We’re posting weekly transcripts of Season 2 of Slate’s Working podcast for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for Episode 9, which features the show’s very first host, David Plotz. To learn more about Working, click here.
We’re a little delayed in posting this episode’s transcript—apologies. This is a lightly edited transcript and may differ slightly from the edited podcast.
Adam Davidson: So, what's your name and what do you do for a living?
David Plotz: My name is David Plotz, and I’m the CEO of a digital media company called Atlas Obscura.
Davidson: And I do know that last year you had a different job. Do you want to talk about that quickly?
Plotz: Yes. Until July of 2014 I was the editor in chief of Slate, and also I guess I was the host of this podcast. So, in the summer of 2014, I left Slate and went on a vision quest to find a next thing to do, and in the fall of 2014 I became the CEO of this marvelous—this marvelous place, Atlas Obscura.
Davidson: Excellent. And I think we should just acknowledge here at the front, we’re doing something a little weird. We’re interviewing each other, basically, and this was a listener request. Someone asked Slate if we could do this, and Joel Meyer asked us to do it. So, we’re slightly awkwardly going to interview each other.
Plotz: So, but do you want to do a quick bit? What is your name and what do you do?
Davidson: My name is Adam Davidson, and I do a lot of things. I host the Slate Working Podcast, until the end of this interview. I write a monthly column for the New York Times Magazine called On Money. I’m writing a book for Knopf, and I’m in a transition but still have an involvement with NPR’s Planet Money, which I co-founded. And there are a few other things I do, too. But let’s get back to you.
One thing that's confusing to me is that you live in Washington, D.C., but Atlas Obscura is here. You seem to come and go a lot. So, today was obviously a New York day.
Plotz: That's right. Atlas Obscura is based in Greenpoint. I live in Washington, D.C., with my family, and on Monday mornings generally I take an 8 a.m. slow train—because we’re cheap, so I get the $50 Amtrak—I take the slow train to New York. I get to the office in Greenpoint by about noon. I spend Monday afternoon, and all day Tuesday, and then Wednesday into Wednesday afternoon in New York, which means I have two nights in New York. I stay with my in-laws way the hell out in furthest Queens, so far away, in such a distant part of Queens.
And it gives me a very intense period of work—this period of working on the train. We schedule kind of Atlas Obscura meetings while I’m there, and then on Thursday and Friday I’m back at home in Washington, and I do work and am still in touch with people, but it's much less intimate and much more taking care of all the email I haven’t answered while I’m in New York.
It's a terrible system. I do not advise this as a thing to do. It was a decision I made when I got hired as the CEO by the founders of Atlas Obscura, Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras, and Josh and Dylan and I were talking, and there was this idea, well, you could move it to Washington—because Atlas Obscura was just—it really was—there was basically nobody working for it, there was a handful, two or three people really working for it at the time. And so, we could have moved it from this shack we have in Greenpoint to Washington and done in there.
And I just started to think about it and started to envision who I was going to hire, and who we were going to connect to, and we needed to hire journalists, and we needed to hire technology people, and we needed to hire designers, and we needed to hire business people, and the best of those people—it's much easier to hire really great people like that in New York and in Brooklyn in particular, than it is in Washington.
Washington’s such a political city that you can get really great political journalists, but people who are interested in the kind of Atlas Obscura ethos around discovery and wonder and exploration are much harder to hire. And so, I thought I’ll just keep it in New York, and I’ll suffer because of it, but that the entity as a whole will probably benefit. And I think that's—that has been my experience.
And my wife is—you know my wife, Hanna Rosin—it's hard, there's no doubt. We have three kids, and it's a pain. I’m away a lot and it's hard on her, but she’s been very generous about it and my kids have been very good about it, too. It also allows me when I’m Washington to be more intent with them.
Davidson: So, use maybe today as an example. You're in this transition period, as I understand it. I mean, before you became CEO, Atlas Obscura was a fascinating basically blog, can we call it? And you're trying to build it into something much more grown up and much more of a business. You've raised a lot of money, so now you're in that process, as I understand it. But I don't actually know what it is you do all day.
Plotz: I was fretting as I was on the train over here, because I thought, you know, it's not—it isn’t like other jobs I’ve had where it's pretty clear what you do all day. And generally what I have is, I have blocks of time where I’m working intently on something. So, for the first three months or so, four months that I was at Atlas Obscura—the first month I was at Obscura I was intently focusing on, what is Atlas Obscura? So, it was a small digital media company. It's an atlas, it's literally like, an atlas of places, wonderful, unusual places.
It's an atlas of the world’s most unusual places that readers have entered, and they’ve entered photographs, and descriptions, and map information about these places. And it's an atlas of thousands of these places and then some professional articles that go along with it.
But so, for the first month Josh and Dylan and I sort of thought about, what is this? What is its purpose? How can it be bigger? Why would you need somebody like me? And what are we going to do with it? And so, that was thinking about that process. And then the three or four months after that, all I did was raise money. So, that is 95 percent of what I did, was going through this process—which I think we are now seeing in the popular culture, of going to venture capitalists and media investors and angel investors, and making vast lists of these people, and trying to get access to them and meetings and pitch meetings, and making a pitch deck, and going and talking to them.
And that's a fascinating process, and we could probably talk just about that, because it is—it's very much in the culture right now because of this technology obsession. But this idea of, how do you get people to part with money? And it turns out that people don’t actually want to give you their money. They feel very possessive of their money, even though there I am, offering them this tremendous opportunity to invest in Atlas Obscura.
Davidson: And my understanding is that the richer they are, the more demanding they are about why you want their money, and what they get in return for their money?
Plotz: That certainly seemed to be true. I don't know if it's a completely inverse relationship, but there were definitely people who, you know talking to them –we were talking about very small sums of money. So, Atlas Obscura ended up raising $2 million, which is a lot of money but it was from 30 different people. So, the increments were $25,000, $50,000. The largest investor was $200,000.
And there were investors who were thinking about putting in $25,000, and these would be people who had literally billions of dollars or hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. And for them, that $25,000 was the equivalent of a hundred dollars to you. And yet it was intense, trying to get that money out of them.
What was so interesting about the pitch process is, that you are dealing with very smart people who in many cases—in most cases—know significantly more about aspects of your business than you do, and in fact the reason you're going to them is that they are the kind of people who have had success in your business or kind of an ancillary business, and you're going to them because they—you think, oh, they’ll take a bet on this because it seems like something they’ve done.
And so, you'll go to the guy who has just had the most success, is the greatest email businessman ever, and so getting him to try to invest because he might see an email business. Or you know, we have an investment from the New York Times. The New York Times is the greatest media company around, arguably, and the people at the New York Times know a lot more about making a giant successful media company than I do. And so, talking to them and having them interrogate you about what it is that Atlas Obscura is and can be, is daunting, because they’re very, very smart and demanding.
And you go—there's this kind of dance, because—it's very conversational. It's not a presentation where you stand somewhere and you have a slide show. I mean, you do have a slide show, but I never once went through my slide show. You have a slide show, and you're presenting, “And this is where we … you know, and we’ll grow 37 percent in Q2 … ” It's not like that; it's very much a kind of intense, face-to-face conversation not unlike what we’re having now, except not quite so close.
And the folks are—as I said, they’re smart. I would say, there was not a single meeting I had where I didn’t get a question I hadn’t had before. I think I did 97 pitch meetings, and even at the 97th meeting, there were questions I was getting that I hadn’t had in the—you know, any of the 96 preceding ones.
