Today marks the start of President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, a historic proceeding of TBD significance that will serve at least two functions as it plays out. The first is an assessment as to whether the country’s institutions will hold the former president accountable for fueling the insurrection at the Capitol last month with his rhetoric, and the second is to function as a kind of litmus test sussing out the shape of the American public’s relationship with politics writ large as we drift deeper into the Biden presidency. Given the incentives of Senate Republicans, the former outcome feels all but predetermined. The latter, though, seems much less clear.
It’s been posited numerous times over the last few years that the Trump presidency compelled more Americans towards greater engagement with political news — if not actual political participation — than ever before. But in the wake of Biden’s inauguration, the natural questions beg to be asked: Will those levels of political awareness and engagement be sustained? And what does it mean for the new media shops built over the past four years to feed this new engagement?
Those questions loomed in the background last week when I jumped on a phone call with the executive team at CAFE, the media company started by the former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. We were connecting for a specific news peg: the launch of Doing Justice, CAFE’s first foray into narrative audio work. Produced in collaboration with Transmitter Media, Bharara describes the six-part podcast series as “a labor of love,” with the show expanding upon the work he’s done for his best-selling 2019 book of the same name. While the book was positioned as a treatise of sorts on the American legal system and the questions of morality embedded within, the podcast offers a more grounded approach that revisits some of the cases discussed in the book, opens them back up as stories (through new interviews and material), and uses them as ways to grapple with larger questions about the nature of justice.
Doing Justice, the podcast series, is also a window into the future as considered by CAFE, which, like many other politically oriented podcast operations, has to figure out its place in the world now that the Trump presidency has come to an end.
“We’re growing like wild grass,” says Bharara in response to a question about the state of the business, before acknowledging the awkwardness of the quick metaphor. “We’re very optimistic about the outlook, we’re doing great in terms of talent, and we’re doing well in terms of listenership.”
Confident optimism, it seems, despite the fact that CAFE’s lane — which I’ll broadly describe as the genre of “newsy podcasts hosted by political and legal figures” — has exploded in recent years, and looks poised to only get more crowded as carious political figures pushed out by the recent election cycle seek out more media footholds to stay in the conversation. (This crowd apparently includes former Vice President Mike Pence, who will reportedly host a podcast in the coming months for a conservative youth organization, according to Politico.) But Bharara’s podcasting efforts are distinct for being among the earliest and most explicitly built for the long haul. It’s also certainly the one with the most interesting backstory.
You probably know the tale by now, but just in case: Bharara was once the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, one of the most powerful law enforcement positions in the country to which he was nominated by President Obama in 2009 and unanimously confirmed by the Senate. In the role, Bharara came to be known for his prosecution of political corruption, financial malfeasance, and organized crime, caring out a mythology that’s the stuff of crime novels. (Or, you know, semi-prestige television drama. This is the point where I customarily point out that Bharara is said to be the inspiration for Paul Giamatti’s character in Billions, though, as anybody who’s seen the show can tell you, the basis is obviously a loose one.) The legacy behind that mythology has been deemed by some to be somewhat complicated, but in any case, Bharara’s profile rose to further prominence in the spring of 2017, when President Trump’s Justice Department ordered for the resignation of 46 U.S. attorneys who were holdovers from the Obama era. This is normally a routine procedure when a new administration takes over, but the Trump presidency being what it was, there was some amount of chaos during this stretch, evoking concerns of ethical impropriety. Bharara refused the order to resign under the circumstances and was eventually dismissed by the president.
Bharara then went into academia, while going on to forge an intriguing second career in the media. In addition to serving as a reliable talking head on CNN, he launched Stay Tuned with Preet, initially in collaboration with Pineapple Street, in the fall of 2017. The podcast is chiefly constructed to break down the major legal topics of the day, mixing in interviews with interesting and powerful people from interesting and powerful places. Like all podcasts built around a singular personality, the show occasionally drifts from its newsy lens from time to time — a recent example includes an appearance by the chef and also-podcaster David Chang — providing Bharara the space to round out his persona.
