“America looks like a very different place, even if Trump loses but gets 45 percent of the vote.”
On a recent episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Slate Group chairman Jacob Weisberg explained why he believes Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is “a menace and a danger to democracy.”
You can read some of the highlights from his interview with Peter at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Media on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
Transcript by Maya Goldberg-Safir.
Peter Kafka: Did you realize you would be a podcasting authority when you grew up?
Jacob Weisberg: You know, I didn’t know that at this age I would be reading ads for MeUndies.
Are you a MeUndies guy?
I’ve embraced it. I’ve embraced the MeUndies and I’ve embraced the ad model. I have to say as a listener, I don’t usually skip the podcast ads. It’s kinda fun to hear different people do them and it’s kind of … we’re at the stage of the industry — not to jump too far in right away — but I think we’re at the stage in podcasting where everyone who loves podcasting is rooting for everyone who’s supporting podcasting. So there’s this curious but fairly intense good will towards the sponsors.
Yeah, the standard analogy is that we’re blogging in 2004, 2005 — where there’s sort of a small crowd. We’re making it a slightly larger crowd, people listening to it; it seems very exciting. No one’s jaded yet. Jacob, why don’t you introduce yourself to the crowd who doesn’t know you as a podcasting authority.
I’m Jacob Weisberg. I’m chairman of the Slate Group, and Slate Group’s two main things are Slate magazine and a podcasting startup called Panoply, which we launched a bit over a year ago, which is trying to do a lot of things with the podcast business, including produce shows, develop some strong backend technology for hosting and distribution and tracking, and also sell advertising.
You’re working with my colleague, Ezra Klein — a couple podcasts for him from the Vox.com folks. You’ve got a cool new podcast with Malcolm Gladwell. We can talk about all of that. You also have your own podcast, called Trumpcast. Did I get it right?
Exactly. I launched it earlier this year out of basically concern and outrage about what was happening in politics –
And probably also a thought that it turns out people like to talk about Trump, listen to people talking about Trump, read about Trump. I assume there was some of that motivation as well.
Yeah, one of the lessons I’ve learned in journalism — my background is as a political journalist, I was Slate’s chief political reporter, I wrote for the New Republic and Newsweek and New York Magazine, a lot of other magazines — you never go too far wrong by talking about Topic A, covering Topic A. People want to hear about it. And Trump is Topic A in a way no one in politics in my lifetime has ever been Topic A, and it was clear he was gonna stay that way. But it was also, you know, the overall sense of neutrality and capitulation by a lot of the media toward the Trump phenomenon really had me incensed, and I wanted to do something that isn’t a diatribe, because that’s not interesting, but I wanted to explore the phenomenon, but at the same time, do what you can do in podcasting, or in Slate magazine, and not start from the standpoint of, well, on the one end, on the other hand. I think this guy’s a menace and a danger to democracy, and I want that to be a premise of the show.
How is Trumpcast performing?
It’s done really well. It’s in some ways surprising to me because I’m just learning to do podcasts. I’ve been a guest on podcasts, but I’ve never hosted anything. And you know — people listen! And I think you know this as someone who does this show: Part of what’s satisfying about it and part of the reason everyone at Slate who doesn’t already have a podcast wants a podcast is this relationship you have with the audience. Which is really unlike anything I’ve encountered.
Really. Is it because you’re in someone’s head?
I think that’s part of it, right. They’re listening through earbuds. And also — I mean, I’ve thought about this a lot — I think it’s partly because it’s totally on-demand media. Nobody happens to be listening to your podcast, and so the listeners are people who really want to listen to you. And if they don’t want to listen to you, they’re not listening to you anymore.
