On his Vox.com podcast Today, Explained, Sean Rameswaram explains the news. But on the latest episode of Recode Decode, he sat down with Recode’s Kara Swisher to explain podcasting itself, and how the hit true crime podcast Serial turned digital audio hobbyists into a full-blown industry.
“It’s the freedom of the medium, and it’s the fact that I can listen to it whenever I want,” Rameswaram said of Serial, which debuted in 2014. “It’s not like I needed to tune in on Saturday morning at 10 am to catch This American Life or wait four days for them to post it online. It was this buzzy, well-made thing that I could get whenever I wanted, that didn’t have to play by any rules, that came out at the exact right moment.”
Comparing the current state of podcasting to black-and-white movies, Rameswaram — who got his start in public radio — said he’s excited by the untapped potential of the medium, citing new shows like WNYC’s 10 Things That Scare Me or Jon Mooallem’s performance art-y show WALKING.
“He walks around, in the woods, in a park, on a sidewalk, and he just records it and then at some point in the show he stops and he reads an ad and then he starts walking again,” he said. “It’s like 45 minutes long. He doesn’t say a damn thing. He just walks.”
“We just don’t need another chat show person,” Rameswaram added. “There will be another great chat show, mark my words, but I think people forget that this is a medium with no limitations and what’s ... It’s very democratic. Anyone can do it. You can make a podcast with your cellphone on the subway and it could be good.”
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Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Sean.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode. You may know me as the host of the podcast, Today, Explained Explained, where I summarize what Sean Rameswaram said in his podcast, but in my spare time I talk tech and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Today in the red chair is Sean Rameswaram, the host of the Vox.com podcast Today, Explained. It’s a daily news explainer show that launched a little over a year ago. Before coming to Vox, Sean worked at WNYC, where he created a pop culture podcast called Sideshow and worked on More Perfect, a podcast about the Supreme Court from the makers of Radiolab. Sean, welcome to Recode Decode.
Sean Rameswaram: Thank you, Kara. Can I just say quickly how weird it is being interviewed in this Today, Explained studio, where I have never been interviewed before.
In your studio, we are here, right where the magic happens.
I do all the interviews, now I’m being interviewed.
That’s your little studio. I don’t have a studio and they don’t give me one, Sean, even though I make a pile of money from Vox Media.
We can share, you can use ours anytime.
No, it’s all right, it’s fine, I’m ... whatever. Anyway, I’ll take that up with Jim Bankoff. But let’s, you know I did a podcast with Ezra [Klein], who is a colleague also, and from time to time we do these podcasts. But you’re doing some really interesting stuff and I want to talk about podcasting in general and how you got to doing it, so people get an idea of the business. There’s just an idea, running for president is like having a podcast, Democratic for podcast, you know these things have become rather popular of late.
Everybody’s doing it.
Everybody’s doing it but they’re not doing it well, but that’s beside the point. Anyway, talk about your journey from doing this, because it has changed. I started mine about four or five years ago, something like that now, but talk about your journey and why you got into this.
So just shy of 10 years ago, this exciting new president had been elected, had come to Washington, DC.
Was his name Obama?
Barack Hussein Obama, and it seemed like there was a lot of jobs, whereas the rest of the country was experiencing quite a recession. So I came out here looking for something to do and wound up in radio, and then fast-forward 10 years, another exciting president has come to Washington, DC, and I sorta came back to do that. In between that there was a lot of trial and error, because 10 years ago this little podcasting industry that you like to talk about ...
Did you start in the podcasting ...?
Just didn’t exist, you could not make money in podcasting. No one was, it was sort of this alt scene and if you wanted to ...
How did you get into it? Explain how you got into it.
So I listened to a lot of public radio. I’m part of this generation of people who got into podcasting because they were into public radio. So I listen to a lot of WAMU here in Washington, DC.
Diane Rehm Show.
Diane Rehm, Kojo, shout out to Kojo Nnamdi. And I’d been applying for jobs there and no response, I thought I was like some hot shit, just got out of college, spoke Spanish, went to Broad, volunteered, did all this stuff, no one cared. No one cared at all. And so I started taking a different tack, which was just emailing the news director at WAMU — Jim Asendio was his name — and just saying like, “Hey, can I come hang out for free in your newsroom and work for you for free?”
Hmm, free is a good price.
He didn’t respond, dude wasn’t interested, and then I just kept following up, kept following up, kept following up, and then eventually he said, “Sure.” Like a one word response. “Sure. Come in, let’s talk.” I go in, we talk…
… and he says, “You know, if you wanna come hang out here, go for it. We’ll see if you fit anywhere.” And that turned into writing part-time for the radio station. I was writing for some of the reporters there, the reporters there took a liking to me, would teach me things here and there, but I really could not ... I struggled to get my voice on the air, which at a radio newsroom, if you’re not getting your voice on the air, you’re not really doing a damn thing.
So then I started looking for jobs elsewhere. Looked all around DC, started looking in Virginia, started looking in Philadelphia, my radius kept getting bigger until I was looking across the country. And in Canada and I found a tiny little radio station in Santa Cruz, California, it doesn’t exist anymore, KUSP, R.I.P. And they gave me the opportunity to just do whatever I wanted for like $13 an hour, no benefits. So I got to host All Things Considered, I got to do news and traffic, all the local stuff. I was doing like promos, we were going to Monterey Jazz festivals, doing social media, doing everything.
So I went from being in a corner of a public radio station in a big market — DC — to doing everything in a tiny market one block away from the ocean in Santa Cruz, California, and that’s where I learned a ton. And then at some point ...
That would be an interesting setting, because the University of California is there and that’s the cool UC.
It was a cool place. I was a very rare breed, though. I was a person who had finished college and came to Santa Cruz, California, to work because work is not a huge thing out there, it turns out.
Yeah, it’s an odd town, I like to say. I brought my kids there many times, yeah.
