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Podcasts Servant of Pod with Nick Quah
What Comes Next for Crooked Media?

Servant of Pod What Comes Next For Crooked Media? Episode 33

Sat, 2/13 3:42PM • 25:06

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

crooked, tanya, people, media, story, left, outcomes, donald trump, power, cia, politics, consume, push, pod, enemy, audience, backslide, policy, influence, overturned

SPEAKERS

Tanya Somanader, Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Michael Shtender-Auerbach, Tommy Vietor, Patrick Radden Keefe, Nick Quah

Tanya Somanader 00:02And I remember just being like, "Come on, Omaha!" thinking we were gonna win Wisconsin, and that maybe it would come down to like, one electoral vote, and I was spewing a bunch of hopeful bullshit, just being like, "We still got this." And everybody was like, "You're insane. We're about to lose." And I walked out of the White House, and I could hear just the screaming outside of the fence. And I was like, "You got to be kidding me." There were Trump supporters already outside the fence. And I walked out of the gate, and it was like 1am, and I looked and it was college kids who were screaming, and crying, and just freaking out because Donald Trump had become president and they didn't know what to do. They just showed up at the White House and were freaking out. And I remember being like, "I don't even think I really understand how big of a deal this is."

Nick Quah 00:52Tanya Somanader was in the White House on Election Night 2016. Before that night, she was planning her next move: stepping away from her work in Barack Obama's administration and hoping to take a gig writing for comedy shows, like The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.

Tanya Somanader 01:092017 rolled around and we were facing the inauguration of Donald Trump. I was like, I just don't know if I can leave politics right now. I just don't know if going to a show that just explains how bad it is is enough. It's leaving people in a place that they already know, that this man is absurd, that he's gonna drag the country down. Everything that I worked on, whether it was the Iran deal, the climate change deal, you know, whatever it may be, is about to get overturned or taken away. And I just can't be in the business of just talking about it. I have to do something about it.

Nick Quah 01:50From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: how Tanya Somanader and Crooked Media are trying to push the left to do more than just listen.

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Nick Quah 02:24Just a heads up: I interviewed Tanya on January 4, 2021, the day before the Georgia Senate runoffs and everything that happened after that.

Nick Quah 02:37After the election of Donald Trump, Tanya Somanader knew she had to do something. So she got in touch with former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau for advice.

Tanya Somanader 02:47And I called him and I was like, "Hey, I really want to work in media and story, but I'm just not ready. I don't know where to find a role where we're not just talking about it, but we get to do something about it." And he's like, "Funny! I just started a company that we're hoping to do just that. It's just three of us right now in my dining room, but maybe you'd be interested in that, maybe?" And I was like, "Where is it? New York?" "No." "L.A." "Oh, **** that." I was like, "I'm not moving to L.A., **** L.A. L.A. sounds horrible." And so then began the dance whether or not I was gonna move out to L.A. just to do this job. But I hung up the phone with him and messaged a friend and she was like, "I can tell right now, you're already out there. You're just trying to convince yourself you're not going, but you're going," because this is the exact opportunity that I wanted.

Nick Quah 03:38that opportunity was with Crooked Media, whose flagship show Pod Save America has become one of the most popular podcasts in the country.

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Jon Favreau 03:47Welcome to Pod Save America. I'm Jon Favreau.

Jon Lovett 03:49 I'm Jon Lovett.

Tommy Vietor 03:50 I'm Tommy Vietor.

Jon Favreau 03:51

On today's pod: the Republican Party's last ditch effort to overturn the Presidential election for a man who was just caught on tape trying to steal it again. We'll also talk about the state of the Georgia Senate races a day before the election, and what Joe Biden can do to fix the federal government's bungled vaccine rollout.

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Nick Quah 04:07As the company's Chief Content Officer, Tanya says Crooked's mission is to inform, entertain, and inspire action--which means that its shows deliberately cross the line from commentary into participation.

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Tanya Somanader 04:20We are not reporters, we're not journalists, we don't approach the news that way. We are as much consumers as our audience are. The difference is that we--the founders, and a lot of people who work here--are interested in political outcomes. We are political strategists at heart. And so what we do is we take the news that is being reported and we tell you... and we provide that connective link where it's like, "You read the story, we read the story. Here's what we think it means and here's what we all collectively should be doing to change the outcome." And so for us, the distinction doesn't really exist. Like if we were the Washington Post, I imagine there would be ethically and/or just objectively some issues there because we're supposed to keep a distance and try to be dispassionate presenters of information. But as Crooked we are not just passionate, we are incredibly passionate about progressive outcomes and progressive policies and our belief that democratic values--small "d"--are actually important to a successful functioning government, functioning society, civil society. From that perspective, what we're doing is very natural. From a media perspective, it certainly might read differently. But that's not necessarily how we view ourselves

Nick Quah 05:33That drive towards political outcomes stems from Tanya's professional past. She worked in politics for years before going into the media, starting out as an office assistant in her native Ohio for congressman Sherrod Brown.

