Servant of Pod It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders Episode 34
Mon, 4/19 11:08AM • 24:28
laughter, npr, people, sam, listeners, conversation, news, radio, audience, optimism, week, preet, code, emotional, aunt betty, switching, world, floyd, public, trump
Ari Shapiro, Sam Sanders, Preet Bharara, Nick Quah, Betty Sanders, Katie Rogers
Nick Quah 00:01
Here's the thing about Sam Sanders: he is possibly one of the most optimistic people I've ever met in this business.
Sam Sanders 00:08
The promise I made with my audience early on was optimism. It just is. And so that doesn't mean that I'm always optimistic--in fact, I'm a Negative Nancy--but what I'm giving my listeners in the show is optimism. And so I can save my negativity, I can save my fears, I can save the nasty side of me for my friends. And I do. I think people who really know me, and are really close to me, know that I'm kind of a sarcastic bastard, like a little bit of an asshole. [Laughter] But I don't need to bring that to the mic, because I didn't promise my listeners that. I promised them optimism. You know?
Nick Quah 00:46
Sam is the host of NPR's radio show and podcast It's Been a Minute. And he says his ultimate goal isn't just to inform and create conversation.
Sam Sanders 00:54
I think that my relationship with them primarily is to be a proxy for them. And so I want to approach every conversation with the curiosity that I think they would have about the world, and in general, that is not being afraid to come to a conversation or a news interview and say, to quote George W. Bush, "That was some weird ****!" [Laughter]
Nick Quah 01:19
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: Sam Sanders and the power of good vibes.
Nick Quah 01:44
When I talked to Sam, he'd just spent almost seven months in his hometown with his family. And he learned a valuable lesson while he was there.
Sam Sanders 01:52
The most grounded thing for me was to be in Texas, I'd be working from home all day, be obsessed with some Twitter drama, and then I would go to my mother's house and see my mother and my brother, and they'd asked how my day went.
Nick Quah 02:03
Sam Sanders 02:04
And I'd be like, "I can't tell you about this thing, because it only makes sense if you're on Twitter, which means it doesn't really matter. So yeah, my day was fine." [Laughter] Like that. Just realizing half of the stuff that our industry is just consumed with, a lot of other people aren't. They just aren't. And that's fine.
Nick Quah 02:22
Sam is fantastic at presenting the crux of the issue with just the right amount of humor, levity, and comfort. And that's what he brings to It's Been a Minute.
===Excerpt: It’s Been a Minute, “Immigration Under Biden, Plus Preet Bharara ‘Doing Justice’,” January 29, 2021===
Sam Sanders 02:31
The first time, you let it go to voicemail. You let Trump go to voicemail.
Preet Bharara 02:34
All three... So he called me three times. All three times, it went to voicemail 'cause I wasn't in my
office, or my assistant got the call.
Sam Sanders 02:40
Or you saw the words "Donald Trump" on your phone and said "ugh." [Laughter]
Preet Bharara 02:43
I didn't. I didn't. I just happened...
Sam Sanders 02:45
That is Preet Bharara. He is a lawyer and former federal prosecutor. And Preet got those phone
calls just after Trump got elected, when Preet was still U.S. attorney for the Southern District of
New York. Barack Obama appointed Preet Bharara, and he expected to resign from his post
when Trump took office because that's how it usually works. But Preet stayed at Trump’s
request. And then the phone calls began, which was weird. So Preet told the White House that
he wanted to loop in the Department of Justice with these calls. Twenty hours later...
Sam Sanders 03:19
He fired you.
Preet Bharara 03:19
He did. He did. You know, every time someone famous got fired, my mom, you know, grew
happier. It was like, "oh, Jim Comey. Oh, this is a pretty good club to be in." [Laughter]
Sam Sanders 03:28
Preet says he is still not entirely sure why he got fired…
Sam Sanders 03:31
On our best weeks, we are this wonderful cross between a news magazine covering several topics; a long-form interview show in the spirit of, I don't know, Fresh Air; and a little morning drive shock-jock, fun, hilarious antics sprinkled on top. And so that has been the kind of special sauce, I think, throughout the entire show. But I think particularly in light of the pandemic and the racial justice movement of last year, we kind of allowed some more emotional space for the show. So the show was always also about the news itself, and what's going on, and the zeitgeist, but also about how it all feels. And so we tried to create this space in which we could laugh at stuff, or poke fun at stuff, or be emotional about stuff. And I realized, once the pandemic hit, before pandemic, before George Floyd, we were looking for ways to help people laugh at the week of absurdity in the news.
