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Podspotting: The 5 Best Political Podcasts

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Podcasts soundtrack your road trips, liven up your commutes, and number in the unimaginable thousands. Each week, Podspotting brings you interviews, commentary and general gabbing on some of the best and most fascinating dispatches from the new audio frontier.

You cannot cannot escape from campaign season 2012.

With the presidential election a scant two weeks away, that’s especially true for Americans living in a swing state like Ohio or Florida—those few fortunate enough to have a disproportionately influential vote and unfortunate enough to have to sift through a constant barrage of political advertising on television or elsewhere.

But not even those in the bluest or reddest of states can get away—not from the nonstop political chatter of friends and family on Facebook nor from the locally focused political ads blanketing everything from TV to YouTube.

You cannot beat back the political deluge. So you might as well join it.

With that in mind, this week Podspotting presents five of the best, sharpest, and most enjoyable podcasts about politics—podcasts to keep you informed, and, hopefully, to remind you that, even as shallow soundbites dominate the cable news cycle, there are in fact other sane, intelligent people out there.

Before we begin, a few notes: I made an effort to populate this list with podcasts that consider multiple political viewpoints, as opposed to those that are explicitly progressive or conservative. Also, Podspotting generally seeks to discuss and highlight podcasts that were born and raised as, well, podcasts—as opposed to radio programs that are also available as podcasts. But I relaxed that rule for this installment, because when you’re talking news and politics, there’s no getting around the fact that a lot of the best programs come from public radio.

Did I miss something obvious? Are you a political junkie with a favorite podcast that’s conspicuously absent from this list? Pop into the comments and let us know.

1) Slate’s Political Gabfest

A freewheeling, entertaining discussion from oft-contrarian online magazine Slate, Political Gabfest was launched in 2005, which, by podcast standards, practically qualifies it for AARP membership. But all those years have allowed the three hosts—Slate Editor David Plotz; legal correspondent, senior editor and Yale Law School senior research fellow Emily Bazelon; and Slate political correspondent and CBS News Political Director John Dickerson—to develop an easy rapport. Each week, Plotz, Bazelon, and Dickerson discuss, dissect, and quibble over some of the week’s major political news stories. It’s sort of like listening to three longtime political journalists’ friendly, albeit occasionally heated, cocktail hour discussion—only with Stamps.com sponsorship.

Political Gabfest (l-r): David Plotz, Emily Bazelon and John Dickerson at a live taping of the show. Photo via Slate/Facebook

2) NPR’s Intelligence Squared

Intelligence Squared began in 2002, as a London organization that staged sharply framed debates concerning major political controversies. Conducted Oxford-style, with a panel of two or three experts on each side of a given issue, Intelligence Squared attracted some prestigious personalities, including Tony Blair, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. The format has since been adapted for Australia, Hong Kong, Nigeria, and others. The United States edition is typically held in New York, where participants and audience members tackle weighty questions, ranging from “Should the government ration end-of-life care?” to “Does China do capitalism better than America?” In depth and often pointed, the debates make for fascinating listening, no matter where on the political spectrum you fall. And, like a true competitive debate, a winner is chosen at the end, adding a nice touch of gamesmanship to the proceedings.

3) KCRW’s Left, Right and Center

Left, Right and Center offers a less formal, more leisurely take on political debates. As the title suggests, every week the show offers someone from the center (moderator Matthew Miller), the left (generally Robert Scheer, editor-in-chief of liberal magazine Truthdig, which has its own solid podcast) and the right (often a rotating personality). Modern media queen Arianna Huffington was once a regular presence on the program, but even in the absence of her distinct views and even more distinct accent, the show has continued to flourish, with a lively half-hour discussion that tackles the week’s major news stories.

4) NPR’s It’s All Politics

There’s practically a goofy shrug embedded in even the title of NPR’s It’s All Politics. That winking irreverence carries over to the podcast itself, which finds NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving and Political Editor Ken Rudin rounding up the week’s political news with a light touch. The two co-hosts crack wise and share banter over the follies and foibles of the week’s newsmakers. It’s All Politics is far from essential listening, but it’s a breezy, fun 20 minutes of repartee from two very sharp political minds. Think of it as a nice digestif after other, headier political podcasts.

5) Dan Carlin’s Common Sense

Finally, when you’ve had enough of sober centrism—and the entire good-humored roundtable discussion format—and you’re ready to embrace the cynicism and frustration that often accompanies being a political junkie, then it’s time for Dan Carlin’s Common Sense. Carlin is the grumpy-but-all-too-often-right uncle of the political podcast world. A former radio host, Carlin’s weekly podcast finds the political independent taking aim at contemporary politics on the left and the right. Carlin’s a fierce and fiery critic, but one that tempers his often-blistering criticism—especially of partisan gridlock, growing federal power, and the corrupting influence of money in politics—with a sharp sense of humor. If you’re the type of political junkie who grumbles at both Fox News and MSNBC, and who switches off the presidential debate disappointed in both candidates, then Carlin’s grumblings and frustrations are likely to resonate with you.

Photo via KCRW’s Left, Right and Center