Liberals are playing just as dirty as conservatives did in the '90s — and it sounds great
An electoral upset with no visionary leadership for resistance. An opposition party armed with new politics and control of multiple branches of government. The sudden demand for a new ideological paradigm to guide the party. And a once moribund media format put into service of spreading an ideological direction.
Though that describes the crisis facing Democrats in 2017, it also chronicles the very conditions in the early 1990s that gave rise to the conservative talk radio phenomenon. But in 2017, it's podcasters who are at the forefront of a leftist talk renaissance, with shows recently created or reinvigorated by the opportunity Trump's election poses for the left — shows like Chapo Trap House, Delete Your Account, Street Fight Radio, District Sentinel Radio, By Any Means Necessary, What a Hell of A Way To Die, The Katie Halper Show and more.
For nearly three decades, right-wing talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage — and more recently, Alex Jones — have dominated Republican party politics, setting the tone and ideology for a generation of conservatives. Driven, at first, by the rise of Clintonism and alienated by what they considered left-of-center media like the New York Times and Washington Post, a then-new class of acerbic radio hosts — vulgarians who told it like it was, and weren't afraid to be "politically incorrect" — used shock and awe to build an ideologically uncompromising format. Vicious skits were designed to offend (Rush Limbaugh famously performed caller abortions, where he'd cut off cantankerous callers with sounds effects of a vacuum cleaner and tortured screaming) while a hardline anti-establishment narrative gave listeners a simpler framework through which to make sense of the complex power relations between politicians, big business and public interests.
And, most importantly, these shows could often swing elections.
Now, the left wants in, and a new cohort of podcasts is taking advantage of the same style, vulgarity, irreverence and pure cathartic entertainment championed by the right to create a new, extreme progressive culture — all while attempting to avoid the business failures epitomized by the long-bankrupt Air America, the left's initial attempt to respond to right-wing radio.
Amid a deep soul search about what Democrats can and should stand for in the age of Donald Trump — identity politics, ideological purity, economic justice, etc. — lefty podcasters are emerging to set the the terms of liberal debate. And they do so as the mainstream media and nominally liberally aligned media outlets twiddle their thumbs over their role in creating this mess.
"There needs to be a conversation among liberals about what their core ideology is, what they stand for and what's worth fighting for," Angelo Carusone, president of liberal media watchdog Media Matters For America, told Mic.
And if there were ever a time for leftists to define that conversation, it's now.
When Bryan Quinby was a cable installer in 2011, he had one listening option as he drove around Columbus, Ohio, hanging ladders and setting up new service: conservative talk radio. Quinby was a blue-collar miscreant, shoplifting organic groceries and doing comedy on the side. He was discovering leftist politics late in life, but his diet at the time was pure right wing, packed with Glenn Beck, Howard Stern and Opie and Anthony, shock jocks with a little anti-union, anti-"political correctness" sentiment blended in.
"I listened to those guys and I thought they were the news," he said. "They sounded just as intelligent to me as anybody else. It's only once you get away from them that some of their stuff starts to sound like bullshit."
But Quinby had no one else to turn to. It seemed like working-class people were only useful as a punching bag for liberals, whereas conservatives spoke in terms that made sense to him. Quinby was a comedian in a world where the blue-collar kings of comedy — Jeff Foxworthy and Quinby's proletariat peer, Larry the Cable Guy — were Republicans.
"The people in my ear at the time weren't leftists, and leftists weren't talking to me in a way that I felt like I could respond to," he said.
So when he got the chance to create something himself, he took it. Through the local comedy scene, he was set up with Brett Paine, another budding anarchist comedian. Paine thought Quinby was an "old, square guy," and Quinby thought Paine was a "young, hip asshole." But they had on-air chemistry and similar politics and so, with Quinby's cable installation money, they bought a cheap mixer and a few $60 microphones. They started recording a show called Street Fight Radio on an "old shitty computer" in Paine's basement and broadcasting it on the local community radio station, WCRS in Columbus, Ohio.