Nick Quah 04:33
Sam Sanders 04:33
And I realized, in 2020, people also needed a space to cry about the news, and just like, get emotional, and have some deep conversations that tap at the heartstrings. So we've been doing that too. So I don't know where I'm going with this, but I think that the emotional thrust of the show has perhaps tilted a bit from what you might have heard in 2017 or '18. But I think that was smart, and needed, because the tenor of the country has changed too.
Nick Quah 05:02
It's Been a Minute was meant to be a replacement for the classic NPR show Car Talk. The plan was a show that would inform listeners about the week's news in a lighthearted way. And that's exactly how it started.
===Excerpt: It’s Been a Minute, “Friday Wrap: ‘Likes Don’t Matter’,” June 23, 2017===
Betty Sanders 05:14
Hey y'all! This is Sam's Aunt Betty. Today's guests: from The New York Times, reporter Katie
Rogers, and one of the hosts of NPR's All Things Considered, Ari Shapiro. All right, let's start the
Katie Rogers 05:27
Ari Shapiro 05:27
I love your Aunt Betty.
Sam Sanders 05:29
I do too. I do too.
Katie Rogers 05:33
Thanks, Aunt Betty.
Sam Sanders 05:33
Ari Shapiro 05:35
Wait, do you get a theme song?
Sam Sanders 05:37
I'm gonna tell you all about this. I pick one every week.
Katie Rogers 05:40
Sam Sanders 05:40
Hey, y'all, Sam Sanders here--It's Been a Minute. You heard Aunt Betty. Now you're hearing
Chance The Rapper. We'll talk about this song, and her, and so much more, but first, welcome!
Ari Shapiro, Katie Rogers…
Nick Quah 05:53
But the show changed last year as the world became a dumpster fire.
Sam Sanders 05:57
What's crazy, Nick, is that after we began to pivot the show, in the midst of Coronavirus, we really kind of just made a full turn in the aftermath of the George Floyd death and protest. And in the week after our first George Floyd episodes began to run our podcast audience, in terms of just sheer users per week, it doubled. And then the next week, it tripled. And it never really stopped. So our audience numbers, still, right now, users per week is double what it was before George Floyd. It's baffling to me.
Nick Quah 06:34
Well, I want to unpack that a little bit, because It's Been a Minute isn't the only show that's experienced that tremendous level of growth over the past year. Code Switch also had a similar uptick. And I've heard of other shows that have seen that too, especially ones hosted by people of color. Could you talk to me a little bit more about that?
Sam Sanders 06:51
I think there were a few things that happened. I think that there was no way to ignore it anymore, that groundswell of activism. You wanted to understand it, and anyone who was talking about it in a thoughtful way, people were drawn to that. So we were doing that. And two, I think that it was really a moment in which across all different kinds of podcast platforms, everyone just worked together. I remember in those weeks after George Floyd, everyone was like, how can we showcase the content that's speaking to this moment? And so Apple, and Spotify, and Stitcher, and all these other platforms were so eager to reach out to us, and to others, and just say, how do we get this stuff out there?
Nick Quah 07:34
So when you witnessed the numbers doubling and tripling, did it bring you more anxiety? How does that feel internally, in your position being the face of this thing?
Sam Sanders 07:46
It's bittersweet. I think you never want to think that some of your professional success came through the death of a Black man. That hurts. And I'm still processing that. I hope that the work that I've done in the aftermath of his death honors his legacy, and his memory, and the cause of what all this activist work has been the last year, which is for the police to stop killing us, right? So I hope that I've helped spread that message. But it is weird, in the same way that it was weird to see the NPR Politics podcast really jump off and boost my career a few years ago because of Donald Trump and all of the bad things he was doing. This is a profession in which we have to make peace with success often built in the ruins of disaster, or on the ruins of disaster.