Yeah, that’s my big unifying theory of media. It’s not really a big theory, but I think the bar for audio and video is so much higher because it’s all on-demand and you will not listen to more than a minute of a podcast you’re not interested in, you won’t watch more than 30 seconds of video It’s not fungible in the way that text is — stuff just sort of flows through you in the Facebook feed and maybe you click on a link, maybe you don’t. Since we are talking about Trump — can’t go wrong talking about Trump. We’re recording this in early June, probably listen to it a little later. In terms of the narrative right now, a week ago, Donald Trump was this super-savvy street fighter who was gonna run circles around Hillary Clinton, who didn’t know how to deal with such a radical new political force. Literally less than a week later, it’s the Trump campaign has suddenly unraveled, he suddenly can’t handle questions from the press. Hillary Clinton gave one aggressive speech. Everyone thinks, oh, this is the narrative now, as of this moment, seems to be, oh, maybe this is the beginning of end of Trump. Does that sound right to you?
Well, that’s the most over-proclaimed outcome. Since September, people have been saying Trump has finally gone too far.
Right, but they did stop saying it after a while, because they said, like you said, they were sort of resigned for a while, like actually, he’s Godzilla, he’s impervious to whatever we’re shooting at him.
Yeah. That said, I think he has gone too far. And I think these comments about the judge in San Diego really cross some lines that he actually hadn’t crossed before. It wasn’t that he hasn’t said something that bigoted about Mexicans: he’s said things that are actually more bigoted about Mexicans. But I think it had to do partly with questioning this guy’s American-ness. You know, when you challenge the idea that somebody that was a second-generation immigrant is American, I think you’re really hitting America where it lives.
But let me play devil’s advocate, because one, how do you sense that, and two, like you said, people have been saying that about Trump for really a year now. You know, a little more than a year, a little less than a year, he was saying John McCain, American war hero, was not a war hero because he’d been shot down — that is the end of him! You cannot go after John McCain.
And John McCain endorsed him.
Yeah, so why do we think that him impugning a judge that no one’s ever heard of — by the way, he’s a member of an ethnic group that was already was never gonna vote for Trump — is gonna cause him problems in a way that anything else he said isn’t gonna hurt him?
Well, empirically, I think you’re seeing Republicans really running away from him for the first time. I mean there were a lot of Republican leaders, most of them who had decided to hold their nose and support him. Paul Ryan and a lot of others …
Paul Ryan held his nose — this is awful and racist, but I’m still gonna support him.
Well, but if you saw what he said this week, he said this is the definition of a racist comment. He didn’t withdraw his endorsement.
He said I’m going to continue to endorse him.
At some level Trump is sabotaging himself, doesn’t want to be president.
Yeah, but let’s watch this space. And here you’re getting into, I’m getting into psychology, but I actually have an instinct that at some level Trump is sabotaging himself, doesn’t want to be president, doesn’t know how to be president, and, you know, he hasn’t put together a campaign. I mean, he’s got a few people that are feuding, he’s saying we don’t need to raise that much money, we don’t need a conventional staff, we don’t need staff in these different states, we’re gonna run in California, which is a majority Latino population. I mean, he’s saying …
Which is all shorthand for, I never expected to be still running for president in the summer of 2016.
think he’s looking for a parachute. But I think he needs someone to blame because of his narcissism. He can’t lose. He has to be cheated, so this is why you constantly hear this language from him of, this system is rigged, I’m being ripped off: Whether he’s gonna end up blaming the Republican National Committee or he’s gonna end up blaming Paul Ryan, or he’s gonna blame Hillary Clinton for stealing the election in some way, the outcome will not be him saying, I lost fair and square.
I think that was my theory in the primaries. I think a lot of the conventional wisdom said the same thing. You know once he gets knocked during Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina or pick the state, that he’s gonna sort of find a way to, like, pull back when he’s on all fours, because he had no intention. Assuming that he still runs and he doesn’t bail out and assuming that Hillary Clinton beats him in this election, what will the thing you have learned during this election cycle be? As an American.
Well, it’s very disenchanting. I would have to say honestly that I no longer think I am living in the country that I thought I was living in a year ago this time. I didn’t think that a country that elected Barack Obama twice, that in that country so many people would vote for someone who has been that openly bigoted,nationalistic, xenophobic, everything else. And, you know, I think it’s gonna take a long time to recover from this. I think it’s gonna be a lot of self-examination and I think it’s … America looks like a very different place, even if Trump loses but gets 45 percent of the vote.