Davidson: And so, doing the math in my head, you got about 30 percent yeses it sounds like, if you had 97 pitch meetings and 30 investors?
Plotz: I guess that's right. I think I hadn’t done the math that way. There were a couple of people who—actually probably ten or so investors—who invested without ever having to pitch them. So, these were people who were friends, or the pitch was essentially me sending them a deck and saying, are you interested? And they’d be like, yes, count me in for $25,000 or X.
And so, it's really more like maybe 20 successful ones out of the 97—that's a pretty good rate. But we’re early stage. I mean, we’re not asking people to put in gigantic sums of money. And along the way, I should say, the one thing you run into is, if you're trying to raise a round you have to decide, well, how much money are you trying to raise? And then you have to justify that to your investors, because they want to know why you [are] raising that much? Why aren’t you raising either twice as much or half as much?
And the number we started trying to raise, we realized—which was a bit more than we ended up raising—we realized, oh, this sounds—this is a weird sum of money. That people who tend to invest are either going to invest in something where you're raising $5 million or they’re going to invest in something where you're raising $1 million, but if you're trying to raise $2.5 million it's kind of a weird amount.
So, then we said, OK, forget it, we’re just going to raise $1.5 million, and then people were much more enthusiastic. And in fact, by going out to raise $1.5 million, it made it very easy to raise $2 million. And we could have raised $2.5 million, we just had to cap it. So, it was one of these things where going out to raise $2.5 million, people were very skeptical, but when we said, oh, we’re raising $1.5 million people actually wanted to come in because they saw it as a smaller, earlier stage opportunity.
Davidson: And, you know, my buddy Alex Blumberg learned—he was very public about his learning process, and I know for a fact because we sat next to each other for many years, that he knew nothing about venture capital or seed rounds or “A” rounds or whatever you call them, and he had to really learn, like, pitch by pitch. He just screwed pitches up.
And I mean, you were with Slate from the very beginning or near the beginning, and you saw it grow into this real thing. But you were funded. You had two big corporations supporting you. So how—did you know any of this? Were you just learning it as you were pitching?
Plotz: I didn’t know any of it, and so I learned it as I was pitching. It was great that Alex was doing StartUp right—because those guys were maybe three months ahead of us. And so I was listening to the show, and Alex is also—you know, I’m friendly with him and so he and his business partner Matt, I would call and we shared some information about potential investors, and tips. And they put me in touch with some of their folks, and I gave them some thoughts on some stuff we were doing.
So, that actually turned out to be very helpful. But no, I had no experience as a businessperson. I was an editor and I had to manage a budget—and a budget that's bigger actually than the budget I manage now—but I had no experience as a businessperson. I had no real experience at sales and no experience in pitching.
And I think, you know, this is like, a dream factory. So, you're talking to investors—and investors, they look at you and they realize, you know, not every business they invest in are the founders or the people running it going to have every bit of skill—and I think they looked at me and realized, OK, this is a guy who’s got a lot—I’m much older than the usual run of people they fund.
And I have good experience as an editor, and if we’re trying to build a great editorial brand—which we are at Atlas Obscura—I’m somebody who’s done it and has a lot of credibility and a lot of connections. But I’m not a good finance person—so, one of the things I did today was try to like, grapple with the budget that we’re doing and grapple with sort of our run rate and our burn rate. And I’m pretty good at math, but I find it not at all simple and not at all clear, and I always need help with that.
So, even though I don’t have those particular skills, I think investors said, OK, if the main skills that we need for this business to grow are someone who’s going to a) be an adult manager and like, you know, be a person people will want to work for; b) somebody who has a history of building a successful editorial venture and thus with a strong identity and reputation for quality, Atlas—that those are probably the main things that Atlas Obscura needs for now. So, he seems like a good bet for this.
So, even though I lacked some of the credibility, it's a lot of what Alex had—I had the kind of track record around creating the kind of thing that Atlas Obscura needs to create to succeed. And so, that persuaded them. So—a couple more points just on fundraising which I think are interesting:
One is: It's exhausting at a level that I have never experienced exhaustion at work before. So, the process of pitching—usually on like, a very good day for pitching you might have three meetings, and you—those three meetings may be—I’m just thinking of one day. One meeting—one day I had a meeting with an angel investor, so, someone who was likely to invest a small amount of money kind of on a flyer—a media investor, a media company, a strategic investor that might want to invest because they saw as a good media opportunity—and then a venture capital fund which tends to invest hoping for big growth.
And I have those three meetings, and each of those meetings is scheduled for maybe 45 minutes, and they were spread out across the course of the day. So, those three meetings collectively took place over six hours. At the end of those six hours, I would feel gutted in a way that I never—maybe like, after you had—after like, a kind of like, crazy 9/11 kind of reporting day, a day where you’re just out like, talking to a million different people and you have to write 12 different stories. But the process of just being in front of people, having to stand up for your ideas, and ask—and then ask people for money, which is a very hard thing to do.
It's not easy to ask people for money, literally to say, “Adam, you know, we’re hoping you and your family will consider an investment of $50,000. It seems like it could really make a difference for us.” And it is utterly exhausting and mentally draining, because you are completely “on” and you have to be conversational, you have to be a pleasant person, but you have to be mentally acute and you have to think about what it is—both you have to think about what is Atlas Obscura, [and] then you can explain it, but also, what is it about Atlas Obscura that will make this person interested?
Davidson: And those three people, the answer is very different I assume? For an angel investor, a media strategic partner, and a venture capitalist?
Plotz: And those three people, it's incredibly different, and it's incredibly different for the kinds of venture capitalists. There are some who really want to hear you're a technology company. There are some that really want to hear you're a media company.You can present aspects of it. You can emphasize aspects of what Atlas Obscura is to them, but you can’t tell people a different story.
You fundamentally have to tell them the same story about what Atlas Obscura is, because you're going to then go build something, and the worst thing you could do is tell an investor, oh, you're investing in a small candy store and then you go out and build a digital media company. You have to build something that's roughly congruent with what it is you're presenting to them.
And so, being able to at once sort of point out to them why this meets their needs and their—why it is sympathetic with their interests, at the same time that you are staying true to what the—what Atlas Obscura is, it's mentally demanding.
Davidson: So, you raise the money, and I mean to me that does sound intense. But for me, that—I don't know, that sounds exciting, like dreaming up what could this thing be? Meeting with people and talking about that dream. For me, the part of your job that I just would never want and the part of Alex’s job I would never want, is the actual doing it, the coming up with budgets, the hiring people. And I’m assuming, you know, at an early stage each hire is crucial, and maybe they don’t all work out, and figuring out what kind of meetings are we going to have, and how am I going to build a culture?
That's the kind of stuff I would find—that's what scares me. How—and that's what you're doing now?
Plotz: After raising the money—so, it took several months to raise the money, and kind of in the late stage when it became clear, oh, we’re going to have—we’re going to get the money—then I could start thinking, realistically how are we going to spend it and who are we going to hire? And so I started to turn to hiring, so, the period after—so, the raising the money was roughly October—or November, December, January, and in February it was pretty clear we were going to get the money and so I started to turn to hiring.
Just as you say, that every single person is like the person you're going to marry, every single one of them, because we’re hiring—we’re going to have a staff—as of now we have a staff of about a dozen, I think. I should probably know that. But each one of those I thought intensively about them, and the courtship was incredible. And also, you're—as the CEO—as the editor of Slate, I always had a thing that I could show them and say, this is it. This is great. You already know what this is. It's incredible. Don’t you want to be a part of this thing, which you already know is great? And look at all these people who’ve worked here, and look at the incredible careers they’ve had.
