It’s been a difficult few months. Between Brexit and the emergence of what I heard one podcast guest this week describe as a “fascist tangerine” as a serious contender for the office of President of the United States, it would be understandable if every news-conscious individual spent the rest of the year hiding under a duvet refusing to look at the internet.
Yet I feel – and I know from my social media feeds that I’m not alone in this – a compulsion to try and understand. I want to know why events are unfolding this way, and more than anything I want to know how worried to be. Over the past four months, as my anxiety that despite her overwhelming competence and suitability for the role Hillary Clinton will somehow not win the election has increased, I’ve noticed my listening habits altering too. Podcasts have ceased to be just entertainment. They have become a kind of therapy.
The obvious place to get this is what I think of as the classic current affairs podcast, and the election has inspired some very good examples of it. These involve two or three people with specialist knowledge or access – usually journalists, but sometimes analysts or pollsters – together in a studio discussing the latest news. They might have a particular slant or area of expertise, but in general the format stays the same, barring the occasional phone interview with a guest based elsewhere.
Keepin’ It 1600 is, for me, the prime example of this. Its cast is made up of four former aides to Barack Obama – Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor – and they’ve been recording their mix of reassuring commentary and angry rants since the primaries. Despite falling foul of one of my cardinal rules of podcast listening (“try not to listen to shows with two male hosts who have the same name”) I’ve found their insights as former White House employees into the detail of stories like that of the Clinton email server investigations very valuable.
Slate’s Trumpcast is a good counterpoint to this, given its focus on one candidate and the constant storm that surrounds him. The format is slightly developed by adding a Trump impersonator reading out the Donald’s tweets, but otherwise it’s a standard discussion show. That doesn’t diminish its impact, though. Listening to a recent episode on the “alt right”, I experienced an utterly discombobulating moment when the guest, the National Review writer David French – who has experienced some extreme harassment from Trump-supporting trolls – mentioned that he is “a strong second amendment supporter”. He went on to explain that both he and his wife “carry a handgun” and that his older children, who are 17 and 15, “know how to use a gun”. Up until that point, I had been nodding along with all of French’s statements about Trump and the election, but at that moment the podcast gave me a sharp reminder that what I am prone to think of as a battle between “good” and “evil” is actually so much more complicated than that.
The third in my regular trio of classic-format election podcasts is the FiveThirtyEight Elections Podcast. Apart from a slightly more intense focus on polling methodology (never a bad thing, in my view), this one overlaps significantly with the other two. It’s the appealingly nerdy atmosphere that keeps me tuning in more than anything else. My colleague Jonn Elledge summed the show up best, I think, when he said to me recently that “they’re all so funny and nerdy and most of the guys sound like Kermit the Frog”. That, and the superhuman forbearance Nate Silver demonstrates as he patiently explains why certain polls are junk for the thousandth time.
The FiveThirtyEight Elections Podcast also touches on a growing trend that governs what I listen to: the tension between wanting to know everything, but also wanting to look away from the horror. At the end of every episode, they recommend a non-election related video to watch, in recognition of the fact that spending all day staring at a map that keeps slightly changing colour might not be a very healthy pastime.
It was this segment that first introduced me to the idea of podcasts as a form of election therapy. For both podcasters and listeners alike, the shows have become a space to bring your concerns and your thirst for knowledge, work through it, and then get on with the rest of your life. Nowhere is this idea better explored than in Election Profit Makers, a show hosted by childhood friends Jon Kimball and David Rees and produced by Mystery Show’s Starlee Kine. It is about the election, but it’s mostly about coping with election anxiety by betting on the outcome using the website PredictIt.org.
I asked Rees over email why it was that they started doing the show. “Jon was telling me about all the money he was making betting against Trump supporters on PredictIt,” he said. “I thought it was so interesting and funny and weird, I wondered if it could be a podcast.” As Hillary supporters from the key swing state of North Carolina, Rees and Kimball were experiencing a lot of election-based anxiety. Starting the podcast, Rees said, was partly a way of processing that.