Yeah, a lot of trust funds and then some college students.
Yeah, right. Exactly. A nice weird amusement park by the beach. A creepy amusement park, which was in Lost Boys. The city’s claim to fame, which was a vampire movie.
Right. Claim to fame. Lost Boys and quite a few serial killers for an ...
Yes, exactly. Was Keanu Reeves in it?
Yeah, or anyway it was ... anyway, it was a weird little town, it’s a great town but it’s weird.
Sure, great boardwalk.
So you did whatever.
So I did everything there, and then at some point, two years go by, I figure like, “Okay, it’s time for me to get a job.” I really had my eyes set on being a producer at a big national show. Because again, podcasting ...
We’re talking like 2011, 2012, still not a thing. I mean, a growing thing, but not the kind of thing you could go get a job with benefits and make money doing. And so I’m looking at all these public radio stations, NPR, and I had a real character-building 18 months in the wilderness, trying to find a full-time job. It was discouraging, I almost gave up, and then right when I was on the precipice of giving up, I got a job as a producer of Studio 360 with Kurt Anderson. And I got to go to New York and work at WNYC, which if you wanna work ...
Right, which is one of the big radio stations.
If you wanna work for a public radio station, it doesn’t get much bigger or better than WNYC, considering the history, it’s got to be at least — or the oldest station in the country.
The Boston one, them and the Boston one are the two big ones.
Exactly, yeah, a lot of history. And, that was kind of what opened up a lot of opportunities, I guess. There I got to host the spin-off show called Sideshow, I got to go guest host Q at the CBC in Canada.
Yeah, this was a podcast though, this was a pop culture podcast?
Yeah, and it was at this time, around 2013, ’14, ’15 where you start to see the real interest in podcasts...
What did you think of them? What was the first ones you listened to?
Radiolab, WTF with Markie Mark, the big ones, I would say. And my thing back then, I was still a public radio junkie, I was like On The Media, This American Life was the kind of stuff I would listen to as a podcast.
Right, Ira Glass.
Yeah, I still hadn’t discovered the niche world as much as I would have liked, I think. But there was this sort of momentum around ... I think at WNYC at the time, it was like, “Man, podcasts can really drive more traffic to our websites.” I think that’s kind of how people were thinking about it.
Yeah, they were, they were.
Yeah, you have a podcast, all of a sudden there’s more young energy, more stuff being made that people are going to click on on social media, and it’s going to drive traffic to these websites, but public radio stations had sites that no one visited.
Right but they thought about it separately. We had visited the local NPR station in San Francisco to try to get initially a show there.
Yeah, when was that?
Oh, five years ago.
Around then, okay, yeah.
Yeah around then. And then ... four or five years, something like that. And then we talked to iHeartRadio and tried out a weekly radio show and I remember Bob Pittman, he would admit this to this day, he’s like, “Podcasts aren’t going anywhere.” And I was like, “All right, well, we like them.” You know what I mean? It was a really interesting, but podcasts were something nobody, they just were like, “Go do it if you want.”
WNYC knew, because they had experienced incredible success with Freakonomics and Radiolab, but there still weren’t opportunities just dropping out of the sky for young producers to get involved. But On The Media had a spin-off podcast called TL;DR, which is now Reply All, which was very successful for them, not only in doubling I think their downloads but in driving, as I said, a lot of traffic to the website. So Studio 360, which is a similar show — a weekly sort of arts and culture magazine hour-long that came out on radio stations across the country — was thinking, “Hey, maybe if we did a spin-off podcast it could also boost our downloads.”
That was thought of as a spin-off, they were all thought of as spin-offs, right?
Totally, spin-off was the name of the game at WNYC, it’ll help bring more attention to the big show and I think develop ...
The big broadcast show.
Yeah, and develop some younger talent. So I got to do the TL;DR thing at Studio 360, it was called Sideshow, it was a whole lot of fun, and that opened up a bunch of other doors for me.
Yeah, and then More Perfect, why the Supreme Court?
Why the Supreme Court, that’s is a question for Jad Abumrad, but I think the answer is they made an episode about the Supreme Court called “Adoptive Girl,” I think, it was this really brilliant story reported by a guy named Tim Howard who then went on to be producer at Reply All, and I think Jad just saw that, “Wow, the Supreme Court has all of the drama and twists and surprises and gravity of the stories I like to tell. But it’s this whole world of those stories. This one episode of Radiolab was so good, why don’t we try and make a whole bunch of them?” And so they decided to launch a show. I actually came up with the name of it, More Perfect, and ...
There’s a more perfect union.
Exactly, and I hung out for two seasons and made some episodes I’m really proud of including one about a rule called the Batson Rule, which is from a case called Batson vs. Kentucky, which is about racial discrimination in jury selection, and then one about the Second Amendment with Dick Heller and his big case, Heller vs. The District of Columbia.
Yup, that’s a big case. So, you then decided you wanted to have your own show, right? You’re like, “That’s enough of this.”
I thought I could be good at it. I mean, I was happy making More Perfect. This show, the Today, Explained thing, they kind of approached me.
Right, and one of the things that you were talking about, not making money and doing things in this area, what do you imagine made it spike? Was it Serial or The Daily? What do you think is the thing ...
Serial for sure.
Serial for sure.
Serial, I think no one had seen success like Serial, or imagined it. I mean, Serial, it’s still I think ... and even when they’re not putting out episodes, it’s in the top 10 downloaded podcasts, right?
Sure. Why do you think that was, what happened there? There was some good stuff, Marc Maron was doing great stuff, a lot of people were doing great stuff, what’s his name, Ze Frank was doing stuff, yeah.
Serial really captured the imagination of what the medium could do. I think before that, you had a lot of radio shows that people listened to as podcasts, and then you had a lot of podcasts that were sort of like lo-fi, Marc Maron talking to his friends, but it’s really compelling because Marc Maron has famous friends, and they have good stories.