Nick Quah 08:37
Sam Sanders 08:38
And it's never pretty, you never are not queasy about it. But that is the nature of the work.
Nick Quah 08:46
Do you think that's unique to the news business?
Sam Sanders 08:50
I don't know if it's just unique to us, but I think we really have to think about what we do with that. I think, especially coming out of four years of Trump, and hopefully at some point coming out of more than a year of pandemic, we need to think about whether our work is speaking to these national moments of crisis, or exploiting them. And my goal is to never exploit. And so what I want to do is not sensationalize, not overhype, just speak truth to the moment. There is definitely an undercurrent of fearmongering that we see in a lot of news coverage from a lot of platforms that I won't name. But my goal is to not do that. And my goal is to make sure that whatever conversation I'm having on my show every week, you leave it feeling a little better about the state of the world than worse. Because no one can fix the problems that we're facing right now if they are only depressed and scared of them. We can't... We've got to find a way to look at the world... bright-eyed? You know, I know that sounds so naive, but I'm serious. I just, I don't want to ****ing depress people. I want to inform you and make you feel like you're ready to go face it again the next day, because these problems are still going to be here the next ****ing day.
Nick Quah 10:11
How do you think about your relationship to your listeners?
Sam Sanders 10:15
It is comforting, I think, and welcoming to audiences when a host is having a news conversation where they also accept the weirdness, and strangeness, and baffling nature of the current state of the world. And so I try to be open to that. I think the era of like, voice-of-God NPR host, where they just knew everything and were perfect--it doesn't work.
Nick Quah 10:38
Sam Sanders 10:39
It doesn't work. And I'm gonna forge a stronger connection with my audience, and ask better questions, if I come to them, and come to these conversations with the same anxieties they have, you know? [Laughter] And the same like, "Whoa, what is this?"-ness that they have. Right?
Nick Quah 10:57
Yeah, I feel like you really put yourself out there. So I'm curious, where do you draw the line on what you share about yourself with your listeners?
Sam Sanders 11:06
Yeah, you know, I think at the start, when Brent Bachman and I began to make the show, we decided to make it a little more full of personality than your typical news show. And in that regard, I would like talk about my life when it felt pertinent to conversations, and people know about me, and people hear from my Aunt Betty in the show. And I talk about music I like, and things that I do, etc. And I have opinions about culture. But there are some things I don't share. I think that my... It's funny, I talk about my Aunt Betty on the show, but I really don't talk about my family. She's really it. Because she also kind of signed up for it, too. When we asked her early on to be one of the voices in the show, she knew what she was getting into, right? And I think the other thing is just like, I share a lot about my personal interests, but I don't share a lot about my personal life, and my friendships, or romantic relationships. That's just like, no, that's, that's not for consumption. So yeah, those are the dividing lines. But who knows? I am also the kind of person where if you talk to me long enough, I will tell you everything, I just can't help it. So I sit here and say, here are the things I won't discuss, but ask me in six months, I probably will have broken that rule.
Nick Quah 12:21
Sam's journey from band geek to NPR and his take on whiteness in public radio. More in a minute.
Nick Quah 12:39
Okay, Sam, so how did you get into public media in the first place?
Sam Sanders 12:44
I was a total band nerd.
Nick Quah 12:46
What, like marching band, or like band band?
Sam Sanders 12:49
Marching band, jazz band, symphonic band, I did it all. I was a drum major.
Nick Quah 12:52
Oh, you were in jazz band?
Sam Sanders 12:54
I was in jazz band as well. I was band president. I ended up majoring in college in music composition, I was a music nerd. Yeah. But after high school both of my parents got really sick at the same time, so I took a year off to just take care of them. And that kind of just changed everything for me. I stepped into a caregiver role for them at a very young age, which was life-altering. And I also just, literally, they stopped driving me around and I began to drive them around. And that was when I was able to control the radio dial and just have on NPR a lot. And so that was when I kind of discovered public radio, as I was driving around taking care of my parents. But in general, I think 17, 18, 19-year-old me was totally nerdy, totally curious about the world, and totally obsessed with the way things sounded.