So you said this is xenophobia, bigotry — I mean, do you think that’s the core of his appeal? There’s different versions, there’s different diagnoses about why he is popular. Some people say straight up racism, some people say he’s helping the whites that have been passed over by technology and the economy. My theory is people like a TV character.
Well, that’s clearly a source of his celebrity, and Peter Sagal on my show is really good when he said while we were watching “Breaking Bad,” America was watching “The Apprentice.” And he was famous and had a following that I think many of us in the elite, pardon the expression, didn’t fully recognize or appreciate.
And you’re alluding to this, right — one of the dialogues going on about Trump is the media and the elite media saying, how did we miss this?
Yeah. But I think in terms of his appeal, it’s a classic kind of demagoguery and a classic kind of strongman politics, where he’s going to people who are suffering from an economic transition, from a poor economic recovery and saying, you’re hurting and these people are to blame. And it’s the Chinese and it’s the Mexicans and it’s the Muslims. And he’s giving people a simple answer that’s wrong but it’s how demagogues often rise to power.
In history we’ve seen strains of that in America, but generally in my mind, again it’s the sort of thing — oooh, you can see why the Russians like Putin. You can see this in other countries and yet in my mind you’d say, oh, this isn’t American. Closer to those countries than we imagined.
Yeah, I think even with very right-wing Republicans, there hasn’t been a question about the premises of democratic politics, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, the free press. And I think Trump is an authoritarian in a way that we just have not seen at least on the part of anyone who’s gotten anywhere near that far in major party politics. And it does look a lot more like European nationalist xenophobic parties than it does anything I’m familiar with from covering American politics.
That’s present tense. Lets talk a little bit about history, digital history. One reason I wanted to have you on was to talk about Slate.com and sort of the interesting trajectory that … I dont know if trajectory is the right word, but it’s bounced around multiple times. You got there when?
Just after we started in 1996 — 20 years ago. Slate’s having a 20th anniversary this year.
I was one of your first readers.
Thank you, we appreciate it. You subscribed when we had subscriptions in 1998!
I had the Slate golf umbrella sitting in my really filthy office.
I wish I still had one of those. People loved those umbrellas. They were great.
So for people who weren’t online in 1996, or whenever Slate …
Or born. The initial incarnation was this was Bill Gates’s and Microsoft’s online magazine run by Michael Kinsley, who’s famous as the New Republic guy.
Yeah, I had worked for Mike Kinsley at the New Republic. He’s my mentor in journalism, he’s my dear friend. And he’d had this idea, and I was in on a lot of the early thinking, that this internet thing might be interesting in terms of publishing a magazine. But when we started it, we thought it was like the kind of weekly magazine we’d worked on, like the New Republic or the Economist or Newsweek.
The New Republic online.
Yeah, and, you know, we came out at the beginning, we published it once a week. And the first issue had page numbers. The first many issues had page numbers! And we thought people would print it out and read it. But we thought we’d solved the problem that always bedeviled us at the New Republic of lead time, which is we’d finish writing these great articles and people wouldn’t be reading them for another week, and in politics, even then, that was a long time. But we quickly started to evolve around what was possible, because once you’re creating a digital magazine, you realize that you have to respond very quickly to different kinds of events and to news because people who are online are coming to see what you have to say about them. And you can say whatever you want, but you can’t say nothing.
I mean by today’s fast paced world, by today’s standard of internet publishing, it’s still very creaky and slow, right? You had an aggregation thing that came out once a day, today’s paper, where you literally went through mostly the Times and the Journal, and super smart, too, but it wasn’t like you were doing hot takes on whatever happened an hour ago. It wasn’t Politico-type reporting. It was still magazine length and style.