Serial was narrative, and it was narrative produced by the best people in the business — Ira, Sarah Koenig, Starlee Kline — all these people who had made really great radio for years were making some of those podcasts first. And true crime, it was the perfect thing, right, because people just are nuts for true crime. And it wasn’t necessarily a brand new idea, serialized radio about crime is decades and decades and decades old. It was just sort of a forgotten idea, tailored to this new medium at exactly the right time.
And why is it different from radio broadcast? Because they’ve been doing this on Ira Glass’s show, This American Life, they’ve been doing this in broadcast form. And you know, you have the typical NPR story, like, “Here, in the village of Zihuatanejo in Mexico ...” you know what I mean. And then tinkle-tinkle, take all of the ...
Yeah, but that story is four minutes long, sometimes it’s eight minutes long. Serial could be 40 minutes long, it could be 45, it could be an hour.
Right, so that’s the difference?
It could feature the curse words, it could be grim, it could be really dark, it didn’t need to cut to an ad, right? I mean, I think there are a lot of things that freed up ...
So name more of those, I’d really like to get a sense of why that happened.
Why did ...
Yeah why did that ... is it just the length?
I think it’s the freedom of the medium, and it’s the fact that I can listen to it whenever I want. It’s not like I needed to tune in on Saturday morning at 10 am to catch This American Life or wait four days for them to post it online. It was this buzzy, well-made thing that I could get whenever I wanted, that didn’t have to play by any rules, that came out at the exact right moment, that had the platform of This American Life to promote it. I think the first episode at least of Serial was played on This American Life, so it had every public radio station in the country promoting it, essentially. And then the buzz went from there.
And people got used to it. I also don’t want to leave out the idea of these devices, how the devices ... and earphones changed, the AirPod, things like that.
Do you have AirPods?
Yes, of course, I’ve had them for years, since the beginning. I’m not getting the new ones, though.
I still have wires.
Yeah, I’m sorry.
Do you still respect me?
Not really, but that’s okay. I am judging you silently. Well, actually loudly.
But the shifting to mobile, that people use these as entertainment devices, not just listening but watching. And the ease of doing that I think is also ... people got the iPhone in 2007, but it was later, it took off in that way.
And that’s the thing, I think a word you used there that is very interesting is “entertainment.” People were tweeting about this murder and whether Adnan did it or not as if it was a joke, I think, and that was really interesting for me to see, I was like, “Somebody died here, families were ruined by this.” But I think there was that zeitgeisty cultural moment where like, everyone needed to know who did it, it was like, did Tony die at the end of The Sopranos or something. But of course, it was also journalism, and so I think it caught the people who wanted to hear a good journalistic, important story being told, but also the people who just wanted to be entertained on the way home from work.
Using a technology that now really worked well, and then Apple pushing the podcasts, and Google getting into it, it just created sort of this perfect storm. A lot of things need that technological boost to happen, like there’s all kinds of examples of that where some format doesn’t hit until there’s the actual devices to make people use it. And peoples’ comfort level with using, that was interesting.
And there were meetings at public radio stations across the country after that happened, saying like, “How can we do Serial? How can we do Serial?” But the smart thing that Ira did was not say — or Sarah I should say too — was not go like ... they weren’t asking, “How can we make Serial?” They were just asking, “How can we make something great?” And I think that’s where you’ve seen a lot of great things happen, is people just following their bliss as a podcast and making something super original. And that you can say the same thing for S-Town, which followed Serial.
The next thing obviously was The Daily, with Michael Barbaro.
Which started to get people used to a daily dose of it, it was very different, which is a summary of news, which is something that Today, Explained is like. Talk about that. I know you don’t like talking about competitors but that really did break through too.
Oh, I’m very grateful for The Daily’s existence, I think it’s the reason our show exists, because Vox took a look at this thing and said, “Oh, that’s a great idea, we could do something like that but totally different, let’s try and do it.”
And Vox.com was known for explainers, which is essentially what The Daily is. Today there was one on AIDS that was good, but talk about that impact, did people get used to this idea of a daily summary?
Sure. I think it’s hard to talk about how The Daily podcast came to be without talking about the 2016 election.
I think that’s where the New York Times is sort of starting to test the idea of releasing a whole lot of news podcasts much more often, and it did really well because there was this heightened interest in our presidential politics in that moment, right?
And Michael had covered politics, he was a political reporter.
He’s your friend, right?
Well, yeah, yeah.
You’d know best.
Yeah, and I think ...
I didn’t know him then, I didn’t know him until he was famous.
You got to know him since?
Yes, since he’s become famous.
Fair. I’m glad you knew me back when you did.
I’ll treat you exactly the same way.
So they do this political podcast, people are really listening and then after the election, I believe, they think, “Oh, why don’t we try and do this every day?” And of course, it really works because the Trump administration is immediately something that needs heightened coverage, and a daily podcast is a great form.
I think immediately, you see NPR, which hesitated for a long time ...
To release a morning edition podcast because public radio member stations thought you’re going to eat away at our biggest fundraiser, which is Morning Edition. We come on, we say, “You need this thing. You get it from us. Give us money.”
At this point, NPR I think says something like, “Well, we can’t just cede our entire ownership of this market to the Times. We’re dropping Up First.” Then luckily Vox came along third ...
With Today, Explained.
Yeah, and there was ...
I mean, shout-outs to The Gist for Mike Pesca at Slate, who was doing a daily news podcast before any of those three I just mentioned.
But he’s more interviewy on top of it.
He sure is.
He is. There was also Pod Save America, the pod guys. Talk a little bit about them.
Were they daily though?
They weren’t, but there was another interest in it.
Sure, I mean ...
It was, again, which grew out of the Trump administration.
Anger that they just heard daily anger, weekly anger.
