Talking about the news with your friends in 2019 can be embarrassing, tedious, and alienating. Discussing political news in particular — whether we’re “weighing in” on the latest Trump scandal or offering some warmed-over, vague analysis of the Democratic race — makes most of us sound like basic jerks, playing at pundits because we want to feel less passive in the face of chaos. This is one reason why news and politics podcasts have grown so popular since Trump took over: Not only does listening to them give us ideas for cool stuff to say later, it also soaks up some of the social energy we feel compelled to devote to processing this relentlessly historic era.
Of course, news and politics have been providing the raw materials for podcasts since long before Trump. And in many ways, the formal evolution of podcasting as a whole has been pushed forward by producers and hosts trying to come up with new and creative ways of talking about the news while keeping its audience engaged. Insofar as most podcasts are fundamentally journalistic undertakings, it’s because they provide a unique — and uniquely pliable — vessel for news coverage.
As reflected on this list, a news podcast can do its thing in a variety of idioms. It can take the form of an ensemble-led talk show, a story, a magazine, or — more simply — a conversation between two people. Yet what they all arguably have in common is the expectation that they will be consumed by people who are focused, motivated to understand events they can’t control, and — this sounds darker than I mean it to — moving through the world alone. That’s the cliché podcasters like moi are constantly throwing around to justify our existence: that podcasting is a distinctly intimate medium, that people form a special connection to podcast hosts because they have us in their ears while they’re walking around and living their lives.