And so, it's a sales job based on reality. With Atlas Obscura, it has to—it's an active imagination. It's telling them that one the one hand, the exciting part is that we’re all going to shape this together, and so insofar as you, Reyhan Harmanci—who’s my Editor-in-Chief—have great ideas about what can be editorial, you're going to be able to execute them because you're a brilliant editor, and so you're going to get to do it.
Plotz: But for Atlas Obscura, where the thing doesn’t really exist—or it exists only in a very embryonic form—it requires an active imagination for people to think, what can this be? And so, when I go to—and that's part of the appeal for somebody, because not only did they—that's part of the appeal for somebody, because they get to shape the thing. They get to have a role in deciding what it is going to be. So, when I go to Reyhan Harmanci, who’s my editor in chief, and sought to hire her for a job, part of it was, here’s the thing I imagine it's going to be and wouldn’t you like to run that?
But part of it is also, you can decide what it's going to be. You are a brilliant editor, and you're—you have better editorial ideas about this than I do—so, what is it that you think you can take and make here? So, the active recruitment is much more an active imagination for people than it is for a place that's already thriving and out in the world.
Davidson: And it attracts a very different kind of person.
Plotz: It attracts a different kind of person, you know. The thing that I think is exciting and is different is that, of course it attracts someone who is in a position to take a risk with their life, because the people I’m hiring are not getting paid as well as they would if they went to work at the New York Times or maybe at NPR.
But what they’re getting is, they’re getting—they’re getting paid, they’re getting equity, so if we’re successful they’ll make significantly more than they could have made—and of course they’re getting this chance to be part of a small adventure. And that was what was so thrilling for me about going from Slate to Atlas Obscura. I mean, there are all sorts of reasons why I left Slate—and I love Slate and still podcast for Slate and am very close to everybody there, and I think it is the cat’s pajamas of web magazines.
But the idea of having something which is intimate and which we can be much more the owners of, and decide, and create … and it's funny, I sit there and watch—one of the things I do is, I watch our traffic. And we have this—we use Google Analytics, Google Analytics or ChartBeat—but at Slate we used to look at ChartBeat. And at any given time at Slate on a decent day there are 25,000, 30,000 people on the site at that moment.
When you're at Atlas Obscura and you're looking, you know, it's 300, 400, and we—you know, we got a spike up to a thousand the other day. And it was like we’d hit the lottery, we’d won the lottery with a thousand people on the site at that moment. And you know, the largest story that we’ve done on Atlas Obscura would be, you know, maybe the second most successful story that Slate would do on a Thursday.
So, the—I know that we’re not reaching as many people. I know it's a smaller venture. But the sense that I control it and I have a much bigger stake in it, and that we can build it together, is so exciting for me that I’m invigorated in a way that I haven’t been for years. And again, after having been [to] Slate, a place that I love and a job that I love, to give that up and to go start something much smaller, was—I don't know, we can talk about this when we talk more about you.
But when I left Slate, I think it was unusual. People found it unusual to leave a job where you're the boss. I was at the top. I was running a great magazine, and there was nothing wrong with it. We weren’t—we were profitable, I wasn’t fired, there was nothing—there was no mystery. I just realized one day that I just didn’t want to do it anymore, and people were slightly baffled by that.
And then they were slightly baffled—some people I think were slightly baffled by like, Plotz has gone to this place that no one has ever heard of. It's literally called Atlas Obscura. But the more time I spend there and the more I start—and anybody who got—anybody who kind of knows me and has taken the time to learn about what Atlas Obscura is, people get it. They get that this—they get that the chance to raise something from a sproutling and a chance to get my hands all over stuff that I haven’t had my hands on before, and the chance to work with a really small team, and the chance to make a lot of money if successful are—it's really cool. And I’m not—probably in two years, you know, when I’m out of work and we’ve run Atlas Obscura in to the ground I’ll be like, why did I ever do that? Why did I leave Slate?
But really, it's just the—it—I don't know. I sound ridiculous here. I sound—I sound like an evangelist or something. But it's been a work change, it's been all that I had hoped it would be.
Davidson: Yeah, and I would—I’ll just quickly put a coda, which is, so, I was one of the many dozens, hundreds of people you called during your soul-searching days of, what should I do next? And my hunch is that was a period of people imposing their own fantasies on you I would guess, because that's certainly what I did.
Plotz: Well, talk about that. You totally did.
So, I quit this job, and what I did is, I literally made a list of hundreds of things that I might want to do. So, my Friday Night Lights musical, or people who I would want to work with, or people who were doing things I was envious of. And you’re—you were one of the people in the top five. I was like, oh, I love Adam, it would be awesome to work with him.
And so I started to call people—and Josh Foer, who started Atlas Obscura. Josh had been an intern of mine, and I’d always loved and admired him and thought, oh, he’d be great to work with. And so, it was very funny talking to you, because that was exactly—because I think you were kind of at that same moment of self-examination. You'd kind of left Planet Money and you were kind of doing a book, but you were still trying to figure out what's next—and maybe you still are—but it was funny, because you did have this vision of something—it was quite defined, but it was very much like, we should do this together.
But you didn’t—and I came away from that meeting like, Adam is really passionate about this, but I have no idea what it is. And I don't think—I think it's maybe something he should pursue, not something that I should pursue.
Davidson: No, I realized that in the conversation, where it—first of all, it felt much more concrete. And all it was was I feel like one of the things you and I share intellectually is kind of an allergy to kind of partisanship and, I don't know, ideological posturing or like, rigid thinking.
I mean, I think both of us are never more excited than when our mind is changed, but that we’re also kind of stubborn and we don’t change our mind that easily. So, it's an exciting tension, and I feel like something we need in our culture right now [is] some models of how to do that. Like, how to have substantive, grounded discussion that isn’t either sharply partisan and you've made your mind up already, but isn’t also just airy-fairy, hey, we should all get along.
And I felt like you and I together could do that. But it was one of those things where in my head it was like, yeah, that—it felt precise and exact and like, this has to happen. And then as I’m talking to you I’m like, wait, I have no idea what this is or how that would work or –
Plotz: That conversation was very clarifying for me though in a different way, which was I—Slate is not a political magazine but a lot of what it does is politics, and I host The Political Gabfest at Slate. And I realized as I was talking to you that in fact, one of the things that I was eager to get away from because I’m so—it just—I become so frustrated with it was, the day-to-day of politics and the day-to-day of having to think about some of these issues, where it feels like there's no progress.
And one of the things I actually genuinely love unreservedly about Atlas Obscura is that it has—it is about—it has nothing to do with politics. Not to say there aren’t political things that we’ll strike into, but mostly it's just about discovery, wonder, exploration, amazing places, and it's non-partisan. It doesn’t have anything like that.
And so, that's come as a great relief to me, and that conversation with you is one of the moments when I realized, you know what? The fact that I’m not as interested in these subjects as I used to be, I should listen to that voice in myself.
Plotz: Well, I feel very embarrassed about that conversation. That was not me at my most articulate, I have to say, but it was me at close to my most passionate somehow. But it was a bit of a mess.
All right, Adam. I have talked enough, so it is time to turn from my working life to your working life—although we should not that we’re not in the working life right now because we’re at your house and your son is taking a bath upstairs, so we may have scenic noises from your son as we tape this.
Davidson: Yes, he’s—he’s a knight right now in a knight’s uniform, but he’s about to take a bath, so we might hear some screaming up there.
