“Podcasting Is Just Radio Now,” claimed pod critic Nick Quah in New York magazine back in September. The piece bemoaned what Quah diagnosed as a growing lack of cultural and financial investment in narrative podcasting—the kinds of podcasts most good highbrow-ish media consumers would mention if you asked what they’re listening to: Serial, Missing Richard Simmons, Mystery Show, S-Town, maybe even Slate’s own Apple Podcasts Podcast of the Year, Slow Burn. Those “chatcasts” that Quah mentions are cast in the role of pretenders to the rightful aristocracy of narrative. The highly popular among them—The Joe Rogan Experience, Call Her Daddy, other chatcasts hosted by famous comics or actors—barely belong to the same genre as Serial, Quah argues. And their popularity is “rooted in the fungible power of celebrity.”
We love you, Nick Quah, and we love all you narrative podcasters, especially the ones at Slate. But reading this piece had the two authors of this article shaking our heads. “Podcasting is radio”? Great! The podcasts we love are mostly chat, featuring panels of hosts that are almost never celebrities or even comedians, covering news, culture, politics, or internet bullshit. The episodes are ephemeral, sure, and some chatcasts we’ve tried are painful to listen to (awkward, mean, or cranky in the wrong way)—but when the hosts are good, and they hit their stride, listening along offers a parasocial experience like no other.
Chatcasts don’t often make it onto the end-of-year lists, which is a shame, because they deserve it. Here are our top 10 (Slate’s own fests of gab disqualified, of course). And yes—we’re going to chat this through.
Rebecca Onion: Let’s start highbrow, with a left-ish chat pod about conservative politics that I know we both love: Know Your Enemy, produced by Dissent magazine and co-hosted by Matthew Sitman and his “great friend” Sam Adler-Bell. These hosts somehow manage to deliver a whole lot of philosophy, history, and politics in each episode, without getting bogged down or ever sounding like they’re reading Wikipedia (the curse of many a history podcast). Their tone is also very curious and open—a difficult thing, sometimes, given the subject matter, but essential to the listener’s enjoyment. This year, my favorite episode was their look back at Joan Didion’s conservatism, with guest Sam Tanenhaus. It was so good—very smooth and evenhanded, and packed with revelations.
Nitish Pahwa: Indeed, that episode taught me so much. All of KYE’s episodes do, really!
Another duo-hosted podcast that’s helped me to better understand North American conservatism and its history is the wonderful Sandy & Nora Talk Politics. Hopefully, more people understand now that while Canada is a lovely country, it is not some post-racial democratic paradise soaked in neighborly kindness and maple syrup. So I really appreciate Sandy Hudson and Nora Loreto’s frankness in explaining the more insidious elements of Canadian society and politics: anti-Black racism, government surveillance, police violence, transphobia, lack of sufficient climate action. In particular, if you want to get a sense of the troubling direction Canada’s government may be going, you should check their episode on Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative Party leader who could be their next prime minister.
Rebecca: Here’s one that I thought would be a bummer, but wasn’t. I did not see an episode of the ALAB podcast (it’s like ACAB … but for lawyers!) in my feed for a long time, and that had me quite concerned, because I enjoyed listening to this rotating cast of five smart attorneys explain ridiculous legal occurrences to me. When ALAB returned with Episode 27, “Coach!,” it turned out to be an interview with a colorful attorney (Edward “Coach” Weinhaus) they’d mocked on a previous show, who had threatened to sue them for it. They’d settled the case in part by agreeing to host Coach on ALAB. I have never heard such an awkward setup result in such a genial and genuinely interesting conversation! I almost didn’t listen, but I’m glad I did.
Nitish: I’ve never listened to ALAB but that sounds fascinating—I’m sold!
Regarding law pods, we gotta shout out 5–4, the self-professed “podcast about how much the Supreme Court sucks.” I’ve been devouring this show ever since its early-2020 excoriation of Bush v. Gore, a decision I will lament for the rest of my life. The pod, co-hosted by three incisive and hilarious lawyers and ex-lawyers—Rhiannon Hamam, Michael Liroff, and Peter the Law Boy—goes through the worst rulings in SCOTUS history, past and present. Nick Quah is also a fan, and he wrote in October about how the fall of Roe helped supercharge the show’s audience. No surprise: 5–4 released two episodes on Dobbs, one after the decision leaked, the other when it was confirmed, and they were incredibly cathartic listens during a grim moment. It helps that 5–4 knows how to reach the core of SCOTUS rulings: what they really mean, whom they’ll really affect. No doubt, the show will remain a necessary refuge during this shitstorm SCOTUS term.
Rebecca: This is an extremely dorky and stannish thing to say, but Rhiannon’s laugh? Stick it in my veins!
If 5–4 held my hand through big, awful national news in 2022, TrueAnon, a pod that started as an exploration of the Jeffrey Epstein case from the left, and features West Coasters Brace Belden and Liz Franczak, is a chat pod that fills in knowledge gaps. I really respect this show for 1) featuring a male-female pair of longtime friends as the hosts (that’s not common!); 2) great work by the off-mike presence Yung Chomsky, the producer who becomes a third character on the show without saying a word; and 3) really covering international news. A good example is this episode analyzing the election of BongBong Marcos and Sara Duterte in the Philippines. They had a great narrative series about the drug-rehab-turned-cult Synanon this year, but their regular, weekly chat pods remain the heart of my True fandom.
