You might have heard that we here at Vulture recently welcomed a new member to the family.
Into It — pronounced emphatically — is Vulture’s flagship podcast, an aural vessel for the site’s many madnesses and enthusiasms. It’s hosted by Sam Sanders, and speaking as someone who’s closely watched his arc from NPR reporter to NPR Politics podcast host to the anchor of his very own public-radio podcast–hybrid vehicle, it’s a real treat to now be sharing an HR system with the guy.
To mark the occasion, I figured I’d hit up Sam to chat a little about what he’s listening to, how he listens, and, broadly speaking, his relationship to the culture writ large. Relatedly, I think I might make this listening Q&A concept a recurring feature. The only problem is the name. “What’s in Your Rotation?” “What’s Feed-ing You?” (Get it? No?) Whatever. I’ll figure it out later.
Okay, let’s get to it.
1.5x Speed: It’s been my experience that a lot of podcast people tend to not really listen to podcasts. Do you listen to other podcasts much?
Sam Sanders: I listen very critically, which means I don’t listen as much as most podcast fans. If I listen to anybody else’s podcast, without fail, I’m giving edits in my mind. So when I really want to relax, I have to watch the worst TV show.
1.5x: Like what?
Sanders: You know what show really takes you out of your own head? This Netflix show called Alone.
1.5x: Oh, I love that show.
Sanders: That shit, any problem you have is not as bad as their problems.
1.5x: But when you aren’t really relaxing, what do you listen to?
I have my news programs. [Fellow Vox Media show] Today, Explained is my favorite daily news podcast. They have a tone and a grace and a sense of whimsy that makes all of it fun. Up First is part of the “as the coffee is being made” routine. And then I’ll get in The Daily every now and then, when they have an episode that’s speaking to me.
In terms of pure enjoyment, my three podcasts — I honestly call it my Holy Trinity — are The Read, Las Culturistas, and Who? Weekly. The Read has stopped publishing, but I’ve been a fan of that podcast since the start. In many ways, the tone and voice of that show is something I’ve been chasing throughout the years. Even when we were putting together what would become It’s Been a Minute, I had Brent Baughman [senior NPR producer, with whom Sam created IBAM] listen to The Read. I was like, “We can’t do what they’re doing, but I want some of that energy and that fun to be present in this show.” I’m sad they aren’t making shows right now, but I totally get it. What they’ve always done is fully let their whole sense of self occupy every conversation that they have in the show, which makes every conversation richer and deeper.
Over the years of making their show, they found such amazing ways … not to center themselves in these conversations, but to make themselves a central character in all the stories they’re telling us. It feels authentic and particularly refreshing to hear that happening with two people who are so black and so queer, you know? We get enough podcasts where three Chads on a mic get to fully embody themselves and their persons. To hear Chrissle and Kid Fury do it for so long and so well, that’s the gold standard.
1.5x: When you say podcasts with three Chads, do you have one in mind?
Sanders: I’m not going to say anything. Could be four Chads, could be five Chads.
1.5x: I’ve heard you talk a lot about Las Culturistas before. Tell me about your relationship with that show.
Sanders: I love the way [hosts Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers] can go from mindless, inane frivolity to sharp, incisive cultural criticism. They might be more known for the goofy stuff they have on that show, but Bowen is always reading the heavy shit, and Matt has an encyclopedic knowledge of film and culture. When they get in the zone, they’re giving you what can often feel like a graduate-level seminar on cultural studies. I just geek out. When I went on their show a while back, we were in that head space a lot, and I love that. And besides their commentary on the whatever of the day, the great joy of that show is hearing their friendship evolve. It is, in many ways, a podcast version of the Great American Love Story.
1.5x: Who? Weekly has many of the same qualities you’ve laid out with The Read and Las Culturistas. Feels like you’re drawn to a very specific thing with your Holy Trinity.
Sanders: I liked Who? Weekly before the pandemic, but I really got into them during the pandemic. What I love about them is their skepticism that’s always behind the laugh. They [hosts Bobby Finger and Lindsey Weber] are obsessed with B-level celebrities, but they’re also obsessed with being skeptical of the very idea of celebrity.
At its best, the show is actually a commentary on late-stage capitalism and the withering of the celebrity-industrial complex. They understand that we’ve left the moment of the imperial celebrity. We’ve left the era of Julia Roberts, George Clooney, nineties Will Smith — all of these stars were household with every race across every generation. We’re never gonna have celebrities that big again because of the fragmentation of media. Yet celebrities still want to perform celebrity and it increasingly feels like a farce. Now, they understand celebrities still exist and always will, but they get that it increasingly feels like a joke and make fun of it. Thank goodness.