Tanya Somanader 05:47And I got that job during when the Bush administration was actually trying to push immigration reform. It shut down the phones, and it gave me the first inkling I was like, "Huh, this is not traditional politics anymore," where like George Bush says he wants to do this thing, and all the Republicans are like, "Okay, great!" And they line up. That was the first time I saw a fracture in that, people were not falling in line. And of course, it was around immigration, which is... obviously xenophobic and racial elements to it, but to have them shut down Congress over it was really... It just showed the kind of power in terms of people were consuming something that we weren't seeing. Like, George W. Bush was reelected. He was Mr. Popular--I mean, until the Iraq War, obviously. And so as he lost in popularity, his power to influence the right waned as well. And so I was curious, I was like, "What's happening here?" And then when the ACA was going through, I mean, the Tea Party was in the front office every day, and it was like, they were screaming at us about the "death panels" and stuff. I'm like, "Where are you getting this? What is this from?"

Nick Quah 06:58This was the start of Facebook's growth as a platform to distribute all kinds of information--factual and fake. And Tanya was fascinated by it. She also started to see what really made policy stick with voters: strong, simple narratives.

Tanya Somanader 07:14It is the most powerful thing in terms of influence. And you see it on the right, you see how easily they try and boil down difficult things into an easy narrative that people can consume. And they pick the elements that either reflect some kind of truth of that, or are just bat**** crazy. But it's a narrative nonetheless. It is one that people can understand because, for some reason, things aren't working out for them, and here's a reason why. Here's a story about why.

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Nick Quah 07:42 Hmm.

Tanya Somanader 07:42Moving into that direction was like, you know, that is the most... It's the most powerful tool in politics, and so I just kind of wanted to see how it worked.

Nick Quah 07:51She worked as a reporter for Think Progress, before going back to politics, working for Nancy Pelosi and then for Barack Obama. She joined Crooked Media in 2017, when the company launched as a direct result of Donald Trump's election. So now, four years later, and with a new Democratic president soon to be inaugurated, what's in the cards for Crooked Media?

Tanya Somanader 08:11This is going to annoy you, because I'm sure you've heard a million times, But Donald Trump is a symptom. He's not necessarily the thing that we existed to take down, he was just literally the worst symptom of larger structural issues. And I can tell you, the thing that gets everybody up here is, when we hear the story of somebody who was trying to vote in Georgia, let's say, and couldn't because that right was messed with by suppressive tactics or policies. And those are the kinds of things that really, quite frankly, piss us off. And that's what we're here to do. That's what we're here to fix. Our target is kind of restoring trust, or putting in place policies that will help restore trust, in a civil society and how government functions. That's what Crooked is aimed at helping to do. Obviously, Crooked Media is not going to be central to that--organizers, activists, politicians are central to that--but our goal is to help facilitate that and help explain to people how they can be part of that mission, if that's what they want to be part of. Removing Donald Trump kind of just takes the top off of this--or I guess really opens the lid of the Pandora's box of issues that we have in actually making people trust government, and there are so many. So how we tackle that, explain that, start to tell stories or put out content that helps people understand why things are the way they are and why the systems work the way they work, then they'll have more information than a conspiracy theory that's saying it's a global cabal.

Nick Quah 09:56 Yeah.

Tanya Somanader 09:56And might realize it's like, "Oh, we just degraded campaign finance laws." And we overturned the Voting Rights Act, voting rights legislation, that made it possible for these things to exist. At the root of all evil, gerrymandering, and stuff like that. You know, it's like, how do you tell a fun story about gerrymandering? I don't know. But I'm gonna attempt to do that. That's one of the things Crooked would do, is like, how do we explain why people need to care about gerrymandering in a way that they'll actually care?

Nick Quah 10:24So I've heard Crooked Media described as a center or a moderate left's kind of mirror to right-wing talk radio, which is incredibly influential. When you all were building out Crooked, did you set out to create a left-wing version of that?

Tanya Somanader 10:41

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I think a lot of people think we're moderate, or center-left, because we talk a lot about the how to get something done, not what needs to be done. And that leaves us in the position of being like, yes, we believe in Medicare for All, for sure. And yes, we want to see all of the progressive policies that we champion. However, we are also aware that there is a completely opposite side of the aisle that is going to drag everything we're pushing for way to the right. We look at the political strategy and try to explain and execute one. But to your question about being the left's version of that: the audience that consumes right-wing media and leans towards that consumption pattern is wildly different from the audience that consumes left-leaning media, or news media.

Nick Quah 11:33 Yeah.

Tanya Somanader 11:33They operate differently. They think differently. Their psychologies are different. So it's very difficult to just say, "We're gonna do what they're doing on the right, but on the left."