Nick Quah 13:42
After graduating from the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Sam went to the Kennedy School at Harvard to get his master's degree.
Sam Sanders 13:49
You're around all these crazily driven people, half of whom want to run for president one day, but they all come in knowing what they want to do with their lives after the Kennedy School. That was not me.
Nick Quah 14:00
Instead, he rediscovered public media and decided to pursue it as a career. He ended up interning and doing his master's thesis at WBUR, one of Boston's NPR affiliates, and even though Sam didn't end up in politics like many of his Harvard classmates, he says there was one big takeaway from being in that space.
Sam Sanders 14:18
The biggest lesson of the Kennedy School was, "They're just like you." You're around these world leaders all the time, and they are just trying to find the bathroom like you are, right? I'll never forget, I was late for class one day, and I'm walking through the main building on campus trying to not be late, and this guy stops me and says, "Where's the bathroom?" And I was like, "Dude, I'm late! I don't know! Just turn to your left!" [Laughter] And so I start to like, run away, because I'm late, and I look over and it was John Kerry. And it was just like, "Okay!" [Laughter] When you spend two years within that kind of space, you just get over all of the pretense and all of the hype around these people that we see on TV. They're just people.
Nick Quah 14:59
Sam Sanders 14:59
So I think I've tried to, in my work, have that kind of rapport with all of my guests, like, I'm not going to bow down before you, you're a person, let's just connect.
Nick Quah 15:10
I feel like there's this constant in your work that really speaks to a more nuanced way to practice journalism, if that makes sense. You tell the story truthfully, but also with a lot of feeling, and historically, that's something journalists have been told to keep out of their work.
Sam Sanders 15:23
News stories are never just fact. All of it's emotional. You can't tell the full story of the Trump years without talking about how his emotions played into everything that he did. You can't tell the story of the insurrection without talking about a powerful emotion called racism, right? And I think that I've always--from my time doing breaking news, to politics, to now--tried to really convey in my work that no news story is ever just facts, it's about flawed people and how they feel about ****. And usually, those emotions around the stuff are much more important, and much more consequential, than the facts. We are emotional and flawed human beings, and if we don't account for that in our news reporting, we don't get to the full story. You know, for years, we wanted to call racism "economic anxiety" because in our rational lizard journalist brains, we were like, "Well, it has to be about money, it can't just be about people not liking other people!" It's about people not liking other people! That's what it's always about, you know?
Nick Quah 16:24
Sam Sanders 16:25
And so that, for me, I think has been the unifying theme of the work. This stuff is emotional, and you have to acknowledge that. It's also every conversation about who we are as a country now, and the big issues of our day, are rooted in issues of identity. You know, what does it mean to be rich? What does it mean to be poor in America? What does it mean to be Black, or white? What does it mean to be a woman or a man right now, and how do all of those different experiences affect how we see the world and what we want? You know? There was a time in which reporting from places like NPR might treat all civilians as equal, but we're different. And we approach these stories differently based on our experiences, and we live our lives and live the news differently based on who we are in those experiences, and so the goal is to have a show that speaks to that pervasive nature of identity. Who we are affects everything. And bigger than that, how we think of who we are affects everything.
Nick Quah 17:24
I wanna follow this thread a little bit, regarding news and identity. So public media is overwhelmingly white. So is the audience. You're Black, your show covers a wide range of topics, so I'm curious, what kind of role does code switching have when you're making It's Been a Minute?
Sam Sanders 17:41
It's... how do I say this? I've been a Black man my entire life. I didn't start code switching at NPR, you know? So it's like... [Laughter] I code switch in life, and I think it was what made me a good reporter before I was a good host. You just get really comfortable being able to do whatever it takes to have a conversation with any kind of person wherever you are when you're a person of color. And I've never been ashamed to code switch. I think it's a superpower. And I do it. And I think that's why the show works. And I think that by... [Laughter] Yeah, white folks, you should try it, too. It's a ****ing good interview tactic. [Laughter] I don't know. Code switching is not a dirty word, if that makes sense.
