Review - It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders

The NPR Politics Podcast rose to prominence during the 2016 presidential campaign. There was so much news happening that it went from airing twice weekly to producing downloads every day. It features a panel of NPR political reporters. There are some "regulars", a few rotating cast members, and someone who sits in the host chair. During 2016, that host role was most often filled by Sam Sanders, and he became the breakout star amongst a very talented bunch. So it makes sense that he's the one that would get a spin-off show.

It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders officially debuted in June of 2017, after what I thought was an interesting development process. Sam tried a few different features and segments and got feedback from the listening audience. What he ended up with is a podcast that generally runs twice a week. The first installment is an interview between Sam and a guest, usually a figure from pop culture. The second installment is the "Weekly Wrap", when he invites two reporters from various news organizations to discuss the big stories of the week. Episodes range from 30-45 minutes, and typically drop on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Thoughts from Your Pop Culture Concierge

First and foremost, Sam Sanders is the reason to listen to It's Been a Minute. There's a reason he was such a big part of the Politics Podcast's success. It's easy to think that podcasting is just talking - and since everybody talks, podcasting should be easy for anyone, right? If only!!! Sam is such a natural he makes his show look deceptively easy.

Podcasts exist on what I'd call a "production continuum". Some are highly produced and choreographed, with clearly scripted, timed and engineered segments. These are complete with dramatic pauses and music cues and can be very effective when done well, but it's a specific kind of experience that can also be off-putting when it feels too artificial. At the other end of the spectrum there is the "two dudes in a room with a microphone" format. This represents a much shaggier approach to podcasting, where the two people just shoot the sh*t, following an extremely flexible outline. If the people are interesting, this can be really engaging, with the listener feeling like s/he is part of a great and spontaneous conversation. But this format can also be super-indulgent of the hosts' inside jokes, tangents, and meandering that can be deeply frustrating to listen to.

It's Been a Minute definitely falls toward the produced end of the continuum, with a consistent format from show to show. A great deal of it is clearly scripted, but Sam is such an authentic voice you don't notice - he always sounds natural and unrehearsed. When he is interviewing his guests, it is clear he has rigorously prepared. He'll often reference things the guests have previously said or written (beyond whatever it is they might be promoting), and he'll ask questions based on his reactions to that work. He's also incredibly present during these interviews. Many interviewers fall into the trap of always anticipating their next question and can brush by interesting answers they're already getting. Sam is excellent at staying tuned into what his subject is saying and asking great follow up or probing questions that deepen what is shared. Whether he's interviewing one guest or moderating his panel of reporters, he creates a comfortable environment where everyone seems relaxed - serious about what they're discussing, but relaxed enough to enjoy the conversation. Finally, Sam just seems like a thoughtful person, considering what he learns about the world and bringing his questions to the show. And even when the topic of the show is full of import and gravity, Sam can inject moments of light and levity which make it all bearable.

The weekly wrap episodes (which are available on Friday's) are best to listen to soon after they are published. These installments are about the week's current events, and while always interesting will often feel incomplete if the story has further developed since airing. In the 6/26/20 episode, Sam invited two tech reporters from the Washington Post to discuss Facebook and Twitter, and what if any changes have been made to the platforms since they so indelibly impacted the 2016 election. As always, his guests are deeply knowledgeable, and with Sam's help make the subject of Big Tech fully accessible, even for someone who doesn't follow social media too closely. I always learn something new and interesting, whatever is being covered on the weekly wrap up, even topics that I might have thought held no interest for me. Sam also plays a silly current events game with the reporters, with no stakes whatsoever because if you win, "you get nothing". The last segment on Friday is a series of voice recordings from listeners who call in to share the best thing that happened to them that week. Spoiler alert - I usually cry happy tears during this part.

The interview episodes (posted on Tuesdays) can be listened to mostly any time, as they are not usually so tied to the news of the day. In the 7/14/20 episode, Sam spoke to two reporters of color about how journalism covers race. In the 6/30/20 episode he interviewed Nicole Byer, a comedian who hosts five podcasts of her own and Nailed It on Netflix. There's a broad range of subjects and topics for his weekly interview, and Sam approaches them all with real curiosity, which makes for very interesting conversations.

All Sam's episodes are introduced by his Aunt Betty, who follows the family tradition of being a breakout star. It's a delight to hear her voice each week.

There are so many choices in podcasts, and what I like best about It's Been a Minute is that it really seems to get our human need for balance. We need to be informed about the world and the important events that are shaping how we live. But we also need to laugh and have fun and enjoy art and hear about good things that are happening. With this show you get vegetables (the good tasting ones, maybe cooked in a little bacon) AND dessert, which makes it a great overall meal.