1.5x: That’s gotta be a little bit interesting for you, at least. Don’t you technically occupy celebrity territory?
Sanders: No, not really. I live in L.A., a city with real celebrities and shit. You might’ve been able to tell me, “Oh you’re a celebrity” when I was in D.C. around people who listen to political podcasts 17 times a day, but this is a different space where there are real celebrities. I will maybe get noticed every now and then, but then I’ll go to dinner at some bougie restaurant and there’s an actual movie-star person at the table next to me.
1.5x: That’s an interesting tension. I mean, if the Who? Weekly project is the argument that celebrities are less powerful than they used to be because the notion of celebrity is being flattened out, wouldn’t you be part of that shifting calculus?
Sanders: Well, I do think there’s a certain safeness in achieving any notoriety in an audio-first space. Fewer people know what you look like, and I like it that way. My face is pretty easy to ID, but I would guess the majority of people who listen to me don’t know what I look like. And let’s keep it that way.
1.5x: Earlier, you said that when you listen to other podcasts, you tend to listen critically. What are you listening for?
Sanders: Pacing. A lot of people think that just because they’re having a fun time talking with their friends on a microphone, it’s automatically fun for every listener. That’s not always the case. You need a sense of pacing and a respect for the listener’s time. But there are also many shows where I’m just like, “I want you to go on for two hours,” right? You have to decide on one or the other. If you’re gonna be totally loose, then do that and track for two hours. But if you’re presenting to me any sense of timeliness, let there be good pacing.
And then I like it when a show can stick the landing and give me a new idea or a moment of “Huh, that surprises me.” I’ve really enjoyed Decoder Ring, that Slate podcast. Willa Paskin does this wonderful thing where she’ll spin these yarns about whatever — method acting, this, that — and then she gets to the end and you realize she’s giving you the thesis of her dissertation. She’ll nail this thing that makes you reconsider the world.
1.5x: Aside from pacing issues, what are your pet peeves with a podcast?
Sanders: I think a lot of interview podcasts don’t respect how sacred a good interview can be. A lot of interviews in podcasts are wasted opportunities, and I think a lot of interviewers are more focused on sounding cute and fun than making these interviews a space for growth and reflection and sometimes new ideas.
It’s the most bad when you get these group interviews where it’s five guys laughing to themselves, asking one or two questions of their guest every five minutes. You don’t hear the guest that much and then you leave not knowing anything new about this person you would love to learn something new about. There’s an arc to good interviews. There’s a flow to them and when they work well. They can be so fulfilling. You can always tell when an interviewer has a goal in mind in the conversation, and for most interview shows, the goal was just getting the guest there. Increasingly, even as we have more interview podcasts than ever, often the quality of the interviews doesn’t feel good. Can I say that? I’m saying that.
➽ Speaking of Decoder Ring, the Slate show is back with a new season, and I wanted to specifically highlight its latest episode: a story by Dan Kois about Ron McKuen, a famous (and famously horny) poet who’s now largely lost to time and thrift stores. It’s a fun, lovely piece.
➽ The B.A. Parker era on Code Switch begins.
➽ Keep an eye on Shameless Acquisition Target, which has shades of early Hollywood memoirs.
➽ I’m working my way through the backlog of a show from last year: Who Shat on the Floor at My Wedding? Which delivers exactly on what it promises, I assure you.
➽ A reader in Australia flagged that a true-crime pod pegged to an on-going trial, aptly titled The Teacher’s Trial, appears to be all the rage over there this summer.
➽ Speaking of true crime, there’s an extensive rundown in Rolling Stone on a big kerfuffle that’s been going on in the true-crime world, which revolves around Murder Squad’s Billy Jensen, the Exactly Right network, and multiple allegations of misconduct on Jensen’s part.
➽ And while we’re still here, here’s a separate story that is not the first time there’s been allegations of straight-up plagiarism within the true-crime-podcast scene.
➽ Song Exploder’s been busy with spinoffs. In addition to the Book Exploder miniseries that’s kicking off next week, the Spanish-language Cancion Exploder, produced by Adonde Media, recently made its debut.
➽ R.I.P. Larry Josephson, pioneer of independent and freeform radio.