On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Stable Genius Productions co-founder Manoush Zomorodi talks about her decision to leave public radio juggernaut WNYC for a two-woman startup. Stable Genius is one of 20 companies in the journalism marketplace Civil, which is hoping to leverage the emerging technology blockchain to save media.
You can read some highlights from the interview here or listen to Recode Media on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Below, you’ll also find a lightly edited transcript of the full episode.
Peter Kafka: Hello, Manoush.
Manoush Zomorodi: Hello, Peter.
Nice to see you again.
Nice to see you again.
I saw you most recently in Palo Alto.
The fancy hotel, the fancy media conference.
Yeah, with Mark Zuckerberg.
Yeah. We were eating a cookie outside, and then we came in, and he was there, in the flesh.
It was like out of thin air.
It was startling.
That is the right ... I was gonna say horrifying. But you’re right, startling, I think, is a little more diplomatic.
He’s a human being. He’s a human being. It was startling to see him in the flesh.
Let’s just talk about talking to Mark Zuckerberg for a second, before we talk about you.
So, we talked to Mark Zuckerberg at this fancy media conference, for an hour? Did we get an hour?
When you say conference, it makes it sound like there were thousands of people there, and there were only 30 of us, 25 of us?
There was just a couple dozen of very fancy people like us. Yeah.
Yeah. To be clear, I am not fancy. I was a tack-on. I think I was there to represent podcasts at the table, in addition to you, but ...
We were at The Rosewood.
It was nice.
That’s as fancy as it gets.
It was fun, actually.
Did you stay at The Rosewood?
I did. Did you?
So, podcast startup life’s going good. No!
No! It’s outrageously expensive.
I was like F-it. I’m just gonna stay here.
God bless you.
Yeah, it was nice. You know what they do at night?
Burn money and laugh at the poor people?
In addition to that. They wrap your cords in Velcro for you. That was new for me. I’ve never experienced that. I came back and all my cords were beautifully Velcroed. So, you get your money’s worth, is what I’m saying.
Okay, yeah. I don’t even know what wrapped cords means. That’s ... wow.
That’s how non-fancy you are.
There’s a level up I can go.
What did you take away from talking to Mark Zuckerberg for an hour, or watching him talk for an hour. This is before we talk about your podcast and what you’re doing and all that stuff.
Well, I gotta say, I went as a ... I think I was one of the few people in the room who did not file after that. You and Ben Smith at BuzzFeed and Adrienne LaFrance at the Atlantic all wrote really great pieces after that.
We were all slumming it. We were like, “Oh, we have to be reporters again, instead of people who ...”
You all looked kind of bummed that you had to put down your cookies.
What I really enjoyed watching was you guys listening to him and your ... I could hear your brains whirring around me, and then what you guys pumped out after. So, my impression ...
You like watching the sausage-making?
I love watching the sausage getting made! It was delightful for me. As a podcaster, I was sort of watching ... For me, it was like a chance to have some body language and some sort of context. He seemed supremely uncomfortable, not that I’ve ever expected him to be comfortable. But what also pained me was just the way he would not engage with people in a real conversation. Everything was so smooth, and, “At this time, we do not think that that’s an option for us.” It was so ... I did not feel as though that was the person who was gonna lead us into a new age of information.
So, the set up is, we’re at this fancy — I’m gonna keep calling it a fancy media conference — with Jessica Lessin and Ben Smith and Kevin Delaney, but really Jessica Lessin — if you’re listening, Jessica — organized.
She gets the props.
Most of it’s off the record, but then Mark Zuckerberg comes in and talks to 30 of us. People like you and me, and people from the New York Times, etc. We do an on-the-record interview with Mark Zuckerberg. This is in the middle of Cambridge Analytica.
Yeah, all that.
I guess it’s constantly in the middle of Cambridge Analytica. So, it’s a 30-person press conference, basically. So, you wouldn’t expect him to be relaxed, right?
No, no, but ...
He’s a public company CEO, he wouldn’t be chill.
No, but ... It was a missed opportunity, I felt, to truly engage with us as a human being.
Seriously, let’s be frank. Journalists like to be charmed, a little bit. And there was no charm, nothing there.
If it had been Sheryl Sandberg, who’s a professionally charming person, and she would be much smoother, and she might make a little joke, and she would have some anecdotes.
Oh, he made a few jokes.
But she also wouldn’t give you any information. There’s a different ... To me, the big take-away, for me, was I don’t think that’s the real Mark Zuckerberg, but I think it’s fairly close to it.
Oh, yes, definitely, I agree.
That was my big takeaway, was he said almost nothing that was sort of news. There was a couple non-responses that kind of qualified as news.
But throughout — he talked for an hour, and if you’d seen him speak in the past, like at the D Conference where he melted down onstage —
That was a long time ago.
He has clearly worked a lot to ...
... interact with human beings and put out full sentences, the way that you would train yourself to speak in public if you were a public company CEO and that didn’t come naturally to you.
He’s clearly put a lot of work into that. But, my big take-away was, “Oh, he really is an odd person.” I don’t mean that pejoratively, I just mean he’s an odd person. He’s a weird, sort of spectrum-y, coder/programming guy who thinks of things in exceptionally rational ways. So rational that they don’t make any sense to regular human beings.
And that, all of the weirdness I associate with Facebook, this is a thing that you always think about when you’re writing about companies, but don’t fully process. That comes because Mark Zuckerberg runs the company as a reflection of him.
And the way his brain works.