Plotz: You have made some of the same kind of switches that I have made. You had—you were the founder of an incredibly successful enterprise in Planet Money, the creator of something that was winning awards—is winning awards—was much lauded and was creating a new kind of journalism. You were at the top of the radio game, and you kind of stepped away from that. So, first of all, why did you step away and then what did you step towards?
Davidson: Sure. So, the thing that truly occupied me from 2008 to 2011 was Planet Money, both thinking of it and coming up with the idea along with Alex Blumberg and Ellen Weiss, who was my boss at NPR at the time, and then doing all the things you're doing now, hiring a staff and working with NPR, something easily and something with enormous frustration. You know, it's this large—I mean, I love NPR, it's my home in many ways, but it's a large organization with a lot of rules. And we were trying to create something new and it was very challenging.
And it was a single-minded, obsessive focus. I mean, it was within a large company, but it was—it probably had a lot of the startup stuff you're talking about, creating a vision, creating a team, creating a voice—and it was very, very exciting and very engaging. And this was all happening in the middle of the greatest financial crisis of our time and we were a team covering finance, so it was very heady, very exciting, and very exhausting but in an exhilarating way.
And you know, the basic idea that I had with Ellen and Alex—Ellen Weiss and Alex Blumberg—was that there is a way to report on economics and finance that's accessible to the average person. That economics and finance are often covered as technical subjects, sort of boring subjects, and either you already know a lot about it and you follow it, or you don’t know much about it and you don’t want to know. And we felt like, no, there's a way to use the best of This American Life and other, you know, great storytelling tools to bring to life this topic that is so important and determines so much of our lives, but is often reported in a sort of—and I’m not saying nobody does it well, but just broadly speaking I think, you know, it's reported in a sort of bloodless, technical way.
So, that was our motivation before the financial crisis erupted, and then in many ways we were aided by the financial crisis. You know, it was certainly a great—the financial crisis helped us make the case that this is value and important. And it was thrilling but it was exhausting. Running an organization is really hard. Having an internal startup within a larger bureaucracy, I don't know if it's harder or easier than a startup like you're running, but it has its unique challenges.
Which is, you have a big company with lots of people who are really smart, top in their game, and their job is to get Morning Edition and All Things Considered on the radio, and to do so in a way that has been well-established over decades. And we were doing things like saying, hey, we want to take some of the best reporters who are reporting, you know, two or three stories a week, and we want to take them out of the daily mix of reporting and let them work for weeks at time sometimes on stories. And we want to do this new thing called podcasting, which in 2008 was still sort of an obscure corner.
It wasn’t the hot thing it is now. And want to devote as much time and energy and production to podcasting as people do to Morning Edition and All Things Considered, which was a hard argument because Morning Edition and All Things Considered have 20 million or 30 million listeners. Our podcasts in the beginning had tens of thousands of listeners. And there were times where I was kind of a jerk and yelled and people, and fought, and screamed, and there were other times that I tried to persuade with PowerPoints and, you know, constant trips to D.C. from New York to the headquarters of NPR, trying to persuade people to give us more funding, give us more time, and give us more resources.
And it was wonderful and I wouldn't take it back, but it was exhausting. I really—it was tough. And then I had my son, who’s taking a bath upstairs right now, and I just realized I had expended too much. I was too tired, too frustrated, too—you know, because throughout this I was both sort of—I was running Planet Money and—as a business, sort of an internal business—and I was a reporter reporting all the time. So, I, you know, had sort of two demanding full-time jobs.
And so, it's funny, Alex Blumberg and I, when we started I was like, “I want to be a boss. I want to run something. I’m not sure I want to be a reporter anymore.” And Alex was saying, “I just really like being a reporter and producer at This American Life. I don’t really see any to be a—who wants to be a boss? I don't want to run anything.” And the first three years of Planet Money, I definitely was the lead guy. I was the main force, and Alex at first reluctantly and then enthusiastically was sort of my—I don't want to say my “No. 2,” we were really partners—but he was supporting me as I was running this thing.
And then sometime in 2011 I came to realization that I cannot stand being a boss. I can’t stand running things. I just want to be a reporter, even though I thought that was the opposite of what I wanted. And at some point in 2011, Alex realized he loved running things and he loved being a boss, and he didn’t need to be a reporter. And that's good news, that was good news for Planet Money, and it's good news for the people of Gimlet, because Alex is a really good boss and a really good leader. And I was not. I don't think I was particularly good at it.
But I will say from 2011 until last year, I did feel a bit lost. I mean, I was sort of floating in—I was still employed by NPR and still worked at Planet Money, I also started for the first years a weekly column at the New York Times Magazine, and those are two exhausting jobs. And writing a column, a weekly column for the New York Times, is really tough, and I wasn’t prepared for the demands that that involved. Somehow at the time it felt like, oh, that will be more relaxing than running Planet Money, but—and—I had thought that NPR and the New York Times were sort of equal in our culture or something. I think I thought, well, you know, when I do a story and people don’t like it, they let me know but it's not that big a deal. But there's a level of scrutiny and a level of intensity to the role that anything written in the New York Times plays in our culture that is far beyond anything I was prepared for.
So, when I started the weekly column in the magazine, it was—the volume—the number of letters and emails and Tweets and blog comments, and the intensity, and the hatred I generated in people was something I’d never experienced before, and it was really, really hard. It was brutal for me. And I felt, you know, like, hey, I have this giant platform. I have to be a grownup. I remember when I started, Joe Nocera—who’s a columnist at the New York Times—told me, the first six months all you're doing is building callouses. Like, that's it. You're just being attacked every day and you just—it just hurts and it sucks.
And part—the worst part of it is, some of those attacks are right, because when you're writing for the New York Times someone reading it knows the topic better than you do and knows when you've messed up. And that was tough, it was tough, because you know—and a weekly column is really tough. You're—it closed on a Thursday, which means you're doing like, fact-checking and final edits on a Thursday, and then—and that's a tough process that's all day, lots of phone calls, the fact-checker doesn’t like this, doesn’t think you've supported this, you have to prove this, you have to do this.
The editor—that's the day where your editor gives it—gives your column to the two deputy editors, and then the two deputy editors give their notes, and then it goes to the head editor and the head editor gives notes. So, it's a very intense day of people at a very high level scrutinizing your work very carefully. And the fact-checking process really is tough; it's intense. I mean, they are going over every statement of fact and they need proof that it's true, and something it's just, I don't know, isn’t that true? I don't know. How do I provide it?
And so, Thursdays were always exhausting and then Friday morning, well, what's next week’s column? And I have to come up with a topic and I have to turn in a draft on Monday so that we can start the whole editing process over again. And it was tough. And in that first year I went through—there was a period where I was particularly attacked, and in untrue ways, some people online said some things that were not true about me—but it was very hurtful. And there was like, a period of time that it was very panicky, I was very upset. And my son at the time was, I guess seven, eight months old, and I would wake up early with him and let my wife sleep.
And there was a couple of weeks there where he would just kind of be sitting on that couch right there, and I would just go online and read all this horrible stuff about myself. And I remember calling you and asking your advice, and the advice I wanted was some strategy for attacking the people attacking me, or—and you just said, “Don’t you have a kid? Don’t you want to spend time with your kid?” And I was like, yeah, I do.
And it was like, the best—that may be the best advice I’ve ever had. Do you remember that?
Plotz: I do remember that vaguely. I don't remember being quite so sage and Zen about it. I think I would have said—I mean, that does sound like what I would say.