Paine and Quinby discussed single-payer healthcare, distrust of the police, the tyrants of small business and the racism of everyday retail interactions. On Street Fight, you can hear rants about why making fun of flat Earthers is classist, or a critique of the fundamental conservatism of the puritanical 12-step programs with which Quinby had some experience. They honed their routine over six years, and eventually started writing stand-up together. From the initial mutual distrust grew a familial relationship. On the weekend that Trump was inaugurated, they sold out a live stand-up show at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C.
"Our goal was to give the only thing we can give: to articulate the feelings of working class people in the middle of the country, and the practical things we can get to improve people's lives," Quinby said, describing the "street-level" politics of the show.
But their influence goes beyond just their audience: In February 2016, Quinby brought a crew of three Twitter friends on as guests to review 13 Hours, Michael Bay's movie about Benghazi. After the episode, the three self-proclaimed leftists who came on as guests — Will Menaker, Felix Biederman and Matthew Christman — figured they had enough on-air chemistry to try to record a few episodes on their own.
They started Chapo Trap House, one of the most rapidly growing, divisive and talked-about political podcasts of today and the de facto lead of the so-called "dirtbag left," a term later coined by co-host and leftist writer Amber A'Lee Frost, and codified by a New Yorker profile of the crew.
Quimby and Paine, however, are bona fide blue collar dirtbags in the traditional sense. They talk about working-class politics from the perspective of guys who've worked as dishwashers and telemarketers themselves. The Chapo crew instead uses crude language alongside their academic qualifications as firepower to rail about subjects like conservative punditry and the liberal obsession with Hamilton and The West Wing. They even have their own "dittoheads" (a term that originally described callers who wanted to air their agreement with Rush Limbaugh's show), the devout fans who've since been emboldened to pursue activism and openly air their grievances at the show's pantheon of common enemies. With Chapo, the "dirtbag" identity isn't so much about capitalism's grimy cast-offs, but rather describes an acerbic disposition against an establishment that would allegedly rather police intra-liberal discourse than fight for any tangible political goal.
The Chapo crew and their followers also engage in internal fights of their own, however — mostly spiteful shit-flinging at centrist writers (often women defending Democrats like Hillary Clinton) — and listeners will hear plentiful use of the slur "retard."
In fact, first against the wall for the Chapo gang aren't necessarily conservatives, but rather establishment Democrats — or, in the Chapo hosts’ minds, the technocrats who traded New Deal progressivism for corporate money, making aesthetic overtures to the needs of the poor and people of color while delivering them nothing. In Chapo's estimation, Trumpism owes its greatest victory to the complacency of a political elite raised on soaring Aaron Sorkin monologues, who believed they could run the country on fundamentally conservative ideas of free markets and meritocracy while defining their ideology by who they're not (namely: Republicans).
As a result of their language and some of the people they've railed about, they've been accused both of misogyny and orchestrating Twitter pile-ons, but producer and co-host Brendan James said that impression of Chapo Trap House isn't grounded in reality.
"Just listen to the show," James told Mic. "You may not like it, but you'd probably realize that it's not what a couple of people who hate us say it is. There's such wild stuff out there about what we're supposedly all about, and it's relegated to a pretty excitable corner of a corner of Twitter."
But despite — or perhaps because of — the controversies and insularity, Chapo Trap House became the immediate frontrunner in leftist podcasting. In their first year in business, they've become the most lucrative crowdfunded podcast online, making over $62,000 a month from paying subscribers via Patreon. Nearly 14,000 people pay for premium access to extra episodes, but a conservative estimate of their audience overall would be 30,000 to 50,000 listeners per episode, or as high as 80,000 for more popular episodes. They've also landed the aforementioned profile in the New Yorker, performed in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and garnered a book deal with Touchstone Books for The Dirtbag Left Guide to the Revolution, billed as a manifesto for "a new vision of the left."
Unlike Quinby and Paine, Chapo isn't trying to provide an alternative to conservative talk radio for discussion-hungry blue collar liberals. Chapo targets a younger, far-left audience, and does so by taking on the liberal pundit class, Republican blowhards and psychologically tortured conservative op-ed writers.
