Utah, the reddest of red states, seems like sort of a strange place to find the wildly popular “Pod Save America” podcast. The four progressive panelists — Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor — are decidedly Democratic, and they’re all former Obama White House staffers.
The former president got less than a quarter of the votes cast in Utah when he was reelected in 2012.
But the four didn’t hesitate to schedule a “Pod Tours America” stop in Salt Lake City. They’re recording an episode at the Eccles Theater on Thursday.
“And, I’ll tell you, when we started the ticket sales, Salt Lake City sold faster than most of the other cities,” Favreau said in a phone interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. (Although tickets are still available.)
It may seem counterintuitive, but that’s been a pattern.
Listen to a recent episode of Pod Save America:
“We noticed when we toured in some of the redder states last year,” he said. “The crowds are almost more enthusiastic. And it’s not about us, really — there’s something fun” about being in an audience filled with people who share your political views in a state where most people don’t.
Favreau pointed to a parallel when Barack Obama campaigned in heavily Republican states — like an appearance in Idaho that drew a crowd of 15,000-20,000.
“People were, like, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ It might have been every Democrat in the state,” he said with a laugh.
Favreau, Lovett, Pfeiffer and Vietor have built a huge following — 1.5 million listeners a week and hundreds of millions of downloads — and a podcasting empire at Crooked Media, which they founded in the wake of Donald Trump’s electoral victory. In addition to the flagship “Pod Save America,” there’s “Pod Save the People,” “Pod Save the World,” “Lovett or Leave It” and half a dozen other podcasts.
And their success has left Favreau “completely surprised. Shocked,” he said. “If you had told me five years ago that I would be a professional podcaster, I would not have believed you.”
The podcast was not just a reaction to Trump, but to the way the media covered Trump.
“I had always thought there was a better way to do political media, and specifically political punditry,” Favreau said. “I do think there’s great, fantastic journalism out there, but I think cable [news] is often garbage. And I think Twitter is a f-----g hellhole.”
When he left his position as Obama’s chief speechwriter in 2013, Favreau was invited on MSNBC and CNN as a pundit, “but it didn’t feel right. And I didn’t feel like I was making much of a difference.
“But I also believe that political media shapes people’s opinions about politics more than almost anything else in this day and age.”
“POD TOURS AMERICA”
When • Thursday, July 18, 8 p.m.
Where • Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main St.
Tickets • $39.50-$140, available at arttix.org, at the box office or by calling 801-355-2787
“Pod Save America” is the antidote to Fox News. As one local listener put it, “Every episode starts out with whatever horrible thing Trump has done that day.”
“That is a very accurate view of what we do,” Favreau said with a laugh.
They’re the voice of the resistance to all things Trump, and that hasn’t been easy.
“I’m human, so I get freaked out and discouraged all the time,” Favreau said. “But I think because of my experience working on campaigns and, specifically, working for Barack Obama, I will always believe that the only option is to keep moving forward. Keep fighting for this. Because the other option is throwing up your hands and becoming cynical — and that is a guarantee that everything stays exactly the way it is.”
The podcast — and the “Pod Tours America” show — generally opens with something recent in the news, then segments on something that’s less immediate “so we can usually plan that a little bit in advance.” But other than slotting in the guests and setting up games, nothing is set in stone.
“We’re all just working as hard as we can last minute to figure it all out,” Favreau said. “We try to focus on [a] topic that’s not just in the headlines but will generate an interesting conversation so that we’re not just sort of regurgitating what happened and then screaming about it.”
We do know that Erin Ryan, who hosts Crooked Media’s “Hysteria” podcast, will be the guest panelist in Salt Lake City. We don’t know what they’ll talk about — although Robert Mueller is scheduled to testify before a Congressional committee the day before, “and the timing could not be better,” Favreau said. It will definitely come up in Denver the night before, “but if it’s big enough news, I’d expect it to come up in Salt Lake as well.”
If Trump is topic No. 1, the Democratic presidential candidates are topic No. 2. And the panelists have not endorsed any of them — despite heaping praise on Elizabeth Warren lately “because she's running an excellent campaign.”
“We don’t really want to endorse anyone early or play favorites because we think it’s sort of our responsibility to help our listeners get all the information they need to make a really educated choice in the primary,” Favreau said. The veteran campaigners decided to talk about “not just what cable pundits say it takes to win, but what it takes to win, having been on two winning presidential campaigns. And sort of judge everyone by those standards.”
At this point he’s willing to say that a lot of candidates — Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttgieg, Corey Booker and Amy Klobuchar — “all have their strengths.” And he admits that he felt a bit uncomfortable when Harris went after Biden in the first round of debates.
“Look, I know Joe Biden. I like Joe Biden a lot and I know he’s a good, decent human being and not a racist,” Favreau said. “I know that he’s had problematic views in the past, but he’s evolved over time — like most people have since the ’70s.”
He fears the intra-party fighting may “get too personal or too nasty. I don't think we've gotten there yet. But because we're already starting to go after each other in debate this early, I worry about what the fall or early winter will look like.”
A big reason “Pod Saves America” works is the chemistry among the panelists. Favreau, Lovett, Pfeiffer and Vietor have friendships forged in fire.
“A presidential campaign — it’s like a family. And the people who I worked with on the Obama campaign and then ended up working with in the White House ... I’ll be friends with most of them for life,” Favreau said. “There is just this natural chemistry born of that familiarity we have with each other that just ended up working out.”
They founded Crooked Media wanting to “inform, entertain and inspire action.” They don’t want to the podcast to be “too funny” and “just yelling about Trump,” nor do they want it to be “just telling people the news” because people are going to tune out. “They want to be entertained.”
They also talk about more than just politics. Listeners feel like they know these guys “because it's such an informal conversation. And we share a lot about our lives and who we are.”
And about their dogs. “There’s been times when I’ve been walking Leo around and people don’t recognize me but they recognize him. Which is very bizarre,” Favreau said.