In The Podcast Review, guest reviewer Dion Kagan takes a look at a highlight of the international podcasting spectrum.

There’s a moment in first-year humanities tutorials when, in the face of a certain type of interpretation (of a scene in a film, for example), a certain type of incredulous student (one no doubt already asking themselves exactly what they’re doing there) poses that million-dollar question: ‘Don’t you think you’re reading too much into it?’ If I had a few bucks for every undergrad that asked some iteration of that question, I could take myself to see some mainstage theatre. A more useful (and affordable) fantasy is that I’m instead armed with an MP3 player loaded with online magazine Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcasts. Casually pulling the iPod from my bag, I say to the incredulous student: ‘Hey, try listening to this. Here are distilled the pleasures, the prowess and, indeed, the rigours of sophisticated cultural critique.’

On the Culture Gabfest, Slate critics Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens and Julia Turner discuss zeitgeist topics in pop, media, high, low and hybrid-brow culture. It’s one of several Slate podcasts, including Hang Up and Listen (sports) and Double X Gabfest, which dissects culture and politics through a feminist lens. Slate has been something of a pioneer of the discussion podcast form – their Political Gabfest has been around since 2006, and a combined political/cultural ‘Gabfest Radio’ show has recently started broadcasting on WNYC.

The ‘gabfest’ format has some ubiquity in the radio and podcast sphere, and probably has a media genealogy going back to before Aristotle. In the case of the Culture Gabfest we’re talking about a brisk thirty to fifty-ish minutes of dialectics around three central topics (such as the legacy of Donna Summers, killer grizzly bears, or the Daniel Tosh rape joke controversy – anything with traction ‘out there’ in the culture), with one host – usually Metcalf – prepping the ‘slate’ for each topic with a tight intro and a well-framed question or two for his colleagues. Guests with particular expertise (like Jody Rosen, Slate’s music critic, or TV critic June Thomas) sometimes join the discussion, and each edition ends with a roundtable of cultural ‘endorsements’. Similarly formatted culture discussions from the US include NPR’s Popular Culture Happy Hour and APM’s The Dinner Party, which promises to provide an ‘edge in your weekend conversations’. An Aussie equivalent is Radio National’s Common Knowledge. Of these, Culture Gabfest is categorically the best.

If the term ‘gabfest’ conjures up unsubstantiated posturing; more than a little dose of gossip; and chitter that tends to roll on and on, serving less the pleasures of the listener than the egos of the gabbers, then ‘gabfest’ this certainly ain’t. There is endless ‘gabfestery’ in the podcast-sphere, and hey, much of it has its place. But Slate’s offering is reliably a cut or several above the rest. It is seldom, if ever, protracted, and rarely self-indulgent for any length of time (some may find the ‘Great Granola Showdown’ edition an exception to this claim). The worst thing about Slate’s Culture Gabfest may be that its title belies the elegance and tightness of this excellent program. The best thing about Culture Gabfest is everything else.

Beyond being well researched, stylishly curated and delivered lucidly with a striking balance of gravitas and wit by three compelling think-talkers, the Gabfest is also cannily edited. Producer Jesse Baker’s crafty cutting and slicing allows the program to transcend the three-smart-people-shooting-the-shit-at-a-BBQ scenario, and to actually set an enviable standard for the craft of contemporary cultural commentary.

Among gabfest fans circulates another inevitable question: ‘Who is your favourite of the three?’ Sydney-based Sam Twyford-Moore, who talks to Rebecca Giggs and Fiona Wright on another literary and culture podcast called The Rereaders (clearly inspired by the Gabfest), once told me that for him it’s Metcalf, the inhumanly sharp host. I am a Dana Stevens man myself, though I am also rather partial to Steve. Oh heck, I love ‘em all. Julia Turner is deputy editor of Slate, and a sassy and erudite one at that. Dana and Stephen are both self-described ‘refugees from the academy’ who went on to become critics and writers. Other Dana devotees may already know that the woman wrote a PhD thesis that was supervised by none other than that venerable icon of post-everything gender theory, Judith Butler. But the scholarly heritage doesn’t mean she delivers her reflections on the latest Bob Dylan album, or her reading of HBO’s hit series Girls, in poststructuralist riddles.

But nor do the gabfesters dumb down their discussion for the sake of some imagined listener who may be put off by the casual use of the word ‘gestalt’, or an impassioned diatribe about the New York Times’ online paywall that sounds reminiscent of neo-Marxist materialism. As bright and culturally savvy as they might be, RN’s Cassie McCullough and Jason DiRosso, for example, can’t quite get away with that on Common Knowledge. So why do the Slaters get to? Maybe because they’re New York intelligentsia and they’re a bit less cultural-cringey about demonstrating their critical arsenals? Perhaps it’s because the Gabfest started life as a podcast and not a broadcast radio show, which by necessity has to pay more heed to the pre-existing listener demographic and its (supposed) demands.

Given the expert working of the cultural nerve displayed by the Gabfesters and their ilk, I sometimes wonder pensively if there is still a role for the academy in the critique of popular culture. Of course, ‘critique’ is different to commentary, deploying different methods to different ends. But it is sometimes difficult to feel confident about the relevance of the slower, more painstaking work of academic cultural research like my own when Julia, Dana and Stephen are busy doling out such acute cultural diagnoses on a fortnightly basis. I’m pretty sure the likes of Metcalf would defend the enduring value of a liberal arts education (no doubt alongside an equally impassioned, and probably hilarious diatribe against the neoliberal university). But the question still stands, especially as it is these critics’ jobs to be utterly immersed in popular culture. Academic questions aside, these people belong to a definite type of modern-day expert: professional hypothesisers on the rise of the Kardashians, or what Charlie Sheen’s public career meltdown means about contemporary media culture, which are surely important questions. Nice work if you can get it.

Dion Kagan is a Melbourne-based researcher and lecturer in screen, cultural and literary studies and an editorial advisor at Paper Radio.