No one who has been watching politics of late has truly known a restful moment given the many breaking controversies surrounding the Trump administration. But inside the bustling Hollywood offices of a burgeoning, politically engaged podcast network dubbed Crooked Media this week, an exceptionally busy period was in full swing.
Founded in Los Angeles last year by four former White House staffers under President Obama — Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor and Dan Pfeiffer (who, unlike the others, lives in the Bay Area) — the company is behind the hit podcast “Pod Save America,” an engaging, conversational look with a progressive perspective at the latest on the political landscape. Since its launch the show has amassed some 322 million downloads and multiple Crooked Media spinoffs like the foreign policy-focused “Pod Save the World.”
Smart, chatty and humorous with its raw but reasoned rejoinders to current affairs, the show often sets aside the more measured language of the news for personal perspective and well-argued advocacy. But the podcast is deadly serious about increasing voter participation this November. The effort expanded in August under the online umbrella Vote Save America, which has so far recruited more than 6,500 volunteers.
The project comes to HBO this Friday with the first of four specials, which will air every week leading up to the midterms. For this team, the run marks a culmination of a long effort.
“All of the anger, all of the paying attention, it was all about what happens the next 30 days,” says Lovett, the funniest and most outspoken of the four, who was folded into a chair and eating a salad during a lunch break inside their corner office. Three computers are positioned on desks clustered near one another, and a map of the United States with various districts colored red or blue looms over the room.
“It’s all part of one big story,” Lovett goes on, “The story of Donald Trump becoming president, the group of people who capitulated to him, and the American people waking up to take the country back. And none of what happened before will have made a difference if everything doesn’t change in the next month.”
The start-up atmosphere is calm and casual, but pitched somewhere between political war room and dorm room, complete with an acoustic guitar near the door and two dogs, attentive goldendoodles named Leo and Pundit.
The midterms mark a long-anticipated flashpoint that in part led the four of them to leave their first podcast, “Keepin’ it 1600,” which aired under the website the Ringer in the run-up to the 2016 election. A more conventional sort of punditry show led by four former Washington insiders, the show was seen by them as an outdated model after the election, which led to a lot of self-examination for those who did not foresee its results.
“I think it caused a lot of us to sort of reflect on what we can do to help get ourselves out of this situation,” says Favreau, who often functions as a sort of moderator on the podcasts. “We had talked for a while even before Trump ran how political media can sometimes leave you feeling helpless, and we thought, what if we have a political media company that told you what you can do to change the world and to change the political situation?”
“All of the anger, all of the paying attention, it was all about what happens the next 30 days.”
As a result, “Pod Save America” sounds like the next evolution of a progressive political voice in media. While the right wing has long harnessed the power of its greatest megaphone, Fox News, and a fertile talk radio farm system to spread its message while fomenting outrage alongside participation at the polls, its opposition has been less successful attracting an audience.
The short-lived progressive talk radio station Air America folded after a brief run in the early ’00s as it followed a pundit-driven path modeled on the success of Rush Limbaugh, and those oft-cited Bush-era voices of liberal opposition — Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert — mocked conservatives but stopped short of advocating for candidates as they were tasked with putting on a daily comedy show as well.
The hosts of “Pod Save America,” by contrast, have no such obligation. Breaking from the focus-grouped talking points that can come with politicians on news magazine shows, theirs is a space where political figures and policies are called out without hesitation by former Beltway insiders.
“It’s weird the degree to which in political conversations punches are pulled,” says Vietor. “Like, Donald Trump is a racist, he judges people based on their race. He said a Mexican judge couldn’t fairly rule on him because he is racist. Paul Ryan called him a racist. Yet that is a controversial statement.”
Adds Lovett, “We see it with Democratic politicians who will come on our show and be really cautious. They’re still living by the political consultant rules that say, ‘Here’s how you appeal to people in the right way, here’s the kind of delicate cathedral of your brand that we’re going to build.’ Have you not been paying attention? You have to just say what’s on your mind because the care that you’re showing does not pass through this filter anymore.”
“I don’t think I could ever go back to not speaking forthrightly about a situation,” says Favreau, who was head speechwriter under President Obama. “I’d have a hard time going back to any other job where I was speaking for someone else or had to trim my sails or something like that. It feels natural to do this.”
The four HBO specials will be recorded before live audiences in Miami, Austin, Texas, Philadelphia and Irvine — four areas where congressional seats and other offices are in play. While none of them claim to know how to solve low voter turnout (“Would you like us to tell you the answer to one of the thorniest problems in American politics?” Lovett dryly cracks), they feel that clarifying a political process they see portrayed in the media as intractable is a good start.
“No wonder people feel frustrated and cynical,” says Favreau. “All the information that they’re taking in doesn’t tell them how they could change it; it tells them that everyone is acting out of self-interest and cynical motives, so that’s what you think about politics and that’s what you think about the world around you. Why would you think anything else?”
“What we are trying to accomplish is tell people what is happening and what they can do about it, and that is a different conversation than what has happened in media for a long time,” says Pfeiffer by speaker phone. “Will that lead to greater voter turnout? We should only hope so, we’re going to harangue ... people until it does.”
For having a job that requires immersion in the latest political news, the otherwise busy “Pod Save America” offices are free of the ambient churn of the 24-hour networks. They kept the TVs on during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and had been checking for updates on Hurricane Michael, which at the time was possibly bearing toward their Miami filming location this week, but not much else. If there are contributing factors to their collective optimism and energy in an exhausting election cycle, that may be one of them.
“I think it’s harder to be optimistic if you are spending all day only reading the news,” Favreau says. “And it’s hard to be pessimistic if you are out there at a live show, in a field office, talking to people who are talking to candidates who are trying to do something about this. That fuels the optimism.”
And whatever happens in the midterms, “Pod Save America” doesn’t sound ready to consider its work finished. “We’ll have election day 2018, then the whole country will take a great two-hour break before 2020 begins,” Lovett says, grinning.
“Everybody takes a long lunch on Wednesday, nobody talks about it during that lunch, and then we’re off to the races.”
Follow me over here @chrisbarton.