I think there was a ton, there’s a ton of interest in hearing more about the Trump administration, be it positive or negative, whatever it was. I mean, it isn’t just limited to podcasts. CNN got it’s best rating from the 2016 election, Fox News, MSNBC, all of it.
Right? He’s good for ratings, like he says. That he is accurate about.
Stephen Colbert became No. 1 instead of Jimmy Fallon. I mean, there was a shift where everyone wanted to hear more about the administration, more about the news. Here we’ve come to fill that need.
To fill the void. There’s all different things for different people. Talk about Today, Explained. How did you conceive of it? Because there had been these others and stuff like that. What are you looking to ...
I should say, I didn’t conceive of it. I think people ...
How do you conceive of it now?
Oh, sure. But I mean, all credit to Allison Rockey, and Nishat Kurwa, and Ezra, and Lauren Williams, and Andrew Golis who is now at WNYC, for coming up with this idea. They approached Stitcher about it. Stitcher funds our show. I think they were looking for a host. I think because I had hosted things I maybe came up as a candidate who might have an interest in doing something like this.
How do you look at it? What is your goal for Today, Explained?
I thought, well, wow, this terrifies me. Doing a show every day when everyone I know already listens to The Daily, when I listen to Morning Edition every morning, why should there be another thing? I actually have several friends who work for The Daily so I asked them, I said, “Hey, should another one of these things exist? We already got two; one from you guys, one from NPR. Does the world need another one?” They were like, “Of course the world needs another one.” Well, it’s a good example. John Oliver didn’t go, “Well, The Daily Show already exists. Let me not make a show on HBO.”
And Stephen Colbert didn’t go, “Oh, well, I already did The Colbert Report, let me not do Late Night,” or whatever it is. I mean, there’s a lot ...
Of shows. There’s a lot of new shows. There’s a lot of comedy shows doing the news. Why not have more of these daily news podcasts? What could this one do differently? Approaching it, I thought immediately, well, the Vox explainer mission. We’re not going to sit around and pontificate or speculate about the news. We’re just going to tell you everything you need to know to understand it and go out there and make informed decisions.
If you look at what we cover every day, we’re literally just explaining news stories almost all the damn time. I mean, this week it’s been CBD. It’s been the case of Curtis Flowers at the Supreme Court. It’s been the shooting [in New Zealand] and white supremacy in America. We are trying to really understand these issues so that, in theory, we can go out and make informed decisions.
Also, I thought an opportunity that we had was to make a very human-sounding show. To make us a show that feels like it’s about what it’s like to be a person trying to understand this news in this moment. That means that sometimes it’s very sad, yes, like the shooting in New Zealand. But sometimes it can be funny, like this buying your way into the Ivy League scandal from last week.
It’s a little funny.
It’s a little funny.
If you’ve got a kid going to college, you’re like, that’s not funny at all.
That is unfunny.
Elements of the story are certainly very funny. Check out our episode, it’s called “Becky With the Bad Grades.”
Ha! Aunt Becky.
Thank you, thank you.
CBD this week we did because it just feels like it’s everywhere and it’s worth explaining. We were able to have a little fun with that. It’s also serious. But I think we try to make a show that really captures the full range of human experience, which is to say that sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s sad, sometimes it’s weird, sometimes it’s wacky. It’s all of those things.
Could you talk about how you make selections? Because I think people don’t understand how you decide. Obviously, there’s obvious news stories that you just repeat.
Like Trump says something dumb every day, or gets in a fight, like McCain. You didn’t have a show on that yet, correct?
This current McCain thing?
All the tweets? No, definitely not, because I don’t know if there’s a ton to explain there. We like to really ...
So just like, “What a mess, thank you. Sean, signing off.”
We like to do episodes that hold 20 minutes, that go into the history, that go into analysis, that fully, comprehensively explain a given issue. The thing that’s trending on Twitter is not always that. What happened with the 737s is a great example of that. I think protests in Sudan are a great example of that. But the Trump stuff sometimes, there’s not a whole lot there or it’s super same-y, and when we do episodes ...
“Super same-y.” I like that.
Yeah, it’s just like when we feel like we’ve done this episode before, we can’t put in all those human emotions and elements I told you about because we’re bored.
I think we love to explain stuff that we haven’t explained before. We like to dig into something. The Vox staff here in this newsroom is so good at that, and help us to that end. I think when we do international things, when we cover evergreen subjects like CBD, which might not be newsy today but are sort of ongoing, we get a great response. People are always like, “Oh, I’m so glad you did that. Thank you for covering Venezuela. We really needed that.” So far, I think people have really appreciated the calls we’ve made.
Because Bolsonaro was here, because he was here.
Sure, Bolsonaro, Brazil.
Right, oh, Brazil. I’m losing my mind. Might as well.
But we did that one, too. I think we love to do international stuff because we just don’t hear that much about that right now because so much of the focus is on Trump.
Venezuela today, the chief of staff was getting arrested.
That’s true, yes. We might have to do that.
Yeah. What is the criteria then? Just that it can be explained, or that it’s more you don’t want to do stuff that’s the same that you’ve done and also what everybody else is doing.
We’ve done the Mueller investigation at least a dozen times.
Are you getting ready? Apparently it’s dropping just immediately.
We’re ready when he is. But I think ...
Immediately it’s dropping, wait, no. Immediately.
There’ve been many times where there was something that sort of bubbled up with the Mueller investigation.
But then quickly fell away because it was sort of, “Oh, we know a bit more about the thing ...” We wait for the big breaks to do a fully fleshed-out thing.
To wait, because everybody’s covering it. So how in this world where everybody’s covering something, there’s instant Twitter-rush to every news story. How do you sort it out? How do you differentiate? Because I think that’s a difficult thing.
Yeah, that’s an easy one. I can give you an answer to that.
When Cohen first broke, when that news first broke, it was so ridiculous.
It involved porn stars, it involved bullying. There were so many comical elements to this, it was just, you couldn’t believe some of the stuff you were reading. Just try and imagine any of that happening during the Obama administration.