Davidson: So, what I wanted to get at though is, that was a very big moment for me. And I—both the attacks, but your advice—it really was. I tell people about that a lot, because it sort of made me realize like, there's choices I can make. There are choices I can make about both who I am on the public stage and then also how I’m going to feel about it and how I’m going to let it affect me. So, I made one choice, for example, which is I’m just going to confine work to working hours. I’m not going to work on the weekend. I’m not going to be working while I’m with my son in the morning and in the evening.
And I feel like my columns got better. Like, I was working fewer hours but I was working smarter and all that stuff. So, that was a big lesson. But I also realized, I don't want to do a weekly column and I don't want to have two jobs that are demanding. I want to have enough space to, I don't know, think thoughts. I mean, I just—I don't know that I’m capable of having an exciting, profound thought every week that's worth a column.
Plotz: But one question I have is, it sounds like you've gone from—you went from one intense job, which was running Planet Money—which was really two jobs, but one intense job—to then two intense jobs, which was being an NPR reporter and writing a New York Times column. To now, it feels like you have about five jobs. So, in what sense is having five jobs a better working experience? Because you write a Times column, still. You're writing a book. You're advising on films. You are doing this working podcast. There are probably like, three or four other things that we haven’t mentioned there which you can mention now. So, why is that—why is that both a satisfying and also lucrative way to live?
Davidson: So, I think—first of all, I am—I do have too much, I do. There's too much on my plate and I’m trying to get some of it off my plate. I think there's—but my Planet Money role was a total role, where there's a team of ten who need me, or need someone in that position, anyway—who’s making choices, answering questions, etc. And that was an awful feeling, right? I just was letting—I was just making ten people’s lives worse all the time.
And that was a bad feeling. And then, I’m so grateful for the chance to write a weekly column. I don't want to sound like—you know, I’m so grateful to Hugo Lindgren, Jon Kelly, and the people who gave me the opportunity to write a weekly column. It's an amazing thing to do, and when I started they both said, you know, the problem with columns is they just exist forever. And columns have a natural life, and I feel like that weekly column had a natural life, which was like, two or three years, and then we were done. We did what we wanted to do.
So, but that—you know, that weekly column, there's like a big chunk of real estate in every week’s New York Times Magazine that I had to fill. So, I now have a bunch of jobs, but—and they’re important, and I love them—but they’re not—they’re not—in any given week the number of people whose lives are worse because of my inability to do my job.
Plotz: Do you think when you think back of yourself as a boss—so, one of the themes that you're getting at is, you made—you didn’t like the—you didn’t like being a boss. Maybe you didn’t like the way it made you feel, or you didn’t like the way you ended up treating other people, or you didn’t like the kind of—I don't know, you didn’t—there are all sorts of things you didn’t like about it.
Planet Money is un-inarguably an incredible creation, right? So, you may have been a terrible boss sort of as yourself, but the work was genius. How do you balance the fact that you may actually be very good at something that you hated yourself for being good at?
Davidson: I mean, look, I will—I will say what I’m proud of and what I feel like it would be silly to deny is, I think we created something really special, and I think—you know, it was my—the vision that I had and that I worked with Alex on is pretty—like, that is pretty close to what happened. I mean, it was definitely like, the one time in my life where, you know, I was imaging something that didn’t exist and then it did exist, and it existed along the lines I described, which is great.
But the thing that screwed me up was—so, one of the key things we did was, we created like, such an absurdly amazing dream team. You know, we got David Kestenbaum, Chana Joffe-Walt, Jacob Goldstein, Caitlin Kenney, Robert Smith, Zoë Chase. We got this amazing team of people who really are, you know, in my opinion they’re definitely—I mean, I think in any—if you ask any, you know, high level radio person who are the best people in radio, their names would clearly come up.
Chana and Zoë now work at This American Life, which I think is generally considered the gold standard, and I don't want to say who but I know other people on the team were offered jobs at This American Life and didn’t take them. So, we assembled this amazing team, and it took me a long time to learn how to let them be themselves, and not tell them what to do, and not feel like I—if everything wasn’t my idea, then it wasn’t somehow valid.
And so, I think—you know, I do feel like I did set a broad tone. I think saying we’re going to take a This American Life approach to storytelling, but we’re going to focus it in this topic of economics and finance—and some other things. I mean, I think I developed a culture of healthy skepticism of claims of certainty on any side of the aisle. A sort of boldness in using economics no matter where it leads you in political circles, you know, rather than worrying about being left-wing or right-wing or biased or this or that. And also a culture of like, shared—of a team, of a real team.
I mean, I think Planet Money continues to be just like, an awesome team approach to storytelling, where there's a real culture of sharing. And I think I was able to identify that and want that, but I wasn’t able to build that. I think that all came from Alex. Alex is the one who—and the team themselves—but Alex is the one who really created the conditions that allowed that team to flourish as a team.
So, you know, I almost feel like if I had—you know, if from the beginning Alex was the boss and I was sort of his advisor or something, I think it—everything probably would have gone a little smoother and better. I mean, he’s just—although he had to learn, too. He had to learn—because he was—he and I went on this management training together. We went on this three-day intensive management training program at the Center for Creative Leadership, and it was at the same the most schmaltzy, ridiculous thing in the world, and it was incredibly moving, powerful, life-changing experience. I mean, it was both things. I mean, lots of slogans and silly stuff, and then also profound life lessons.
And one thing they do is, they survey everyone you work with, your bosses, your subordinates, your equals, for whatever—those are terrible words, your—anyway, it's 360 is what they call lit. And in this team of like, fairly difficult managers, I mean, usually if you're at this Center for Creative Leadership three-day thing it's because you've screwed up, and they want to keep you but they also think they might fire you.
I scored off the charts for being bossy, and insistent, and unwavering, and Alex scored off the charts the other way, being too compliant, too—and Alex really needed to learn. Like, the team wants a leader. They want someone to tell them, we’re doing it this way, we’re making this choice. And I think he’s definitely learned that lesson. So, that was—I mean, I feel like he and I dramatically shifted roles.
And somewhere in that mix, somewhere in those years of working for Planet Money and also working for the New York Times Magazine, I realized that, you know, I have this—you know, I’m very lucky to be able to work in print and radio. I’m very lucky to be able to work at a time when finance and economics are really important. And the number of people who tell finance and economic stories in a kind of accessible storytelling way, there's much more demand than there is supply.
So, you know, I feel like there's lot of people who know finance and economics better than I do. There are lots of people who are better storytellers than I am. But the space that I occupy of storytelling about finance and economics is—more people want it than can do it. And so, I feel very lucky. And so somewhere along the way I was like, oh, I’m going to have a project-based life rather than a job-based life, where I’m going to do—projects are going to come my way and I’m going to pursue projects, and I’ll do them for some period of time. And I’m always probably I think going to be doing a variety of projects.
And it's a little scarier. I mean, I don't know for sure where my income is going to come from in 2016, but it's also—it is a lot of fun. I really like it. I got, you know, on one project I was hanging out with Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carrel, and Christian Bale, and trying to explain economics to them for a movie I’m an advisor on. On another project I—you know, I write this column, this monthly column where I get to really once a month spend an intense time, like, investigating a topic, and once a months feels exactly right. It's enough time to refresh your curiosity. I’m writing a book that I’m very excited about, about how the economy works these days, and that allows me to stretch a different set of muscles. I worked on a big project with Morgan Spurlock last year, a bunch of short movies about the economy.
