On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, The Young Turks CEO Cenk Uygur talks about running an online media company for young left-wingers.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Media on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me. I’m part of the Vox Media podcast network. I am here at Vox Headquarters in New York City with Cenk Uygur, CEO of Young Turks, The Young Turks, I got the title right. Did I get your name right?
Cenk Uygur: Yeah, perfect.
Hooray! Interview is over. Welcome.
That is usually the hardest part.
We’re on smooth sailing from here.
I think of you guys as the YouTube network for progressives, lefties, that gets talked about a bunch, but somehow doesn’t get to the same conversation level as some other media companies with similar aims. So you tell your story, then we can talk about how you fit into the landscape.
Let’s go big picture. Young Turks is ...
The largest online news network in the world, certainly for millennials. We beat CNN, MSNBC and Fox News combined.
I figure we should have a whole sidebar about metrics, so let’s go very big picture. You guys are primarily a news conversation on YouTube primarily, right?
Well, yes and no. Online news, yes, definitely. We started on YouTube. YouTube’s our home, but also on Facebook, Hulu, Roku, Pluto, all the different platforms.
When you say news, it’s video.
It looks something like cable TV news, right?
It does, yep.
People at a desk, talking about the day’s news.
That’s your forte.
We do facts first, then commentary.
Right, but you’re not really an online news-gathering operation, right, generally?
Well, we recently started one. Normally, historically, we have not, but after Trump got elected, we raised money from the audience and started an investigative reporting team, and the audience gave us $2 million bucks, so that’s a nice start.
But you’ve also raised money from traditional venture capitalists. You also raised money from Buddy Roemer?
That was a convertible note.
But again, the primary format is you, you’re the CEO but also the primary host, and you guys are talking about the news of the day. I’m a little confused. It looks like there’s a free version, and then also a paid service?
That’s right. You can watch it live, and that’s the flagship show, and all the shows. You could also watch them on Video On Demand later on YouTube and Facebook primarily, but like I said, on many other platforms too. But if you want to get all the shows ad free, anytime you want, that’s when you sign up for a subscription — on tytnetwork.com, by the way.
And there are podcasts? There’s multimedia.
Yeah, audio and video podcasts, once you’re a member.
You’ve been at this for a long time, right?
This is not something you hatched last week.
No, no. I didn’t just graduate from Stanford with a really good idea and a good dad.
If you did, you wouldn’t be in media.
15 years, we started as the first original talk show for Sirius Satellite Radio.
Right, so you started in radio, you went online, and you’ve gone back and forth on and off TV, off traditional linear TV. Is there a traditional linear TV play today?
We do original programming, and so we did a show for Fusion in 2016 that we licensed out. We have a show coming up for Verizon Go90 called “True North” that’s going to be fantastic, so we do some deals and sometimes occasionally on TV, but ...
And you’ve been a guest host on MSNBC.
Yeah, so I was their primary host for six o’clock for a year, and back in 2010, 2011, I was on as a host on “Current TV” for two more years after that, so I did some cable news, but we kept The Young Turks going as a separate show and entity throughout.
And I was looking at some of the old clips. There’s one that’s old enough that someone refers to you as “the Tila Tequila of the left.” I don’t even know if that was meant to be a compliment or not. It was confusing.
Yeah, I’m a little confused by that too, but I’m going to take ...
You don’t look anything like Tila Tequila.
You think so? I’m going to take it as ...
She’s also a quitter. Quitter would not be a compliment.
I’m going to take it as I’m just that sexy.
Incredibly sexy man.
What is the impetus to start the site? Traditionally, there’ve been a bunch of right-wing, conservative-leaning media companies and/or shows and/or networks for a long time, very often on radio. Periodically, someone says, “We should start one of those for the left.” It generally doesn’t work. What was your thinking when you started?
First of all, I’m always amused that like, “Oh, we should start something on the left that’s maybe news, maybe online, maybe video.” I beat you to it by about 12 years, but that’s establishment thinking, because they have never actually gone online. The furthest online that anyone in Washington has ever gone is probably a podcast, Crooked Media, good guys but that’s probably as far online as ...