And the way his brain works. So, the people in the organization either think like him or train themselves to think like him, and so, when you interact with Facebook as a reporter, or even as a human being, and you have a very frustrating experience — you want to get an answer to something, you want to solve something, why is my Facebook not working? — and you get this frustrating non-response, yes, it’s partly because there’s a 20,000-person company and it’s huge, and powerful, etc. But it’s also because Mark Zuckerberg runs it. That was my big penny drop. Oh!
That is what was so interesting, to see you guys try to engage him, and you know, I was watching as a spectator. You try to engage him on a human point, and it wasn’t even that he wouldn’t engage, he was dismissive. That’s what I found ... It’s not that he wouldn’t engage. It’s that he cannot engage on something like that. My theory had always been like, this was a person who maybe didn’t understand why humans behave the way that they did, and so he tried to turn that behavior into ones and zeroes and algorithms so that it made sense, and I was like, “Theory confirmed.”
Like, listening to him explain why they were using polls to figure out which publications were trustworthy or not, right?
Here’s the thing.
It actually is a very complicated problem, right? You have two billion users and X number of publications, and how are you gonna figure out which ones these people agree with, and these people doing, and these one’s trust, and actually, you can’t just go around and make up your own personal list. So you do need to solve this with some sort of, “Maybe there’s a poll, and maybe there’s software involved.” There is a sort of logic problem to solve.
On the other hand, you could also go, “Well look, clearly the New York Times is okay.” But he wouldn’t even go there.
Yeah, he wouldn’t even go there.
Everything had to be fed into the grinder and spit out.
Processed. All right, that’s our big take-away about Mark Zuckerberg.
It was really fun.
By the way, this is something, Mark Zuckerberg-watching and Facebook-watching is kind of a professional thing for you, right?
Oh, yeah, for sure.
It kind of has been the last couple years of your career.
I was so dorky-excited that he was coming to talk to us. Super nerding-out excited.
Speaking of dorky excited, we’re eight minutes into this podcast.
And all we’ve done is talk about something that ...
Have I said your name yet? Manoush Zomorodi, did I get it right?
You’re gonna have to cut down this part. Yeah, you did.
Yay me! Former host of Note To Self.
Big hit podcast at WNYC. At this fancy media conference, I said, “How’s it going?” You said, “It’s going great, I’m quitting.”
I did, I laid it out!
“I’m starting my own media company.” I said, “That sounds great!” And you said, “Yeah, I’m gonna do it on the blockchain.” I went ...
“Oh.” Everyone at that table went, “Oh.”
Then they sort of were like, “Wait, can you just explain it?”
All right, so you’re producing a podcast that’s called ZigZag?
What percent of people make stoner jokes when you tell them it’s called ZigZag?
Only one so far. You’re the second, which actually, I think I understand you a little bit better now. That’s really funny. Someone in Colorado was like, “I didn’t even make the connection.”
I’m not even really a stoner.
That’s how old I am.
Yeah, it’s how old I am. ZigZag. So this is a podcast about launching your own media company and podcast.
Correct, but with a twist.
Of course, there’s gotta be a twist.
Yeah, there has to be. Two women, which changes things, because ...
Badass women-owned media company.
That’s right, and also because we are doing it in partnership with Civil, which I believe you know a little bit about? Correct? Have you talked to them before?
I’m making that frowny face. I spent an hour talking to the Civil guys ...
Oh, you did.
…it’s one of the most frustrating hours I’ve had professionally.
I tried to find it before I came here, to listen.
No, no, it’s not recorded.
I just went to their office and spent an hour banging my head against the wall.
Okay. So, if I’ve ... Why do I do this? If I can explain it to you ...
Oh yeah, yeah.
... and if I see the frowny face dissolve, I’ll know I’ll have succeeded.
That’d be great.
I’m gonna try. That’s my new job, basically.
Yeah, you’re gonna ...
Not for them, but for myself.
I would have you in here under any circumstance.
Well, thank you.
But, I would love for you to explain blockchain and crypto and what this does or doesn’t have to do with journalism to the rest of us media nerds who listen to this podcast.
So, I mean, I’ll start out with what was really in the first episode of ZigZag, which explained how ...
You can go listen to it, there’s what, six episodes? Free!
There are, that’s right. We’re halfway through the season.
So, some people have compared the show to StartUp. You had the Gimlet guys on here, and actually we had them in our last episode, or episode five ...
A couple episodes ago.
... talking about the difference between men and women, and vulnerability, and this idea that men are brave when they do something financially irresponsible, and women are ninnies. In any case, though, what’s mainly different is ... the reason why we decided to leave was threefold, really. One was that I had a big tech philanthropist come to me and say, “The work that you’re doing on Note To Self, why isn’t it bigger? I don’t understand why it’s existing in this small, public radio station.”
“Baby, I’m gonna make you a star! I’m gonna lift you out of this public radio ghetto.”
Yeah, that sort of thing.
Although, you were a giant star already.
Well, we’re pretty niche when it comes to ...
You’re a big fish in a podcast pond.
Fair enough. The other thing that happened was Cambridge Analytica, which was a story I had been on for a long time. And when it finally broke bigger, I was like, “Oh, okay.” I don’t know why I needed more confirmation that I was on the right track, but it felt like confirmation.
Then the third was that we met, we happened to get matched with these Civil folks. So, I went to see Josh Benson, you know Josh Benson?
So, Capital New York sold to Politico, now he and his co-founder, Tom McGeveran, and Katherine Lehr from Politico, over there, they’ve started their own thing called Old Town Media.
They’re media consultants.
They’re media consultants. And, somebody said, “You should go talk to Josh.” So, I went to talk to Josh, and the more I was telling him about what I was thinking I wanted to do, he was like, “Actually, I’m working on this other project. I’m recruiting for this project called Civil. What Civil is is essentially a journalism startup. They are identifying a group of journalists, we’re calling them the First Fleeters, and we are giving them grants. We’re giving them grants in real money, and we’re also giving them grants in a virtual currency that does not yet exist, but trust us, it will.” But, it was enough money that Jen ...
So, “here’s some real money that you, and your producer partner can actually start working.”
“And there’s also gonna be some digital stuff, and we’re gonna talk about that.”
Along the way, yeah.
Was this ... You were genuinely excited about the blockchain? Or someone was offering you a check and there weren’t a lot of strings and the check did not bounce?
Yeah, it was both. It was definitely both. On the one hand, it was like, “Okay we can make this ...” Oh, I should say that the guy who was gonna make me a star, the philanthropist, that fell apart.
It was a guy?
No, it was a place.
Was it a place run by a guy?
One might say.
Or a woman?
You don’t have to identify the person. It was not Laurene Powell Jobs.
You don’t identify the person. Because you might want their money someday.
It’s in that ... Yeah, I definitely don’t want to. It’s in that sphere, though.
At that point, Jen Poyant, my executive producer at WNYC and I were like, “Well, this is enough to get us started. Let’s do it.” It felt a little nuts, but one of the key things that I had felt at Note To Self was that as a journalist, when you are part of a public radio station, there’s only so far you can go in terms of switching to finding solutions. I felt like the show ... Like I was complaining a lot about the tech industry. And at some point, you kind of want to be like, “Well, okay, can we fix it please? Can we fix it?” I was tired of waiting for other people to do it. And what these Civil folks were saying was that you could be part of an experiment to find a solution to the journalism problem.
Okay, this next part is gonna involve coffee and some brain power.
Now we’re gonna talk about the blockchain.
That’s a hard pivot. I’m trying to figure out the best way to frame this.
It’s tough, right? Yeah.
So, if you’ve listened to this podcast, you’re aware that there’s cryptocurrency, and there’s bitcoin, and maybe some more interesting derivatives. You might be extra-educated about this and understand that blockchain is the underlying architecture that is supposed to make cool software projects happen and is also related to cryptocurrency. If you’re super, super, super sophisticated, you know the smart take is, “Hey, don’t get excited about bitcoin price swings. The cool part about all this stuff is the blockchain and all the cool shit that it’s gonna enable.”
I’ve spent a little time trying to figure this out as a lay person. I did an interview onstage at the Code Conference with a bunch of blockchain folks. As far as I can tell, in the real world, the way the blockchain might work today is useful for things like actually processing financial transactions.
Right? You can make things go faster.
That’s exactly right.
There’s a few more semi-real world examples where you could help track food poisoning.
Bad lettuce. Walmart and Krogers and different vendors and competitors could all pool their information together through this ledger, and then they can track that stuff.
Tracking of goods.
The rest of it all gets very hand-wavy. It’s “aaaaand something-something identity, and trust,” and it gets very vague, and you end up saying, “Well, when the internet showed up in 1993, or ’89, or ’86, we didn’t know what that was gonna be either, but turns out it changed the world. This is gonna be the same thing.” Have I summed up, sort of, the state of blockchain?
Yeah! I think you’ve done a very good job, actually.
So, here’s my question to you and to the blockchain people and the Civil people in general, which is, how does any of this relate to the challenges faced by journalism or by a media startup? What does this solve for you?
Okay. So, the issue with journalism, as you well know, is that most of the advertising revenue — podcasts seem to be a weird sort of outlier with this — but most of the advertising revenue these days, 90 percent of it goes to Facebook and Google, and that is why we have people like our colleague Jessica Lessin pivoting to subscription models where people pay however may hundreds of dollars a year in order to get the product, right?
I think one out of every three guests we have on this podcast ...
Is pivoting to publishing?
Pivoting or they started off with a subscription model, they’re talking about subscriptions.
Yeah. It’s big right now. Subscriptions are big.
Everyone’s gonna pay for everything.
Yes. So this is sort of a take on that, but the idea with Civil — and I must stress that I have complete editorial control and I do not work for Civil and I do not speak on their behalf; I’m speaking from the reporting that I’ve done and my experience as being part of this first fleet of journalists. So the idea being that there will be an ecosystem, the Civil platform, where, to the average layperson, you will come there and there’ll be all these cool news websites — maybe hundreds, maybe thousands eventually. And there will be a way that you will see that they are verified, that they have decided to stick to a code of ethics, and it’ll be on WordPress. It’ll just look completely normal. And if that’s all you want to do when you go to the Civil platforms, when you go to these websites like ...
I’ll go to a website, I’ll go to ... Is there a ZigZag.com?
There certainly is. ZigZagPod.com.
Dot-com. I’ve been there. It just looks like a regular website.
Looks like a regular website.
I don’t have to give anyone a bitcoin.
You don’t have to do anything.
And if that’s all you want to do, that’s totally fine. But on the backend there’s gonna be other things going on. There will be a crypto component. And at first I was like, “Why do you need the crypto stuff?” But now ...
This is my hour-long conversation with the Civil guys, saying, “How does the crypto, how does the blockchain improve or affect any of this? What does having any of this powered by or incorporated with blockchain or crypto do that I couldn’t do with a credit card or any other mechanism that I already use?”
So it’s so interesting to me. The episode that I just finished is about this idea of a token-curated registry. Now if your mind just like froze ...
I just heard all the podcasts turn off.