And then a bunch of small things come up. I mean, I’m doing a live event with Tim Geithner in a couple of weeks. And I feel like I’m just name-dropping now, like, I sound like a jerk. But it feels like it—I don't know, it feels exciting. I feel refreshed over and over again. The book and the New York Times, those are my two core ongoing commitments. Everything else kind of comes and goes. I also am still a consultant to Planet Money. I still have a strong relationship with Planet Money, but it's not any longer the main thing in my life.
Plotz: Do you think what you're describing is sort of a winner-take-all economy where you are at the very top of economics reporters, and radio people, and writers who write about [the] economics and finance, and therefore you get to do this? Or are there lessons in what you're doing for anybody—most people, you know, they have a job, they work at a job. That job has relatively defined working hours, a single workplace, a boss. What are the lessons in your working life that other people can take?
Davidson: So, yeah, I think both lessons are true. So, I don't think I’m at the very top. I mean, Michael Lewis is clearly at the very, very top and he’s a different stratosphere than me, and there are lots of people who are I would say, you know, income-wise or fame-wise or whatever are above me. There’s a lot of people who play in this space, it's just there are fewer people than there is demand for. So, that's what’s lucky. Although I also will say I’m at a point in my career where at least for now, yeah, there's lots of opportunities. It's very nice.
I feel very lucky. It's—it is a good time, and I think both things are true. I think—you know, I had this obnoxious joke sometimes with some of my friends, like, wow, there are so few journalism jobs I grabbed two of them to make sure I was covered. I mean, I would put it slightly differently. I would say that what I’ve identified that is more broadly applicable is—and this was conscious, I mean, I was aware of this, like, my now—I’m writing this book about the future of the economy and this was on my mind.
That we’re probably moving more toward a project-based economy than job-based economy. Rather than sort of long-term, open-ended commitments, you’re more—you have discrete commitments. And there's a bunch of things that happen in those economies. So, you do need to have some base level of skill and you need to be able to prove that skill, but you also—reputation turns out to matter a lot. So, you know, being in my mid-40s and having done this for a while, having, you know, amassed a body of work, that—and I think that helps a lot.
You know, and having good relations with lots of lots of different people helps a lot. And having a kind of—enjoying the chaos also helps a lot. I mean, I think having a comfort level with uncertainty helps a lot. So, I do think there will be winners and losers in the 21st century economy. My hunch is it's not 1 percent/99 percent, but I think it something like 20 percent/ 80 percent. I mean, that 20 percent of Americans roughly speaking will probably do better and better, and something like 80 percent will do—will stagnate or do worse.
And so, I think I’m—my career now is a good lesson or an example of that 20 percent, that, you know—and having some technical schools, so like, basically in my case knowing how to do radio, knowing enough about economics and finance, knowing how to write a column, knowing how to be on deadline, having something of a reputation—it's not that my reputation—I mean, there's plenty of people who are not crazy about me. I’m not saying I have the greatest—you know, but I have basically a solid professional reputation.
And then also, that kind of comfort level with chaos, and also an ability to switch gears very quickly. I think that bundle of skills strike me as, that's going to be valuable. People who have that bundle of skills are going to be—are going to do fairly well. And I don't know how many people have, you know, have that bundle of skills. My—I sort of put it at 20 percent based on some economic research I’ve read and some thoughts I have. I don't know if it's 30 percent or 10 percent. But I don't think it's 100 percent. I don't even think it's 50 percent of Americans.
Plotz: That's funny. Just as a last thought, my mother—both my mother and father had very successful careers. My mother’s an English professor and my father is a scientist and physician. They worked at the same jobs for their entire life, 50 years each. And my mother is somebody who I think of as having just an intense close focus. She’s somebody who really can pay very, very close attention to the thing she’s focusing on for a very long period of time, and that has served her incredibly well in her professional career. She knows—the things she knows, she knows them just so deeply.
What—so, is the model you're presenting one where you think that set of skills is not—is not as valuable anymore? Or am I misunderstanding it?
Davidson: I think—you know, so I definitely don’t believe in absolutes. I don’t think we’re going from all one thing to all another thing. I think we’re talking about, you know, a gradual shift of kind of the center of gravity. But when think about the 20th-century economy, which is a weird economy—like, we think of it now as the norm, that there's large corporations and you have a job.
And you, you know, every year you try and get a raise that sort of beats inflation by a little bit, and every five years or so you get a big promotion or something. Like, that kind of model, we built a lot of institutions around. We built unions around. We built our education system around. We built retirement plans and sort of the whole idea of the typical American life cycle, that you graduate high school or college and then you—kind of your income rises, and then at 65 or whatever you retire, and then you distribute your income.
And that didn’t work for everyone in the 20th century, obviously, that is kind of the norm. I think obviously that's going away. And that rewarded certain things. It rewarded a kind of getting along in a large organization, it rewarded a commoditization of skill—like, an easy, you know, you're an accountant who’s like other accountants, you're this who’s like that.
And I happened to grow up in Greenwich Village in the ’70s in all-artist housing, so I grew up in a world that was very self-consciously at odds with this broader trend. It was artists who were expressive and unique and disdained the overall culture, but they were broke and it was economically very tough. And I think that center of gravity is disappearing, for a bunch of reasons—mainly trade, technology, government policy, the minimum wage, unions, blah, blah, blah—and we’re entering a more chaotic time. We’re entering a time of more constant change, and that means, you know, people who really like stability and like predictability are not—it's going to be tough. It's going to be tougher.
I don't like stability and predictability. I do very poorly in structured environments and I like chaos. You know, right now I feel like I have just a notch too much chaos and I’d like to reign it in, but when I have too little I’m not creative either. I can’t produce, either. So, yeah, I think—I mean, I think college professors and government workers are probably going to be among the last holdouts of the old system, and they might last another generation or two—I’m not sure—but broadly speaking I think it's going to be a better century for the curious, and nervous, and excited, and chaos-loving, and it's going to be a worse century for the structure-loving. Does that make sense?
Plotz: OK. Adam, so, you've talked in very broad, grand strokes about the whole economy, but you haven’t actually said what you do all day. So, what is it that you actually do on a given day?
Davidson: So, I wake up usually before my wife and son are up, so often at 5:30 or 6. I come down here to the couch, I get a big cup of coffee, and I try and get way overcaffeinated, and then I write. And I find the first hour or two I’m more productive than the next eight, so I try and like, ride that early morning caffeine high as hard as I can.
I—I’m a very distractible writer, and so I’m—I think if you filmed me writing, I would—you know, I’m on Twitter and email and random websites as often as I’m typing—but somehow at the end of those two hours I’ve written, I’ve found that even though I’ve now written hundreds of columns and, you know, hundreds, thousands, I don't know, a lot of radio stories, each one is exactly the same, which is I start it feeling like a total idiot moron who doesn’t know what he’s doing.
I have to somehow get through a first draft that's just awful, and each week or each month or each time I learn all over again how hard that is, and—and the one advantage of middle age is I’m now a little more comfortable with the fact that a few days a week I think I’m a total horrible idiot. And so I try and get a pretty bad draft done, and then I try and get a better draft done, and then I send that better draft—but I’m still embarrassed—and I think every single time I email a draft to an editor it has lots of apologies about how terrible my work is.
Plotz: This is how I work. That's how—that's how—when I was writing daily, that's exactly how I worked. But anyway, go on.
Davidson: Exactly, yeah. And then I find I’m a very—I like the collaboration. I love being edited. I have a great editor now. Bill Wasik, my previous editor at the Times with Jon Kelly, is great, amazing, the greatest editor. You know, Alex Blumberg has been my editor for years. Ira Glass is, you know, the world’s great editor.
