Interview: Mike Pesca

As the host of The Gist, Mike Pesca covers the gamut of show-running responsibilities. He interviews guests and entertains listeners, but he has the rare ability to talk into a microphone unselfconsciously, as if living under a big, red button flashing Live were his natural state. Sharp enough to indulge any subject—politics, sports, pop culture, geography, ethics, food—he releases a podcast episode once a day, Monday through Friday, over at Slate. The Gist allows Pesca to deliver his take on current events in real time. The Timbre caught up with Pesca to ask him about his rigorous production schedule, how he scavenges for podcast content, and why his listeners tune in to hear his spiel.

THE TIMBRE

When were you first drawn to radio?

MIKE PESCA

Back of my dad’s car, nine years old, sports radio. Regular radio. I always liked it.

After college, I got an internship at WNYC. And then I turned that into a real job. I worked for On The Media and then ten years for NPR.

THE TIMBRE

I’ve read that there were some murmurings about you when you were with NPR. “Oh, Mike Pesca should have his own show.”

What was your experience during that time? Were you knocking on the door, saying, “Hey guys, I need my own show,” or were you just humbly waiting for your turn?

MIKE PESCA

Not that humble. <laughs> I wasn’t extremely aggressive, but I liked what I did, especially working at NPR and doing sports. It would have been nice to have a show, but it was harder then—before podcasts—to chuck someone off the air. People had established themselves, and they weren’t leaving after 20-whatever years. There was a sports show on NPR called Only a Game, and that guy’s not leaving, so what can you do?

And then for a couple years, Andy Bowers was saying, “We could do a daily podcast.” And then finally there was that government shutdown. They reached out every day, and it was really useful. I listened to it, and he was like, “Here’s how the economics of it work, and here’s what your life would be like. It doesn’t have to be a morning show.”

THE TIMBRE

If you had been in your prime 20 years ago—been the age you are now—what would you have done? There was no podcasting. Your only path would have been to stay in radio, right?

MIKE PESCA

Exactly. So you did it. And I had the job. It wasn’t 20 years ago, but it was 13 years ago, and I was a correspondent. Back then I was the sports correspondent. It was good. It was really good. People valued my stuff, and I would be on more than most people, which amounted to three times a week for four and a half minutes. <laughs> For NPR, that’s pretty ubiquitous. And then during the World Series, every day. Super Bowl, oh my God—twice a day.

THE TIMBRE

When you were first hired at NPR, did you say, “Oh, I have sports knowledge, let me pipe up and get on the air.”

MIKE PESCA

It was more that I was general assignment, but they were good about letting you pitch your own stories. As a serious news organization, they don’t really have people on the entertainment beat. They have people on these different serious news beats. If you are running a show, and you don’t pay attention, or you let it get away from you, your whole show is misery, and death, and statistics. If someone could come along, and not be stupid, but could tell you a little bit about sports, sort of exactly how the sports section works, then it’s really refreshing. That’s what I would do.

THE TIMBRE

I want to go back to that moment with the government shutdown. Right as Andy Bowers was contacting you from Slate, what was your mindset? Did you feel rebellious? Was there a podcast/public radio rift?

MIKE PESCA

No. I definitely thought a daily podcast would be great. And in fact, I told Jesse Thorn, “Yeah, I’d love to head back with you,” by doing his college radio show. I always knew it was possible, but I really liked my job at NPR. I just knew the culture of NPR, and they didn’t want to get into opinion. I definitely chafed at some of those strictures of NPR, and I definitely saw what Slate was offering. Even though it was ill-defined, I definitely saw that as potentially really exciting and liberating and an opportunity.

THE TIMBRE

What type of podcast listener are you?

MIKE PESCA

I listen mostly to podcasts that sound a lot like The Gist, which are interview podcasts, and some stuff with opinion. I was just listening to Simmons. He was talking to one of his basketball guys, and I was like, “I freaking love Bill Simmons.”

I listened to Mary Beard on Fresh Air; I listened to an hour of that yesterday. I check in on Brian Lehrer all the time. I’m really getting into Vox’s The Weeds these days. Love that one. Love Koppelman based on the guest. I think he really does a good podcast. Still love Maron; it’s not that new to say that I love Maron, but I don’t care. I don’t want to be new. I want to be right.

Sara Sarasohn did a great one with Adam Ragusea on The Pub; that’s very niche, because it’s a public radio podcast.

So as you probably can hear from this list, not a whole lot of the extremely popular storytelling-type podcasts. Not a whole lot of the character-and-a-reporter type podcasts. Though I do listen to those, but they’re not the first ones I listen to.

THE TIMBRE

So what’s your take then on those narrative podcasts, and what’s your take on fiction in podcasting?

MIKE PESCA

The narrative ones that are at the top pretty much deserve to be, and they are really well done. And I understand why people like them, because if you have a half hour a day, you want a podcast that someone put hours and hours and hours into that half hour.