Which, by the way, didn’t exist until a year ago.
That’s right, and no one in Washington had ever gone online until a year ago, and they’re like, “Oh! Donald Trump beat us with half the money and he went digital. Let’s try a podcast!” We’ve been doing this a long time, so long that we didn’t conceive it as something that had to be a response to the right wing. Right wing barely even existed at the time, online.
Did you think, “I want to start something that is a news network or news conversation, and we’re going to do it online or we’ll do it on the radio,” or did you think, “I want to do something that’s a news conversation that’s lefty, and let’s find a place to do it?”
Yeah, so three different ways that I looked at it. No. 1, I’ve always wanted my own talk show, and so it’s just that simple. And it wasn’t a heroic effort to be the left of something or other. No, I love doing talk shows.
You like talking.
And I want to do a talk show. That’s how it started 15 years ago, and my co-host at the time, Ben Mankiewicz, he loved the idea of talking about the news, sports, entertainment, all the things that we care about. Then, the second portion of it was, I actually really really believed in online video.
This is, this is ... what year?
Even when we started in ’02 and we were just a radio show, even back in ’98, I wrote an email to my friend saying online video is going to beat television.
So pre-YouTube ...
By several years.
Yes. I had always ...
Back when online video was really difficult to make and to distribute and to watch. You had to download a different player, depending on what the publisher was and what kind of machine you had.
And the video quality was disastrous.
Yeah, you’d download and then walk away and come back an hour later and you could watch a five-minute BMW ad.
Yeah, and we were there. We’re actually the oldest stream on the internet. We’ve been daily live since December 12th of 2005, so we were arguably way way too early, but that’s because I just believed about 20 years too early that online video was going to eventually topple TV, and we’re in the middle of it now.
The third part of it is being progressive, and what happened there was we started as a show that we described as half about politics, because that’s what we cared about, and half about J.Lo’s ass. That was back in ’02. Now it would be Kim Kardashian, but ...
I don’t know why you would dismiss J.Lo.
Well, she’s still around! That’s right.
I just saw a magazine cover of J-Rod ... but then things got really serious. We invaded Iraq, we started torturing people, and there was no one on the left as far as we perceived it other than Amy Goodman, who was at a national level saying, “Wait, don’t go into Iraq. That’s a really really really bad idea.” And we did, and then we became an oasis in the media for the left, so we built that and built that and we got more and more outraged, what Bush was doing, and our audience grew and grew, and folks really responded to it the minute we went on YouTube.
I want to talk more about how you started and YouTube’s important, but I want to go again back to just scale and where you are in the media landscape. Who are you competing with for your audience’s time? Are they someone who’s going to go listen to a Crooked Media podcast and check you out and watch MSNBC? Are they relying exclusively on you? Were they someone who watched Jon Stewart, back when Jon Stewart was on TV? Who’s your audience?
Our audience is predominantly young, 70 percent 18-34, so “The Daily Show” would have been our biggest competitor if you looked at it in the old way of looking at things, but in reality, of course, you can watch both. But I do get a lot of people on the street saying, “I used to watch ‘Daily Show’ and now I watch you guys,” so we’re not competing with “CBS Evening News” with ... is it Jeff Glor? That might be their new anchor.
I couldn’t tell you, which is a problem.
Exactly right. So no, those guys are 60-70 years old, their average audience, but so is cable news. Cable news is 61, 64, 68, that’s CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. They’re ancient, so it’s ... but I’ll take MSNBC’s audience, literally. I will take them, and so I guess it’s a competitive set in this sense, but digital media’s so large that it’s not really a zero sum game.
And I’ve had a bunch of people in in the last year, we’ve talked about Trump and what Trump has or hasn’t done for their audience. Did you guys see a Trump bump last fall, this year?
Last fall, we saw a much bigger Bernie bump.