And they make me better. They challenge me. They ask questions. They—and so that helps shape—like, right now I turned in a draft. I was really embarrassed about it today. Bill sent me some notes and said, “Organize it this way. You should take the stuff you have at the end and put it at the beginning, and take the stuff from the top middle and put it at the end middle.” And I was like, yes, that's right, that's brilliant.
OK, good. And so tomorrow morning I’m going to wake up at 5:30 or 6, come down here, and write.
Plotz: What do you do after that first two hours? So, what do you do starting at 8 a.m. when those two hours are done? So, what literally happens between 8 a.m. and 6?
Davidson: So, I have a co-working—like, one of these big co-working spaces in Brooklyn—I go there. And I’m—I really am about as productive from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. as I was from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m.—8 a.m.—I mean, it's a power law. And—but I’m researching future articles. I’m hacking away at stuff. I mean, somehow in the morning the writing feels like I can approach—like, my soul is writing on the page or something. The rest of the day it's just work, I’m just like, forcing words onto the page, forcing sentences out.
And this whole thing—and I think every writer feels this way, or a lot do, journalists—of—that research, like, you kind of can always research, and I’m always like—there's the thing I’m writing right now that I need specific things on, and then I’m kind of drawing string on a whole bunch of other ideas, and I’m making phone calls. Usually the thing I’m most excited about is not the thing I’m working on right now, and so I might waste a couple of hours interviewing people about—today it's yeast and mold, and—anyway.
And so, yeah, the rest of the day is a slog. It's tough. Like, I’m fighting with the keyboard, and fighting with the screen, and looking for—you know, looking for inspiration. It's tough. Those first two hours are definitely the key. All right. I think we’re good.
Plotz: Thanks, Adam. That was great. I got a whole lesson on the American economy and learned a little bit about how you work.
Davidson: Thank you, David. I feel like I learned a lot more about you, too. So, thank you. You've been listening to—
Plotz: The Working podcast, from Slate or Panoply or whatever—I don't even know who it's from now—it's—whatever it is has changed.
Davidson: Exactly. All right, thank you very much, David.
Plotz: Thanks, Adam.
Davidson: All right, for Slate Plus, you, David, have come up with an idea for the Working series, which is that it’ll be broken up into seasons, and each season will have a host—and each season will have a host who will do 10 or so episodes. And it's not yet entirely clear how many seasons there are in a year or how many hosts there will be, but you and I thought it would be helpful to kind of think aloud about how that might go.
And we thought the Slate Plus audience would be interested, and would also have a lot to contribute.
Plotz: Yeah, so, I guess—when I came up with the Working podcast, it was a side project I was going to do back when I was still at Slate and I didn’t see it as having seasons. It just felt like something fun for me to do, and it was—as I wrote at the time, it was something that came out of my love of Studs Turkel. And then when Season 1 went well and I thought there was interest in doing another season, I realized I couldn't do it and I thought, oh, let’s find somebody great who can do it, and you were the first person who came to mind.
I guess before we figure out what it should be, I have—my question for you is, do you think—what do you think about this format? And do you think it's too rigid? What are the things you changed as you—you varied it a tiny bit but you didn’t really vary it much at all. Is that because you thought it worked, or because you didn’t want to change something that already existed, or because you're just lazy?
Davidson: I think it's because I liked it. I liked what you did. And for me it was a departure. So, you know, in the world of radio that I come from there's sort of produced radio and there's what we call “two-ways,” which is just an interview. So, produced radio would be This American Life or Planet Money, where you're doing a lot of interviews and you're probably on average I would guess getting an hour of interviews for every minute you use on the air, something like that.
It's a huge—and you're collecting huge amounts of tape, and you're very carefully cutting it—and that's for a big This American Life story that you're spending a lot of time on. I mean, for my typical like, I’m filing a story for All Things Considered or Morning Edition or a quick Planet Money podcast, maybe it's 20 minutes of tape for every minute we use on air, something like that, but it's still a huge ratio.
And then you're kind of making love to that tape. You're bringing it into your editing software and you're really cutting out this, and adding that, and shaping it, and writing a script. And I don't have a lot of experience in what we call the “live to tape” two-way, where you're just interviewing someone, cutting it in kind of, you know—or letting someone else cut it, just to take a 40-minute interview and make it a 20-minute interview, but not in that kind of precision-produced way.
And so it was a departure for me, and it was really freeing. I found it exciting to just—like, there's something demanding and liv. And you know, part of my editor’s brain is thinking, oh, boy, he’s blathering on and on, and I could cut that down, and I could get rid of that. But part of me just feels like, oh, it's kind of just two people talking and the curiosity animating the conversation. There's something really exciting about that.
So, I would not want to lose that. I feel like in my technical language I would say, the “live to tape two-way interview” is a—is a great format. Do you want to change it more than that?
Plotz: One thing I would change, actually, which we’re just experiencing now, is I didn’t like—and I had much less experience than you of actually being the radio interview—I didn’t like only having one microphone. So, one thing I thought was that, my interviews felt to me stiffer than I wanted them to be, because they weren’t as conversation. They were still me asking a question and waiting for a response.
And I couldn't—my natural tendency in a conversation is to kind of jump in and sort of pursue something, and it's hard to do that when you're—when you're interviewing someone. So, one question I have is whether it might make sense to make it even more conversation. So, that's one point.
But I basically think the format works really well. The challenge to—I think, is really around—it's around—and I don't think I was as rigorous as I needed to be. I feel like you were somewhat more rigorous—is finding people who are great describers of process, and not about why they do things but literally what they do. The best interviews that either I did or you did, there may be some—there are some explanations that people give about why they do [it] or their feelings about what they do, but really the parts that people relate to are exactly what is it that you're doing?
And trying to just keep on that, and making sure people are willing to describe it in detail that they want—they think might be boring, but really it isn’t boring. It is that, what are you doing is the best part? And so, it's a kind of rigor about selecting people up front that whoever continues it has to have.
Davidson: Yeah, and that's very hard. It's hard as an interviewer to stay on that, and it's hard for a person to do that. Now, the way we would do that at Planet Money or This American Life is, you would—first of all, you'd have some question you're asking. I kind of like that Working is not asking any question more than, what do you do all day? I like that.
But so, that's one big difference. But the other thing we would do is, we would just—if we want to know what someone does all day, we would spend a day with them and we would just be there, and we would be there when they wake up, or when they get to work, or when they drive to work, and be there all day long.
And we’d be asking them to narrate from time to time, but it would be very located in time and space. So, I see you typing something. What are you typing? “Oh, this is part of my job, I have to –” No, no, literally what are you typing? What's on the screen? What are the words you're typing? You know, what are you—and you know, I did a—for This American Life, Chana Joffe-Walt and I did a night at the Hunts Point Fruit Market, and it was a lot of that, just the guys who handle the wholesaling of fruit and vegetables for the Northeast United States. What do they do day, after day, after day?
And so, I don't think working should do that. I think that’s—it would have a different feel. But so, that's always going to be a challenge. One—so, one thing I wrestled with in my mind was, like, so, I worked on this movie and I’ve never worked on a movie before. And it's so cool. Like, there's the set designer who’s telling me like, in great detail the off-white—the version of off-white he picked for this office and why that version of off-white, as opposed to another version of off-white.
The costume designer, who’s fascinating about—you know, I don't think of myself as particularly interested in clothing, but she was—she’s amazing and become a good friend, talking about how she thought through every character, and every scene, and what they would wear, and what that expresses. The hair and makeup people were fascinating, much more than I would ever imagine I’d be interested in.