Yeah, no, don’t turn off. It is so interesting! It’s basically a combination ... It’s game theory, essentially, saying that like, “Oh, you don’t think that person should be able to publish news? Fine, put your money where your mouth is.” But in this case, it’s not money; it’s a digital currency, it’s the Civil Coin, right? So it basically creates a game where people will be able to vote for who gets to publish their news on the platform. If somebody wants to come in and it’s “fake news” or whatever we want to call it, they can vote them off the registry. It’s sort of creating a list, essentially, of people who’ve been vetted, who’ve been verified, who are adhering to a code of ethics, and that is the Civil constitution essentially.
And the token component has multiple uses, right? You can micro-tip if you want, not something you can do with subscription models; you’re either in or you’re out. But also it gives you a vote.
So the site is free, the publications are free, but they could be subscription-based, right?
That part doesn’t change.
So if I want to participate as a token holder, right? This is, I’m basically buying into the Civil company, but it’s not really a company, it’s a nonprofit. But now I’m actually buying a cryptocurrency.
It’s also like ... Go back to Mark Zuckerberg here. Let’s say we took him out of the equation and we turned Facebook over to the people, and we issued Facebook coins or tokens, and that was how you had a say in running it; you were an investor, essentially, in the platform itself.
Sort of owner-operated.
So I can kind of see the benefit to that, especially if it’s a small enough group where everyone is like-minded or like-minded enough. But I can also think of all the co-op board stories, horror stories I always heard, or the Park Slope food co-op stereotype of a bunch of squabbling people fighting over whatever. Or more broadly, Wikipedia. You know, Wikipedia works in lots of ways and also in many ways fails because it’s a group of people who can’t really decide on something and so you get these weird, bloodless descriptions of like the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which are barely factual and don’t really satisfy anybody.
And this is one of the problems I had when talking to the Civil guys. I’m like, “I don’t want my journalism, both as a consumer or as a producer, I don’t want it as part of this co-op. I don’t want someone telling me that my news is or isn’t verified. I can take care of that on my own, and I can deal with my audience on my own.”
Okay, that ... You say that as a journalist, but I think for lay people, we are learning that most of the population does not have the digital literacy to know the difference between real news and fake news. Obviously those are unlikely to be the people listening to this podcast.
To this podcast or, by the way, people who are figuring out how to get their hands on cryptocurrency. It is more difficult than taking out your wallet and taking out actual cash or a credit card.
Correct, correct. But back to your original question, which I think was that you don’t want anyone telling you what’s verified or not verified. And I think that’s the difference between Wikipedia ... Wikipedia is a single place where, like, what you see on Wikipedia, there’s only one entry for each thing. The idea is that there’s this ecosystem of news sites, and maybe you want to read some of them and maybe others aren’t your kind of thing, but you find what’s for you. And niche is okay; they don’t need to be massive. We’re not trying to build another like New York Times on here. This is small and specific and quality, right?
And what you’re talking about, the squabbling thing, that is the big question for this concept of a token-curated registry, that you have people who are like, “F that. I’m gonna buy 51 percent of the tokens and control this whole thing.”
Right. Or, “I’ve got a very specific problem with this specific podcast because they have this political bent that I hate.”
“I’m voting them off, I’m buying my ... Here’s where my tokens are,” so this is ... Okay, so you’re getting deep into the crypto economics sort of thought.
Oh no, I don’t want to go there.
No, you do! It’s so interesting, Peter! So this is what Civil has decided: It will have a council. I really think of it as like “Star Wars,” it’s a new kind of galaxy that we’re all gonna be in, and there is a council.
But those are the worst ... All the “Star Wars” movies with the council are the worst ones!
Okay, not the council.
Those are the George Lucas ones.
The ones in the beginning when they’re meeting and they’re looking at if they just have like one penetrating shot, it’ll blow up the whole thing. Think of it that way.
So in this case, I think Princess Leia is Vivian Schiller. Vivian Schiller, former president ... CEO of NPR, she was at Twitter, New York Times. She is the head of the council, and the idea being like, yeah, we can disagree about opinions, but facts and good, ethical journalism, facts and good, ethical journalism. And so she is pulling together this group that, if it does come down to being squabbling, like you’re talking about, there will be an advisory board, a place that will set the standard, sort of like the Supreme Court.
So we’ve started off with the idea that everyone gets a vote and everyone gets a say and everyone’s an owner, and that has pluses and minuses, to ... all right, really these people are in charge. It’s still a group, so now we seem a little closer to the old model.
Well, but then ... I know, there’s always something, there’s always more with Civil. They always have to like ... They’ve thought of everything.
You can see why this is a tough hour for me.
Yes, totally. But they have thought ... My experience is, so far, they seem to have thought of everything. So there actually can be, if the community decides to overrule the council, that is possible as well.
Here was the main takeaway that made sense to me, that was the main advantage for hosting something and hosting media on a blockchain platform, was ... And there’s a group doing this with Civil that came out of Gawker group, which is, if Peter Thiel sues you out of existence, if the billionaire sues you out of existence because they don’t like what you write, they can’t take your stuff down.
Because the community operates it, everyone’s got different keys. It cannot be taken down. That’s kind of outside the bounds of theory, outside the bounds of conventional law.
That’s exactly right.
We’ll see how that works in real life, but we’ll see.
That’s the idea, yeah.
So that part makes sense. The core part, leaving aside the weird council part, trade tariffs I still don’t understand ... I don’t understand so many things. I don’t understand how this fixes any of the economic problems that journalism faces, right? By the way, your podcast has Casper ads and are really kind of standard, right?
Yes, we are a weird situation. Should I go into that?
We can in a bit, but you know, it looks like it’s a standard journalism startup, right? You’ve got some advertising, maybe you’re gonna ask users/readers/listeners for money. That all makes sense.
They’ve already volunteered to give it to us, oddly.