Stay Tuned is an unusually interesting show for its archetype. It’s typically measured, thoughtful, and technically driven, balancing out its inherent insider nature with what feels like a genuine interest in bringing laypeople into the process. I’ve been a semi-regular listener since its debut, and between Stay Tuned, The Lawfare Podcast, and All The Presidents’ Lawyers, I suppose it’s possible to say that all that listening has bestowed me with a casual awareness of the legal side of various political stories that bubbled up over the years. Whether I’ll actually be able to do anything with all that information is a line of inquiry for another time.
Anyway, Stay Tuned would form the basis of CAFE, which went on to integrate a paid subscription model into the business. Stay Tuned, which these days averages about two millions downloads per month, is primarily monetized through advertising — the company works with Stitcher for sales and handles some of those efforts themselves — but it is in the company’s subscription business, called CAFE Insider (priced at $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year), where the team gets to play around with new product ideas. Paid subscribers, which I’m told number in the “tens of thousands,” receive regular written briefs on the latest issues from Bharara and CAFE contributors, which are also available in adapted audio form through the CAFE Insider podcast feed. That feed also contains an assortment of CAFE’s other audio shows, like United Security and Cyber Space, which are only available for paid subscribers, with select episodes being made available on the Stay Tuned feed from time to time.
CAFE was originally positioned as a brand within the Some Spider Studios, the media company started by Preet’s brother, the entrepreneur Vinit Bharara. (Best known, perhaps, as the co-founder of Diapers.com, which was acquired for half a billion dollars by Amazon in 2010. That story, by the way, is also pretty wild.) That arrangement wouldn’t last, as Some Spider Studios would eventually lean harder into being a parenting media company, particularly after acquiring Fatherly in early 2020. CAFE spun out as its own separate corporate entity over the past year, though Some Spider does continue to provide some back-end services. The two entities also share a Chief Business Officer: Geoff Isenman, a veteran media executive.
Tamara Sepper, an attorney and Peabody-winning journalist who now serves as CAFE’s Chief Content and Development Officer, describes the company’s editorial strategy as being based on the principle that the law touches everybody’s lives. “Now, that doesn’t mean all of our shows are about the legal technicalities, obviously — it’s just that they’re all inspired by this lens,” she adds.
Bharara frames what they do as a form of public service, further noting that virtually all of CAFE’s contributors have themselves spent considerable time in public service. This, pretty much, is the basis of what the company argues as its differentiating value: Who else is best equipped to break down how the law works than former federal prosecutors?
But the nature of that expertise also presents a somewhat unique challenge for CAFE. Part of the complication of managing a portfolio of podcasts hosted by former public servants is that some of those hosts could become active public servants once again. And that’s precisely what has happened over the past few months: Lisa Monaco, a former Homeland Security advisor who co-hosted United Security (with Ken Wainstein), was recently nominated by President Biden to be the Deputy Attorney General of the United States. Similarly, John Carlin, who hosted Cyber Space, now serves as the Acting Deputy Attorney General and is further expected to stay with the Justice Department after the role wraps up.
These shifts mean that Monaco and Carlin can no longer host podcasts for CAFE, as that would be a breach of government policy, according to Bharara. “Based on my time in the Justice Department — back when ethics rules mattered — you couldn’t work in some other capacity for income while you were a high-ranking official in the government,” he explains. In any case, they’d probably be too busy doing their jobs to host a podcast, Bharara adds, recalling his own time as a U.S. Attorney.
I asked if all that works out to some form of strategic risk for the company, seeing how they work with hosts who could be lost, quite suddenly, to active public service roles. Sepper says it’s a dynamic they’ve long planned for and that it’s just the natural price to be paid for this specific editorial strategy. In any case, they could always come back as guests. Bharara notes it’s pretty much the same kind of risk faced by any other media company working with talent that could be easily recruited for other jobs. “It’s a risk for everybody, up to and including me,” he says.