We were playing with it even from the beginning. So I covered the end of the ’96 campaign for Slate. In fact Jake Tapper and I were … he was at Salon and we were the two Jakes. We were the first two internet reporters who were actually traveling with the campaign, and there were great, hilarious moments where we’d be trying to explain to people working for Bob Dole what the internet was and how we were actually doing journalism on it. And it … sorry I just lost my thread there.
While you regain your thread, we will monetize this. A word from our sponsors.
So what I was about to say — I would take two hours. So I would cover the day’s events, whatever it was. And as an exercise, I would say, you have two hours to write your piece, and it would be public. And the miraculous thing, in 1996, was all the newspaper reporters who were traveling didn’t have a filing deadline until after that, so they would read my thing and presumably Jake’s as well on Salon before they wrote theirs. So it gave you this great chance to influence what all the other coverage was because you really were the first written take on anything that happened. But if you got two hours now, it would seem like luxury, the idea that you were gonna sit down and spend two hours composing your thoughts: I mean now you would have two minutes and then you would make ….
And that was one of the things that I really – like I wrote, I loved magazines, I was reading them from afart in Minneapolis, reading the New Republic and Harpers’s, and the notion that I could get that kind of thought, delivered to me routinely over the internet on a daily basis, was bananas! And you know, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, they would post an edition a day, put it online the next morning and sort of that was that.
But now the notion of having very smart, interesting journalism delivered at a very fast pace is now standard. How have you … and you’re still at Slate, you’re not editing it day to day, but how do you sort of think a magazine like Slate or an online publication like Slate needs to adapt to today’s environment?
Well, yeah, flash forward, Slate has a different owner, we’re part of what’s now called the Graham Holdings Company, instead of Microsoft, where we started, instead of –
In between, it was the the Washington Post …
It was the Washington Post company, and then the Washington Post company sold the Washington Post and changed its name to the Graham Holdings company, so I still, I still work for Don Graham, who ran the Washington Post family, the Graham family media business for many years. But yeah, there’s … you know, back then, you would publish 30 articles a week. Now Slate probably publishes 80 a day and those are real … I mean, that’s modest compared to what a lot of people try to do. And our pieces are all edited and they’re thought out and, you know, they’re written by humans, there’s no aggregation. We’re totally uninterested in the commodity news space. We realize that we have to add value, partly because everyone else has moved up the value chain. The New York Times doesn’t want to be in the commodity news business either. I mean they’re now … you never used to see a first-person anything in kind of traditional journalism. I mean there was this formal diction in how you did things.
No. That said, one of the things the Times is doing now is a very sort of BuzzFeed-style aggregation, like here’s a story via tweets, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s the kind of thing the Times would never do, in part because lots of people do it.
Yeah, I think the Times has really evolved and changed, and no longer seems like an elephant trying to dance. You know, the Times doesn’t feel stodgy to me any more. I mean, I think they’ve done a really impressive job digitally.
So back to Slate’s thinking about, all right, how do we define ourselves, where the thing that we did that was very special is now done by lots of other people.
I think the thing that Slate does … first of all, it’s the voice of our journalism, that it’s colloquial, that it’s personal, that we write very comfortably and in a very direct way for readers. But it’s also that we are very, very conscious of what it means to be useful. I used to say back when I was the editor of Slate that it was intellectual service journalism. You know what the news is, but then you come to Slate to find out how to think about it. Not necessarily to get an opinion, because there are lots of opinions on the internet. But to get an analytical framework, to hear interesting people talk about it but from a perspective that adds understanding and explanation.
So you said go to Slate.com. I’m used to typing in the URL in the browser all the time. It was one of the sites I went to all the time, because you delivered me something new periodically. Now the traditional mode of journalism is now Facebook or something like that, where there’s a feed of stuff and stuff sort of flows over you. How do you think about standing out among whatever else is in my Facebook feed or Twitter feed. Presumably I’ve gone and curated some of the other stuff that I like as well. If I like Slate, I’ve probably found other things that I like, like Slate, so you’re still in a world where you’re out with people who are doing the same stuff.