So I just don’t get how the blockchain fixes that or improves that. The only thing I can think is that there’s just a lot of hype around blockchain and ICOs and crypto; you’ve got a lot of people investing in these things, really because they’re just interested in seeing if the token appreciates. Not the worst idea to get people’s money. And if some of that money sloughs off and allows you to fund your operation, great. But I don’t get how this fixes any of the problems.
And this is, again, why I had a difficult hour with the Civil guys. They said, “Well this is gonna solve local journalism’s problems.” And I kept thinking, “Local journalism’s problem is that they have a tiny market and not enough subscribers to fund a very small operation.” I don’t see how this fixes any of that.
It really kind of reminds me of, if you got into your covered wagon and you were like, “We’re going west and we’re gonna look for gold.” Like if there’s gold in the hills or wherever, then you could build a homestead, right? And if there’s not, you’re kinda screwed. That’s what the token economies are that are launching, is my sense.
So I should tell you, like Vivian Schiller, the other thing that she’s doing is she’s gonna be running the Civil foundation, which is this idea that they’ll be making grants to newsrooms as well, giving people who can’t buy into the token economy. They will fund them or, you know, whatever the process might be.
Great. I’m all for that.
I think Facebook, by the way, should just be taxed and should have to distribute ...
By the way, I told the Facebook people this.
What’d they say?
And they looked as if I was high on multiple drugs and naked and waving a spear. Like, “Well that doesn’t make any sense.”
Are you friends with any journalist who’ve gone over to work for them?
Yeah. It’s interesting what happens, isn’t it? Who knows, it could happen to us.
Well, they’re not a journalism platform.
Yeah. Anyway, back to the idea ... I mean, look, they don’t ... This is not the purpose of Civil. They are very much journalism-minded, but let’s be clear, when you have a token sale, the idea is to raise money, right? So I think they may not put it this way, but the way I see it, is there is enough curiosity, excitement, hype maybe that this will create a fund, essentially.
And this part, there’s a rough parallel to the web, right? The boom of the late ’90s, lots of dumb companies got funded, lots of interesting companies got funded. And a lot of them are being funded by people who were speculating because there was a dot-com boom, and if you turned on CNBC, they were showing you the theglobe.com’s IPO pop. And it was ridiculous, but there was real money, and if you could use it to build something, go for it.
That’s exactly right, but I think that what Civil is trying and what we are being very careful to say to our listeners is like, don’t do this because you think you’re gonna make a ton of money. I’m not doing it because I think I’m gonna make a ton of money. The whole purpose of the token is not to have like an exit and a cashout, right? The purpose of it is to mow it back into the ecosystem.
I thought you were supposed to hold it long enough to buy a Lambo. Did I get that part?
I just want a Subaru. I’m kidding. I don’t want any car because public transportation all the way. The collective idea ...
If you want a Subaru, I may have one to sell you in a bit.
Oh really? We should talk after. That’s our lives, essentially.
I want to talk more about this. Let’s go back to blockchain for a second.
You’ve launched a podcast and a media company on blockchain, you’re creating a podcast about it. I know the podcast is going well because I’ve been listening to it. It’s great. How about the actual funding, running of a ... Is it two people or have you hired people?
It’s two of us. No.
Are you paying bills?
We are paying bills. We have not bankrupted ourselves, we’re still speaking to each other.
We’re actually having a lot of fun and creatively feeling satisfied.
Is there a token sale yet? Have you ...
We’re in a weird ... So, I should be clear. Because one collective isn’t enough for us, we are part of two collectives. So we are paying the bills in part because we are part of Radiotopia.
Roman Mars. We had him in here.
Roman Mars. He’s the best. Roman Mars, when I went and said I have this weird idea, he’s like, “Cool. Do it,” and brought us into the Radiotopia collective.
Where you should be.
It’s a good place to be. We’re happy to be there. And that is why we do have advertising, in part, also because podcasts are this old-school technology, it’s the MP3 format, it’s an RSS feed. It can’t live on the blockchain, yet. So when you listen to ZigZag, you’re hearing it as old-school tech, right? With the rest of our stuff.
Yeah. You go to Apple Podcasts or whatever distributor you like.
Exactly, right. Until there’s like Civil podcasts.
And you listen to it for free.
There’s no ... Is there gonna be a subscription version of this?
I think there will be eventually. We’re not sure what that will look like because I think what has happened to Jen and I is something rather unusual in that we are having to live in this moment, right now, this summer. It is a grand social experiment that Civil is attempting, we are along for this ride, and until the token sale happens, which is imminent, we won’t know what our budget looks like.
So are you selling tokens specific to Stable Genius/ZigZag or is it part of Civil’s tokens?
We were given a grant that was half regular money, half tokens. So we have to see what those tokens are worth.
But the token sale, it’s a Civil token sale?
It’s a Civil token, correct.
So Civil, the platform, is gonna sell ...
Civil the platform, exactly.
Is gonna say, “We’re selling X amount.” Do they say ...
100 million coins or $100 million?
And what’s the thought about how much money that’s gonna raise?
Depends on the market price.
What’s the range?
I have no idea. I’ve asked; they’ve refused to give me a specific answer. So I don’t know.
They’re selling 100 million coins?
I think I can reasonably assume those coins are gonna sell for more than a dollar.
I think so.
Okay. So we’re talking about hundreds of millions, into the billions, potentially.
It’s crypto-world, it’s the summer of 2018. Anything could happen.
Anything could happen.
But it is no longer weird to have token sales that range above a billion dollars.
Again, there’s a whole ... Many of these ICOs, right? That’s a token sale. So this is an IPO using cryptocurrency. Many of these ...
Yeah. This is not an ICO because there is not a securities element to it. But yes.
