Mike Pesca, surrounded by a phone playing The Gist, a microphone, sound waves, earphones, and another picture of Mike Pesca with a microphone.
Mike Pesca’s podcast, The Gist, celebrates its fifth anniversary. Photo illustration by Slate. Photographs by Holy Polygon/iStock/Getty Images Plus, alice016/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and Lisa Larson Walker/Slate.
The Gist

The Gist of the Past Five Years

Mike Pesca on what he’s learned about digital journalism from doing the longest-running daily news podcast.

Listen to The Gist in Apple Podcasts, another podcast player, or the player below.

Every weekday for the past five years I’ve hosted The Gist, the longest continuous daily news and analysis podcast in existence. That’s a lot of gist. So much gist, in fact, that it raises the question: Can there be such an abundance of gist that at some point it ceases to be gist and starts being superfluity?

The answer is yes, I hope so. In fact, that’s the idea.

“The Gist” is an excellent name from a marketing perspective, but I’m not sure it’s the best description of a program that has recurring segments on storytelling, the pop charts, scientific hokum, epistemology, vexillology, bears, and occasionally bear vexillology.

I don’t know how to make a show by guessing what the audience wants. All I can do is imagine what I’d want if I were in the audience and then pursue that. It seems like it’s been working—I frequently listen back to an episode and say to myself of the host, “This guy thinks just like me!” Although occasionally I listen back and think, “This guy’s totally wrong!” Those are strange but exciting moments.

The success of The Gist is due partly to good fortune, partly to smart strategy, and largely to great producing (from the likes of Andrea Silenzi, Mary Wilson, Chris Berube, and the current team of Daniel Schroeder and Pierre Bienaimé). But I also have to give credit to the medium itself. When I started The Gist, I hoped podcasting might preserve the intelligence of NPR, my old employer, while jettisoning many of the hidebound strictures that sometimes make public radio feel stale. In fact, it delivers much more than that—more erudition, depth, honesty, humanity, and connection than any other medium around.

Podcasts can even be a tonic for the toxicity of social media. It’s not that podcasters are better people than broadcasters or Instagram influencers. (Actually, as far as Instagram influencers go, yes, podcasters are better people.) But podcasting benefits from what some consider its flaws: Podcasts have a high bar to entry; they take a long time to consume; they’re hard to share. These traits cause great distress to some of the people who are attempting to shape and “improve” the industry: I’ve never been to a podcast conference or strategy session where the question “How do we make podcasts viral?” isn’t on the agenda. But these perceived flaws have insulated podcasts from the excesses of the synoptically twitchy media world. Instead of clickbait, canceling, targeting, data mining, tracking, and trolling, the biggest problems in podcasting are excessive ads for online postage services and improv experiments that should have been edited down.

And the most insidious content you’ll find in the world of podcasting is a fringe character or charlatan being given an audience by a curious but credulous comedian. Putting aside the occasional odious booking like Alex Jones, a podcast like Joe Rogan’s does a service in giving a variety of smart people plenty of room to be smart.

Within the past month and a half, Rogan has had five guests on his show who’ve been on The Gist. All of them gave good interviews for my audience, and good interviews of a different kind for his. On a per-minute basis, I’d recommend my interview with Nicholas Christakis, but for pure tonnage I can’t criticize anyone who’s down for Rogan’s 2½-hour chat with the Yale sociologist. And think about that: The most popular podcaster in America just spent 2½ hours in conversation with a Yale sociologist.

Podcasts aren’t perfect. For one thing, it seems like there are more podcasts about murders than there are murders. And I wouldn’t call a medium mature when the default way to open a show is a meandering 15-minute monologue about the host’s current mood, what he’s been up to this week, where he’s playing upcoming dates, and how much he’d like a review on iTunes, which will help others find the show. (By the way, reviews do not help others find the show.)

There are plenty of left-wing podcasts and right-wing podcasts and feminist podcasts and bro podcasts; there is a dearth of informative podcasts cross-pollinated by panelists with differing opinions. The editors of National Review have a great podcast on which they talk to the editors of the National Review, and the journalists of Vox have a similarly erudite podcast on which they talk to journalists at Vox. It is all but inconceivable that the twain shall meet. The fellas from Pod Save America certainly have a lot of collective knowledge about the Democratic Party, but having listened to this opinion-driven political show twice a week for years, I cannot tell you if any of the show’s hosts have any disagreements with the vast majority of the Democratic Party’s 21 major candidates.

These complaints are more than quibbles but less than indictments. My standing to criticize is based in part on the 1,200 podcast episodes I’ve hosted over the past five years and in part on the more than 20,000 episodes of other people’s podcasts I’ve listened to in that time. I arrived at that calculation via the usage stats on my iPhone, which tells me I’ve played the Overcast, Apple Podcast, Luminary, and Listen apps a combined 27 hours over the past 10 days, which seems typical. If you take into account the fact that I listen at 2.5x speed and assume an average episode length of half an hour, that gives a conservative estimate of 20,000 podcast episodes. If you told me I’d spent that much time engaged with tweets, Facebook posts, or most non-prestige TV, I’d probably feel that a great deal of it was time wasted.

But not with podcasts.

I can’t say all of Michael Barbaro’s sighs, Jad Abumrad’s cues, Kara Swisher’s interjections, Melvyn Bragg’s clarifications, Alix Spiegel’s dance parties, Adam Carolla’s rants, Sean Rameswaram’s jingles, Marc Maron’s cats, Chapo Trap House’s skits, Wendy Zukerman’s puns, Bill Simmons’ bets, Hrishikesh Hirway’s songs, Flora Lichtman’s curiosities, and David Plotz’s pandas have been worth it, but most of them have. And I’m sure there’s someone out there who listens to The Gist but thinks that I’ve burst into song once too often. Fair enough. Even with my occasional singing, podcasting is still the most vital medium around.

Celebrate the Gist’s five-year anniversary by joining Slate Plus today. You’ll support the work done by Mike and his team and get an ad-free version of the show—and ad-free versions of Slate’s other podcasts.