Like many Democrats, Tanya Somanader was blindsided by the 2016 presidential election. A veteran of the Obama White House and a former speechwriter and digital specialist for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Somanader was gearing up for a Hillary Clinton administration. Instead, she had to grapple with the reality of a Donald Trump presidency.
“A lot of the country, myself included, was just going, ‘what the hell just happened,'” she remembers.
At the same time, former Obama White House alums Jon Lovett, Jon Favreau, and Tommy Vietor were toying with creating a new kind of media company, one that wouldn’t just report the news. It would also rally liberals and progressives to action. In 2017, the trio launched Crooked Media, a company that quickly established itself as a media player to watch thanks to the success of its “Pod Save America” podcast. As things were gearing up, they also convinced Somanader, who they knew from her work with the 44th president, to abandon the Beltway for Los Angeles to become the company’s chief content officer.
“Most media companies leave the audience with, ‘here’s what’s been going on,’ ” says Somanader. “Our goal was to leave people with ‘here’s what’s going on and here’s what you can do about it.’ We wanted the news cycle to make you feel determined and not defenseless.”
“Pod Save America” quickly became the news forum of choice for the Resistance. The often wonky deep dives into the kinds of public policy debates on health care or labor issues that are given short shrift on cable news have inspired a passionate following. “Pod Save America” attracts nearly 2 million downloads an episode, making it one of the most widely listened-to podcasts.
“When we started, we viewed Trump as an emergency and we felt that the conversation around politics was broken,” says Vietor. “There are some incredible journalists and anchors, but a lot of the punditry is self-serious and not terribly informative or insightful.”
They started small, boot-strapping their business and setting up in coffee shops and around dining room tables.
“It was not self-evident that it would work, but we just focused on creating a good show,” says Favreau.
In two short years, Crooked Media has grown to encompass more than 30 employees. It has broadened its portfolio of shows to include programs such as “Majority 54 With Jason Kander,” an exploration of how Democrats talk about polarizing issues such as abortion and gun control; “The Wilderness,” a docuseries about the Democratic Party’s history; and “Hysteria,” a discussion of politics, culture and women that’s hosted by commentator and comedy writer Erin Ryan. It recently hired Sarah Geismer, a former Netflix and Fox TV exec, as head of creative development and production, as the company looks to expand into television, film and more narrative-driven podcasts.
The growth has been truly seismic, a case of having a mission that met the moment. It helped, of course, that Favreau, Lovett and Vietor weren’t newcomers to the podcasting space. They had previously hosted “Keepin’ it 1600,” a weekly dissection of the 2016 presidential race, for Bill Simmons’ podcasting company, the Ringer.
“When we started doing the podcasts we discovered that we could have these longer, nuanced conversations — the kind that just can’t happen in the ten-second soundbite environment on cable news,” says Favreau.
Many of the programs don’t just talk about the latest headlines (though they do that too), they also include calls to action, urging listeners to get involved in everything from phone banking to canvassing. In 2018, with the balance of power in Congress hanging in the balance, those calls became more urgent.
Although Democrats were successful in their efforts to retake control of the House, the missionary zeal that powers Crooked Media will likely intensify as the country gears up for 2020 and a consequential presidential election. But before that happens, the Democrats must pick their nominee from a crowded field of aspirants.
“We can’t predict who’s going to win the primary or who is the best candidate or who has best chance of beating Trump,” says Favreau. “But all of us have been on winning presidential campaigns and we can give you our perspective on what makes a good candidate.”
That requires frank talk, his co-hosts argue.
“We feel its very important to be honest about which candidate is performing well and which one missed the mark with a soundbite that kind of drove into the woods and didn’t come back,” says Lovett. “We are choosing someone to be our champion in the most important election in our history. The stakes feel impossibly high.”
If Biden or Bernie or Warren or whomever emerges from the scrum goes on to best Trump, will that mean that Crooked Media’s work is over?
“Trump is not an aberration,” says Somanader. “He’s a symptom of larger things. Our goal is to help create a world where society is more inclusive and provides the best opportunities to the greatest number of people. Donald Trump isn’t the only reason that doesn’t exist.”