“I wanted to make money and distance myself from the emotional cost of following the election,” he said. “Basically I wanted to put all my nervous energy into playing the PredictIt market, rather than freaking out about Donald Trump ending the American experiment via a catastrophic victory. Turns out I have enough nervous energy for both.” Rees isn’t sure that it’s working, though. “I can’t separate my anxiety about my PredictIt portfolio from my anxiety about making the podcast from my anxiety about the actual election,” he explained. “Suffice to say I am totally exhausted and completely out of shape.”
Election Profit Makers, as its hosts often remind listeners, is a time-limited series and will end the day after the election, when the PredictIt election markets pay out. The short run (17 episodes in total were planned) hasn’t stopped the show building up a community and a few in-jokes, though, making it an excellent one to return to week after week. It has the rollicking do-it-yourself atmosphere I remember from a lot of my favourite shows in their early days, before greater professionalisation arrived in podcasting. The most surprising responses they’ve had to the show, Rees told me, focus on Kimball’s pet parakeet, which is named Disco. Listeners make donations to the show to pay for “Disco pellets” so the bird has enough to eat.
Another way of relieving election stress is to become better informed. A brand new Buzzfeed podcast called See Something Say Something is seeking to do this in relation to the experiences of Muslim Americans – not least because of the horrific statements made by Donald Trump on that subject. Host Ahmed Ali Akbar told me over email that although this last year has been tough, long-running narratives such as the idea that Muslims ought to “apologise” for terrorism, also fed into the show’s creation.
“I think a lot of young Muslims have been disheartened by this election, whether that’s a result of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric or Clinton speaking about Muslims in a CVE [Countering Violent Extremism] framework,” he said. “More than anything, it confirms my feeling that interfaith and PR by Muslims has often fallen on deaf ears. That’s not to say that I think people shouldn’t stop doing advocacy and speaking up for Muslims – but I think we are ready to have things like See Something Say Something that are in our own voice, that isn’t designed as a response to terrorism or stereotypes.”
The show is an easy, amusing listen. Its discussion format is broken into different segments in a way that is clearly influenced by another Buzzfeed podcast, Another Round, and is all the better for it.
Akbar said he wanted “a space where Muslims can speak comfortably and in their own voice” but also “to complicate the notion of an American Muslim. We don’t all look like me (brown guy with a beard) or have a name like mine.” See Something Say Something walks the line between being informative without being patronising, too – Akbar doesn’t spend time explaining various aspects of his life or faith, but rather presumes that if listeners aren’t familiar with the various Muslim practices or terms he references, they can go and google it in their own time.
“I found that [in writing for Buzzfeed], if I was trying to capture Muslim readers, my writing was just as successful when I didn’t explain the concepts. Islamophobic harassment follows my writing everywhere, but I found that many non-Muslims enjoyed and learned from my posts, despite not understanding half the references,” he explained. “I decided to lean into the positivity, the laughter that I share with my Muslim friends and family when we’re not dealing with Islamophobia. I don’t think you get that if you worry about whether everyone will completely understand your jokes.”
For that reason, listening to See Something Say Something feels like a positive addition to the podcast therapy playlist. Making space in your schedule for a more nuanced picture of a group that has been so vilified in recent political discourse is unequivocally a good thing.
Getting away from screens and going outside is advice often given to those feeling anxious or overloaded. In the same way, mixing into your listening schedule some podcasts that feature something other than just people in a room talking is a very good idea. The archives of This American Life and Radiolab are groaning with good material of this type.
The “Seneca, Nebraska” episode of the latter is both a really good piece of radio journalism and also a way of better understanding what is happening in places we only hear about otherwise as stats in a polling round up. It features lots of conversations with people in just the sort of community that has turned towards Trump elsewhere – rural and formerly industrial, but in decline since a nearby railroad shut down – and tries to understand how the town moved from a few minor neighbourhood disputes to triggering a vote that would see it wiped off the map altogether. Listen to it, and it will help allay your fears that the same might happen to America next week.
Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or things I should write about? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.