A couple weeks ago, Mr. Matthew Flegenheimer of the New York Times published an article introducing his readers to Joe Rogan. Mr. Rogan is a comedian who has earned blackbelts in three styles of martial arts and is a UFC commentator. He’s also a media personality with one of the most popular podcasts ever. In spite of Mr. Rogan’s undeniable success, Mr. Flegenheimer has a strange defensive tone throughout the article that generally dismisses Mr. Rogan’s success as a sort of flash-in-the-pan accident; all the while, failing to recognize the impact that the long-form conversation-interview podcast format is having on how people stay informed and even changing audience expectations of media distributors.
Instead of seriously assessing this new media landscape where the number of news curators equal roughly that of the users of the internet, Mr. Flegenheimer makes a strange attempt to deplore Mr. Rogan’s level of professionalism. He caricatures Rogan as “high school wrestling coach who commandeered the AV room,” and neuters his intelligence as someone who will “run out of things to say.”
Mr. Flegenheimer describes Joe Rogan’s show as “effectively a series of wandering conversations, often over whiskey and weed, on topics including but not limited to comedy, cage-fighting, psychedelics, quantum mechanics and the political excesses of the left.” Because of this meandering, it is hard to script or neatly package the content into an ideological frame. Even though the invited guests usually have a particular expertise, the diversity of topics discussed usually reveal a more complex set of values and positions. Some of those positions are well reasoned, while others are the result of emotional instinct. Rarely, however, does a guest’s worldview fit nicely into one ideological camp. They’re human.
Mr. Flegenheimer claims that Rogan’s podcast success “lies in making audiences feel as if they’re in on something subversive.” Taking the conversation-interview format into account, it seems authenticity is indeed subversive. The unedited yet clean presentation makes a huge difference for the tens of millions of regular per episode viewers. When podcasters interview in long-form, they allow their guests the space to give a fuller, deeper response to questions, they allow the opportunity to follow-up when guests or host may have misspoke or been unclear. There are no hard-hitting “gotcha moments,” for example, see how Tucker Carlson doggedly pursues climate-science “gotcha” with Bill Nye. Nor are there long narrative lead-ins that are meant to prime the audience to accept the testimony of the guest through a certain lens like the one employed by Rachel Maddow here. The podcast host effectively is an observer with the audience, and the audience can choose to identify with either party without feeling like their beliefs are being dismissed or misrepresented.
What’s more the audience is actively brought along the intellectual journey. Because everything is out in the open, conversation-interviews follow the 5th grade teachers’ endless requests for their math students to “show your work.” Joe Rogan, for example, walks you through his thought process about not getting vaccinated (warning: Rogan uses extensive expletives ). You witness, perhaps even share, his revelations in real time. You are on the journey to truth with the podcaster. In this sense, it doesn’t matter whether he got the facts right or wrong, he reveals his process of discernment and the values that are important when weighing bits of information. This is a radical level of transparency to which established corporate media doesn’t know how to adapt.
Corporate media’s presentation in newspapers and cable TV interviews too often rely on a variety of theatrics. From the character host with teleprompter script, to the selection of sub-par representatives of contrary views. Polished production, biting sound-bits, and jester journalists craft a product to sell – the experience of feeling informed. It’s not surprising that Mr. Flegenheimer, and by extension the NYT editors, cannot recognize authenticity. Instead they defend their business model against “an absence of curation, or any discernible editing, as if such filtering would amount to a form of censorship, doomed to cheapen the product” without stopping for a moment to think, “Why yes!” Less editing and filtering and selection of images and layout planning all amounts to a kind of censorship that does cheapen the product that people under 40 want: an encounter with a person and their ideas.
This is where I think the long-form podcast is finding its draw: it’s in the medium’s ability to prioritize an encounter with the guest instead of prioritizing their opinions and ideas. In the latter model of information distribution where the focus is the packaging of ideas, the reporter’s incentives become seeking the most polished representative to articulate the desired opinion, and then to find less articulate, less polished guests who take the opposing view and make a mockery of their strawman objections. This is the epitome of inauthenticity. It’s a sad joke and, in the new internet environment, a failing business model.
Encountering the individual is especially important to the youth in our postmodern, post-truth environment. Corporate media is banking on their reputation, but the reality is that reputation only belongs with the 50+ plus crowd; meanwhile, 40 and younger are, who are more influenced by the cutting criticisms of corporate media from The Daily Show with John Stewart and the Colbert Report, are searching for new figures to trust. The ideas and ideologies are second.
A remarkable encounter that seems representative of this media’s capacity for congeniality and ability to build trust is the relationship that has grown between Tech Entrepreneur and YouTube Big Fish David Rubin and the online evangelist Bishop Barron. Watch this exchange as Mr. Rubin, a married gay man, listens to Bishop Barron’s reasons for the Catholic Church’s teaching on gay-marriage. It’s obvious that there is a level of discomfort. Mr. Rubin launches into the topic with “I don’t know how much Googling you did on me, but I am gay married and you are in my house…and whatever you say I will continue this conversation,” and Bishop Barron begins acknowledging the Church’s PR failure, “if the only thing a gay person hears from the Catholic Church is ‘you are instrically disordered’ then we’ve got a serious problem on our hands.” Both men ultimately have their positions, but they are still willing to engage each other because the relationship between them is more important than the corporate media nonsense already discussed above.
This conversation was posted four years ago, and they maintain a relationship geared toward common interests to this day. The long-form conversation interview has the capacity to demonstrate that people with opposing view-points still have greater commonalities and can get along and live together in peace. We do not all have to have the same ideologies and values in order to respect and love each other.
The bottom line is that corporate media is losing ground and has been for a long time. The future source of news and information distribution is already here. Once upon a time people had to rely on corporate mediators to stay informed about world events and culture. But with the advent of the internet and social media, especially Twitter and YouTube, people are deciding that they don’t need the New York Times and venues like it. People can get access to similar news reporting via YouTube, and straight from the source news updates via Twitter all with a real attempt to respect what is human in the interviewer and guest alike.
What Mr Flegenheimer admits by omission, is that the New York Times cannot compete with independent podcasters and news curators. Corporate media’s product is just not as interesting or informative, or inspiring as the Joe Rogan’s, Jordan Peterson’s, or Kimi Katiti’s of the world. And these rogue personalities are networking. They appear on each other’s platforms and are creating a community that supports and cooperates with one another more than they compete. We no longer want the divisiveness and disagreeable antics. We want to strive for something more, and the youth see in themselves the sense of common humanity and cooperation represented in this voluntary community of content creators. The long-form will be around for a while and won’t be running out of things to say any time soon.