Yeah, and in a distributed world, it becomes all that much more important to have a distinct voice and a distinct identity, because when people are consuming content on Facebook, they think, oh, I just read something interesting on Facebook, and if it’s like everything else, that’s all they’ll think about it. But if it has, it it’s distinctive enough, and I think Slate’s content stands up to this test, you say, I read a Slate piece on Facebook. We’re lucky because we still have a legacy readership that comes to the homepage, comes to the site, and that’s still a big share of our audience, and compared to a lot of sites, especially newer sites, less of our traffic comes from Facebook. But of course the growth very heavily comes from Facebook and other social platforms and we’ve embraced that. We’re on instant articles, we’re on Apple News, we’re very focused on how you have a strong, the right kind of Twitter feed, how we adapt to all these platforms.
There isn’t any debate, we’re all just doing it, we’re all distributing our content.
Yeah, and we never really have that debate so much at Slate because we think of ourselves as experimenters and innovators and that spirit is still strong after 20 years. I think the debate comes more around having to make choices among platforms and at the size we are, we know we can’t do Snapchat and Instagram and Linkedin and Tumblr and Pinterest — we can’t do all those things well, we gotta pick the ones that matter most to us. And the ones that matter most to us are clearly Facebook, Twitter, and then it’s a long way down to everything else.
Yeah, I read a Slate piece — among a certain type of Twitter user there’s a Slate take. I think you hear less of it now, but the notion was this is sort of a contrarian piece. What did you think of that notion, that there was a hashtag devoted to a stereotypical Slate.com piece.
Well, we love it. Yes, the parody of the Slate take is that it’s just a contrarian position on everything. So, why Donald Trump is really good for America, you know. Why Mexican judges really are a menace, you know. And there is a kind of reflexive contrarianism that is a caricature and that we definitely steer away from. But I think the starting point for so many Slate writers is, is the conventional wisdom really right? It’s to start interrogating what most people think about most things most of the time. And sometimes you go into that investigation and you go back and you say, yeah, it is right. Frank Foer wrote a great piece years ago —, the former editor of the New Republic who now writes for Slate — and it was a piece about the conventional wisdom and of course his contrarian take was, the conventional wisdom is usually right.
Were you afraid that that would lead you into some place where you’d end up saying, you know, black is white, slavery’s a good thing — you know, some preposterous idea that had some kind of intellectual currency in a room and once you put it in print or online, it looked terribly embarrassing and/or worse.
I’m sure Slate’s had some excesses of that kind, I can’t think what they are right now, but I think, you know, think about the big assumptions that everybody broadly speaking made that turned out to be wrong. That Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. That the financial system was secure. That New York City wasn’t subject to catastrophic flooding. That someone with Donald Trump’s politics couldn’t be the Republican nominee. I mean you could go on, but you could probably name one year by year, that everyone assumed …
Smart people assumed.
That smart people assumed that turned out not to be true, and I think that certainly leaves me as a journalist saying, what else might we be wrong about? And no, it doesn’t mean black is white or you want to defend slavery or anything that’s just stupid, but it does mean you want to interrogate assumptions you make. And it’s interesting to do that. As a journalist, or at least the kind of journalist that’s interested in working at Slate, like asking those kinds of questions.
There was very provocative Slate.com piece — it wasn’t flip, it was in my Facebook feed this morning. My sister put it there. It was one about the Stanford rape case, the swimmer thing, the move we’re seeing from people on the left to go after the judge, he’s misguided — I’m not doing it justice by summarizing it here — but that’s a piece … I don’t know if it would only be in Slate, but it seems like a very Slate piece.
Yeah and I think again, you ask the question, like, put the shoe on the other foot. In a case where Slate’s readers would instinctively sympathize with the accused, or someone who might have been wrongly accused. Would that kind of victim statement be prejudicial, would it be fair? And I think that… Slate argues against the kind of moral reasoning that starts with the outcome you prefer and then defends the process that got you that outcome.
So how are you guys paying to get this stuff online? You guys have tacked back and forth and at the beginning, there was this subscription model. I was just reading this 10 year anniversary piece that said we’re gonna stop selling stuff online, that model is never gonna work. That model goes back in and out of vogue. But it’s in vogue now, to ask people to pay for content.