"I want the left to win in this country, and part of that involves creating an alternate culture that's not mainstream," host Will Menaker said. "A very large cohort of people of my generation understand that political values we may have grown up with [are] inadequate to the times we live in."
One of the other ascendant podcast houses is Crooked Media (a reference to now-President Trump’s oft-used insult about the press), which was started by former Obama White House staffers Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor and Jon Lovett. (For all that Chapo's political bent is opposed to the Crooked Media ideology, Menaker said of the three former Obama guys' foray into podcasting: "Better that than the fucking Brookings Institute.").
Over the past few months, the three moved to Los Angeles to launch a series of shows, including their own Pod Save America (formerly the hit show Keeping It 1600), a podcast now tracking the Trump administration by D.C. insiders in exile, funded by the usual cast of plucky startups buying podcast ads (Blue Apron and Headspace among them). Favreau, Vietor and Lovett are decidedly establishment liberals compared to their hard-left counterparts, but they're similarly exasperated with the mainstream media's vacuousness.
For the sake of illustrating the inanity of cable news' response to Trump, Vietor described the classic debate format, unchanged during the new administration: the Trump surrogate contorting themselves to defend the latest tweet or foreign policy faux pas, and the often horrified liberal counterbalance.
"That's a useless way to consume news," Vietor said. "You emerge depressed and horrified about what’s happening in our country. The process leaves you frustrated, and without knowing how to fix things."
That's part of their mission: fixing things. Pod Save America came out strong in defense of the Affordable Care Act, telling listeners to hit their congressional town halls to raise hell with Republicans who backed the American Health Care Act. To Vietor, it's a no-brainer that Americans are flocking to partisan media on both sides. They want to know how to take action. Cable news won't light the path, and for Democrats, it's obvious that party leadership is in disarray.
"No one is controlling the party right now," Vietor said. "The Clintons had been around a long time, but what we need is a whole new generation of leaders."
But even as liberals tear themselves apart re-litigating the 2016 primary, leftist entertainers are taking advantage of the energy of an upcoming generation of voters who espouse far-left political ideals and have little to no representation in mainstream media. Americans under the age of 30 view socialism more favorably than capitalism, and cast more primary and caucus votes for Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined.
"If someone is conveying that they don't know what to do with their pent-up rage, or how to help out their community, we need to be able to jump in and say: 'We're here, here's what we're about and here's what we're going to do,'" Roqayah Chamseddine, who founded the podcast Delete Your Account, told Mic.
Chamseddine grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with a liberal family that shouted back at conservative talk hosts as a pastime. As a Marxist Shia Muslim, Chamseddine never had her views represented in the media available to her.
Started as an idea she kicked around among union organizers, Delete Your Account began during the 2016 election season by calling out individual liberals who should "delete their accounts" (an oft-used response to someone’s bad tweets) — by Chamseddine's thinking, the mawkish and the terrible, the bootlickers and the sellouts. But since Election Day, Delete Your Account has largely become a podcast about building worker solidarity and giving listeners the tools to organize in their communities.
Chamseddine isn't optimistic that liberals will pull to the left in time for the midterms: She believes that the far left has often been sidelined, ignored or outright stifled by mainstream Democrats. Still, she does have faith that the crisis of liberalism — as represented by Trump's election victory — mixed with a new generation shifting their politics to the left of the party, has created an opportunity for a wholesale changing of the guard.
As she puts it, "We've all wanted something like this, and what better time than when the Democratic party is crumbling?"
However, the new cohort of liberal podcasts is currently missing what might be the essential ingredients used by conservative talkers to influencing voters: terrestrial radio. Podcasts can build communities from the far-flung and dispossessed, but a local radio station capturing enough of its market can turn a primary — or an election — around.
"In a primary, you get low turnouts and ideological voters," Brian Rosenwald, a media historian writing a book on conservative talk radio, said. "The local hosts can talk about a race every day, and go after a congressman for years. The power comes from that, and the power legislatively comes with the power to shut the phones down."