I listened to Eric Nuzum on Adam Ragusea’s podcast, The Pub, talking about the ratio of time into Invisibilia versus time out, so it’s a really, really efficient use of the listener’s time. You get just a great story that four or five brilliant people spent weeks on. Those weeks wind up in your ears for that half hour. I like a good story well told. Who doesn’t? I understand the dense nutrition of such a podcast like that, but for me, I’m more voracious and more of a grazer.

And as far as the fiction ones, The Truth is pretty good. I think what Ann [Heppermann]’s doing is pretty good. I haven’t been able to get into the fiction ones. The Message was really well done because it was nice and short, but I haven’t really been able to get into the fiction ones as much.

THE TIMBRE

You said you’re voracious and based on all the ones you’re listing, I know the type of listener you are. How does that influence your show? Because the first thing I would point out is, you’re doing five shows a week versus someone like Koppelman who might do one every two weeks. So you’re not mimicking that style exactly; you’ve got your own thing going on.

MIKE PESCA

Right, right. At the heart of my show is an interview. So it’s mostly giving the information, raw material and fodder and making me smarter. Our interviews last 15 minutes, and I probably talk (on The Gist) for around 10 or 11 minutes: 3 at the top, 7 at the bottom.

A big way that I access and consume information is podcasts.

THE TIMBRE

How do you think people consume The Gist?

MIKE PESCA

I don’t know how many listen to it the night it comes out. I think people binge on them, and I think five a week might be almost too much. If you went to four a week, would that be good? I don’t think that it would decrease our listenership by 20 percent, because people would get to the episodes that were out there. And yet I would just hate to have a day that I wasn’t doing the show, where I couldn’t comment on the thing that just happened.

THE TIMBRE

Is that completeness really important to you?

MIKE PESCA

I think it’s good for the listener. It’s a virtue of The Gist that you can tune in and you get a take on that day’s news, and I congratulate myself. And I think that it’s useful for the listener when we have a take on something that happens, and it beats The Daily Show. I think it was maybe one of the latest Hilary Benghazi hearings, and either The Daily Show or The Nightly Show, or one of those shows, waited for the next day to comment on it: a daily show, with a staff of 100 people. And we were there that day. As a listener, I love that.

After one of the presidential debates, I hate that the podcasts I like aren’t on the next day. C’mon, this thing happened 12, 15, 18 hours ago, people! Gimme a podcast about it.

THE TIMBRE

I had that same sentiment when the Paris attacks happened. I didn’t want to wait.

MIKE PESCA

We flock to the radio. And so podcasts maybe aren’t great at doing it right then, right there. A lot of it’s an infrastructure issue, but I think that’s one of the advantages of my podcast: it gets as close to the event as any podcast I know that’s not On Point with Tom Ashbrook, which has a fairly big staff.

THE TIMBRE

Is that how you’re standing out? That guerrilla-style ability to deliver?

MIKE PESCA

If you look at what’s called a news podcast, you have a bunch of them that are a podcast version of daily TV or a radio show. So Glenn Beck’s there. Rachel Maddow’s there. Christiane Amanpour’s there. You’ve got Mark Levin, which is right-wing radio, but it’s a podcast version of a show that exists. You’ve got The New Yorker, and the Political Gabfest, which is a once-weekly political show. So I’m the only one that’s a daily show with a take that’s not just a podcast version of a TV or radio show.

So why, for the listener, is it so important that I’m not a TV or radio show? Wouldn’t you want to just listen to Rachel Maddow? No. This is the thing we’re doing. This is the medium we’re doing it on. We’re not bowing to the constraints of some other medium, like Rachel doing every break she has to do because she has commercials to get to. Or Tom Ashbrook taking callers because he’s doing a live radio show. And, by the way, when you listen to a podcast that does take calls from a live radio show, that’s often awful. They’re sometimes the best part of the show, but they’re often the worst part of the show. So the fact that everything on our show is edited, and we’re respectful of your time, and we take 12-minute conversations and make them 6, and we take 18-minute conversations and make them 12, that means you’re going to get the best 12 minutes you can.

THE TIMBRE

You’re leveraging what the medium allows you to do, which seems to be in lockstep with what you, personally, want to do.

MIKE PESCA

Yeah, and the fact that we’re a podcast, and not a broadcast, is saying, “Look, I know the whole audience isn’t going to agree with me,” and there is some portion of the audience, if we were broadcasting, who would say, “Why do I care about this guy’s opinion?” Or if it was on non-public radio, they would say, “We want a guy with stronger opinions based on what I agree on.”

I’m a bit all over the board, and there’s something about what I say that everyone will disagree with. And there’s kind of no one like that. Like, maybe Rachel has two things she says that are out of step with essentially the liberal party line. And maybe Glenn Beck also has those two things that are out of step with his brand of conservative libertarianism. I’m much less doctrinaire, because that’s the podcast; it’s just me. You get a ton of opinion, but it’s not oppressive. I don’t know any medium besides podcasts that can really embrace that.