Nitish: Very much with you on those strengths of TrueAnon—Brace and Liz are an ideal pairing, and I love how they cover stories most other current-events chat pods don’t touch.
Another show that scratches a similar itch is Time to Say Goodbye, from Jay Caspian Kang and E. Tammy Kim. (Their onetime co-host Andy Liu said goodbye to the pod earlier this year.) Since its April 2020 premiere, I’ve appreciated TTSG for its willingness to tackle knotty topics rarely confronted elsewhere: the complications of cross-racial solidarity, Bill Gates’ cruel public health agenda, the ways historical events get misremembered, what it means to be a worker in pro sports. Kang and Kim also often record from cities like Mexico City and Seoul, with direct dispatches from the ground. TTSG is not a dour listen—it’s plenty of fun, too, with the hosts setting a solid balance between the troubling and the absurd. One perfect example is their episode with book critic Jennifer Wilson: How many other pods go from discussing James Harden to quoting Antonio Gramsci to exploring the often-shallow nature of racial representation on TV?
Rebecca: I also love TTSG. Just one more thing I have in common with Gary Shteyngart. But now let us go from this platonic high-low mix of TTSG to the delicious low-mid blend that is It’s Christmastown. This show—with Jeb Lund and a podcaster you and I will both listen to in any context, Defector’s David Roth—takes Hallmark Christmas movies as its topic. These smooth and shiny cultural objects are perfect for a chatcast’s level of scrutiny: They’re sublimely ridiculous, but they’re also beloved by so many Americans that they definitely mean something about American aesthetics and politics. I like how many recurring segments this show has—they help direct the chat and keep things moving without feeling too gimmicky. I recommend the most recent episode, with beloved online Swole Woman Casey Johnston there to offer commentary on a movie with a fitness theme. I know it’s Advent as we write this, but I’ve listened to these year-round and enjoyed them whenever.
Nitish: I loved Jeb’s old pod This Week in Atrocity, especially the eps with Roth as a guest. Those two are an irresistible combo.
Another irresistible combo: Scott Braddock and Jeremy Wallace, hosts of Texas Take. I have a special fondness for Texan writers—everyone from Larry McMurtry to Molly Ivins to Devin the Dude—and the guys behind this podcast are both incredible print journalists and absorbing conversationalists. The two have a sharp and no-bullshit view of their state’s history and politics, yet their affect is warm, welcoming, amusing, and comforting, even when the subject matter is deeply serious. Case in point: their summer episodes about the Uvalde mass shooting. Scott and Jeremy are professional journalists, but they aren’t afraid to make clear how they feel about certain developments, especially something as shocking and inexplicable as this. Their careful examination of the massacre and its aftermath, the questions that remained unanswered for too long, the overwhelming injustice and tragedy of what happened … I really needed to hear it from them during that awful, awful moment.
Rebecca: You taught me about Texas Take during midterms season and I was glad of it. I went to grad school in Austin, and the hosts’ Texas vocal patterns, especially Scott’s, give me super strong nostalgia, in a good way.
I feel like kind of a joker for going straight from Uvalde to the deepest variety of internet bullshit, but we need at least one comedy pod on here, and I’m going to tip my cap to Your Kickstarter Sucks, with Nashvillians Jesse Farrar and Mike Hale. They have been diving into Kickstarter’s depths like James Cameron into the Marianas Trench for a good long while now, but somehow they keep finding silly products that nobody needs to serve as the spine of this chat pod. I know a lot more about the devolution of Kickstarter in particular, and the toxicity of the American entrepreneurial spirit in general, than I would have if I had not had this podcast, but I’m not gonna lie and say that’s why I listen. I just like the capacity they have to turn every banality they encounter into wry commentary on the American soul. Plus, they live far enough away from Hollywood that you don’t get any of the boring butt-kissery that absolutely ruins other comedy podcasts where the hosts and guests have showbiz careers. And Mike’s helpless laughter is always generous. Their post-Thanksgiving episode, “Grandma’s Leg Washers,” is as good a place to start as any.
Nitish: There’s always a need for levity, and for comedic podcasts that have actual staying power and aren’t just friends chatting with friends.
In that vein, we can also happily recommend Michael and Us. Helmed by Canadian film and politics buffs Will Sloan and Luke Savage, this show launched in 2016 as a retrospective examination of Michael Moore’s catalog. (The name is a riff on Roger & Me.) But it’s since expanded to offer close readings of a startling range of global cultural products: Akira, documentaries about the First Nations, the video of Clint Eastwood talking to a chair, even the Obama-Springsteen podcast. Sloan and Savage have a delightful rapport, nonstop riffs, and a vast trove of historical knowledge. They’re also insightful cultural critics, as evidenced by their analysis of the classic film Network: The two go beyond the “Mad as Hell” speech in order to dig into the movie’s probing media commentary, its strange racial and gender dynamics, and the legendary Ned Beatty monologue.
Rebecca: I love Michael and Us, too, thanks to your recommendation earlier this year! A good vibe can get me listening to anything. And that, my friend, is why we chat.