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Crooked Media and the Many Shapes of Political Media

What's a party anyway

Crooked Media and The Many Different Shapes of Political Media

The New York Times Magazine has a pretty good profile of Crooked Media, by Jason Zengerle, up for the weekend, and it’s full of little data points that’s useful if you’re keeping tracking of the business. Here are the pull-outs:

  • After breaking 1 million downloads shortly after it launched, Pod Save America now reportedly average around 1.5 million listeners per episode. The piece compares the sizing favorably to Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN, and if we’re looking for benchmarks within the medium, it’s worth remembering that This American Life clocks in about 2.5 million per weekly episode.
  • An executive at another podcast company (any guesses?) estimates that the podcast is bringing in at least $50,000 an episode, which if you run the math assumes a higher-than-average CPM. (Which is to say, above $25.) For the record, Crooked Media is repped in the ad marketplace by Cadence13, and they have a talent agency relationship with WME.
  • As a company, Crooked Media remains a bootstrapped and independent operation, turning down potential investment money. One such rejected investor that the piece highlights: the Chernin Group, the majority owner of the controversial (but successful) digital media company Barstool Sports.

This particular collection of data points highlights the heady beginnings of a media phenomenon, and as far as the podcast ecosystem is concerned, Crooked Media does indeed emerge as a model that stands separate and apart from the templates we see undergirding other businesses in the space. The article does some work to structurally differentiate Crooked Media away from the right-wing talk radio infrastructure that’ve emerged over decades, but I’d argue that what we’re seeing is actually one and the same: a personality (or celebrity)-driven entity that uses the latest news developments as raw material for structuring every episode. The fundamental value of a show like Pod Save America is akin to the fundamental value of church; you go not to find out and independently process a piece of news, you go to be provided an emotional architecture to figure out how you should feel about the news, which for liberals these days, are news developments that are often scary and bewildering. It’s the inverse composition of the news podcast programming you’d see from journalistic organizations: in those constructions, it’s news-driven, but the personality (or the celebrity) is deployed as a way to cut the heaviness of news.

This presents us with a potential way to think through what may be Crooked Media’s existential threat as a media company in the long run: assuming the republic holds, and that American democracy plays out the pendular way it’s structurally shaped to do, there will come a day when the news isn’t as scary and bewildering to Crooked Media’s core demographic as it is today. There will come a time when the product that Crooked Media is supplying — emotional architecture — is less necessary, or less desired, than it is right now. When that moment comes, the company will face the requirements of shift: either find another problem within the liberal political life to solve, or stay the course and shift the equation in other direction. Which is to say, to create sources of fear and bewilderment to process as means to keep the machine going. That, after all, is the core mechanic of Fox News.

But there’s another way to reading Crooked Media, and how it may evolve in the future. A few weeks ago, I found myself in one of those delightful Twitter discussions — so rare, so painfully rare — you get with people you really respect, and in this case, those people were Melody Joy Kramer and Noah Chestnut, of the Wikimedia Foundation and Bleacher Report respectively. We were kicking the ball back and forth of how to think through the Chicago company Cards Against Humanity, which Kramer had argued in the past can best be interpreted as an innovative media company. A suggestion was tossed about that CAH can perhaps be read as some hybrid of a political party, given its various engagements in political activism. Which, of course, led me to think about Crooked Media.

There’s a scene in the Times magazine piece where the Pod Save America hosts — former Obama administration alums, all — were making an appearance at Ralph Northam’s campaign offices during the run-up to the Virginia gubernatorial elections to give one of those rousing Braveheart speeches for canvassers. (Northam would later win the position.) The article uses that moment to discuss Crooked Media’s energetic capacity towards partnerships: with MoveOn, the progressive public policy advocacy group; with Swing Left, the progressive organization looking to highlight candidates moving to take Republican seats across the country; with Indivisible, the progressive movement-meets-activism information hub. Viewed from an angle, Crooked Media looks more like a successor to the political party committee — a more evolved version of the DCCC, say, with a focus on upping candidates, issue centralization, and, while yet to be explicitly tested, fundraising — than anything else, albeit one with a very strong media arm.

And lord knows, there’s a vacuum in that entire infrastructure for the Democrats.