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Friends of the Pod: Crooked Media Emerges as a New Democratic Voice

There is no better way to sass a sitting president than with his own words. This is the rationale behind the name of Crooked Media, a liberal news outlet most famous for its podcast, “Pod Save America.” After the 2016 election, three former Obama staffers decided to make Trump’s classic insult their own by founding the company.

Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett, Obama speechwriters, and Tommy Vietor, a former spokesperson for the National Security Council, hosted a liberal podcast, “Keepin’ It 1600,” on SoundCloud during the last few years of the Obama administration. During the campaign, they were confident that a Democrat would be in the White House in 2017, and the day after the election, they, like many other former Obama staff members, were shocked.

Several months after the election, the trio launched Crooked Media. “Pod Save America,” its flagship podcast, has almost 1.5 million regular listeners. While “Keepin’ It 1600” was part of a parent company The Ringer, Crooked Media is independent. The company hosts seven left-leaning podcasts, each with different policy niches. Since the election, Crooked Media has become a five million dollar enterprise.

Crooked Media is not the first company to propagate partisan journalism.  “Going back to the founding of the Republic, there really wasn’t any such thing as unbiased media,” John Stoehr, a fellow at Yale who writes for publications including The Washington Monthly and U.S. News, told The Politic.

Nonetheless, compared to other liberal commentary outlets, such as The Young Turks, The Daily Kos, and the now-defunct Air America, Crooked Media has amassed a cult-like following. With three podcasts in the November Top 20 on iTunes, Crooked Media is the candid, outspoken voice that many Democrats have been looking for.

At Yale, Crooked Media’s name comes up on T-shirts and in conversation. Fellow Yalies often approach Irene Vasquez ’21 when she wears her gray and yellow “Friend of the Pod” shirt. In an introductory economics lecture, the T-shirt made for an effective ice-breaker.

“Somebody came up to me and start talking,” Vasquez told The Politic, “and now we’re friends.”

The founding trio, in a move to reach out to young adult fans, has gone on tour on college campuses in Wisconsin, Chicago, and Pennsylvania. Their products are popular on college campuses across the country, and the company now sells holiday merchandise, such as Christmas ornaments featuring the dogs of the podcast hosts.

Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks told The Politic that the “number one” key to success for outlets like Crooked Media is “to know who your audience is and serve them.”

“When you’re getting revenue from your audience, that’s wonderful because you have a direct connection to them and you serve them,” he said. Media companies that start from scratch, he explained, cannot rely on their name or their past ratings to keep them afloat. Instead, they need to give the audience what they want.

James Sleeper, Professor of Political Science at Yale, noted that outlets like Crooked Media often depend on advertisers or venture capitalists for funds. As of August 2017, Crooked Media mainly relied on revenue from advertisements and their live shows, and had not yet partnered with venture capitalists.

The podcast presents marketing opportunities, too. Listeners are familiar with Crooked Media’s parade of advertisers, including Blue Apron, Harry’s Razors, and the Cash App. The hosts’ seemingly-unscripted banter about the products makes the ads entertaining. They sometimes even mock the products. Most known and joked about among fans is the podcast’s Blue Apron ad. At the end of the ad, when Favreau begins to say the Blue Apron slogan (“A better way to—”) Lovett interjects with a piece of funny, unrelated political news like “Manafort spent a million dollars on rugs!”

“That’s the kind of advertising that actually works,” Vasquez said. “You can tell from the way they present an ad whether they actually like the product.” She even surprised herself by buying the a bouquet from of one of the show’s frequent advertisers, ProFlowers.

Still, Sleeper warns that heavy reliance on ads can incentivize companies to sensationalize the news.

“The [stories] that are most popular get the ads,” Sleeper said. “The way they get the ads is they have a lot of sex and a lot of sensation. Every media is under that pressure, but I think it’s worse for small digital startups.”

Part of “Pod Save America’s” appeal among college students are its catchy ads, colloquial language, and constant criticism of Trump. The question is whether it can keep listeners engaged enough to last.

“I would not be surprised if it vanished next year,” Stoehr said.

In the past decades, numerous news outlets have appeared and disappeared—from well-known sites like Al Jazeera America to regional ones like Bay Citizen in the San Francisco Area. In an era of infinite options, companies increasingly have to pander to the public. The Trump administration has certainly made the news sexier, but the President seems to be the only thing that can pull readers. Sites that do not cover D.C., for example, are having just as much difficulty as they did before 2016.

Podcasts may be safer from the difficulties that face other types of publications. Though programs such as “This American Life” have been around for years, using podcasts as a way to report news is a relatively recent phenomenon. Part of the reason for the success of these new podcasts, according to Stoehr, is that they are a “deliverable.”

“[The podcast is] a product that has shape and form whereas in social media everything is formless and shapeless,” he said.

Unlike newspaper articles, which can easily become clickbait, it is harder for podcasts to be superficially enticing. And podcasts, unlike written media, allow for multi-tasking—listeners can engage while doing other activities like driving or exercising.

Crooked Media has dominated the podcast landscape not just by reporting the news, but by channeling anger into action. In a time when many say reading the news has become disheartening, Crooked Media’s influence has extended beyond news commentary.

The Pod has become a leader for the Democratic base by guiding progressive citizens to different causes they can support. Their website includes a page called “Take Action,” which connects fans to liberal organizations. The show’s episodes often list people to call during elections or encourage participation in rallies. In one episode of “With Friends Like These, Ana Marie Cox tells listeners how “one can help in the fight against bigotry [in ways] besides going to protests and rallies.” During the Virginia primary, the hosts canvassed for now-Governor Ralph Northam.

Another example of Crooked Media’s direct participation in political causes is their open support for Michigan State University (MSU) Democrats’ advocacy to divest from the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, whose CEO, Robert Mercer, is a white supremacist. According to Eli Pales, the PR Director of the MSU College Democrats, Crooked Media first became involved when Michigan State House candidate and MSU alumna Mari Manoogian tweeted at Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor to sign the MSU Democrats’ petition; they then retweeted the call to action. Pales could not isolate the effect of Crooked Media’s retweet, but certainly found that liberal advocacy groups in general proved helpful.

Pales argues that even if Crooked Media did not single-handedly generate support for the MSU Democrats’ advocacy, it “is a valuable partisan tool.” Although Pales sometimes finds it a little too partisan, he is convinced that Crooked Media and entities like it will play a critical role in firing up the Democrats’ lukewarm base.

To what extent Crooked Media gets people engaged is hard to determine. For Georgia native Jyot Singh ‘21, Crooked Media is a part of a bigger tapestry of outlets that inspire him to get involved.

“They’re another media organization that tells me to participate,” Singh told The Politic. And he does participate—but not “specifically [because] of Crooked Media.”  

Vasquez also agreed that she, too, would volunteer whether or not she were encouraged to do so by Crooked Media. Nonetheless, “the reminder [to volunteer] is always good,” and “the resources [Crooked Media] provide are useful, like when they connect you with the specific senators to call for Move On,” said Vasquez.

The hyper-partisanship of Crooked Media represents the growing tension between two causes: the desire to avoid creating political echo-chambers, and the need to promote projects for Democrats to rally around. Smaller, newer companies foster more dialogue because they must listen to their audiences to survive.

As Uygur explains of the Young Turks, “The fact that we were born of the people and by the people—a lot of our hosts are originally from our audience—allowed us to represent them. The fact that we were online and started organically was a great advantage.”

At a time where Democrats are upset with the country leadership, many seek news sources that are as passionate and angry as they are. For some, Crooked Media has become their guide to the Trump presidency.