Because you went in hard on Bernie Sanders. You were an early supporter for Bernie Sanders. You’re a Bernie Bro.
I’m an early, middle and late supporter of Bernie Sanders. Let’s leave aside the phrase Bernie Bro.
Okay, but it wasn’t just that we were supporters. Bernie does great online, to the great frustration of everyone in power, and then Trump of course does do better than the average incredibly dull politician, and now the Trump videos do do pretty well, yes.
So you had an audience that was increasing throughout the election, because you were riding the Bernie Sanders wave. People who were interested in Bernie Sanders were also paying attention to you, or more of those folks. Trump spurs more interest. Do you think about how you keep the people who came to you because they found out about you through Bernie, or they found out about you through Trump, or they stumbled on you through a Trump video? Are you going out of your way to think about how we serve those people, or you’re just doing what you do, and they come or they don’t?
Yes and no. The no is no, we just do the show that we do, and I would argue that we’re lucky that we happen to be on that side of the issue, and that’s where most of the online audience is, and that’s why they like us. It’s among the reasons why they like us, but if you try to cater too much to what you think the audience wants, then you’re going to lose your authenticity, so I’m willing to piss off my audience, and I have on many instances, just to make sure that they know that we’re honest, because that’s our brand.
The related question, I’m talking to you latish November, is whether your audiences in general are getting tired of Trump news, tired of politics, tired of the intensity. Every week, there’s a new outrage, there’s new alarm, there’s new terrible legislation which may or may not get passed, and that people are being asked to pay attention to. How do you keep that audience engaged and/or not fatigued?
It’s not that so much. There’s two different audiences, Peter, so one is the general broader audience, and yes, they like Trump videos. Then there’s your core audience. So for example, we have a subscription model and we have subscribers that give us $10 a month. For the core progressive audience, they don’t want to overemphasize Trump news. They would rather hear much more about the structural issues that’s wrong with our government, and change.
And we’ve been anti-establishment since we’ve started, so they get pissed if you do too much Trump news, and oftentimes I have to explain to folks, “Hey, listen guys. I hear you, and no one else is talking about Mark Warner’s financial bill, which is a giveaway to the payday loan industry, and we are, but at the same time, I do have to talk about Trump’s tweets, because he might start World War III with North Korea, and that is super important and relevant. We’re not just doing it for video count or anything like that. It’s because he’s the president, whether we like it or not.”
Yeah, he may be tweeting for the LOLs or the attention, but it’s a difficult thing for a lot of news organizations and media companies. How do we treat a Trump utterance? Is it a joke? Is it policy? The whole world has that problem right now.
Yeah, absolutely, and my argument is, “Yeah, of course it’s relevant.” If Kim Jong Un wakes up one morning and takes it the wrong way, a million people die in South Korea, so you’ve got to cover it. He’s no longer ... You know, we used to have a ban on Trump, way before he ran and before he was relevant in this sphere at all. We banned him because we thought he was a poseur, not because we disagreed with him, but because we thought everything he was doing was fake, which is funny now that you look back at it. There’s only two people we’d ever banned: Him and Ann Coulter, because we just didn’t believe ...
You know they’re trolls, right?
They’re just trolls.
They wanted a reaction.
Yes, so we had to un-ban him during the primaries. First we started blocking out his face, as a hybrid, and then we finally gave up.
Huffington Post tried a version of that. “We’re going to cover him, but we’re going to call him entertainment.”
And he was, he was entertainment, and then he was apparently, unfortunately entertaining enough to 35 percent of the country that he won.
There’s an Esquire writer, Charles Pierce, who will write about him but won’t refer to him by name, and he uses an asterisk, which seems beside the point. We get who he’s talking about.
We’re going to take a quick break. We’re going to hear from a fine sponsor, maybe two. We’ll be right back with Cenk.
Back here with Cenk Uygur? Said it with a question mark. I’m so proud of myself.
It should have been an exclamation point, because you nailed it.
There you go.
