Tommy Vietor is Saving the World, One Podcast at a Time

Data analysis of my 2017 calendar would suggest a strong correlation between drives down to Silicon Valley and the Crooked Media podcast schedule. It’s really the only way to deal with 101 traffic. I’ve met the Crooked Media team at different events, starting with Dan Pfeiffer while he was still at the White House, and love seeing them build their new company with equal doses of mission and arched eyebrows. Tommy Vietor (host, Pod Save the World) and I have a deep and meaningful online friendship which basically involves fav’ing each others tweets. Here he joins me for Five Questions…

Hunter Walk: When you formed Crooked Media one of the points of emphasis was to ramp up the ‘activism’ aspects of the platform. How has that manifested itself in the content so far compared to the pre-election podcasts?

Tommy Vietor: I should stipulate that we have a lot more work to do on this front. We’ve started a series of conversations with smart organizers and activist groups to figure out how we can help without reinventing the wheel. What’s clear so far is that the key objectives will be the 2017 gubernatorial races and then winning back the house in 2018. 2018 is the whole ballgame.

That said, we’ve tried to do a better job of not just talking about what awful thing happened that week, but also helping listeners understand what they can do about it. That last step is what I think distinguishes us from even progressive news outlets. Sometimes our suggestions will feel small and not particularly satisfying. Often what we recommend will be as basic as call your member of Congress, or donate to SwingLeft.org to raise money for the candidates who challenge Republican members of Congress, but in the aggregate it will add up. So we all have to stay focused.

HW: How do you measure success right now — is it looking at podcast download numbers and iTunes ratings? More qualitative sense of what your friends, insiders and general audience are saying about the pod?

TV: There’s a bunch of scattered metrics that matter to us. Some of them are traditional business KPIs like audience growth, not just for Pod Save America but for all of the Crooked Media shows. We view our first round of hiring as a huge success. But the important work is ahead of us. We want to grow out the podcast network to include more voices. We want to get into video. We want to find a way to be a real value add for people who want to get more active in politics, and we want to help push Democrats to be better and communicate more effectively. So….whole lotta’ work to do. But so far so good!

HW: The sponsor live reads are a very, uh, humorous part of the pods. Are sponsors just a business model, or over time do you think it’s an opportunity for brands to take a stance because their customers or employees want to see their values tangibly. Have you turned down any brands that you thought didn’t belong on the pod?

TV: We didn’t make a conscious choice to have fun during the ads as much as we just got bored of reading the same copy and the jokes slipped out. Then it became a fun part of the show and a competition to see how far we could push it (turns out there are boundaries). The good news is that listeners seem to enjoy them and are less likely to hit the skip button, which means sponsors are getting good returns. I absolutely think there’s an opportunity for brands to take a stance and talk more about their values. In places like San Francisco where you have a largely progressive, highly educated workforce, I think it’s going to be a strategic imperative for companies to have values and a voice, especially if they want to recruit young people. We all want to feel like our jobs amounts to more than just a paycheck (or equity allocation!) and I suspect CEOs have been paying attention to the backlash against companies and CEOs that stayed involved with the Trump administration after the Muslim ban. That was a huge mistake.

HW: Post-election, what’s the tech industry doing well in resisting Trump and pushing back against the administration and where are we still naive or complacent?

TV: I should caveat this by saying that the entire political world called 2016 wrong, myself very much included, so I approach all political predictions and advice with humility and a grain of salt. The biggest disconnect between the tech community and Washington (in my humble opinion as a guy who admittedly only knows the tech community as an observer) is a default assumption that politics is governed by logic and reason. That’s just not true. It’s a wildly inefficient process driven by irrational humans, and the logical explanation of how or why something should happen is rarely the way things play out. It sucks and is infuriating. Unfortunately that means it’s harder to apply technology to solve problems that are political or human in nature. And sometimes folks with nothing but good intentions can end up frustrated by the lack of progress and end up looking naive, especially when you have a problem like the refugee crisis that just can’t be hacked and instead require major government involvement and political support to solve. That’s also why the libertarian view that things would be better if government just got out of the way isn’t always true.

On the positive side, I have been impressed by how many leaders in the tech community have spoken out against Trump’s policies early on during his administration when a lot of people were scared. Elon Musk waited too long to get off of Trump’s advisory council, but he did it. Tim Cook’s lobbying in support of the Paris Agreement was powerful even if ultimately unsuccessful. These are big, respected brands, and the business critiques of Trump matter.

HW: After commuting back and forth, you’ve recently moved down to LA from SF. Better weather but we’ve got better coffee, right?

TV: I have amazing friends in SF. Brilliant, funny, nice, awesome people from all different parts of my life, and I really miss them. And living in SF you sort take for granted how cool it is to live in a city where people are so comfortable with taking big swings and not afraid of failure. That is a rare, awesome culture. Moving was sad. I loved my little (expensive) one bedroom in Pac Heights. I often stare longingly at my Fremont Diner coffee cup. But LA has been great so far, and I am more excited about work than I’ve been in a long time. Also the weather is pretty great…

Thanks Tommy! Please support the Crooked Media team by subscribing to Pod Save the World and buying some merch.

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