A Blog of Seattle Arts & Lectures

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Kara Swisher and the Activist Podcast

On Tuesday, May 7, Seattle Arts & Lectures will be welcoming our final 2018/19 Journalism Series speaker, tech icon Kara Swisher, to Benaroya Hall. Tickets are still available—get them here!

Known both for hard-hitting interviews with the most influential people in Silicon Valley and for her advocacy for progressive tech policies, Swisher is the executive editor of Recode and host of the Recode Decode podcast. (You might also recognize her from her new column in the New York Times).

Below, local writer Julia Cook digs into what makes Swisher’s approach to technology and business journalism so singularly effective. . .

By Julia Cook

During a Reddit AMA, in which cultural luminaries and titans of industry choose rapid-fire questions to answer on any subject (Ask Me Anything) from everyday Reddit users, veteran journalist Kara Swisher explained in eight points what makes a bad interviewer:

1. Being obsequious.

2. Sticking to prepared questions (“I NEVER prep”).

3. Not having a conversation and spending all your time on gotchas.

4. Not being genuine.

5. Being stupid.

6. Not wanting to illuminate the audience.

7. Taking yes for an answer.

8. Lack of sense of humor.

While they may sound obvious, the implications are anything but. To get a candid moment, a truly unprepared slip from someone who has investors, employees and fans to answer to, the interviewer must be candid herself. And while traditional media has skewered moments of humanity (think Nixon’s sweaty face beside Kennedy’s perfect smile) new media thrives on it. People want to know their idols have gaffes—provided those gaffes are charming, not offensive.

The more Americans turn to sound-byte journalism, scrolling for news on Twitter rather than unpacking a Wall Street Journal over breakfast, the more podcasting has emerged as a way to get to know these giants, learn from their mistakes, and incorporate their personal philosophies into your own. It’s a space for the ideas-driven, a medium busy people can consume during menial tasks, making the most of their few free minutes. It’s news that’s not reactive, but unfolds over time, as a result of careful examination—like a serial column used to. For lack of a better word, it’s slow news. And, as Recode co-founder Kara Swisher will be the first to tell you, her work in the podcasting world doesn’t often break a story.  “Based on her podcasts and columns,” Reddit user grub5000 wrote in October, “she seems to be on more of a moral crusade [than scoops] these days. Which I mean in a good way.”

Swisher’s AMA is interesting to read, not just because of the personalities she’s encountered over the years—there are requisite questions on Zuck and Elon Musk—but because of the ways in which her profession and its public perception have changed since she founded the Washington Post’s Style section in the late eighties. One user asked Swisher whether she should go to journalism school or get an M.B.A. Swisher responded in favor of the latter, despite her M.S. in journalism from Columbia. In the past, journalists had “beats”—the particular specialties that defined their body of work. Now, it’s necessary to be holistic—to see how one subject impacts another (Facebook security and elections in a free republic, for example).

These are hefty topics, and to tackle them Swisher also needs the business sense of an M.B.A. When advertisers re-allocate their marketing dollars, the page count on newspapers shrinks, with fewer precious inches devoted to long-form and more to breaking news. Writers at not just newspapers, but magazines and online media outlets, have to “sell” their story pitches in terms of how much it will be talked about.

But, if they’re willing to pivot, it’s possible for advertising clients and journalists alike to benefit from this tough landscape. Ad space on a podcast is cheaper to buy and produce than a print ad, doesn’t get thwarted by fatigue or adblockers, plus it typically provides more meaningful analytics to companies, like the demographics of a subscriber base, or the minute folks tend to get bored and hit pause. What Swisher has found is a space that encourages her brand of exhaustive reporting in both form and compensation. Folks are more willing to tolerate “a word from our sponsor” than a paywall.  Ears are worth more than eyes nowadays.

And Swisher would argue your ears are closer to your brain. Her interview philosophy is built on playing devil’s advocatewhich only great listeners can do effectively. She’s also well suited for fireside chats because of her endless ribbing, needling conversation partners about where they’re from, what they actually bring to the table and even their daily commute (as she’s said time and time again, Swisher’s a fan of the e-scooter.) For reporters too soft, too affectionate towards their subjects, she uses the word docile. A quick look at the Recode Decode topics from late last year make Swisher’s agenda clear. She wants to hold the Silicon Valley elite responsible for what they’ve done to the world.

Swisher’s moral crusade, then, uses tech expertise built on decades of in-depth reporting to uncover issues in the present political climate. Why would a business reporter use her connections—she often introduces guests as good friends—to enter a volatile environment and try to make sense of it? The fact is, Swisher is well-versed in the art of the pivot, like the tech entrepreneurs (and increasingly, politicians) she covers.

Despite her strong foundation in print (the Wall Street Journal, and more recently the New York Times) she knows podcasts, especially ones in front of a live audience, capture an audience more likely to engage with and amplify what they hear. Breaking down a subject into discrete parts (as Swisher’s team often does in an episode’s description) makes it easy to get new people interested, even if their interest is a passing one. Frequency is key. And it’s not tough to accomplish when the same problems keep emerging.

Going into the 2020 election cycle, Swisher has made it clear what we can expect. Her listeners are used to hearing difficult queries and even harder follow-ups, and she’d like us to ask the same of her. Per her own ethics statement, “Such wariness is always a good thing for everyone and I encourage readers to ask tough questions and demand more of those providing them information of all kinds.” It’s ok for questions to be difficult, as long as they’re consistent.  Hostile problems typically don’t have docile solutions.

Julia Cook is a Seattle-based writer; you can find her work inside the pages of The StrangerBitter Southerner, and Pittsburgh City Paper, but not GQ… yet. She’s also a three-time blackout boarder in SAL’s Summer Book Bingo, though her high school reading list is still marked ‘incomplete.’ Check out her other essays for the SAL blog, including this piece on our 2018/19 Journalism Series event with Van Jones.

Posted in 2018/19 Season