Besides, CAFE could always add more contributors and more products, as they already are. Dig through the CAFE Insider feed, and you’d find material from several recent additions, including the lawyer and CNN commentator Asha Rangappa, the legal scholar Melissa Murray, along with former U.S. Attorneys Barbara McQuade and Joyce Vance. Meanwhile, the publisher is already working on more narrative audio projects, including Up Against The Mob, a series hosted by Elie Honig — a fellow former attorney for the Southern District of New York who already contributes to the CAFE Brief newsletter — that will take listeners into the SDNY’s efforts to go after organized crime in the city. Honig will also appear on a short-form podcast covering the second impeachment trial, called Third Degree.
A good deal of growing is on the way, which raises the question: Just how big does CAFE want to get? “I don’t think we have a particular target of doubling in size every six months,” says Bharara. Isenman, the company’s Chief Business Officer, adds: “It’s not about the revenue, or the number of shows, but it’s about the diversity of shows and diversity of types.” To that end, they’re starting to think about other genres worth trying out. True crime, obviously, is a natural fit, given the nature of CAFE’s hosts as former prosecutors, but the team also sees possibilities in the business and history genres.
They’ve given some thought to doing more work across platforms, in addition to the written and live-events work they already do. Everything’s on the table, but Isenman says they think about those prospects in two ways: First, can another platform support what they’re already doing in audio? And second, is it something that can lead to substantial growth for the business? They didn’t seem to be in any rush, and they maintain that they’re pretty sure their core business will continue to be audio.
As mentioned at the top of this column, the team is optimistic about the outlook of the business. But since I went into the conversation wondering about the whole American public interest in news thing, I asked if they had seen any listening dips since inauguration day. Bharara says they haven’t, though he qualified the finding by noting the broader context: We’re obviously just about a month into the new presidency, and we’re about to head into the second impeachment trial, a buzzy news period. Plus, “there may be a whole hell of a lot of other things going on with holding Trump and his allies accountable, perhaps for many more months,” he says.
I follow up: Does he think American news interest and engagement will sustain into the new administration?
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot… obviously, everybody has,” says Bharara. “There are people who say — and I hope this is right, not just for our business but for the country — that lots of people who didn’t pay as much attention to politics before are awakened to it now. Listen: just because Trump is gone, it doesn’t mean that Trumpsim is gone. Trump himself could come back in four years. If we’re going to be a successful country, all of those people who were engaged… I hope and expect that most of them will stay the course, because there’s a lot in the ship that still needs righting.”
They do, in any case, see some positive threads from the fact that some of Stay Tuned’s biggest download numbers come from episodes that weren’t about Trump or his policies. Sepper pointed to a few such examples: They include the stretches where the pandemic and the summer of protest were the main focus, along with generalist interviews with people like Eric Lander, the president of MIT and Harvard’s Broad Institute, who talked about scientific frontiers; with Robert Caro, the famed historian and journalist; and Bryan Stephenson, the lawyer and activist.
“Maybe there will be some drop off in six months or a year, because people don’t want to be bothered anymore now that Biden is president — frankly, we’ll probably see more of that with the cable news networks,” says Bharara. “We’re keeping an eye on audiences, but I’m not overly concerned about it. I think we’ll still be deeply interesting to folks.”
On a related note… I was back on Fresh Air last week, with a segment looking back at the legacy of Trump podcasts.
➽ Andy Mills is out of the New York Times. News of his resignation was made public on Friday, and it comes in the wake of this, this, and this. This story was grouped together with another controversy-laden exit: that of Donald McNeil, the star science reporter who had become the leading narrative reporter on the coronavirus pandemic for the Times — and who was a prominent fixture on The Daily over the past year.
➽ Speaking of the Times… I believe the paper had first dibs on the story that Paris Hilton is launching a podcast with iHeartMedia. Called This Is Paris, the show will debut on February 22, and according to write-up, one point of distinction will be a format that the production is calling “Podposts,” short-form audio missives meant to simulate an approximation of an influencer social media posting unit. This is not the first time short-form audio episodes will be used to such effect — shout-out to Happier With Gretchen Rubin — but we’ll see if Hilton’s celebrity capital will drive any interesting effects on podcast impressions. Anyway, you won’t hear snark about Hilton’s media prowess from me — I, for one, am partial to the belief that she’s a media savant — though, I’d like you to know that I spent half an hour trying to come up with a joke about how her taking up podcasting gives new meaning to “Stars Are Blind” (a classic), because, you know, podcasts not having visuals or whatever, but I couldn’t come up with anything.