Nick Quah 18:28
Sam Sanders 18:29
It's just not. And as long as I've been working in audio, as long as I've been a journalist, I've used this innate ability. I have to code switch to get the goddamn story, and I'm not ashamed of it. I'm just not. When I'm interviewing a guest, I want to code switch enough to make them feel comfortable while still being me. So I'm going to talk to an app security expert in a different way than I talk to an actor or actress. Duh, right? That's code switching. But there's also a thing that I think a lot of public radio watchers misconstrue as code switching, and that is explaining. So my show exists in two spaces: it is a podcast, and it's also a radio show on public radio stations on the weekend. So the average age of the audience for that weekend radio is like 55-plus, and the average age for the podcast audience is like 20 years younger--perhaps more, right? And so I need to make sure that, when I reference a meme, that my radio listeners can get it without having to Google--yes, they can Google, we all have that skill--but also, you're listening on the radio, I want you to just keep listening, and not like, pause to Google! [Laughter] And so that's not code switching. That's just making a pleasant listener experience on both platforms. It costs me nothing to have a seven-second qualifier about what that internet thing is.
Nick Quah 19:58
Sam Sanders 19:59
Nick Quah 20:00
What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding people have when having this conversation about code switching and representation in the media?
Sam Sanders 20:08
I think it can be a euphemism. I think it's like, we blanket conversations about the awkwardness of talking across race as all of it being code switching, when actually just be specific about what it is. Is the problem different audiences needing different levels of background to understand a topic? Is the problem some of our white audiences not being open to just hearing new stuff? Is the problem trying to fit new creatives of color in these old white boxes, that just doesn't work? Right? So we blanket all those conversation with the term "code switching" when in fact specificity about what you're really ****in' talking about would help. And so I want to make sure that when I'm having a conversation about how race affects my work that I'm being as specific as possible. I also think part of the work is challenging who our listeners think public radio is for. I think that the most ornery listeners--and it is a small minority of the folks writing us letters--but the most ornery listeners write about public radio, not with a sense of "why did you code switch," or "I didn't understand that." They write with a certain sense of possession and ownership of public radio in the tenor that comes out of their letters. And I've got to double down and say, this is a fraction, a small fraction, of all the letters we get. But what they're really saying is, "Well, this is my public radio. And I want it to sound the way that I am used to it sounding, which is stuff catered just to me, an older, usually coastal, usually liberal, affluent degreed elite." And what they're really saying is that, "I only want public radio to really cater to my whims." And what I want to say to those audiences with my show every week is public radio is for all kinds of people. And maybe I'm not making my show with you in mind as the central most important listener, but that's okay. Because there can be shows that exist in public radio for everybody made by everybody.
Nick Quah 22:20
Okay, so we started off the show talking about your optimism, and I want to end with that too. Do you have a personal philosophy on optimism?
Sam Sanders 22:29
I think I've decided now, that happiness, and optimism, and joy is a choice. Choose it, you choose it every day. You choose to tell yourself a story. You tell yourself a story of optimism or pessimism. Tell yourself the story of optimism. Tell yourself it's gonna be a great day. Tell yourself you look ****ing good. Tell yourself you're doing the best you can. It's okay! Right? Tell yourself that! And I think that a lot of times we think that happiness or optimism is a thing in which we have to have the perfect set of conditions to feel that way. When, in fact, optimism and happiness is just making a certain number of choices every day. It does me no favors to be mean to myself. It does us no favors to not be kind to ourselves and to believe... To believe that we're beautiful beings. We should believe that we're beautiful beings who can do beautiful things in spite of whatever. It's just better that way and you're happier that way. And that's what I try to tell myself and that's what I try to convey to my audiences.
Nick Quah 23:38
Sam, thank you so much for speaking with me. I really appreciate it.
Sam Sanders 23:42
All right, thank you. This was fun!
Nick Quah 23:48
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist.com/servantofpod. This show was produced by Andrea Asuaje and James Trout at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.