From The Young Turks. You want to talk about metrics real quick? This is a pet peeve of some people who write about media or cover the media business, is someone will say, “We have this many views on YouTube. The NFL received Nielsen audience of this many people. The YouTube number is bigger than the Nielsen number. It’s a bigger audience.” Then people will say, “No, no. It’s not. You’re counting aggregate views versus an average per minute.” What do you think the best apples-to-apples comparison for your audience versus traditional TV would be?
That’s a great question.
Just for scale.
Yeah. I think that the complaint that it’s apples to oranges is fair. I also think that human beings are human beings, and if they watch you, they’re real. I also think that the online numbers are way more credible than TV numbers, and usually, the industry has it backwards. They think, “Well, Nielsen put a finger in the wind and decided that this was your TV audience.” No, no. We know with great certainty what our audience is. It is measured down to a granular level.
There’s Facebook, counts a view as three seconds. Is that really a view?
Mm-hmm, right, and what does Nielsen count a view as? No one knows. You get into radio, and that’s just made up.
Yeah, yeah. People literally writing down, “I think I listened to this last night.”
Exactly. It’s just the most made-up numbers you’ve ever seen, so ... And honestly ...
To be fair, that stuff is getting better. They actually are measuring that stuff digitally now.
Yeah, a little bit better, that’s right, but look at that, right? They’re measuring it digitally now, hence it is better, okay? Advertisers, unfortunately — and you can tell this is a pet peeve of mine — will go, “Okay, I’m going to be incredibly demanding of you and your numbers,” which I actually think is fair, and then they’ll turn around and go, “TV, no. I don’t care. I don’t know. Bleeegh, I’m just going to give them money.” Okay, so ...
Yeah, “Because I will not get fired for giving them money.”
Yeah, well, they should be, they should all be fired for it. They’re not going to like hearing that, but if your brand strategy is bleeegh, that is a terrible, terrible strategy, and I’ve talked to people that make these decisions.
I want to know what the bleeegh marketing plan is.
Yeah, okay. How do you know how many people are watching you, and how many people converted on TV? “I don’t know anything about TV, but I hear that I have to be on it.” Wow, that is trenchant. Anyway, 250 million views overall.
All of our platforms combined, YouTube/Facebook, per month. Unique viewers are much harder to measure, so we say in the ballpark of 60-70 million based on the numbers that YouTube and Facebook and others give us.
You think 60-70 million people are checking you out once a month or more.
Yes! You walk around with me in the streets of New York and you’ll see how true that is, so we are the most ...
Six zero to seven zero?
Giant numbers. We are the most famous non-celebrities in the world.
So you should have been arriving here in a helicopter, right, but I don’t think you did? You should be rolling in money if you have an audience that is that big.
And now we’re getting to the heart of the issue.
There we go.
The audiences ... I’ll just give you a sense of it. One random day, I’m going to Portugal for the Web Summit, and I don’t know, I don’t look like I do necessarily on air. I don’t have a jacket on, I got glasses on, etc.
You look like a guy.
I look like a dude. So two people at the L.A. airport, two people in the Paris airport, three people in the Portugal airport all wanting to take pictures, etc., but if you don’t watch The Young Turks, you don’t know me at all, whereas no one watches Anderson Cooper but everyone knows him, so it’s an interesting phenomenon. And part of the reason for that is because TV and old media is ... and it’s not because they’ve made a political decision or anything, they just live in that world. They’re biased towards old media. They think, “Oh, if you have a million people who watch you on TV, you’re a huge star, and we’re going to give you 20 magazine covers, and we’re going to talk about you non-stop.”
You think that’s why people recognize Anderson Cooper, because they’ve seen him other places than on CNN?
Not ... That’s ...
And they see CNN at the pizza shop and at the bar, and they see him out of the corner of their eye, but nobody watches Anderson Cooper.
So either they’re recognizing him for reasons other than the thing that he does, or they’re recognizing him because of the thing that he does, which has a lot of reach, and maybe TV is a bigger deal than you think.