[Slate] started with no business model and trying to figure out how to make an interesting magazine online.
Yeah, we started with no business model and trying to figure out how to make an interesting magazine online. And that was a good place to start because there wasn’t any business model that could work for you in 1996, ‘97. Then in 1998 we tried one of the very first paywalls, and in many ways it did work. In 1998, we had 20,000 people paying $20 a year. You got the umbrella or I think you could get the Encarta CD-ROM. And we had a really loyal readership at that point, but what that also meant was that the paywall was pretty restrictive. It meant the maximum audience for anything you wrote was 20,000 people. And having just found this huge and growing audience on the internet, that was really demoralizing to writers back then, and I think it left us thinking, look, nobody knows really how we’re going to support the kind of content we want to do. Let’s go for big audience strategies, rather than small audience strategies. And basically Slate has been supported by advertising, and we’re keenly focused on thinking about how we can supplement that, because the health of so many media businesses has always been multiple media streams and you know, advertising is fickle.
So it’s free, there’s ads, but there is sort of now a membership model.
We have a membership program called Slate Plus, which we launched maybe about a year, well, two years ago now. And Slate Plus gives you a lot of extra content, a lot of insider perks. We do a lot of events — you get first crack at tickets, you get tickets at a discount. We have a Slate audio book club. A lot of it is around our podcast, because one of our more loyal audiences is our podcast audience, and they get ad-free podcasts, they get a special feed, they get bonus content.
How many folks are signed up for that?
Well, we are … we haven’t been disclosing all the numbers, but we are in the, let’s see, five figures. what does that tell you?
Ten thousand or more.
Yeah, we’re well into five figures. We’d like to be at six figures.
And do they pay anything?
Fifty dollars a year, or five dollars a month.
And do you think the appeal there is, there’s actual services I’m getting and that’s worth 50 bucks, or is it this is like the NPR book bag, I’m sort of signaling my affinity for a certain group, I’m part of the tribe.
I think the latter is the key part of the appeal. The pitch always says support Slate’s journalism, but it supports Slate’s journalism and if you love Slate, you get all this other stuff you’re really gonna like. But we haven’t wanted to put up a paywall, and without a paywall, it’s tougher to make that pitch. You are to some extent appealing to people’s good will and love for the site.
So are you guys making money?
Slate has been a profitable business for a few years, but we would like to be a lot more profitable, and we would like to be more secure in our profitability.
And at one point it seemed like it didn’t matter if Slate was profitable, because you were still run by Bill Gates. And at one point it still didn’t seem that important because you were run by the Washington Post company which for a long time was a very successful company, mostly because it had cable TV. Now you’re part of Graham Holdings — I assume that puts more pressure on you to show real business.
It’s always mattered a lot to me. I mean I became editor in 2002, and at some point I sort of became responsible for the whole thing, and I was involved in selling it to Don Graham and the Washington Post company. And I think part of the experiment Slate’s engaged in is trying to show that the kind of journalism we do can be economically viable. Doesn’t mean we want to be a billion-dollar startup, doesn’t mean we want to make a huge amount of money, but we want to show that we can pay the rent and cover the costs of what we do. And I think in some ways we have shown that, but I think it’s too vulnerable and too dependent on the vagaries of the advertising market.
Do you look longingly over at your former colleagues at the Washington Post who’ve just got a ton of cash infusion and energy from Jeff Bezos — we were talking about him earlier — and say, oh man, it would be great to have a billionaire really actively supporting what we’re doing?
Well, I think it’s wonderful that he’s invested in it, and I think morale at the Washington Post newsroom has just been transformed, because after years of cuts and the prospect of more and more cuts, cuts, cuts, someone came in and said, I’m gonna invest in that. That said, I don’t think … bottomless subsidy is not what we’re looking for. I want to make the business work.
Right, and I don’t think Bezos would say, I’m giving them bottomless subsidy either.