There’s a whole discussion about what’s a security, what isn’t, and it’s mind-blowing. And there’s people who are going and camping out outside the U.S. so they’re not ... They think they’re free of U.S. regulation.
I didn’t even know that. That’s interesting.
There’s a really interesting woman I talked to. You should talk to her about all this stuff. Now she works at Andreessen.
She was a DOJ crypto specialist, then she was a lecturer, and now she’s ...
Then she went off the grid. Now she’s with Andreessen?
Now she’s back on. Yeah.
Now she’s back on. But the point is, theoretically there could be just a giant pile of money to divide between you and how many others? Civil.
Well, we don’t have all of the coins.
Yeah, no. Between you and how many other Civil media startups are there?
There are about 20 of us.
Twenty of you, you won’t get all of it.
Oh, no no no. There’s a ton that is ...
In theory, a ton of money could rain down on your startup.
Maybe not a ton, but enough that we could make another podcast and maybe hire some people.
Would you just get a lump sum saying, “Well, you’re ...”
No. We’d have to decide whether we would sell the tokens or not. Maybe we would decide not to. I don’t know. It depends how this whole thing flies. It’s an extremely weird, weird situation to be in.
That’s going to happen sometime this summer.
Sometime after you listen to this podcast, which is this week.
Pretty soon. Yes.
Okay. Are you prepping for this?
You’re just going ahead and doing your thing.
I’m not a prepper.
Then some money may show up or not show up.
Yeah. Right now, honestly, I think that’s ... We’re two moms who are trying to get their kids off to camp every morning and trying to pay the coworking space bill and killing ourselves editing this podcast that we want to be the best thing that we have ever made in our lives. If we can get those things done, if these tokens work out, amazing. But I’m not holding my breath for that. However, you know what I’m really psyched about? Owning my work.
That part is cool.
That part is really cool. That’s the key thing with Radiotopia and Civil is that anybody who makes anything for those collectives owns their intellectual property.
Let’s talk about starting your own company.
You do not fit the conventional startup profile.
You’re a woman.
You’re not a Stanford grad?
You’re not a 20-something.
No. How could you tell, Peter?
I actually Googled. You can Google Manoush’s age. She can tell you.
I’ll tell you. I’m 45.
You’re 45. I’m all for people doing startups, it’s great.
One of the reasons a stereotypical startup person is a young dude in their 20s who could go to Stanford or Harvard but decided not to, is that’s the kind of person with the optionality, right? The financial flexibility that generally upper-middle-class people who either don’t need to worry about money to begin with or don’t need to have much money because they can live like a Ramen person. But you have kids and rent or mortgage. You live in Brooklyn. It’s not cheap to live in Brooklyn.
No. All that.
How do you decide, “Yeah, I want to do this thing that really doesn’t have a safety net”?
Well, part of it is that you feel propelled by something beyond you. Literally, I’ve never had that feeling before. Well, once I had it, when I quit my job at the BBC 15 years ago. At that point, I was like, “I’m never working for a media company again.” Then I did. I went back to work for WNYC, which was a wonderful experience, but the ... I don’t know. I’ve heard other entrepreneurs describe it. It is like a frickin’ fire that sets in you. You really feel like, “I must surrender.” You know?
Did you think about, “All right. I’m going to go and do my own thing. Why don’t I go talk to VCs,” the way everyone else is supposed to do it?
We did do that. I think that’s episode four. I think the key thing was what I have been doing, which was on Note To Self, looking at why the business models of all these tech companies have gotten to the point where they have to take advantage of their consumers. I think VC money is a big issue with that.
Because you are not making your technology for your consumers. You’re making it for the shareholders.
Making it for the shareholders, who by the way not only want a return, but if it’s a VC, the expectation is, “You’re going to give me 10x.” If things work out well ...
I went to see a VC who was like, “Oh, no. At the stage you’re at, we want 100x.” I was like, “Well, there is no way that we can stick to our principles and our mission — and our company does have a mission — and do that. It’s just not possible.”
Because the things that would require that kind of growth are going to require ethical compromises or worse.
Lots of shortcuts. What we’re making is not about shortcuts. It takes time. It takes research. It takes investigation. I think the key thing that I want to continue doing, which I sort of — I don’t want to use the word “pioneered” — with Note To Self is we would take a thesis and we would test it by having listeners ... Tens of thousands of listeners join in a week-long study that we would do with them. Super fun, where they would change their digital habits and report back. The feedback that I got from academics, from technologists, from designers was, “Oh, you’re basically beta testing all of this and you’re doing research in a way that is not being done in other places.”
Note To Self was a themed podcast around digital life and what using personal technology does and doesn’t do for us.
The pros and cons. You spent a lot of time saying, “Hey, why don’t you turn off your device for X amount of time and report back?”
Right. To be clear, it wasn’t just like, “Turn off your phone!” It was like, “Phones are wonderful. I love my phone.” It was, “Do it in this very specific way. Here are the reasons why.” I actually wrote an entire book based on it. It’s called “Bored and Brilliant.” It was about this one week that we did with 20,000 listeners, where every day we explained a design concept or a tech concept and how that ... What the field of informatics is, computer human interaction. Then we asked them to try something very simple that day. We didn’t expect it to necessarily work. It was an experiment. Then they would report back on what did and didn’t work.
“Try thinking about the way you use personal technology in a different lens. Be thoughtful and mindful about these devices and the fact that you control them. They shouldn’t control you. If they are, maybe you should rethink.” You were early on an idea that has gotten much more mainstream.
It’s totally mainstream now. It’s weird.