No, no. We know what his numbers are. On a good night, he’s probably about a million people, on a good good night.
Yeah, people always overestimate the reach of cable news, but people know who Bill O’Reilly is. He, again, had a smallish audience.
Yeah. One million people is one third of one percent of the country. It is night after night. I grant him that, and he is in the pizza shops and the bars, and much more importantly, you know where he is? He’s in every radio station, newspaper and local news and congressional office. They all have TV on, and it’s all turned to the cable news guys. That’s why, in their world, they think the Anderson Coopers of the world are so so important, when in reality, no human beings watch them, and the human beings who watch them are really old, 61 years old on average for CNN. O’Reilly, you mentioned, his average age was 72 for his viewers. 72. That means if he’s got a 42-year-old watching him, that means he has to have a 102-year-old watching him to get an average of 72, so the only reason those cable news guys are relevant is because we give them relevance.
There’s also a sphere of people in politics who take them seriously, who will go on their shows, who will grant them an interview. Granted, who a president will grant an interview has changed over the last few years, both with Trump and Obama. Obama did a bunch of digital stuff. Trump randomly is doing InfoWars interviews, so there’s less of a gap between established media and digital than there used to be, but some of it is who those people grant an interview to, right?
Yeah, and so let’s take an example that’s not us that I don’t necessarily agree with all the time, and it’s just a guy rather than a network, Phil DeFranco on YouTube. His audience is clearly larger than the cable news audience. Take any show on CNN and take Phil’s show on YouTube. Phil’s show is, by any metric, larger, and he gets zero percent coverage, zero percent of zero percent. Why? Because the people in power go, “Hahahaha, this guy on YouTube, with all his audience. It doesn’t count.”
They don’t even see him, frankly.
Yeah, they don’t see him. They don’t know him. He’s invisible to them.
They might have heard of PewDiePie.
Yeah, and only because of the controversies.
And then maybe they heard of Logan Paul in the last ... There’s usually one of his ...
No way they’ve heard of Logan Paul. You’d poll Washington, I’d be shocked if one percent had heard of Logan Paul.
I think you’re right about that. I think generally people think, “Oh, there’s a guy out there.”
“There’s a guy out there.”
“There’s a new version of PewDiePie out there.”
Yeah, so then why hasn’t the money moved, because I am definitely the poorest famous person in the country, if I am famous. I’m not a celebrity, because again, no one that doesn’t watch us knows us.
You’re TSA famous, though.
I am TSA famous. Almost every TSA agent knows us. That’s a whole nother thing, so it’s because ... people are still stuck. They’re stuck in their old ways. It’s comfortable, it’s easy. “I know Bob. I’ve been buying from Bob for 20 years. I know what Nielsen is, right or wrong. Internet numbers scare me, and it’s work. I gotta figure this out. I don’t want to figure it out. I just want to buy from Bob.”
What’s the solve here? Is it ... and by the way, is your issue, “I want more respect from the establishment. I want them to pay attention to me,” or “I don’t really care if the establishment respects me. I just need some ad money because I need to keep this thing going”?
Probably the latter. Respect, who cares about their respect, we’re anti-establishment, so I don’t need them to like me. I don’t need them to give me a pat on the back, but one of the problems that it creates ... There’s two different issues. One is the financial one that you were justifiably pointing out, the other’s a political one, so cable news won’t allow anyone who supports Bernie Sanders on TV, and then they’ll turn around and go, “Well, you guys don’t have any stars.” Because you didn’t put any of them on, and then you claim since you don’t know them, they’re not stars.
It’s circular reasoning, and in politics, name recognition matters a lot, so when they starved Bernie Sanders of attention in 2015, they robbed him of an equal playing field. When they showered Donald Trump with attention in 2015, they gave him an unbelievable advantage, so cable news, as little people as watch them, since they have that media multiplier effect that I’ve been talking about here, it does made a big difference.