He may not think that —, yes exactly …
He may not think that yet … [laughs]
But it’s a tough business, and when you look around, there’s a positive spin on it, which is that the high-quality media outlets have all found different kinds of solutions, whether it’s Jeff Bezos for the Washington Post or it’s the FT’s paywall, or the Times’ paywall model, or the various permutations and combinations that people have come up with. But at the same time, nobody is secure right now, and there’s the sense that publishers, high-quality publishers, are still losing power relative to Facebook in particular, and it feels like a very vulnerable moment, but not a pessimistic moment.
Yeah, no one’s saying we’ve solved it, but there’s a little bit of breathing room. We started off talking about podcasts, let’s end talking about podcasts. So why did you decide to get into podcasts when you did, which again was a long time ago.
Yeah, well, we had a partnership with NPR to produce a show called Day to Day, which is no longer on the air. It was done out of LA. And we had someone we hired to work on that show for us called Andy Bowers — he’d been an NPR correspondent and had been in Moscow and London for them, really great radio journalist —, and he developed … he was our producer on that show. And we had a really good time doing that, but after a certain amount of time, I think, and the NPR-ness of NPR asserted itself, it was a little less open to the kind of experimentation we wanted to do. And Andy Bowers said to me, “You know there’s this new thing called podcasting that I’m doing in my garage and it’s really fun and I think Slate would really benefit from it,” so I said, well, why not?
And that was when?
That would have been 11 years ago.
Yeah, so right when it had literally been created.
Right at the beginning! I mean, we didn’t have the first podcast, but it was very, very early days. And the first show we started was what became the “Slate Political Gabfest” with John Dickerson and David Plotz and Emily Bazelon. That show had its 10th anniversary, I think, over the winter. And so from the beginning, we loved doing these shows. We had this kind of reaction we were talking about from the audience, when it feels like you’re talking to a very big group of friends who are super engaged in what you’re doing. And at one point people were very excited about podcasts, and then they lost interest. But we didn’t lose interest because it was one of the things that was working for us, even without making a ton of money on it. We said this is a thing we should be doing because it works. And then the world kind of came back to it, partly because of “Serial.”
Right, so there’s the “Serial” moment, and now everybody’s very interested in it, and there’s still a big open question about is this really a business, how big is the business gonna be, turns out we’re all dependent on Apple to distribute our audio, then aren’t we all screwed. How are you guys sort of thinking about how the business of podcasting will grow in the next couple years, because I think it … the estimates range from no business this year to maybe it’s a couple hundred million dollars? Whatever it is, it’s tiny this year.
Hard to say how fast. But radio is a $17 billion dollar business, and the idea that in a few years, people are not going to be listening to radio on demand the way they’ve learned to watch TV seems impossible to me. I think that market is gonna shift. Podcasting maybe isn’t the right name for it — on demand audio. Once that technology’s really in everybody’s cars, people are gonna listen that way, and that … the dollars are gonna follow. So I think it’s gonna be a very big business.
And of the things I’ve learned for years watching audiences move from analog to digital is that inevitably always happens, and of course people are gonna want consume things in a way that makes more sense to them. Ad dollars take a long time to catch up and still in many cases don’t, so are you prepared to sort of go several years where you’ve got an audience but you’re not monetizing it in a significant way?
Well, we are monetizing our audience now. I mean, there are plenty of the kinds of ads you just read and the CPMs are good, and I think it’s partly because it’s a good user experience. You know, the advertising on video is a terrible user experience. The advertising is like a tax on the viewers — watch this painful, unpleasant thing, and then we’ll let you see the content you want. Audio doesn’t feel like that. It feels really integrated, it feels pleasant, it’s a good experience for the user. I think it works. So I think the market will follow. Tthe biggest problem at the moment is the lack of granular data, the kind advertiser’s expect.
There’s no data. I mean that’s one of the reasons all our advertisers are direct- response advertisers for the most part. Becuase if you go to mackweldon.com and put the offer code “Recode” in, Mack Weldon knows that you heard that from me. Otherwise every advertiser has no idea who listened to this, if anyone listened to it.