And that's leaving aside like, the cinematographer, the director, I mean, the people you would expect to find interesting. And so I thought, could there be a Working series that's just Working Hollywood? And then Working In A Lab? Or Working In The Courts? Or Working In A Police Precinct? Or something like that?
Plotz: That's a great idea, yeah. That's a great idea. Sorry to interrupt you. I—the one thing I would say is, one shortcoming I think of the series has been, both you and I did a lot of people who are entertainment, creative profession people. There's a lot more—particularly in my series, there are a lot more people who are writers, people who are creators. There was a TV writer. There was Stephen Colbert. There was like, I think an actor. I had—
Davidson: Porn star.
Plotz: Porn star. And so what I would say is, I would like it to be—I’d like more people who have kind of technical hands-y jobs than brainy jobs.
Davidson: Yeah, and the other thought I had—I feel you and I should do this or someone should do this—is just a road trip where you just like, drive and look for interesting people.
Plotz: That was my original premise—my original premise before I did it was actually to do that, was just to go to places. And it was literally to do that, and I just didn’t have time and didn’t have the energy, and I just never—wasn’t able to make it work.
Davidson: I mean, the one challenge there is like, the people you see as you're driving are not—so, you'd have to have some way of forcing yourself to meet people who aren’t just, I don't know, waitresses in a truck stop or something like that. But I—the other thought I had is, I mean, it does seem like a great space for user-generated content, for asking listeners to talk to people in their lives or narrate the story of their days. The challenge there is sorting through that stuff, because you know, if you get a lot it's hard.
I mean, you look at Story Corps where they have amazing interviews, but it's a huge operation of folks listening to hundreds of hours of tape. So—and maybe there's a way to do it that users both generate the content and users sift through it in a kind of Reddit-like way, where the better stories rise to the top. Because I think probably the most interesting stories are the ones we’re never going to think of, right, that someone else needs to think of.
Plotz: And there's another aspect of this which is slightly different, which is that one of the most successful interviews I did, I thought, in my series was with this guy who’s a waiter and an actor in L.A. And I was only able to do that with him by giving him anonymity, because had he given his real name he would have gotten fired from his job. He hated his job. And there's this whole category of people who really don’t like their jobs.
When you interview people about their jobs and they’re being public about it, you tend to get people who want to have—who enjoy their jobs and have good things to say about it, and I feel like we’re missing a big chunk of people who are kind of unhappy, or miserable, or alienated from their labor because they’re—we’re forcing them to be public. And so, I liked making that one guy anonymous. I would universalize it, but I wonder if there's a way to protect people more.
Davidson: Yeah, I mean, that's a very—I would say, certainly a bias you and I both had for almost all of our interviews is, these are people for whom their job is an expression of themselves. And, you know, I have a lot of blue collar cousins and uncles in Massachusetts where their job is a thing they hate that they need to do to make money. And it is not an expression of themselves, it's something they get through and survive and hope to get on the other side of.
So, yeah, I think that's a very important point and it biases it toward people who want to be public. The thing I like about what you did and that I tried to copy is just that it's this fresh surprise once a week. I think for my personal appetite, like, as a consumer, I don't know that much more than once a week I would want it, and I don't know that—and I’m not sure I would want ten weeks in a row of people on a film set, or ten weeks in a row of people in a courthouse. I kind of like that it's like, I don't know what it's going to be.
And it's a big celebrity that I’ve heard of, and then it's an apple grower, you know, and then it's a waiter. So, I wouldn't—I don't know how much I would change, if I’m honest—like, maybe if you did those—yeah, I’m not sure I would change it that much. I guess that's what we want people to tell us.
Plotz: All right, let’s—let’s close—I want to ask you two questions. One, what was your favorite episode that you did, or your two favorites that you did, let’s say? And do you have any—second question is, do you have any particular person you think should do this next?
Davidson: So, I think—so, I interviewed Adam McKay, who’s one of my good friends, and my brother in law Tony Banbury. I’m going to take them out just because their friends. But of people who I wasn’t previously friends with, I loved doing the bail bondsmen. That was just a crazy work and it was fascinating. And I loved talking to the—of everyone I talked to, I loved talking to them. I want to make that very clear. This was really great for me.
But the midwife who—I just found that fascinating. I found just the walking through, she was very good at just walking through, here’s what I do when I got a birth. Here’s how I handle this. Here’s how I handle that. Here’s what I do. Here’s what I do. Here’s how I feel. I really like those. How about you? What were your favorites?
Plotz: Well, my favorites were—I mean, Colbert because he’s just a genius about his process, and it was amazing just to hear him talk about his process, because he’s really exceptional. And then I loved the pastor I did, talking about constructing a sermon and some of the details about what it's like to be a pastor, not being alone with women in your office. That I loved as well. But I too—there was—there was not a single one of those conversations that I didn’t love to do, and where I didn’t learn a huge amount about somebody’s job.
But you punted on the second question, but I’ll answer the second …
Davidson: Oh, no, so, the person I think of right away is Chana Joffe-Walt at This American Life. The problem is, I don't know that she—she is such—I mean, she’s just the greatest natural radio talent I’ve ever come across, and she gets things out of interviews—I mean, Alix Spiegel would be another example of someone who’s just able to reach something in people that is unbelievable. But both Chana and Alix are from this—you know, they are deeply entrenched in the school of, your interview is just raw tape and then you get to work. And I don't know that either of them would be willing to just let a raw interview get out there. I would guess they would say no. We could ask them.
Plotz: We should ask them. It definitely needs to be a woman. It definitely needs to be not like, a white Jewish guy. There's been a lot of white Jewish guys hosting this podcast.
Davidson: But I’m 44. You're 46?
Plotz: I’m 45, dude.
Davidson: Oh, you are?
Plotz: I’m only 45. So, we could be—
Davidson: And you were 44 when you did podcast.
Plotz: That is true, yeah. But we could get somebody who’s maybe even 40—we could get someone who is possibly as much as 50 or even as young as 40, and it would be totally different.
Davidson: All right. I love Faride Jadea. She’d be really good.
Plotz: She’s also—she’s our age, so that's good.
Plotz: Who else would be good? Those are—well, I think it's going to be hard to find somebody who—I think you want somebody who’s just moved by it. So, if you're listening and you're moved by this, and you think you'd be a great interview, let me know.
Davidson: Sasha Weiss, who I work with at the New York Times Magazine. She used to podcast at the New Yorker. I thought she was really good.
Plotz: Hmm, really, OK. I don't know her. OK.
Davidson: Mike Pesca.
Plotz: Pesca would be great, but Pesca’s—but Pesca’s like Chana Joffe-Walt. He’s one of those generational talents. Also, I think Slate has him doing every single podcast there is.
Davidson: All right, so, I guess it's up to our listeners, right?
Plotz: Also, Pesca’s like, another Jewish guy in his 40s, I think.
Davidson: That is very true. All right, so, firstname.lastname@example.org, tell us who should host the next one and what changes if any they should make. And I do want to say, David, just to up the schmaltz, thank you so much for asking me to do this. This was—I was really—just as a listener, I loved your season. I was very moved and flattered that you asked me. I had so much fun doing it. Thank you.
Plotz: Thank you. I—as a listener I loved having you do it, and one of my Monday morning rituals as I’m on the train up to New York every Monday morning is, I listen to the show. So, I listened to the midwife this morning.
Davidson: Excellent. Thank you, sir.