It is funny. Mueller is spending a lot of time, and justifiably, on Russia and Facebook and the online guys and what responsibility they did or didn’t have in the election, but the whole issue of how the press covered and didn’t cover Trump, and how they treated him, that was of intense interest to us up through the election and right afterwards, and now we’ve moved on from it, but he pointed out that he got an enormous amount of publicity and air time. But the counter is people is voted for him, and he should’ve gotten a lot of air time, because he was the leading candidate.
Yeah, a lot of people voted for Bernie Sanders, and he got almost no air time in 2015, so look, you just phrased it in a way that honestly I’d never quite articulated. The thing that I talk about sometimes recently because of the Donna Brazile admissions is, you say, “Okay, the Russians meddled in the general election.” I believe that that’s true, and I think that was terrible, but the DNC meddled in the primaries far worse, admittedly worse. Russia had a small effect. The DNC had a giant effect on the primary, so why aren’t we investigating the DNC? etc., etc.
And then now, what you point out is who had a bigger effect: Russia in the general election, or cable news that gave Donald Trump billions of dollars of free media? Cable news clearly had a way way larger effect, and that was definitely pro-Trump in not their coverage editorially, but in the quantity of their coverage. If they had given the same quantity of coverage to Bernie Sanders, even if they, like they did every time, called him a socialist and they hate him and it’s unrealistic, “Trump’s okay but Bernie Sanders is unrealistic, people really really like him, but we don’t like him in Washington and New York because he threatens our power,” I don’t care. Do that, okay? And then he would have at least had a fighting change, but instead, they drowned him in silence.
What happens for you guys the next election cycle? Do you ... Bernie is still existing, but at some point, you need to move ... Who carries the mantle for Bernie in your audience? Where does that energy go?
No matter what happens, whether it’s Trump or Pence, Bernie or someone else on the left, we’re the home of the revolution. We believe in the revolution, and we believe in change. We’re going to get money out of politics. We’re going to end the corruption, and we do media differently than everybody else. We give you the facts. Then we give you analysis, and then we tell you how we are going to participate in change, which makes the rest of the media very very angry.
They’re like, “No, status quo was awesome. Media is not supposed to change things. You’re just supposed to accept it and bow your head.” We don’t do that and our audience loves us for it, so likely it will be Bernie, and Bernie will be the next president of the United States. If it’s for whatever reason he decided not ... If he runs, he wins. It’s a no brainer. It’s not even close.
I will bet money on that one.
Let’s do it right now, $100.
If he runs, he wins, so it’s on air. That’s awesome.
When do I collect?
100 percent we’re going to collect on it, unless it’s impossible for some reason.
I just figured out a monetization strategy for this podcast, having side bets.
And for us as well. If he doesn’t run, then the Democratic primary is going to be an awesome mess, and it will likely be a progressive that most of Washington doesn’t know or care about, someone like Nina Turner running our revolution, who’ll come rise up and progressives will love her, and we’ll fight and we’ll win.
What’s your take on technology in Silicon Valley and their influence or lack of influence in politics right now? Aside from Facebook and manipulation of views, all this money, smartest people in the world in Silicon Valley, they were shocked at the Trump election. We’ve written a little bit about Reid Hoffman and some of the responses we’re seeing, but I’m surprised that there is not more, at least that I can see, moving from Silicon Valley to the rest of politics.
Well look, that’s a mixed bag. There’s the downside of Silicon Valley. One is that they’re huge funders, and they’ve funded monstrous things like Donald Trump, in the form of Peter Thiel, so that is not a positive effect in the world, but there’s a huge upside, which is that they have protected net neutrality. To me, net neutrality is everything. If you close that window, then there’s no dissent left.
I think it’s ... We’re recording this, again, right before Thanksgiving. This might pop up a little afterwards, but I think they’re going to formally shut down net neutrality next week, right?
They’re going to try. I cannot emphasize enough how much we cannot let them do that.
I think it’s a done deal.
Well, we’re going to undo it then.
I think the only way you undo it is if you elect a president who feels strongly about it, and he or she appoints an FCC that responds to that.