Right, but look at that evidence. You have direct-response advertisers, including very big ones like Audible and Squarespace, that are advertising on the same shows for years at a time …
Because it works.
Based on their meeting their customer acquisition cost target. That says to me, this is working for them, and the fact that brand advertisers say, where’s the data? Well, that’s not exactly the kind of data you’re looking for. That will come. We’re working on that, we’re working on proxies for it and ways to say things about that, but the basic format works.
And then there’s the Apple question, right? Will there be someone else besides Apple distributing? And to me, the obvious thing is Amazon, which owns Audible, which has been supporting all these things, has very good idea of what’s working and if they want to could really be a force in audio distribution. I’m assuming you think that’s a possibility, but I’m assuming you’re looking for other options as well.
There are a lot of ways it could happen. Android is finally trying to catch up a little bit on podcasting, and once they develop a more significant base, they could have an advantage relative to Apple by providing more data, so that would put some pressure on Apple to provide some data. You know Apple … I mean, Apple’s been a wonderful friend to podcasting. Basically the industry exists because of the app, and they made it a non-deletable app in iOS 6, and sort of that’s why we’re here, and they haven’t tried to exploit it commercially at all. So I think they deserve a huge amount of credit. But because it’s not a revenue stream for them, they don’t necessarily have an interest right now in developing the commercial side.
No, and by the way, it’s an advertising-based revenue stream, which they seem to be wholly uninterested in.
Yeah, and it’s just not, so far, it’s not that much money. Its better as something that’s a reason to buy an iPhone. You know, I have an iPhone in part because I love podcasting. Until recently, if you’re a podcasting person, you probably want an iPhone.
Yeah, I think that’s right. Well, my excellent producer Beth reminded me that we did not ask you about Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast, which I haven’t been able to hear yet. When you hear this podcast, you probably can hear …
Its a 10-part series called “Revisionist History.” It’s been Malcolm Gladwell’s big project for the past six months.
New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, your old friend Malcolm Gladwell, Malcolm Gladwell who wrote about your grandmother …
Your mother, I’m sorry.
Yes, in “The Tipping Point.” Yes, that Malcolm Gladwell. And you know I’ve been … he’s a pal of mine, and I’d been talking about podcasting for a long time, trying to get him interested in doing one, and I think with a little help from Bill Simmons, he really got excited about it.
Because he’d been on Bill’s podcast.
He’d been on Bill’s show a lot, and Bill told him how much he liked doing podcasting, and when Malcolm decided to do it, he plunged in! He did interviews all around the world, he wrote the scripts for these 10 full-length episodes, and it is such an interesting show. It’s sort of like a pure expression of what Gladwell’s interested in and how he goes at storytelling.
It’s kind of an audio version of a New Yorker story that he would have written, right?
In a lot of ways, yeah. He finds multiple narratives and brings them together around a theme, and they’re … some of them are very quirky. I mean, the concept is things we got wrong the first time.
So he’s your friend, longtime friend, but I’m guessing he doesn’t do this for free. Did you have to get a sponsor in before he agreed to do it? I mean, do you have to say we’re gonna pay you X and then find a sponsor to do it, or do you pay him X and then hope to find a sponsor later?
He did it on the same basis we work with other partners, like Sports Illustrated or New York Magazine. It’s a rev share. So if we sell a lot, he gets a big percentage of a lot, and if we don’t sell any, he gets a percentage of nothing.
But he’s not being paid up front.
Nope, and he was … that’s generally the way … we’ve fronted costs of producing a show, which, for something like his show that’s highly produced, are not insignificant. But no, we want everyone to work on an incentive basis. We are making an investment around podcasts, and we’ll finance them. But so far our model hasn’t been to lay out the equivalent of big advances to get people to do them.
I cannot wait to hear it! I bet by the time this podcast drops, I will have heard it, so thank you for delivering it to me for free.
Excellent. Thank you.