That the president was paying off porn stars.
Through this lawyer.
No, that wouldn’t have happened.
Who was a big bully. Or even just try and imagine it during the Bush years. Even then, it would’ve seemed ridiculous.
Instead of going like, “Okay, let’s just dunk on the president, talk about how ridiculous our current politics are,” I had this idea, this investigation, this private personal lawyer of the attorney, it’s got these elements to me that were reminiscent of a film noir. I can’t really explain why. But I thought, “Why don’t we get Andrew Prokop from Vox, who’s done the explainers on this for the site into the studio and have him just tell the story. I’m not going to ask him any questions. ‘Andrew, start at the start and get all the way to the end. Then we’ll do a second half that’s more like analysis. But I just want you to talk at me.’”
And he talked at me and then I told Noam Hassenfeld, our producer who is really musically gifted, I said, “Hey, what if we drop Andrew’s story that he’s telling about Cohen over a jazzy beat with bass and some claps and some snaps?” Then you hear Christina Animashaun, who’s this amazing graphics illustrator at Vox who also has an incredible singing voice going like, “Essential consulting ... on Stormy Daniels.”
We made this amazing episode called “Dial C for Cohen” that is the story of the Cohen and Mueller investigations vis-a-vis this noir, jazzy score. It’s ridiculous but it totally works and it’s fun. It takes advantage of the tools we have in this medium which is, “Let’s make it musical. Let’s make it sound interesting. Let’s make you want to lean in and not hit pause when your friend texts you.”
Do you have to do something different for the audience, more millennial? I think that’s a canard. I don’t think millennials need stupidity.
They’re already dumbed down. But you are talking about a different way of telling stories, right?
Yeah, I don’t think we dumb it down. I think we really respect ...
No, I don’t think you do at all, I’m just saying how do you look at it? Like, Mic died. I always thought, why do millennials need special news? I don’t think they do.
Exactly, yeah. No, I do think this medium is so young and a lot of it is people following patterns that they think need to be sort of maintained and promoted. You hear Radiolab and then you hear a lot of podcasts that sound like Radiolab. You hear This American Life, and then you hear a lot of podcasts that sound like This American Life. This American Life version of whatever, tables.
“Here in the village of Zihuatanejo the chimes are ...”
Your favorite, exactly.
Our approach is just like, so what there were three daily news podcasts, or four when we launched. Now there’s 10 or something, maybe more. How are we different? Well, our show has fun. Our show will sing you some news when it’s appropriate.
Yeah, The Daily is not fun, is it? I love Michael, but it’s not a lot of fun.
Kara, that’s for you to decide. I’m not sure ...
He should put some jazzy ...
I do think ...
He should do some jazzy ... Michael, if you’re listening, do some jazzy things because you need some jazz in there.
Love your work, Michael.
Love your work.
I think, I think this is Vox.
A little Trippie Redd, perhaps? Sorry.
Vox doesn’t take itself terribly seriously. There’s the occasional article about animal poop on the vox.com homepage.
I remember that, yes. That was a good one.
We had an opportunity to have some fun and also to experiment with the medium. We are constantly trying to think of ways to do things totally differently. The show doesn’t always need to open with, “I’m Sean Rameswaram. This is Today, Explained.” It could open with just a voice telling a story about a thing. It could open with some music. It could open with a clip. It could open garbled and then turn into a clear sound. I think there’s ...
How about total silence? Just my idea, just throw it out there.
Absolutely. Total silence for 20 minutes. We’ll lose a lot of listeners.
Everyone goes, “What? What?”
But honestly, that is exactly how we think of it. I mean, as much as we can, as much as our intense production schedule allows, we like to experiment and tinker and throw out the rule book and create it anew.
Where do you think the trends are then going? We’re going to get into the podcast business in general in the next segment, but what are the trends? Is it to upend storytelling or what? Because this is a huge opportunity to use all kinds of tricks and new techniques.
I mean, I think storytelling is the core of all of it. It’s celebrities or stories, that’s how you’re going to get your audience. You had Elon Musk on the show. You’re no stranger to this.
I did, although you’d be surprised at people who are popular. People you don’t know. People that surprise people.
Nobody knows Chamath Palihapitiya, but that podcast did great.
It did well?
I mean, probably because there were some really good stories in there, right?
That’s what it is, exactly. The things that are going to get people to lean in is like, “Oh, Kara got Elon fucking Musk.” Everyone’s going to listen.
Or it’s like, “Oh, I heard this thing on this podcast that was so good. You really have to hear it.”
We don’t have a ton of celebrities on the show. We don’t even pursue it. What we pursue is making things that make you go, “Whoa. That was really good.” We did this episode about robocalls which, not terribly newsy ...
But everyone’s getting more of them and we just went to town on the history of phone scams. We had so much fun with it. Again, this producer, Noam Hassenfeld, did a bunch of sound design. But that’s not it. It’s so, the “March for Our Lives” about this time last year, here in DC. The way we approached that was, okay, let’s get the hell out of the studio. The march is in DC.
I went down on Saturday, got a bunch of tape. Interviewed a kid who was here from Chicago who represented a different side of gun violence, not the mass shootings, but the everyday gun violence in this country. Then for the second half, one of our producers, Luke Vander Ploeg, he got — and this is through Vox’s “First Person” series, we should say Karen Turner helped with this — but he got a Columbine survivor talking to a Parkland survivor. It was extremely powerful.
And devastating at times. It was just, it came out of people sitting in a room thinking about like, “Okay, this news is everywhere. What can we do that’s different?”
All right, so you’re trying to do different. The New Zealand murders, how did you look at that? Give me how you think. Think me through very quickly a day. Okay, the New Zealand murders happened.
We had a plan for last Friday’s show, came in with that plan ready to go, almost. Then there was some very serious discussions about whether we should cover the shooting. Which, again, is all over NPR that morning, which is wall-to-wall on TV.
