READING + RADIO: Slate Political Gabfest

Slate Political Gabfest Emily Bazelon John Dickerson David Plotz

Permanent Campaign

It is a long running joke of mine that I stopped watching American sitcoms when I started to tune in to American politics. The perrmanent campaign has come to pass. Political commentary in the USA in print, on the radio, television and internet is pervasive, seductive and all-consuming – a talking head industrial complex.


I was easily drawn in since I had enjoyed social commentary for years. However my radio entertainment was brought to an abrupt end by my introduction to the Mosaic web browser in 1995. It was not until 2002 when I purchased an external hard drive with built-in controls that this began to change. That hard drive (and it really was one) was Designed in California, built in Asia and marketed by Steve Jobs as the iPod. Things truly were never the same. With 10GB storage the iPod inhaled my entire music collection. A self-confessed fanboy I followed every Apple announcement and watched every Stevenote religiously. In the summer of 2005 Apple introduced iTunes support for podcasts. Radio was back!

Prime Minister’s questions

The US online magazine Slate produces a range of podcast roundtables or “gabfests”. The Slate Political Gabfest was the first and remains the most popular. I consider it one of the best podcasts available in any genre. It is first and foremost about intelligent discussion and debate. In the UK I found and had taken for granted a healthier, more spontaneous and intellectually stimulating political climate than I had observed in the US – in print (yes, even some of the tabloids) and on television with the gauntlet thrown down to leaders every week in Prime Minister’s questions and challenging interviews in the studio (ok, Paxman can be a bit extreme!). Quality came through the personalities involved. The Gabfest is similarly blessed.

John, Emily & David

Hosts John Dickerson, Emily Bazelon and David Plotz are individually impressive but together create 45 minutes of chemistry that is hard to beat. It is not really fair to summarise their personalities in one sentence but I’ll try it anyway:
  • John is the uber political journalist of the three (chief political correspondent at Slate and political director of CBS News) – highly knowledgeable but increasingly over-cautious in his statements, often twisting himself into contortions to convey a point without setting a trap for himself. More about John.
  • Emily (senior editor at Slate, and a senior research fellow at Yale) reminds us why our political representatives are called law-makers – ultimately setting the stage for day to day life in the country through their powers to create, alter and influence laws. More about Emily.
  • David (Editor of Slate and founding staff member) often brings balance and focus to the scene, holding course during the varied discussions. More about David.


Completing a virtuous circle the show attracts an intelligent selection of guests and range of audience (though I make no claims for myself!). The audience contributions become apparent through the hosts’ responses to listener emails, lively debates on their Facebook page and direct feedback in their occasional live sessions. The show usually follows a format with three topics for discussion followed by the cocktail chatter, more freestyle with a typically lighter topic initiated by each host. One curious element is the advertising. It is common for hosts of independent, advertising revenue-dependent podcasts to read advertisements themselves, seamlessly lending their credibility to the product/sponsor and magnifying the promotion’s effectiveness. The hosts of the The Slate Political Gabfest are all hold senior positions at Slate and elsewhere, giving their sponsors a quite unique (and risky) credibility boost. Not surprisingly Slate’s advertiser’s pay most for podcast time.

Gabfest Live

American Politics

Even though I have never lived in the United States, its political and economic power demand attention from a global audience. It is impossible to take the temperature of world affairs without having some feel for the state of American politics. This matters whether you are client facing or job-interviewer facing, for the internationally mobile young graduate or the aspiring micro-multinational entrepreneur. Architectural education typically does not preoccupy itself with matters of the political/economic sphere yet this is exactly where we find ourselves when exploring the roots of the current architectural malaise – unprecedented unemployment and lack of opportunity for young/emerging architects coupled with the declining social relevance of those gainfully employed. I probably do not need to advise against hopes of politics offering a utopian alternative. In many respects the American political system is broken and the state of political journalism reflects and reinforces that. In fact The Gabfest is, for me, the last man standing. Over the years I have dipped in and out of the likes of Meet The PressMaddowOlberman and others by video podcast, and sites such as Drudge Report, the Huffington Post and many many others. Life is short. On balance I found the entire talking head spectrum, with a few exceptions, to be a waste of my time. Naturally The Gabfest still wins me over and I can also recommend Inside CFR Events (Audio and Video, from the Council on Foreign Relations) and the Global Public Square otherwise known as “Fareed Zakaria GPS“.


China is remarkable for the number of senior political positions held by engineers. Perhaps the profession is most appropriate for the country’s development priorities. While politics and economics must be allowed to inform our architectural agendas perhaps architects must play a greater role to inform the political ones. In November 2012 former RIBA President George Ferguson was elected Mayor of Bristol on a platform of change through development. There have of course been other famous (and infamous) architect-politicians who have made an impact in both fields, including Thomas JeffersonAlbert SpeerJaime Lerner and others. Their contributions, for better or worse, have been direct. The architectural system has become increasingly detached from the priorities and values of wider society. If we are to emerge from the current malaise it will begin with a re-assessment of our roles and what this means for how we educate and generate employment – how we become more socially useful directly and indirectly. This cannot be achieved without a greater understanding of the political and economic forces in play.

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