➽ Spotify posted a stronger subscription growth in its fourth-quarter earnings, but the company offered a conservative outlook for the year to come, citing even greater uncertainty ahead as the world may or may not open up. Here’s the Wall Street Journal write-up on the matter, which posited that “Spotify’s pandemic boost may be peaking.” Also, Spotify is holding some sort of presentation on February 22, which is coincidentally the day This Is Paris drops.
➽ Joe Budden has launched a membership business on Patreon, now that his podcast is independent following its departure from Spotify. Budden has apparently also joined Patreon as head of creator equity. Here’s the Hollywood Reporter on that.
➽ Shark Tank’s Mark Cuban is working on a “next-gen podcast platform,” reports The Verge’s Ashley Carman. The startup is called Fireside (not to be mistaken with the *other* podcast company called Fireside), it’s still under wraps, and it’s apparently scheduled to launch publicly later this year. From the description, Fireside seems more like a Clubhouse competitor in the sense that it emphasizes live conversation experiences between creators and fans. So, like Twitch, I guess. Once again, pour one out for the folks who continue to advocate that the word “podcasting” should refer to the specific technological arrangement of on-demand audio published on the open ecosystem.
In tomorrow’s Servant of Pod… Sam Sanders is on the show this week.
I don’t know about you, but to me, It’s Been a Minute always feels like a gift. Originally developed as a show to fill the Car Talk time slot, the podcast-turned-radio-show hybrid has evolved into an endlessly interesting take on the generalist news magazine show, blending together news and interviews that are routed through Sanders’ own specific universe of interests. This week, I got to speak with Sanders about the origins of the show, how he thinks about his relationship with his listeners, and his experience watching the audience for the show grow radically last year — during the summer of protest.
You can find Servant of Pod on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or the great assortment of third-party podcast apps that are hooked up to the open publishing ecosystem. Desktop listening is also recommended. Share, leave a review, so on.
A Russian Dating Show, and a Way In
By Aria Bracci
“It’s not really easy to be an open LGBTQ person in Russia,” says Kristina Vazovsky from the other end of the Zoom call, where the just-risen sun is making her squint.
Vazovsky, founder of podcast company ТОЛК (“TOLK” in English), is thirteen time zones away. She is not in Russia — not anymore. Even if she weren’t over six thousand miles from her former home, four years would still separate her from her former self, the one that lived in that world but wasn’t out to it.
It’s with this in mind that one must approach По уши (pronounced “POH-shee”), a TOLK production that roughly translates to “Head Over Heels.” По уши is an audio dating reality show centered around a bisexual Russian bachelorette, and it is the particular combination of the show’s premise and its production location that necessitates the handful of characters that follows the show’s title: “18+”.
In 2013, Russia passed a law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values,” referred to as the “gay propaganda” law and since ruled discriminatory by the European Court of Human Rights. This law, Vazovsky says, punctuates a historically — and currently — hostile landscape for queer people: As recently as 2020, the Russian constitution was amended to assert that marriage was only legal when between a man and a woman.
Four years ago, Vazovsky moved from St. Petersburg to London, and with the change in location came a change in lifestyle. “I’m super privileged, being able to live in London,” she says. (She’s temporarily located in Bali.) “In my circle of friends, it’s weirder if you’re not queer.” She laughs, adding, “If you’re a heterosexual and dating a white man, it’s like, ‘This is interesting — this is progressive.’” Vazovsky herself is bisexual, but her Russian audience, which followed her to England, didn’t know that.