What do we do? The first question I asked is, how can we explain it? Then everyone on the team, from our EP to our producers, we’re all thinking of, okay, what are the angles? What can we say? After some time I think we came up with, okay, this was the first mass shooting that was so online.
Of the internet, by the internet, for the internet.
Exactly. And that was something we can dig into. Okay, now we have something that sets us apart. Now we have something we can explain. We got a great writer from The Verge on the show to do so and we had an episode. It may not have been the most profound observation because I think that was sort of being discussed online, but it wasn’t just a tweet about it. It was a 10-minute meaty conversation about the implications, the methods, and how scary that moment was.
On Monday, it felt like we should dive deeply into it again, but we don’t want to repeat ourselves and we don’t want to repeat what’s out there, so we took a totally different approach. The first half of the show is one of our reporter/producers out there at a vigil talking to Muslim Americans about whether they’re afraid to go back to mosque to pray.
It’s hearing people speak, hearing people sing, hearing people recite poetry that they’ve written about this event. It’s very emotional. The second half of that show was a total 180. It was a really trenchant conversation about increasing white supremacy in the United States with a ProPublica reporter. I think we’re always just asking, “What can we do to cover this news?”
To make it easy for people to understand, and to make sense of it and from a different angle.
And actually be like a value added.
We’re never out of news. We’re here with Sean Rameswaram. He is the host of Today, Explained on vox.com, which is a podcast that explains everything, today.
Where are podcasts going? I just asked you and you said, “Where are podcasts going?” In your best radio voice. It’s really, it’s a joke that there’s so many of them. But now everyone calls me like, “I’d like a podcast.” I’m like, “Well, what’s your idea? What’s your product?” It’s really, “I just want to talk to people.” I’m sort of like, “Okay, I suppose.”
Everyone wants to host their podcast.
I think Mark Hamill tweeted this week like, “Oh, gosh. The future is everyone has their own podcast.” And the GIF is of R2-D2 just eating shit, like face planting.
He’s an excellent twitterer, by the way. He should stick to Twitter.
He’s fun. Thanks, Mark.
Along with George Conway, my favorite person. Please do a show on George Conway.
Very of the moment.
Explain George Conway.
George Conway explained. Kara Swisher wants us to do George Conway explained.
I would discuss it incessantly if you’d like me to have it on. I’m entranced on purpose.
My producers are like, “I hope we’re going to get podcasts out of this interview you’re doing right now, too.”
Okay, where are podcasts going? I have hopes of where podcasts are going.
Okay, talk to me about that.
Can I talk about that for a second?
Yes, please do, please do.
There’s this new podcast by Jon Mooallem.
Mooallem. He does a — and we’re not pronouncing that right — but he’s a wonderful storyteller. He’s always on California Sunday.
Yes, so good.
Their Pop-Up Magazine. He’s fantastic.
Eric, you got a pronouncer on Jon? Can you help us out?
No, that’s all right, he’s great. You can find it.
Okay, so Jon, he has a new podcast, I think it’s called WALKING. Have you heard about this?
No, but I would listen to anything he would do.
Do you know what it is? Take one guess of what the concept of this show is.
He walks around.
He walks around, in the woods, in a park, on a sidewalk, and he just records it and then at some point in the show he stops and he reads an ad and then he starts walking again. It’s like 45 minutes long. Can you imagine listening to it?
Doesn’t he say funny things, though?
No, he doesn’t say a damn thing.
Really? He just walks around?
He just walks.
That’s not ... He’s just fucking with us. It’s going to be a Pop-Up Magazine thing.
But you know what? He might be fucking with us, but I’m so grateful that someone’s just like, “Here’s a podcast” because I like ...
This is a California Sunday Pop-Up Magazine show, I can tell.
We just don’t need another chat show person. There will be another great chat show, mark my words, but I think people forget that this is a medium with no limitations and what’s ... It’s very democratic. Anyone can do it. You can make a podcast with your cellphone on the subway and it could be good.
Yeah, that’s the second season, Subway.
It’ll get old in a little bit.
Public Transportation is the second one.
It’s the worst-smelling season of Walking ever. I think there’s so much experimentation to be done in the future of this medium and I’m so excited to hear it. A new show I really love — and you were on it! I listened to your episode of it — was 10 Things That Scare Me from WNYC.
Oh yeah, that was a weird one. I don’t know about that.
It is a weird show. It’s not as weird as Walking.
I don’t know how well it’s doing. I get the sense that it’s ...
Well, here’s some problems with the ... like if you think about the business side versus the creative side. I think more about the creative side. You might want to talk about the business side but we can do both, but here’s the thing. The show doesn’t have ads on it. It’s like five minutes long, five to six, seven minutes long. It’s people talking about, as the title would suggest, the things that scare them.
You talked about your kids quite a lot.
I talked about my kids. I talked about death and a raccoon. That was really scary.
Yeah, the raccoon was funny.
That raccoon was scary.
Listen to Kara’s episode of 10 Things That Scare Me.
Let me just tell you, that was one gangster raccoon.
I heard. I heard. It was great.
The way it came after me, it was crazy. And the fact that I faced off with him was like insane. It was an insane ...
Do you want to give people the quick ...
Oh, I just was talking about the 10 things that ... mostly it was death, death, death and more death, but really what I talked about is that I’m not scared enough and so I used the example of this crazy raccoon that I found, this gang of raccoons in San Francisco that I faced off with. They were like as big as small children, but strong small children.
With claws and sharp teeth and I just for some reason got into like a beef with them and so it just was ... That was the whole point of that. I’m scared that I’m not scared enough of things and I should not be beefing with raccoons in San Francisco.
I totally agree.
So there’s this show. It doesn’t have a really clear marketing plan or business purpose.
It’s cool though, it is cool.