We must, we must in 2020. If they win in 2020 and they shut net neutrality down forever, then they already have a monopoly on TV, the powerful do, and then they will have a monopoly on the internet, and then we’re done, so under ... 2020 is going to be the battle of a lifetime. There’s no way we let a conservative or establishment person get the presidency in 2020, and behind me is the pitchforks. We’re not going to let it happen, under no circumstances.
How did you get to this stage in your life? What made you an angry anti-establishment person who also wanted fame?
It’s a good question. I was a liberal Republican growing up in New Jersey. That doesn’t exist anymore. If you’re a Republican, you have to think that tax cuts for the rich are awesome, torture is awesome, moral war is awesome. You get the whole picture. So there’s no liberals left in the Republican Party. There’s no moderates left in the Republican Party, and that is partly the answer.
Richard Nixon, we considered a liberal.
Oh, massively. Massively. He did price controls. That’s actually too liberal, so he started the EPA. He started OSHA, and he didn’t want to do it. He’s a bad guy. Ralph Nader made him do it. That was before money in politics. That’s why we were winning. Now with the corruption, all they do, every one of these sons of bitches works for whoever pays them. They’re all bought. It’s all bribes. We legalized bribery in this country. America, unfortunately, has become the most corrupt country in the world, because bribery at least in other countries is illegal. Here we made it legal. It’s called campaign contributions, so what made ...
What was your conversion moment?
Iraq War, definitely, I’m gone. I’m gone from the ... I had already voted for Gore, because I watched the debates and I said, “Well, one guy’s smart and the other guy’s an idiot. I don’t know why no one on TV will acknowledge that the guy’s an idiot!” I’m sitting there as a Republican going, “This man is a moron!”
And what were you doing? Beyond being angry about the Iraq War, what were you ... how were you paying your bills?
At that point, I’m a struggling talk show host.
So you’ve always wanted to be a talk show host?
I originally started as a lawyer, but for three seconds, and then I started doing public access, then radio, weekends, fill-in radio host.
Was this in New Jersey?
No, at that point I’m in D.C. I did some fill-in stuff in Boston, then I go work in TV in Miami, and then I start The Young Turks in LA, but all the stuff that I’m describing, Peter, is my overall macro-conversion moment, so why are we going in and destroying the Middle East? It’s because Dick Cheney got a $34 million exit package from Halliburton, and he would like to give more oral contracts and defense contracts to his former work company. Yes, that’s why.
That’s why we did it. And then instability in the Middle East creates higher oil prices, and those guys bought almost every politician in the country, so screw that, and then they start torturing people, and then they never balance the budget, and the list goes on and on. And then if you follow the news and you’re at all observant, you will realize that they don’t have any principled positions. They don’t have any policy positions. They will do almost everything their donors tell them to do, so the problem is corruption. The answer is, get money out of politics, otherwise we’re all basically ...
I want to go back to your bio for a second. So apparently there’s tapes of Glenn Beck in his earlier days, when he was just a regular DJ. Rush Limbaugh had another version of Rush Limbaugh before he was Rush Limbaugh. Was there a Republican version of Cenk, at some point, on air?
The old public access tapes and radio tapes, somebody already made a movie out of it, it’s called “Mad as Hell.” You should watch it.
Is it the same politics, but just with a different label, or you actually changed your politics?
It’s a little bit of both. I was always pro-sex. I want to be clear about that. I was always liberal on social issues, and you can see it in the old tapes, and they actually started losing me in the Clinton impeachment, because I didn’t like Clinton, and I think I’m still right about a lot of those issues, but I’m like, “You’re going to impeach him over that? That doesn’t seem right.” And that’s when I began to realize that they were not honest actors, and so I was for fiscal responsibility. I’m still for fiscal responsibility. It’s just the Republicans just said, “Oh, yeah. We’re just kidding.”