“I started my own podcast about two and a half years ago,” she says. That show, a conversational podcast about failures, quickly gained popularity, she says, “not because it was particularly genius or anything,” but because the Russian market was “super small.” This nascent scene allowed her to gain traction. It also put her in the spotlight. Even on a later show in which she would talk about sex, Vazovsky stuck to recounting experiences that read as heterosexual.
In time, she closed the gap, coming out as queer in 2020, even making public statements in opposition to Russia’s recent constitutional amendments. This latter step was a reminder that coming out wasn’t only a test of bravery; it was a legal matter.
Being that Vazovsky is from Russia, the dating show, По уши, would be in her native language, and it would be released for the growing listener base in that country. No matter how much her life had changed — and how the company’s precocious adherence to remote work allowed employees to be based anywhere in the world — the “gay propaganda” law would, indeed, apply to TOLK. Producers consulted lawyers before releasing the show, who advised them to label content “18+” so as to deter youth exposure to queer themes, much as they might disagree with the premise.
По уши debuted in August 2020. While Vazovsky was technically publicly queer beforehand (albeit for only a few months), she looked at the show her studio had produced, the barriers it broke, and the barriers it still faced, as representative of a step that even she hadn’t yet taken.
“This show was my own way to process it, to accept it in Russian language,” she says of her queerness — “to say, for myself, ‘I am visible. I exist. It’s okay.’”
In Vazovsky’s words, Russia — and the United States, I might add — provides “a very little bubble in the big cities,” with conservative and discriminatory rhetoric swelling in many other parts of the country. “In general, it’s not really safe,” she says, and “on a political level, it became worse and worse every year, not better.”
Still, the queer-centric show was mostly met with acceptance, she says. “We were prepared to face hate,” says Vazovsky. “Surprising point: We received zero homophobic comments — zero.” They did receive comments from some queer listeners, though, critiquing the show for not being “queer enough,” she says. “From some people’s perspective, ‘bisexual’ is not ‘queer.’”
Acknowledging her position as both a bisexual woman (with straight-passing privilege) and an expat, she took the feedback in stride. The critiques are fair, she says: Queer characters of other genders might not have endured the same sexualized gaze as a woman, the gaze that she believes may have softened the blow of a queer Russian storyline.
“Women are very sexualized in Russia, in a patriarchal country,” Vazovsky says, speculating that some would-be critics may have even assumed that the bachelorette in По уши was destined to “find a ‘real man’ afterwards.” Playing into the hands of anti-queer sentiment — or queer erasure — comes with the territory of being and displaying bisexual women (who, ironically, are often erased from queerness themselves), Vazovsky says. Moving forward, she wants to push more boundaries.
Many Russian LGBTQ activists have preceded her, Vazovsky acknowledges, and she says that she’s begun using the success of TOLK to support these people by partnering with them. And her original show, about failures, has not only grown from featuring Vazovsky’s friends to bringing on Russian celebrities; it has also featured queer stories, further pushing normaliziation. (It was Vazovsky’s own friend who shared a tale of a man running away from him in the middle of a date.)
TOLK — still a young company, turning only one year old this coming March — continues to grow in the way that a human of the same age might, tackling one milestone at a time, though in quick succession. It reads as a way to engage an audience not only new to podcasts but, perhaps, new to normalized portrayals of queerness.
In this way, Vazovsky and her team continue to iterate, like they have on a new branded podcast for a cab company. First, they inched away from what had the potential to be “terribly cringey” commercial content, she says, instead creating an immersive, simulated taxi ride (believable enough to fool numerous listeners into thinking it wasn’t recorded from home). Then, queer characters began to make appearances.
“We work a lot, and we started from basic things, and we learned how to make them good — then make them better,” she says. The company — once just Vazovsky and an editor — started with basic chatcasts, but its progress could be interpreted as applying as much to technical production skills as to the mastery of sticky, contested topics.
“If they would be translated,” she says, “they would sound progressive, even in English.”
At the end of our call, Vazovsky thanks me for taking the time to talk to her so late in the day; in turn, I thank her for waking up so early.
It’s no trouble, she says; it’s actually how she’s come to prefer it. For her, the day has just begun.