was a prime example of why the best opinions being expressed right now are happening not in print, not on TV, but on podcasts. And I’m not the only one saying it. “There’s not enough deep but respectful disagreement in political debate today, wrote The New York Times David Leonhardt. “The recent discussion between Jamie Weinstein and Ta-Nevis Coates is a welcome exception.”

“It was an absolutely fascinating discussion, just the right blend of civility and intellectual tension,” raved Jonathan Chait.

Podcasting still offers hope for more freewheeling discussion. If we can keep it weird.

The ability to have nuanced discussions, Weinstein tells me, is precisely why he decided to launch a podcast. “I really find podcasting more of an antidote to the soundbite culture of cable news, where debates are often artificial and outrage manufactured,” says Weinstein, whose eponymous podcast, The Jamie Weinstein Show, runs at National Review.

We’ve nearly destroyed all other forms of media. Maybe that’s why even the entertainment world is looking to podcasts as a source of fresh material.

According to Vulture, podcasting has “emerged as Hollywood’s hottest new source for material and intellectual property” because the “podcasting universe remains a creatively vibrant space where new ideas and creators can be tested in a marketplace with relatively little risk…”

Speaking of testing new ideas in the marketplace with little risk, a while back, Ezra Klein said that he is “willing to try out ideas here [on his podcast] and say things that are not fully thought through and make a mistake in how I say something in a way that I am absolutely not willing to do in other places where there’s a lot more drive-by reading.”

Klein’s theory is that people have to go out of their way to subscribe to a podcast, just like they once had to go out of their way to bookmark a blog before social media. In this paradigm, readers and listeners opt-in to becoming part of a community and, thus, are willing to grant the content creator a “more generous” or “contextual interpretation.”

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Jonah Goldberg, who cut his teeth blogging in the early days at National Review Online, is relatively new to the podcasting world, but agrees that podcasting “allows you to ‘think out loud’ in a way that blogging used to.”

But here’s where I’m starting to get a little worried. With this newfound popularity and attention, the danger is that the same pressures that have dumbed down TV and “think pieces” will eventually get around to destroying podcasts.

What is more, the idea that podcasting is a safe space seems to be either naïve or antiquated. After all, the reason Kevin Williamson got fired by the Atlantic is that his enemies dug up some controversial things he said during a 2014 podcast. And not to compare the two, but upon reflection, it was his appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast that was the beginning of the end of alt-righter Milo Yiannopoulos.

It’s probably fair to say that we all have to be careful what we say, regardless of the medium.

But podcasting can, and should, offer some good lessons for the political columnists (and, more importantly, their assignment editors) who are looking to remain relevant in a world where it is suddenly popular to hate on columnists.

Contrary to those who say that reporting is all that matters, there will always be a need for those who can help people analyze and contextualize the news—and for people who can challenge our thinking, and encourage us to think different. There will always be a place for people who want to have civil conversations with smart people (not just shouting matches).

Today, it is podcasting—mostly unsupervised, often a labor of love, frequently uninterested in ratings and revenue—that is providing the best content. The least professional medium is delivering the best product—which tells me that the problems with the “opinion” industry have a lot to do with business incentives.  

There’s a reason that former bloggers like Klein and Goldberg have evolved into podcasters. As Matthew Yglesias recently observed: “Remember blogs? We had a blog lineup and folks were just posting things totally unedited. It was wild.”

Yes, it was. And then the man figured out how to co-opt it and monetize it. And it’s hard for me to complain about earning a paycheck. But I suspect a lot of the criticism of our “think piece” culture is the product of business demands—not the wishes of columnists.

Maybe there’s something to be said about how the shift away from wild and wooly world of blogging to edited opinion journalism has cramped our discourse, limiting it to “acceptable” opinion that doesn’t offend the suits at The Atlantic.

Podcasting still offers hope for more freewheeling discussion. If we can keep it weird.