Nick Quah 11:42 Yeah.

Tanya Somanader 11:42The left operates completely differently. They're gonna make different choices about how they consume stuff. So, in many ways, the right wing also has a much more homogeneous audience. They share more characteristics than people who are on the left, or who align with progressive values, do. It's a wider spectrum, they're younger, they consume on different platforms in a way that like an audience on the right might just watch Fox News and then they get in the car and they just listen to the radio. There's so many platforms by which young people can find their news and consume media. People on the left, different communities that they belong to, and look at the news through that lens. So it's very hard to create a left balance to the right. We have to take a much more amoebic method, which is, we reach people where they are, with credible expertise in the areas that in the information that they're looking for, and kind of map ourselves to the platforms, and where they are, and where they're consuming their news.

Nick Quah 12:40I feel like part of what conservative media has always done extremely well is that it's always been able to find an enemy, for lack of better words, to build a story around for its audience. And in the last four years, left-wing media has sort of had that with Donald Trump. So what now?

Tanya Somanader 12:59That's a great question, mainly because what you're getting at is the right is really good at telling a story--and a simple one, one that everybody can understand. It's like the Marvel test, where they had somebody read a script, and if they couldn't understand it, they went back to the writers room. The right has that down key. It has to be really simple. There has to be an enemy, and there has to be good guys, and we're the good guys, so whatever we declare the enemy is the enemy.

Nick Quah 13:21So like, the left makes arthouse films, but the right makes like, big comedies.

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Tanya Somanader 13:25Yeah, yeah, we're making Midsommar, and we're like, "But the enemy is the system."

Nick Quah 13:30Shout out to Midsommar.

Tanya Somanader 13:32Love it. Love it. Love A24. Really do. But I would say, look, while that is true, we are not... Two things: one, I do think defining an enemy is really important, and we are not short on them. I will say that we, Crooked Media, helped raise something like $45 million for the 2020 cycle. And a significant amount of that was not about Donald Trump. It was about Mitch McConnell. He's the number one enemy out there. He is the reason that Congress has like a 10% approval rate, he is making it so easy to show exactly why Congress cannot work for you. That's not to say that we're going to just focus everything on Mitch McConnell the way that we did on Donald Trump, of course not. We want to see Joe Biden keep the promises he made, move the policies that he said he wanted to move, make decisions that move us in that direction or deliver that result for us directly--and we will be pushing him to do that. But we are also, like I said at the beginning, we're very aware of the system he's working with and our job is going to be to try and explain that, illuminate that, and help push back against what they're doing, to try and make it possible for those results to be delivered. And so it is, you're right, it is about constructing a narrative like the right does, in a way that feels very true, really reflective of the facts, which must be a strong distinction between us and the right, and really simple to understand, which is stress, "if you want to see this happen, this is what's standing in your way. And chances are it's a Republican."

Nick Quah 15:09After the break, a German heavy metal band and the CIA.

Nick Quah 15:27Last year, Crooked Media released Wind of Change, a podcast that explored a possible connection between the heavy metal band the Scorpions and the CIA.

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...he was either at the farm at the time of his training or he was at headquarters in Langley and like an older gentleman who has been around the block comes in to meet the new recruits.

Patrick Radden Keefe 15:51 So a gray beard.

Michael Shtender-Auerbach 15:52

Yeah. And tells some stories, etc. Told this story to a group of people that he was with that this song had been written by the CIA and had been a part of a psyops campaign.

Patrick Radden Keefe 16:09 Psychological operation.

Michael Shtender-Auerbach 15:36

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Michael Shtender-Auerbach 16:11 Exactly.

Patrick Radden Keefe 16:12 To what?

Michael Shtender-Auerbach 16:13To insert this song, this music, into the Soviet Union. To encourage change.

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Nick Quah 16:25It may seem like a departure from the company's core mission of news-y shows meant to inspire political action. But Tanya says the heart of Wind of Change is exactly what Crooked Media wants to bring to its audience.

Tanya Somanader 16:37Wind of Change is a really good example of how we're trying--really, honestly--trying to peel back the curtain on how things work. We obviously do that very directly with Pod Save America, but there are so many stories in history, and in the current political landscape, in other industries, in sports, in culture, society, health--all of that--where the way things work, and the way that systems work, it's incredibly political. They're reflective of power, they're reflective of power structures, influence, things that go on behind the scenes, that people who are wondering why outcomes are the way they are...