Yeah. I want to talk about how mainstream it is or isn’t, but it definitely has resonance now, at least in the media discussion, and the Facebook stuff has really brought it to the fore. Now you see stories like Nellie Bowles at the Times, “Here’s how grayscale works.” If you go through these hoops to make your phone less interesting, it’ll make your life better, which is again confusing to me. Why don’t you just put it in your pocket?
Well, that was what I thought. Then I started to be like, “Why can’t I just put it in my pocket? Oh.” Then I started to understand.
Bright colors are compelling me to do this.
Yeah, and all the ways ... What the business models are. I think for me, as someone who was not into tech, starting to sort of break it apart was fascinating. It was a weird interdisciplinary mix of neuroscience and economics and personal psychology and graphic design and all of those things mushed together to create these amazing experiences that also ... I know that people are like, “Tech isn’t inherently good or bad.” Well, actually, sometimes it’s good and sometimes it is bad. Let’s tease that apart because we want more of the good stuff!
Let’s think about how you can use a hammer appropriately and inappropriately.
It does make me think a little bit when I read these discussions ... It does make me think about ... I don’t know. Organic food. When you say it’s mainstream, it’s mainstream within a group of people that you and I know.
For some people, sure. Yes.
A lot of people that work in media. It gives you the sense that this is a broader discussion. I would assume that most of the country and most phone and technology users aren’t thinking about this stuff at all. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing it.
Right, but we’ve got to start somewhere.
Yeah. Also, we have the ability and the luxury to grapple with these things. I just showed you my phone before the break ended.
Yeah, you took Twitter off.
I took Twitter off. It’s my summer thing. I still use Twitter, but I take it off my phone.
That’s great. That’s one of the things that we had people do.
It makes me happier that it’s not on my phone because there’s more hoops ... I have to use it professionally.
By the way, I like Twitter. But there’s a lot of Twitter use that makes me unhappy.
It’s like a little life hack. You have to sit down in front of your computer and you probably only do it for 20 minutes instead of checking it all day long. The net effect is more happiness. That’s a win.
Yeah. I can’t be too proud of myself. I’ve got the phone in my pocket and a frickin’ Apple Watch.
Yeah, an Apple Watch.
But I’m still using my phone probably as much. It’s just instead of going to Twitter, I’m now hanging out on Facebook, which is way less interesting, frankly.
Don’t do that. Yeah.
Facebook is in a weird spot.
Really? I’ve never had a personal Facebook profile.
I’ve met a couple people like you.
Yeah. We’re weird, right?
Yeah, but it seems like people who are vegans or ... I know guys who are like, “I don’t enjoy sports. I will never talk about them,” to the point where I won’t even make small talk about it.
Well, mine is because I think people are afraid of death, but we don’t have to go into that.
Afraid of death?
Yeah. Anyway, sorry. I threw you off.
I just fell off the table. We just spent a year thinking and talking about Facebook. Should Facebook be fixed? Who will fix Facebook? Does Mark Zuckerberg need to be fired? Who’s going to be punished? I have more than a sneaking suspicion that Facebook is going to keep motoring along the way it is.
Yeah, it’s a utility. Sure.
It’s a utility. I don’t think their share of advertising dollars is going down.
It’s possible that their usage actually ... I think that is their big worry is that enough of this public discussion happens that people have an overall negative impression of Facebook. They spend a little less time there and a little more time somewhere else.
Have you seen the ads on the subway, by the way?
They’re really weird.
I saw them in Chicago first. Now you see them. There’s video ads. By the way, Facebook sometimes sponsors this podcast.
No, it’s funny. It’s a very weird ad saying, “Facebook is no stranger to controversy.” Something, something.
Oh, I heard it when I was listening the other day. Yes.
You can learn more ...
It was very strange.
I love that we’re talking about your ads on your show about media.
I don’t read those ads, too.
I’m such a dork that this is my happy moment for today, by the way.
I’m happy to please.
What are we talking about?
I don’t know. I feel like you and I ... This is where I pour you another drink, except that it’s too early for that. It’s my iced coffee.
You’re halfway through the podcast. Your podcast.
What are we going to learn the rest of the way through? We don’t know, because you’re doing it in real time, right?
Yes, but I will tell you this. We will find out whether this token thing flies. That is what’s going to happen.
Again, if it flies, you are not going to show up in a Lambo the next time I see you.
I promise you that will not happen.
Will you hire more people?
Yes, and we will try to build the ethical media company of our dreams. Our goal with our production company is to make media that helps people navigate personal and global change.
That all sounds good. What have you learned about running a media company? It’s a two-person media company.
It’s you and a partner who were working together already.
Still, it’s different than having an employer cut you a check.
Oh, it’s different. No doubt. The partner thing is ... That is real. Being able to be with someone who gets your shorthand. That is no joke. I see these people who have been “matched” to start a company. That blows my mind.
“I am looking for a technical co-founder.”
Exactly. Yeah. The difference is that we are making something very creative. That’s been a renegotiation of our roles, which has been really interesting, but good. Very good. For now, I’m sure she’s going to want to kill me soon and I’ll want to kill her, but ...
What do you think about being a boss? At some point, if it goes well, you’re going to hire people.
I don’t like being a boss.
How is that going to work?
I’m terrified about that. Part of the reason I became a reporter ... I was one of the youngest people to run the BBC’s New York Bureau after 9/11. I just hated being a manager. I was 27 years old. I didn’t know what I was doing and no one trained me. I was like, “You know what? F it. I’m going to be a reporter.” You don’t have to deal with that stuff. That’s why I became a reporter.
The thought of managing a lot of people does not excite me. However, if it’s for the good of a company that I’m building, I think I’ll feel differently. I want to find ways to invest staff in what we’re making in ways that I have not seen them incentivized at other places where I’ve worked.