Sam Seder, co-host of the podcast Ring of Fire, has an example from his stint at Air America, the liberal radio network that launched in the mid-aughts as a response to conservative talk radio and leftist outrage at the mainstream media over the Iraq War. Seder, whose podcast takes it name from his Air America show, says that, during a labor dispute with the Rockettes' musicians in 2005, the union took out ads on the local Air America station to try and force management into a negotiation. Within a few days, Seder recalled, the Rockettes were offered a compromise — provided they took the ads off the air.
"The people working at Air America didn't understand what had just happened, because they weren't liberals or activists," Seder said. "Because the next thing you'd do [if you knew what you were doing] is go to every union in the country and say, 'Look at the power we have.' That's the power of terrestrial radio."
Despite being a petri dish for talent — hosts in the early years included Rachel Maddow, Al Franken, Marc Maron, Chuck D and Janeane Garofalo — and having money from liberal donors, Air America rapidly failed. Rosenwald said that Air America was set up for disaster from the beginning not because liberal talk radio doesn't work, but because the business was a disastrously mismanaged "three-ring circus." Ultimately, the network couldn't sell ads after ending up on the no-buy lists of prestige "blue chip" advertisers.
"We couldn't get corporate America to spend the ad dollars," former Air America executive Carl Ginsberg told Mic. "And there's only so much money you can get from the Ben & Jerry's of the world."
Of course, those revenue problems came before the broad acceptance of podcasting, before technology made recording shows cheaper and easier than ever before, before hyperpartisan Facebook pages were able to monetize outrage and before a slew of new potential streams of digital revenue developed beyond simple ad sales. Like every creative industry over the past decade, the internet created a space for bootstrapping, and for many podcasts in the new class of talk shows, the primary platform for revenue-generation is Patreon, a Kickstarter-like site where subscribers can pledge small, regular donations to creators.
The rankings of the top 30 Patreon accounts are currently dominated by podcasts of all stripes alongside ad-hoc news networks — at one point, Chapo Trap House was ranked No. 1. By comparison, Rosenwald said a terrestrial radio show needs to reach about 3% to 5% of its potential listenership to justify its existence to executives. But a podcast with a couple hundred paying subscribers on Patreon can keep the lights on as long as their microphones and internet connections work.
Seder, like Rosenwald, doesn't buy the theory that Air America was a failure because talk radio doesn't work for liberals; he thinks it just didn't work in that moment, in part because of the financing issues. Seder said it could be high time that the project of liberal talk radio get another shot.
Chapo's Menaker said that he has "no fucking idea" how a fledgling ad hoc coalition of media leftists, self-proclaimed dirtbags, political organizers and comedians could eventually wield direct political influence. For now, his priority is crafting an entertaining show and building out business opportunities. Chapo Trap House currently has Brillstein Entertainment Partners as a management agency helping develop new projects and amass awareness in Los Angeles. The team is also launching a website as a home for the podcast, latest news and future endeavors, and is looking into expanding its brand to new formats "outside the medium of podcasts."
The Crooked Media team is adding more shows, like Pod Save the People (with activist DeRay McKesson at the helm) and With Friends Like These (hosted by MTV News correspondent and Wonkette founder Ana Marie Cox). Chamseddine is about to return from a haitus, and Delete Your Account is experimenting with subscriber-only content as the checks from Patreon continues to grow.
As for Brett Paine and Bryan Quinby of Street Fight, the increased visibility they got for being the godfathers of a young leftist movement has brought new interest to their own Patreon, and they're beginning to pay themselves a stipend for doing the show. They're booking their first New York City show, with stops in Milwaukee, Louisville and Atlanta on the way. Quinby believes that it won't be long before Patreon subscribers will support the hosts full-time.
In the meantime, the duo is planning a joint campaign to become the mayors of Columbus, Ohio. Quinby's doubtful that they have a chance to win, but they'll be holding show after show in the area — functional campaign stops — to raise enough hell about working-class issues like fair wages, over-policing and the full legalization of marijuana.
"We're proposing a $16 minimum wage, just so the Democrat has to explain why you're not worth $16 an hour," he said.
No matter the outcome, Quinby figures they'll be able to either expose the true politics of the local incumbents or possibly push them to the left — like Limbaugh and his cohort cattle-prodded a generation or more of Republicans to the right.
It's a small push, for now. But it's a start.