I mean, look at what they just did. “Oh, we’re kidding about the debt. We never cared about the debt. It was a lie. Oh, we’re going to add $1.5 trillion dollars to the debt because we want to give tax cuts to our donors.” Thank you very much for the admission/confession, so I haven’t changed that much on the issues. It’s just the Republicans have become monstrous, and they stopped pretending.
And when did you find, “Oh, there’s an audience that responds to this. We didn’t think there was, but there is”? Or did you always know that audience was out there?
Logically, I knew it was out there.
But there was no evidence of it in public, right? There was no lefty big-media organization.
That’s right, and so you look at the polling, forget ... Elections are bathed in money, but you look at policy issues. This country’s about 60 percent progressive, and I can show you a dozen polls that clearly show it’s solidly 60 percent progressive, but there was no media, and so what I realized way later is the reason there was no media is because almost all the media is owned by multi-billion dollar corporations. You don’t want to rock the boat if it’s your boat, so then, when YouTube came about, they took away the gatekeepers, and that’s when we started exploding. It was one thing to try to struggle to get on air in different radio markets ...
YouTube played for you.
Right, YouTube was the game changer.
It’s funny, because people are ... Again, when you see discussions of YouTube in mainstream media, people get there’s PewDiePie and other weird stuff. The Times has been putting YouTube under a lot more scrutiny, both for in terms of its lack of filters for some stuff. And then I think people have started picking up on the idea that YouTube’s actually a place where a lot of folks in the right wing and very far right wing are hanging out. Again, the notion that it’s also a place for progressive politics, and there’s a big audience there, doesn’t seem to register.
Yeah, it is ... I don’t think it’s conscious, but for whatever reason, we’re invisible to them. I think it’s because we’re anti-establishment, and they’re the establishment, and I think it’s not that that makes them angry, but for whatever reason, it makes them go, “Oh, that must not exist.”
Right. To be fair, you’re also not flooding the airways with fake news after a mass shooting.
Right, right. That is exactly right.
And that should be scrutinized, and people should know how that’s working, and that is a problem for YouTube, and since you’re none of those things, you shouldn’t be the subject of that story, right?
Peter, that’s a great point, because bad behavior is rewarded with media coverage, so Tomi Lahren now is very well known. She’s what ... I don’t know if she’s 13 or 14, and she has no substantive opinions, but what she does is she goes out there and goes, “Okay, I don’t like black people. I think they’re terrorists.” “Oh my God! Everybody cover Tomi Lahren now! She said something outrageous.” And it gets a ton of coverage. You say something rational, people are like, “Oh, boring. That’s rational.”
“Use some better metaphors.”
That’s what the establishment says, and I get it, and I get the logic of it, but the audience actually loves it.
So you’re going to spend the next few years pushing for Bernie Sanders and/or a proxy for Bernie Sanders. On the business side, what’s the plan?
Same thing, home of the revolution, so if you believe in the revolution, and you believe in independent media, you come support us. We’ve got a subscription business, and if you want our ties to be connected to advertisers, then don’t subscribe, and then we’ll have to cater to advertisers. We still do to some degree, but I would much rather have the base of our revenue come from the audience so that we are financially tied to our audience.
I was going to say that that revolution pitch may be a problem for advertisers, right?
Harder to sell beer, Viagra.
We are perfectly cognizant of that. We’re aware of that, and we have made a decision to be audience first.
So the majority of your revenue right now is subscription?
Not majority, but the largest chunk of the pie.
You’d like it to be.
Yes, I’d love for most of our revenue to be tied to our audience, because you want your financial incentive aligned with your audience so that you serve them.
Okay, and you’re giving me $100 in 2020, or sooner if Bernie’s not running? I can collect sooner?
No, no. If Bernie’s not running, the bet’s off. I’m saying if Bernie runs ...
Oh, if he runs.
He wins, no question about it.
But we’ll talk before then.
Yeah, yeah. Okay.
I guess I’ve got to wait until election night to collect from you.
Yeah, but I’ll see you before that.
Thanks for coming, Cenk.
All right. Thank you.
I appreciate it.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.