THE TIMBRE

You’ve mentioned a lot of people, including Rachel Maddow. You can throw in other names: Dr. Laura, Limbaugh, Ed Schultz, and Randi Rhodes. Do you think you fit into that space? Do you think the people that are listening to those shows are listening to you as well?

MIKE PESCA

I definitely think that a lot of people who watch and listen to Bill Maher and Real Time, and probably some of the better MSNBC shows like Rachel or Chris Hayes—there’s definitely an overlap. But then again, podcasting is its own thing, and a ton of people watch Chris Hayes because their habit is to turn on MSNBC. And they’re not even podcast people.

THE TIMBRE

Alec Baldwin was on On the Media several weeks ago, and he was talking about how he read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, presumably to get both sides. And I know people who listen to Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern to disagree. Do you think people listen to your show to disagree, to get fired up?

MIKE PESCA

I don’t think so. I don’t know. I just go by the people who I interact with. People have areas where they disagree with me, but in general I don’t think it can be even approaching 50 percent. There’s some threshold. I’m sure some social scientists will find it. Once you start disagreeing with a person more than 30 percent of the time, you just find that person disagreeable.

I don’t think that Rachel Maddow’s fans disagree with her 25 percent of the time. I think it’s more of a 90/10 with Maddow or Beck, or someone on commercial media. And then the people on public media, their job is to never present an opinion, so you never agree or disagree with them.

Maybe Bill Maher, because he carves out that thing where he’s very, very liberal but then extremely critical of Islam. I’m not saying it’s a shtick; it’s an honestly held belief. But he certainly likes having that niche.

THE TIMBRE

Your listeners: do you think they listen to you because they like your personality, or because they like the topic of the show?

MIKE PESCA

I think probably they keep it in the feed because I’m not a bad companion for them. But I have very good friends who will listen to specific interviews based on who the guest is, or what the topic is described as. It will affect how many people listen, beyond things like which day of the week it posts, or if it was after a three-day weekend. And there’ll be a 15 to 20 percent swing. That answers the question. Based on who the topic is, people will be inclined or disinclined to listen. I bet you that there’s no way that This America Life has that.

THE TIMBRE

People aren’t reading the show notes for This American Life to see who’s starring in it.

MIKE PESCA

But I also bet you that a show like Marc Maron has it tons more because it is an interview show. There’s probably a 300 percent disparity between the popular guests and the unpopular ones. You get some of Maron in the front, but those shows are much more driven by interviews. So mine’s more a worldview, plus a topic, and add it all together, and it’s someone in-between Maher and Maron.

THE TIMBRE

What’s driving you to do The Gist?

MIKE PESCA

I have a lot of thoughts. <laughs> And I would like a place to put my thoughts. By the way, it was past Gist guest Dana Gould who had a comedy album called Let Me Put My Thoughts In You. <laughs> A lot of it is that I’m a big consumer, and so much of it is I just say to myself: Why is this not out there? Why is this not being said? I get motivated. I get impassioned about the points that aren’t made. Why when you watch so much media, are they just making the same point over and over again? So I guess I get impassioned about: Why is this point not being made? Why is this argument not being pursued? And it’s really fun to pursue it on my own sometimes and change my own mind, or put an argument out there, and see if it connects with listeners, or do an interview where an expert sets me right, or confirms what I’m saying, or says I’m wrong. So that’s the best part of it. That’s really very, very motivating.

THE TIMBRE

What was the culture like at Slate once you actually got in the front door?

MIKE PESCA

I remember when I worked with a show called Day to Day, which was an NPR show. I was hired to work on it at NPR, with a co-production of NPR and Slate. Michael Kinsley [of Slate] took me out to lunch, and he said, “We don’t get NPR, but we get you.” [both laugh]

When I got there, I decided to foster a culture of discourse. Meaning in the office. Because people would type at their laptops, and put their earbuds in, and no one talked to each other.

Back when I was at NPR, my friends Robert Smith, Zoe Chace, Adam Davidson: we talked all the time. We worked in radio, and when we talked to each other, we were kind of trying out material, to some extent. We were seeing how the ideas played when voiced out loud. I’m not saying every one of our conversations was about what to say in a script or a two-way, but there was definitely a correlation between talking out loud, being verbal, and what we did for a living, and how it would help our job.

Now compare it to Slate: a bunch of people on their computers, emailing each other. Well, what is talking out loud going to give you if you’re mostly an online magazine? I don’t know, not much. But my culture of discourse was appreciated.

THE TIMBRE

It seems like you bring a nice mix of low brow/high brow.

MIKE PESCA

I try. I try to be mid-fallutin’ as much as possible.

 

~

Author Description

Eric McQuade is co-founder of The Timbre and a former-programmer-turned-writer. He has lived in D.C., Texas, North Carolina, Minnesota, New Jersey, Colorado, Argentina, Cayman Islands, and the length of the Appalachian Trail. Right now he hangs his hat in Memphis, TN.

  • Alexander Charles Adams

    Woah. Mike got hunky… Great interview and all. And I love his show. Daily listener here. Still, never knew.

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