It’s interesting. It’s creative and I think it’s very compelling. They’ve had people like you, they’ve had just random listeners. They’ve had people who work in the building. They had Scaramucci. And it’s just refreshing to hear something short and different. I think a lot of the things I hear ...
It was like seven minutes. You’re right, it was different, about time.
Yeah, I’m really excited to hear more things that sound really new and radical because I think the best versions of this medium that we have so far — be it a Serial or Radiolab or Song Exploder or — Jesus! — You Must Remember This, all these shows. They weren’t people trying to imitate something as much as they were people just following a kind of crazy seeming idea that’s now doing incredibly well.
Right, now do these things have to coalesce around a big thing? Like Walking, I’m guessing, is not going anywhere, but that’s okay.
It might not be a hit.
It might not be a hit but they all are ... like Gimlet selling.
Hundreds of millions of dollars.
What do you think about that, because you know, it is a good business. People I know, they’re like, “Oh you can’t make money” and I’m like, “No, you can’t. Don’t do it.” Because you can, like you actually can if you try.
Yeah, let’s talk about the business side. It’s so interesting to me that Gimlet has sold now for $300 million dollars.
And they made, explain who they made.
Gimlet, what shows they made?
Gimlet, so Gimlet was the first sort of big podcasting house founded by Alex Blumberg from Planet Money, formerly of This American Life, and Matt Lieber who had been around in public radio for a long time. I think the genesis of it is Blumberg does this huge T-shirt experiment at Planet Money where he wants to track the making of a T-shirt from inception, from the concept to the store floor. He does a Kickstarter for it because NPR’s like, “We’re not gonna pay for that,” or whatever. “Do a Kickstarter, see what happens.” And he raises a ton of money and I don’t think he’s allowed to keep the money. The show isn’t allowed to keep the money because member stations are like, “Hey, we want that money!” Like, “You guys can’t create new funding models, because this ...”
Oh god, and he went, “I gotta get out of public radio,” right?
I think that’s kind of what happened. He was like, well there’s clearly this ... He followed his capitalist bliss. Dude thought like there’s an interest here. There’s like a way to make money here. Why isn’t anyone doing it? He went off and was the first public radio all-star to go like, “I’m going to get this podcasting thing for real.”
And he did StartUp.
StartUp’s the first show. It’s about his business. It’s very dramatic and earnest at times.
He’s in the room with your Silicon Valley people trying to, like, holding out his hat in hand.
Yeah, the wrong ones.
Right, okay, and raising VC for his podcasting enterprise, one of the first big shows which is still a big show is Reply All, very successful. From there they get Mystery Show and what’s some of the other ones?
There’s a bunch, yeah.
There’s Every Little Thing.
And they get sold, too.
And they get sold, just recently, just this year to Spotify.
Spotify, which is now moving up.
For something like $300 millions.
That’s a whole lot of money for some public radio people and the whole world is noticing. It’s a big, big deal. Beyond that, I mean, there’s a show on Amazon right now called Homecoming starring Julia Roberts.
Yeah, she’s on that.
And the genesis of that show? A Gimlet podcast called Homecoming. This is a big deal. It’s a big deal because the ads are working and people are responding to them and that’s why the invasion of mattresses and toothbrushes is here. And then it’s a big deal ...
Yes, and they’re going up. It’s sort of like cable. It starts with the mattresses and toothbrushes or the Mailchimps and then it moves up the ... it moves up.
You listen to some big shows and it’s like BP and Shell and JP Morgan, Chase Stanley Bank, all this stuff. The other thing we should talk about is that the podcasts are like intellectual property. It’s this huge source of ideas. We’re getting podcasts, movies that are made out of podcasts. There’s an HBO thing on Adnan Syed right now, right, the Serial character person. It’s everywhere, it’s truly everywhere.
Yes, so some people thought think the jig might be up, that Gimlet sold because it couldn’t get more money, couldn’t make more money.
The bubble, are you talking about the bubble?
Yeah, the bubble. They could make money off it.
Yeah, who thinks the jig is up?
Many people. There’s all these podcasters. There’s too many, the finances, and the jig will be up, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Yeah, that’s interesting. I’ve been hearing that this is just a bubble since the jump.
Yeah, I don’t think the jig is up.
The whole time people have been saying that.
I want them to think the jig is up.
But I do thing there is a lot of getting, like people not thinking as a product and what can make money, what can’t, like to be thinking ... I know that’s not creative, but I think a lot about that.
I mean, there’s a lot of money in this business right now and it’s really interesting to see how that’s developed because most of these podcasts started ... The successful ones started with, a lot of the successful podcasts started from public radio, like Serial, like S-Town, like Radiolab, like Freakonomics. And public radio, not the best at making money or spending money. Now a lot of business people are coming into it and changing it dramatically and very quickly. It’s a little head-spinning.
To me it’s the next iteration of radio, which has always been a good business. It’s just the way television and Netflix, that’s ...
It’s a captive audience.
Well, it’s like television to Netflix, that’s what it is. You know what I mean? People are not in cars and broadcast doesn’t work as well because they aren’t, they’re not in places and so they can use these wherever they are. That’s really, it’s the same thing with Netflix, the changing and time-shifting of entertainment and other content.
So I’m like, Netflix, people thought Netflix’s jig was up for a while, if you remember it. Like it was ...
I don’t remember that.
Yeah, it was.
Oh, because the DVDs were going to die.
People thought Amazon, the jig was up and no one’s gonna deliver to the home. Initially there was problems and then there wasn’t. I always think if something’s directionally correct you should stick with it. For example, right now everyone’s like, “The jig is up on bitcoin!” I’m like, “Directionally, cryptocurrencies make sense.” So does the changing ... you know what I mean, like directionally it’s correct and that’s how I think about it.
The thing I wonder about with regards to the bubble is, this thing is still super young. This thing hasn’t survived a recession, for example.