That sounds good.
It does, right?
You’re kind of looking forward to it with apprehension.
Correct. That’s pretty much my life right there.
With a sense of mission.
Yes! That is my life.
How about that?
That’s my Instagram bio.
Oh, we can do better than that. But all right. Yeah. That’s good. You got a podcast recommendation for us? Besides our podcast, which you listen to. Besides yours.
I knew you were going to ask that. I do listen to yours. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I’ve heard that Angry Feminist is good.
Can I tell you a secret? I don’t know if you agree with this.
Just between us.
Yeah, just between us. Most people who make podcasts don’t listen to podcasts.
How can that be?
They won’t tell you because it sounds counterintuitive.
Why would you do it, though?
Because here’s the thing. I am a mimic. If I listen to too many things that other people are making, it will seep into the thing that I’m making.
I get that. I just don’t understand why you would make this product if you didn’t like the product.
No, but when I’m in the midst of really hardcore creative producing and making a show that I want to sound like nothing else out there, I can’t listen to other things.
You still want me to make a recommendation, but you also want me to wrap up. I can read your body language.
Okay. I have Call Your Girlfriend on here. I have Unchained. Laura Shin, if you want to get crypto crazy. She’s badass.
We’ll do that. We’ve had Amina on before.
Laura Shin is Unchained. She was at Forbes and now she’s all crypto, all the time. What else do I have? That’s all I got.
One is good.
Okay, cool. I want to listen to Hysteria, but I haven’t listened to it yet, from the Crooked people.
Yeah. I can do one Crooked podcast, I find.
They’re an interesting model.
I need to branch out. I need fewer white dudes.
What are you listening?
I’m a comedy nerd.
Oh, you’re a comedy nerd?
Yeah. Improv for Humans is my laugh out loud.
Oh, I’m going to check that out.
It’s one of the co-founders of The Upright Citizens Brigade, Matt Besser. It turns out that improv comedy works really well in podcast world.
Yeah, which you wouldn’t think.
Yeah. They have genius podcasts.
Oh, I’ve got to listen to that.
What’s it called again?
Improv for Humans.
Okay. I like that.
Maybe I could do Improv for Machines. Just try to get all our devices to sync.
Yeah, metal machine.
Dumb shit. Yeah.
This is the part where we just tail off.
It’s great. I don’t think that I have a deep understanding of blockchain after this podcast, but I appreciate your enthusiasm.
But do you feel intrigued and do you think that it’s something that you want to watch and maybe learn more about? Maybe even see if it works.
Look, if this funds in any sustainable way, more interesting media companies, great. Full stop.
That’s what I feel like.
That’s all in the end.
I don’t think I want to work at a platform run by community or council. I would love community input. I love your input, podcast listeners.
But you could come work for us. We don’t work for them, right?
Yeah, but I like working for Vox Media.
Oh, no. Obviously.
Jim Bankoff’s listening to this.
Yeah. No, I have a total lady crush on Kara Swisher, by the way.
Who doesn’t have a lady crush on Kara Swisher? Hi, Kara. Okay. That’s Manoush’s water bottle.
No, it’s fine. It’s good. It’s a loose and easy summer podcast. Thanks, Manoush. This was great.
You’re super fun. Thanks for having me.
Thanks to you guys for listening. Before we go, one more time, tell someone else about this show. You know how to do that. You are smart. Thanks to our sponsors. Thanks to Cadence13 and Vox Media, who sell those ads so you can listen to Recode Media for free. Thanks to Joel Raabe, who edits this show, and to my producers, Golda Arthur and Eric Johnson. Also, thanks to Benjamin Kafka, who sat there quietly. Ben, can you hear me?
Manoush Zomorodi: Yeah. You rock, Ben.
Peter Kafka: Come on up, Ben. Do you want to use Manoush’s microphone for a second and say hi?
Ben Kafka: Hello!
Peter Kafka: Hello. Ben, what are you doing here today? Shouldn’t you be in school?
Ben Kafka: School’s over.
Peter Kafka: Oh, right. What do you do in the summer?
Ben Kafka: Camp.
Peter Kafka: What camp?
Ben Kafka: I’m supposed to be going to Camp Half-Blood, but the doctor said I need 24 hours for my symptoms ...
Manoush Zomorodi: Wait. My kid is there. What troop are you in?
Ben Kafka: I’m in Apollo this year.
Peter Kafka: It’s a sword-fighting camp.
Ben Kafka: Basically.
Peter Kafka: It’s an awesome camp. Basically, all podcasters and other media people ... Jonah Peretti’s kids were in there recently. Everyone’s kids are at Camp Half-Blood. If you would like to go hang out with some media people, go to pick up or drop off.
Manoush Zomorodi: Yeah. Don’t tell them where.
Peter Kafka: No, no. Don’t go there. Okay. Ben?
Ben Kafka: Yeah.
Peter Kafka: Thanks for coming. Did you learn about Manoush’s podcast?
Manoush Zomorodi: Ben, what’s your dad like at home?
Peter Kafka: Oh, yeah.
Ben Kafka: It depends.
Manoush Zomorodi: Is he grouchy or funny?
Ben Kafka: It depends.
Manoush Zomorodi: Depends. Does he ...
Peter Kafka: Ben, you look extraordinarily uncomfortable right now.
Ben Kafka: Mostly he just sits on his bed and plays Fortnite.
Manoush Zomorodi: Oh, nailed.
Peter Kafka: Sometimes I sit on the couch and play Fortnite though, right? Okay, we’re going to leave the podcast there. Good job, Ben. This is Recode Media. I’ll see you next week.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.