Tanya Somanader 17:13...might not know, if we don't peel back that curtain, show like, "Look at this thing. Isn't that crazy?" Wind of Change, Patrick Radden Keefe brought us this story, he was like, "I think the CIA might be involved in this." And we were like, "Of course." [Laughter] Whether they are specifically involved in this or not, there is, obviously, this concept of "soft power" and how Americans use cultural influence to impact outcomes in the world, of course. And this is a great, entertaining way into that, to touch on that, and to really pull that back and show how the CIA uses not just like, spies and all of the stuff that people think traditionally about the CIA, but to think about American power, and American intelligence, as a really 360... they use everything, including cultural product to influence governments, or influence societies. And so we were really excited about the story, we were like, this is super relevant. And it's such a fun way to tell that story. And those are the kinds of stories we look for--something that shows you how the system works, a little bit. And it might surprise you, because you didn't know it like that before.

Nick Quah 17:13 Yeah.

Nick Quah 17:17Wind of Change. It's like a movie waiting to happen. So I wonder if working with the larger entertainment industry--movie studios, TV studios, streaming services--that's part of Crooked's strategy to get its message out to as many people as possible.

Tanya Somanader 18:39

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There's no more effective way to help people understand what's going on than sharing a story--to explain how something works through a story. And we obviously come from that school of thought, because all of us worked for Barack Obama. And he was the biggest proponent of that method of persuasion, of sharing why he believed the things he believed, and how he was getting that done.

Nick Quah 19:09Yeah, now he has his own studio and Crooked Media competitors.

Tanya Somanader 19:12Yes, I know. So we're having like a "story-off" now. [Laughter] And it's really annoying. But no, he's excellent at that. And, obviously, his chief speechwriter is a founder of this company and is a big believer in the power of story. Oftentimes, Barack Obama would open a speech with a story that kind of revealed why he was pushing for healthcare reform, or any policy he was trying to push for, because people can relate to that, they can understand that, they can they can empathize with us, if you tell about somebody through story. And so Hollywood, and the media, and entertainment industry is so well positioned to help shape how people view what's happening in the world. And we're very aware of that. So it doesn't impact the stories we'll pursue--like, obviously true crime is having a moment.

Nick Quah 20:03It will never not have a moment, it seems like. [Laughter]

Tanya Somanader 20:04It'll never not. So we aren't, I can say, we aren't pursuing anything that's just straight up "True Crime..."

Nick Quah 20:12 Yeah.

Tanya Somanader 20:13...because it doesn't really, as they say, "fit the brief" of what a Crooked Media product would be, but that doesn't necessarily mean we won't, if we think it reveals something about how the justice system works. But we do keep that in mind. We want people to feel connected to the story so that, by the end of it, they might see something a little bit differently than they used to, or they might be persuaded that there is a policy that we need to put in place, and they'll start from that position. And that's great. That's what we want. That's what we want to see. And so we're hoping that, as we find more stories that we can interest the entertainment industry in helping us tell it in more, I guess, "traditional" ways--be it through TV, film, whatever, what have you.

Nick Quah 20:59So it's four years since you moved to L.A. and joined Crooked Media. New presidency, new administration--how do you feel looking forward to the next four years?

Tanya Somanader 21:10I feel like we've sort of returned to the starting block for this country. Where... I think anybody who thinks the election of Joe Biden has "restored" anything is deluded. All it did was bring everybody back to the truth of the matter that there is a **** ton of work to do and that, if we are to restore any sense of, quote-unquote, "politics as usual," or "politics as it should be," we're basically standing on the world's shoddiest foundation right now. And so I feel like there's so much work to do, and prioritization, and

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Biden is kind of neither here nor there on that, in some ways. It's kind of like, what legislation can we get done for him to sign? And what can we get done on the state level? How can we change things from the ground up, so we don't have to be over-reliant on an executive? And that has been something that... I think we've seen the problems of that, both under Obama and under Trump. So I think everybody has just walked themselves back to the starting line and now we have a series of incredibly hard battles ahead of us. And that can feel exhausting, but I'm so grateful for the opportunity to fight them, because the other option was not even getting a chance. It was the continued backslide into whatever the hell Trump was promising to deliver. Ridiculous authoritarianism? I don't know. It was terrifying. So I think, at least, the hope that I have is that people showed up because they knew something needed to change and that the backslide that they were seeing, while they might not agree with everything that Democrats or progressives were putting forward, that wasn't the country they wanted to live in. And so I'm excited to see what story we can tell to show Americans the kind of country they can live in and the power they have to help deliver that. It's going to be a multiple generational job and decades and decades of work, I'm sure, but I think that's a worthy fight--much worthier than whatever wall Trump was gonna build, or whatever it was gonna be. So that's how I feel about the next four years, the next eight, the next 10, the next 20--same thing. It's hard to let go of, it's hard to step away from it, when you know that there's so many people who are hoping to live in a country like that. It's cool to be a part of that work, however small.

Nick Quah 23:49Tanya, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me, I really appreciate it.

Tanya Somanader 23:51Yeah, thank you! This was cool! [Laughter]

Nick Quah 24:15Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/ servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti 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.

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This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.