In a post-interview Instagram post, the host of the WTF podcast, Marc Maron, simply wrote, “This happened.”
On Monday, millions of Americans downloaded Maron’s interview with President Obama in a format that hopes to upend decades of media artifice. Where traditional radio and television news programming has failed to offer American voters a candid look at political leaders, podcasts have largely succeeded in providing listeners access to high profile figures who, given the nature of the setting, are often encouraged to express themselves more sincerely.
The occasion also marks the first time an active US president sat down for an interview in a host’s garage, foregoing the structured comforts of the newsroom with its predictable questions and controlled timeframes in favor of the stereotypical mancave nestled snugly in the quiet suburbs of Pasadena.
But there remains a burning question that many in the media have largely overlooked, who have focused mostly on Obama’s use of the “N-word”, his remarks about the attack of a historic black church in Charleston, and his experience in dealing with an intransigent Congress. As important as these are, few have delved deeply into the nature of the podcast, and whether or not Marc Maron succeeded in making Obama let down his guard and present himself in a way most presidents never would, honestly.
Did Maron succeed?
Marc Maron is no stranger to the game of politics and the sleight-of-hand most politicians are apt to deliver. As a veteran comic and former host of Air America, Maron is a seasoned satirist and a consummate cynic who is known to call it like it is. As an interviewer, Maron uses his disarming, self-deprecating style to help guests intimate their struggles and reveal their darkest moments, often leading to unique and relatable insights that listeners have come to expect from Maron’s WTF podcast.
President Obama himself is an accomplished speaker who mesmerizes audiences with speeches that artfully tug at the heart strings of its listeners. Obama is also a typical politician who must choose his words carefully. One wrong word, and political adversaries are there to exploit them for political gain.
So why would Obama willingly participate in such a format given the risks? Obama, in fact, answers this question when he says, “Increasingly, I’ve spent my time thinking about how do I try to break out of these old patterns that our politics have fallen into…which is part of the reason I’m here…one of the conversations I’ve had with my communications team is how do we talk to folks who aren’t already so dug in into a particular way of thinking about politics…and create a space where people can have a normal, ordinary conversation and one in which the lines aren’t as clearly drawn in black and white and it’s not a battle in a steel cage between one side and the other.” This is an important statement, and the integrity of which Daily Beast writer James Joiner calls into question:
[Obama] knew his intended audience, claiming his appearance on the podcast was an attempt to reach those “Americans who are less dug in” to the political extremism that grips the nation. He spoke at length to provide background on why he pushed for the policies that he did, and that’s where this experiment failed. People listen to the WTF podcast to hear those deep, dark Behind the Music-type stories, the unfiltered, candid background that forms the core of the people being interviewed, and here we only got the usual topical information.
Indeed, Obama knows his audience. After all, Obama’s decision to podcast with Maron is the result of a conversation he’s “had with [his]communications team.” Although politicians are clearly adept at subverting changing media trends, Joiner is too cynical when he says “we only got the usual topical information” from Maron’s podcast with Obama.
Yes, Maron is known to tease out “those deep, dark Behind the Music-type stories” from his guests, with nothing truly “dark” having emerged from Obama. Even Maron admits this during a recent Slate interview, “I wasn’t there to do a confrontational political interview.”
What Joiner overlooks, however, is that despite Obama’s calculated intention to grant Maron the interview, the podcast as a serious form of media has clearly established itself, and does indeed offer a format that feels unequivocally different, and dare I say more honest, than those provided by traditional mainstream media outlets. During Maron’s interview, there were no commercial interruptions, no bloviating pundits needling Obama for the sake of appeasing a partisan viewership, and there are no limitations to accessing this podcast, provided you have an electronic device of some sort.
And arguably, Maron did succeed in giving Obama an opportunity to express his feelings openly. In the podcast, we get a taste of Obama’s understated humor when he chides Maron for the “narcissistic” abundance of self-portraits littering Maron’s garage walls. We also learned about the struggles of a father who, as a result of the trappings of being POTUS, simply cannot pick up his daughter from a friend’s house on the fly. Such simple revelations would never slip past the highly edited television interview format. Did Obama come prepared with talking points? Yes, as would any politician. Above all, what this podcast accomplished was to provide an extended, unsullied interview that listeners can enjoy on their own, when it’s convenient, and in a manner that is free of the frenetic punditry that characterizes most political talk shows.
Maron provided Obama a chance to speak to his fans and detractors alike from a position of calm that gives us time to truly take in what’s being said and why. Herein lies the power of the podcast, creating space and a medium where public figures, celebrities and learned individuals can connect with their listeners without distraction to discuss important topics, as well as giving us a chance to actually ponder the things said. Will podcasters someday adopt the tricks of the traditional broadcaster’s trade? Perhaps, but for now, let’s just embrace the hope that finally, we have a new medium where politicians and important figures can, finally, talk.
(featured image courtesy of Pete Souza/The White House)