If there was a serious recession like the one we saw in 2008, 2009, would the Mattress Firms and Casper and ...
That’s a mattress firm.
Yes. Oh, Sean.
Would all of these companies still want to buy podcast ads?
Yeah, I don’t know. We’ll see.
Would they still think that this is where their money should go and then what would that mean? How many shows would survive that?
Yeah, it’s true. That’s a really interesting thing. I think they would because I think it’s an inexpensive way to reach a lot of people. And one of the things, it’s just the measurements aren’t quite there yet, the knowing of the impact. But I will tell you, just anecdotally from fans, I mean, you may experience this. I have people coming up to me all the time now and it’s only about the podcast. It’s really interesting.
And a lot, like every day at least. “I love your podcast.” “I love your podcast.”
Yeah, because skim articles, people like skip through shows, but they really listen to podcasts. They might do it on what, one-and-a-half speed or whatever, but they listen and they’re concentrating on it and it’s very intimate. I think that’s why the ads work, that’s why advertisers are moving towards podcasts and because like they see ...
That’s interesting. It is interesting.
... a real return because when you hear the host of the thing, you talk about this thing and it’s funny or it’s smart or cute or whatever it is. There’s a connection that’s more profound.
I think the jig is up thing is when it’s not thought out carefully, but I definitely, it’s definitely a fascinating thing for me, because I’ve called all kinds of things. I do events. I did the podcast. I had this one encounter right at the beginning of doing podcasts where I had, I was in the metro, in San Francisco in the BART — whatever. I think I was in the metro and four young Afrcan American women ran up to me. I’m walking in with my bags and stuff like that, and they’re like, “Oh my God, it’s Kara Swisher,” and I’m like, “Mmm, not my demo.” It’s not that like, the data, we see our data for Recode for example and it’s all essentially white men, right, of a certain age and some Asian men and some Indian men, but it’s very clear where our audience was, just looking.
A whole lot of dudes.
A whole lot of dudes. And I was like, “Oh, hi!” And they were like, “We love you. We love this podcast,” and they loved all kinds of ... they liked one with Bill Gurley, they liked one here. They were entrepreneurs who were doing a makeup startup, but I don’t think ... It was online partially but it was makeup. It was something like that, which I loved. I was like, “This is great.” This is what we think. “We love entrepreneurship,” that’s what they liked. I was doing a lot of entrepreneurs.
I said, how do you ... They, “We love this.” “We love that.” They were very clear on the stuff they liked and they were ... They wanted to take selfies. The whole thing. I do a lot of selfies because of the podcast. I was like, “Well, how do you like the website?” And they said, “What website?”
And I was like, “Oh, okay, whatever and however you want to get our information because we do put the podcast on the website and stuff like that.” It was really interesting because it was a different kind of listener who really does enjoy it. And it’s not necessarily young because I get older people coming up to me and it’s a fascinating, to me it’s really fascinating. It does create an intimacy. Do you have that happen to you?
Podcasts fit into whatever you’re doing, right? They can be the thing you listen to while you’re in the bathroom getting ready for work. It can be the thing you listen to while you’re cooking, while you’re taking care of the kids, picking someone up. Whereas to go to the website you need to actively sit down and go to the website, right?
The podcasts come to you.
Do you have an intimacy with your listeners?
I try to avoid them at all costs.
You know, mostly on Twitter. I keep a low profile, Kara. I moved to DC. I retired to Washington, DC.
Yeah, not me. I don’t keep a low profile, but it’s a really interesting medium. We’ll see how it shakes out. Do you have any predictions? Let’s end it with, any predictions of where it’s going? What do you see, just growth, growth, growth, Sean?
I think the sky’s the limit. I would encourage all ye young podcasters to break all the rules.
Yeah, what would you encourage?
Break all the rules! There aren’t any. Go for a walk, read an ad, hit publish.
I really am excited. The thing that excites me most ...
Looallem? Mooallem, it’s Jon Mooallem.
Jon Mooallem, thank you.
All right, I’m going to try that out, but anything that you see that you like that is so, besides Walking, but you know that’s a stunt, but all right, go ahead.
I mean, okay, so the thing I’m excited for as a maker of this stuff, as someone who slaves away with his team of six people every day to make a really compelling thing, is to see how people go in really interesting places with the medium.
Right, and where it happens.
I’m excited, yeah. If you think of audio as the way you think of, say, film, like we’re still in the black-and-white period of podcasting.
Yep, that’s a really great way of putting it.
What’s color going to look like?
What’s 3-D going to look like?
Yeah. I can’t wait to see all that stuff.
What’s Dolby Surround Sound, THX, Lucasfilm, Pixar, what are those things gonna be for this medium? I can’t wait. I can’t wait to feel old and enjoy it.
It might stay simple. It might stay simple, Sean. You never know. Simple’s sometimes best.
I hope not.
Anyway, I appreciate it. Sean Rameswaram. He’s the host of Today, Explained. It’s one of my favorite podcasts. I listen to it every day. Actually, I listen to Daily one day and yours one day. That’s how I do it.
Which do you like more, Kara?
I like ... yours is more fun, let me just say that. Yours is more fun but I love that Barbaro voice. I don’t know why.
Oh, he’s great.
I like them both. It depends on the topic, I’ll be honest with you.
It depends on what topic I wanted to ...
Who’s a better dresser? That’s the real important question.
He’s natty. You know it’s true.
It’s not for everyone.
Come on. You’re hipper but he’s nattier. He looks like he’s a figure out of 18th-century Victorian times or whatever.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
I swear, the other day he was wearing spats. I’m sure of it. If he wasn’t, he was figuratively wearing spats in my head. I like ‘em all. I like them all. I think they’re really interesting and I like them depending on the topic. You’re right, the story and that’s where it goes, too. But I do, I listen to a lot of podcasts and those are two that I listen to all the time.
Anyway, thank you for coming onto the show.
My pleasure. Thank you.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.