Michael Barbaro Is Still Terrified by Podcasting - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Michael Barbaro Is Still Terrified by Podcasting

Michael Barbaro Is Still Terrified by Podcasting

By Nick Fouriezos


Because this is the story behind the most popular podcast in America.

By Nick Fouriezos

New York Times journalist Michael Barbaro, host of The Daily, sat for a revealing interview with OZY’s CEO and co-founder on the latest episode of The Carlos Watson Show. The following are some of the best cuts from the full conversation, which you can find on the show’s podcast feed.

About his love, and fear, of podcasting

Michael Barbaro: It’s still pretty thrilling. … I just didn’t really know what I was doing at the beginning. And it was pretty terrifying to be entirely in the hands of producers. I’m very open about that. I mean, I just did not understand audio. I didn’t know what my role was as the host of the show all the time. And there were times, I mean, still times, when I was genuinely terrified about how I was going to conduct an interview and how it was going to land, and if I was going to screw the whole thing up. And so, when you do 250 of these a year, you just get more confident, less terrified.

I am still. … This morning, I had a wave of terror. We interviewed the Georgia official, who’s now gotten famous for this speech against the president. His name is Gabriel Sterling, and I just did those kinds of interviews with real people where the stakes are high and it could go sideways and he could be angry at us, or we could ask the wrong question or he might say, “I don’t have as much time as you all require” — because we’re pretty needy in that respect. And every time, there’s a new wave of terror.

About his favorite guests and what he has learned

MB: We don’t traffic a great deal in high-profile guests, so in some ways, the most interesting guests we’ve had are people who might seem pretty anonymous, who turned out to be kind of extraordinary characters. I mean, yesterday we had a guy, a former Boy Scout who had been sexually assaulted, who gave this really harrowing version of his events. Or this doctor in Bergamo, Italy, who was in the early stages of the pandemic and kind of telling America what to prepare for. Or some of the voters who we spent a lot of time with during the campaign, who really let us into their lives.

We’re a news show, but when we go talk to somebody in the news, they tend to be people you would never have heard from before, and we really resist talking to people who … cable news in the United States would talk to. We really have very little interest in that, partly because they’re so exposed, partly because they often say extremely boring, predictable things.

Carlos Watson: Did you have that thesis at the beginning, or did that evolve over the last couple of years?

MB: It was part of the thesis in the beginning because remember, we came out in 2016, and the sense that the American media had kind of screwed it up. We began in that, in that moment of kind of repentance and sort of like, “How are we going to figure out what we did wrong? Who do we need to be talking to?”

CW: What is the most interesting you’ve learned?

MB: One is, I’ve just learned the power of audio. I’ve been a print journalist for 15 years at the New York Times, and before that, several years at different institutions. And I had no understanding of just how uniquely powerful hearing someone in your earbuds between your ears, five days a week, was going to be. … And I was not a big consumer of the media, and so I could not have fathomed how profound a connection podcasting was going to create between the New York Times as an institution and the people who consumed it, the individual reporters of the Times, who people would come to literally crave information from me.

About when he knew the show was a success

MB: By the time we were a year-old show, we were in that almost million-listener territory, which was astonishing … and there were a couple of moments, because as a podcast host, you don’t ever expect to be recognized, and you don’t ever expect anyone to come up to you and say, “Hey, man, love your show.”

I’m not David Letterman here. So I’m behind the microphone and I’d be taking the New York City subway and people would just look, just look at me a little weirdly. And a couple of times, I remember being very funny where people would look at me and they would sort of say like, “I’ve been listening to you, I’ve been listening to you.” … Then occasionally, I get into these long chats with people on the subway, where they’d want to talk about an episode, they’d really want to engage it. And that to me was a key element of the interaction. Because it wasn’t like, “Hey, I recognize you.” It’s, “I want to talk about this show and what it means to me.” And so that meant that we were creating something, I think, important in people’s lives.

The Race Debate in the Times

CW: Michael, how do you think about race in journalism? Because I know that the main editor of the Times, Dean Baquet, who’s African American, has been talking about that. I know across the country, given everything that happened this past summer, there’s no way people can’t be even more reflective on it. How do you think about race in journalism? Because it’s certainly something I worry about. I feel like there’s a level of homogeneity, particularly at the most elite places, that makes me feel like we’re going to end up missing stories, missing important stories. Missing tone, timbre, priority, etc. How do you think about it? Are you maybe more optimistic than some as to where this will end up in the next few years?

MB: I mean, I think about it all the time. I am not somebody who hires for The Daily; I’m the host. There’s a group of managers who think about it as a detailed set of priorities around hiring, which I think is pretty much, to my mind, the single most important question of this moment. When it comes to an organization like the Times, we are not diverse enough, we’re just not. And when you’re not diverse enough, you don’t understand stories, you don’t tell them properly. You bring a perspective that is without the nuances necessary that convey all the complexity of a subject. It is not a new problem in journalism, but it was a … It is a problem that was viscerally expressed inside the New York Times newsroom, when we went through this very, very painful chapter around the publication of the Tom Cotton op-ed. When colleagues of mine in the New York Times newsroom publicly expressed a feeling that something had gone wrong, and it sparked a really far-reaching conversation about how our organization works, and who makes decisions, and who is represented in those decisions.

And it was an expression of concern, so significant that there was no way to put it back in the bottle, and we don’t want to. It’s like everybody in the building was involved in really searching discussions about how we need to change and work. And I’m proud of the organization for having those conversations, and from … of my colleagues for saying that it had to happen.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories