Category Archives: Interviews

An Interview with MacArthur ‘Genius’ Jason De León

Matt Giles | Longreads | October 2017 | 1,800 words (7 minutes)

As a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology at Penn State, Jason De León spent a decade in Mexico studying debris left behind thousands of years ago by indigenous peoples crafting simple tools out of obsidian. The goal, he says, was to learn about ancient political economies, but he ultimately felt his future career path was too niche. “I looked at 40,000 little shiny pieces of rock and tried to say something meaningful,” he tells me. “I don’t know if I actually succeeded, but I definitely got to the point where I felt like that wasn’t the best use of my time.”

Last week, De León was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” grant, $625,000 doled out in installments over the next five years with no strings attached. I spoke with De León, now an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, about the origins of his Undocumented Migration Project, how border crossings have changed in the decade he’s been in the field, and how he’ll use the MacArthur funds.

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When you first founded the Undocumented Migration Project, what was your end goal as you were getting it up and running?

I had some pretty simple goals: How can we learn about what border crossing looks like without physically being with migrants crossing the desert? Are there other ways to study that behavior? Is archeology one of those ways?

People have some pretty strong opinions about border crossing. Based on accounts of journalists who have talked to migrants, you tend to get black or white kinds of discussions. So I thought, what would the archeology tell us? Is there a way to study this process? At that point, I was naively thinking, ‘Oh I’m gonna be a scientist and study this process and it’ll be this apolitical kind of endeavor.’ It turned out to be an incredibly political endeavor, but it’s definitely science.

Was that something you were fascinated with while you were doing your undergrad and getting your Ph.D. or did this evolve?

I’m a classically trained archeologist. I spent about ten years in Mexico before I began this project. The migration stuff came incredibly late, which is surprising given the fact that I grew up on the U.S.–Mexico border and I have many family members who were immigrants and have undocumented family members. It wasn’t until I started having really deep conversations with people who worked on archaeological projects in Mexico, and hired laborers who told me about their immigration experiences. That’s when I really started getting interested in this as a topic of study.

Archeology uses artifacts from the past to explain the present. But this is archeology as it happens. Has it been difficult to address what you’re finding in terms of how it forms your opinion of what migration means in this 21st century?

All archeology really means is we’re studying the past through material traces. We tend to think these must be ancient things. But what happens if you think about the archeology of the recent past, as recently as this morning in some cases? Is that still archeology, or is that something else?

I’ve had to be really defensive when people would say to me, “you’re not an archaeologist.” I’m now at the point where I use archeology to understand border crossings, but that’s not the end of it. I have to draw on other things.

One of the cautionary tales that I tell students is that people love to talk about these migrant objects: the backpacks, the water bottles. It’s very easy for them to empathize with shoes and baby bottles and to be emotionally impacted by a giant wall of backpacks. It becomes more difficult for them to take those feelings and put them in the context of a real individual. It’s okay to think these objects are powerful, but you have to remember they are only powerful because of their connection to these people.

Refuse Of A Journey: Immigrants' Items Left Behind After Crossing Into US Via Mexican Border

Items left behind by undocumented immigrants on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande River, 2014. (John Moore/Getty Images)

It’s forming a connection, it’s forming a bond to something that you’re powerless over, or that you find hard to address.

Archeology that happens this morning, or yesterday, is a difficult and murky territory. Our interpretations of these materials become very complicated. If you find these things in the desert and you use archeology to try to understand it, you’ll have your own opinions about it. Then a migrant comes by and blows your opinions out of the water; it can become very troubling for some archeologists. If we can’t even figure out what this shit means yesterday, how are we going to understand what these things meant five thousand years ago?

It’s interesting too because history is subjective.

It’s okay to be uncomfortable with this stuff, and it’s okay to embrace ambiguity and subjectivity. I’d rather talk about the diversity of interpretations of the past, or multiple types of explanations for an observed behavior, than to just give you my one expert opinion.

I think that people want definitive answers because they erroneously think about archeology as a truth-finding mission where the artifacts don’t lie. Of course artifacts lie all the time. Think about the manipulation of the past through monuments., There are active, purposeful adjustments to material culture that will subsequently impact the way things are interpreted later.

We’ve been collecting this stuff in the desert for a long time, whereas other objects that were left have been taken away and thrown in the trash. But if someone cleaned up the desert, and then we went back in a hundred years or in five hundred years, you wouldn’t even know the border crossing ever happened. This active destruction of the archeological record that’s occurring in real time really hints at the fact that the archaeology is not always going be truth finding. We’re manipulating it as we go.

In the decades that you’ve been doing this, have the objects that people have brought with them changed over time? Soes that help you sketch out a narrative of how migration is changing?

The technology evolves. Water bottles and clothing come in and out of style. The preferred objects to get through the desert have evolved and adjusted. In the beginning of this project, we would find a lot of personal items, a lot of heirlooms, things that people thought they were going need that were not very useful, so they ended up losing or discarding them.

Over 25 years, people crossing the border have become well informed about the dangers of the journey. The material culture in the aarchaeologicalrecord has become much more focused and more strategic. It’s really about survival, physical survival, mental survival.

People will say ‘I didn’t bring anything with me because I know I’m gonna lose it.’ I’d rather leave it at home or leave it in my home country than risk taking stuff to the desert. And what we’re also seeing now, with this increase in Central American migrants, are people showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border with nothing. They have to cross Mexico first before they can to the border, and they have been robbed so many times that they have literally no personal effects when they finally make it to the border.

Refuse Of A Journey: Immigrants' Items Left Behind After Crossing Into US Via Mexican Border

(John Moore/Getty Images)

Has your project changed to study the archaeological record of Central American migrants?

We’ve definitely been focusing much more attention on Central America since 2015.  We’ve done some archeology in Mexico, on the train tracks and other places where migrants are crossing and trying to look at that artifact assemblage as well. I have been working with smugglers as well.

I think the smugglers are an overlooked and misunderstood piece of this puzzle. Everybody, from migrants to law enforcement, loves to scapegoat the smuggler. So if a migrant dies in the desert, it’s because it’s the smuggler’s fault. Clearly, that’s not always the case. Smugglers don’t take migrants through the Arizona desert because they love nature. They’re taking people through the desert because of this border enforcement policy.

Looking at the smugglers, I’m trying to fill in some blanks and really humanize this group of people who obviously are doing some horrible things. At the end of the day, they are complex humans.

Are there are challenges to undertaking this project in the current political climate?

It’s not any more harder now in the Trump era than it was before. It has always been difficult dealing with the politics of the project, and people’s reactions to it. There are also the emotional difficulties of doing this type of research, working with people who are in the midst of so much trauma.

I just saw a report about a professor at UNLV getting called out by the Trump administration for bad-mouthing him in a classroom. We’re in this era where our civil liberties and free speech are being directly attacked by the people in charge. As someone who is committed to this issue, I’ve had to do some real soul searching about what my role would be. Am I gonna get quieter and try to protect myself? Or do I keep doing what I’m doing because I believe that it’s right?

I’ve got a lot of colleagues who didn’t think it was that important to be in the public or to engage with media. They are now trying to translate their work for a general audience. There are a lot of folks now who are so worried about what’s going on in this country that they are getting active and vocal.

What do you plan to use the MacArthur money for?

For many years I’ve wanted to have a research compound in southern Arizona, so we will buy some property in this little town called Arivaca, which is I think the greatest place on earth. I’ll probably start by putting a double wide on there so we have a permanent home base and then we’ll just start building facilities.

Part of this money will also go to buy a truck so I can stop renting vehicles all the time. We’re working on a new exhibition so some of these funds will be used to develop this multi-media traveling exhibition that we hope to launch next year.

The truck, the archeologist’s greatest tool.

You know, I’ve never owned a truck in my life. When I found out about the grant, I knew I could finally get my truck!

An Interview with MacArthur ‘Genius’ Viet Thanh Nguyen

Catherine Cusick | Longreads | October 2017 | 9 minutes (2,200 words)

Viet Thanh Nguyen had just gotten back from a summer in Paris when he received an unexpected phone call from a Chicago number. He didn’t recognize the caller, so he let it ring. Out of curiosity, he texted back, “Who is this?”

The number replied, “It’s the MacArthur Foundation.”

“Oh,” Nguyen thought. “I should call these people back right away.”

Nguyen managed to stand for the first few seconds of the call, but soon had to sit down. He’d just won $625,000, no strings attached, as an unrestricted investment in his creative potential.

Eighteen months earlier, Nguyen had received another life-altering phone call when he won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his debut novel, The Sympathizer. Since the book’s publication in April 2015, Nguyen’s been no stranger to worldwide recognition: He’s also received a Guggenheim fellowship, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and countless others.

According to the MacArthur Selection Committee, “Nguyen’s body of work not only offers insight into the experiences of refugees past and present, but also poses profound questions about how we might more accurately and conscientiously portray victims and adversaries of other wars.” After writing in obscurity for more than a decade to honor his and others’ war stories — and all refugee stories, Nguyen insists, are war stories — he will now have even more resources to help tilt the world in a more peaceful direction.

I spoke with Nguyen the day after the MacArthur Foundation announced him, along with 23 other extraordinary recipients, as a 2017 MacArthur Fellow. Read more…

‘This is the Most Inexplicable Story in Sports of the Last 20 Years’

Matt Giles | Longreads | October 2017 | 7 minutes (1,769 words)

When Erik Malinowski was wrapping up the proposal for what would eventually become Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in Historyhe happened to spot the latest cover story for the New York Times Magazine and his heart nearly stopped. The feature, written by Bruce Schoenfeld in March 2016, detailed the rise of the Golden State Warriors through the guise of its front office and the team’s devotion to analytics and data, which sounded much like the book Malinowski was trying to pitch.

“I was gutted at first,” says Malinowski, a prolific freelance writer who also hosts one of the most insightful and interesting sports writing newsletters. “I thought [the New York Times Magazine] blew up my spot. The story’s framework was in parallel of what I was proposing with book.” But then he took a step back and realized there was so much more to the rise of the Warriors (which has won two of the last three NBA titles) than could be covered in just one magazine piece. It was proof of concept: “If the New York Times Magazine put a story on the Warriors on the cover, then this is a thing people want to read about.”

One year later, Malinowski’s book is a deep-dive into not only the fraught history of the Warriors’ franchise, a once proud team at the NBA’s founding that had been reduced to a bumbling and mismanaged group of castaways, but also a team that had essentially redefined the NBA. Sure, having a player like Steph Curry, a once-in-a-generation talent with endless range, helped fuel its rise, but Malinowski also details how the Warriors helped to drag basketball into the modern age—and, in the process, transformed into an annual title contender.

I recently spoke with Malinowski about the ordeals of writing his book, whether this type of embedded sports journalism is still possible, and why the Warriors represent not just a shift in playing style but also political and societal awareness. Read more…

“That Was the Final Straw”: On Reporting From Venezuela as It Spiraled Downward

diego looking at Caracas landscape.

On July 30, Venezuela’s anti-government movement quickly collapsed after a controversial, and possibly fraudulent, vote radically extended Nicolás Maduro’s presidential powers. On the ground in Caracas during those fateful days was Canadian journalist Christian Borys, whose Longreads Exclsuive about the unraveling of Venezuela’s Resistencia movement, “You Can See the Battle Scars,” came out last week. I recently chatted with Christian over email about the protests’ sobering aftermath, and the experience of reporting from a country caught in a dramatic downward spiral.

* * *

It’s been almost two months since you returned from Caracas. Have you been in touch with some of the people you met there? What are they telling you about the current state of things?

Yes, I’m in touch with someone almost every day. The weirdest part about what’s happening now is that nothing is happening. The movement against the government died the day after the big vote on July 30. It was as if everyone either gave up the fight, resigned themselves to a future under a dictatorship, and returned back to their work-life routine or got out of the country. A lot of people told me that their friends just left afterward. That was the final straw.

You’ve reported about protests and civil strife before, in places like Poland and Ukraine. How was the experience in Venezuela different for you as a journalist, and as an observer?

Venezuela is in a far more difficult situation than any other place I’ve been to. It’s devolved into one of the worst places in the world to live, and although they’ve managed to avoid any sort of massive internal armed conflict, people are struggling just to get basics. You have people picking through trash to find food, which you can certainly find in any country, but everyone we spoke to said that they’d never, ever seen that in Venezuela before. The food shortage and poverty had grown so extreme that people were forced to pick from scraps. We heard stories about women turning to prostitution to make a dollar, about how insanely difficult it is to acquire medicine if you can’t afford it, and even about the trouble of acquiring something as basic as a T-shirt if you want a new one. The prices have just gone to such extremes in relation to the wages that nothing is remotely affordable anymore.

People with access to U.S. currency can live like kings in Venezuela because the currency has fallen off a cliff, but not everyone has relatives in the U.S. who can send them dollars. It’s this slow descent into the abyss. I think it was Diego — a young man featured in the story — who said to me, while we were at a market, something like, “Man, this is such bullshit, nothing is affordable anymore.” And I asked him about when he began to notice the changes. He said it was slow, so slow that you just got used to it each time it happened. Each time there was a spike, you thought it can’t get worse, but then it did. For reference, when I got there, the currency was below 8,000 bolívars per one U.S. dollar. When I left, it’d dropped to 20,000 to one dollar amid the chaos. Now it’s gone all the way to 30,000. People’s real earnings have just gone up in flames.

One of the most striking things in your piece is the way it conveys the normalcy of danger. How did it feel on the ground while you were reporting? Was there a sense of imminent violence, whether from the authorities or from random crime? Has it affected the way you went about reporting this story?

The dangerous part about Venezuela — and why it was so different than Ukraine, for example — is that when you cover war, you generally know which direction the threat could be coming from, you know who could be out to cause you harm. In Venezuela you had no idea, and the options were limitless as to who might put you in danger. There was SEBIN (The Bolivarian National Intelligence Service), robbery, kidnapping, National Guardsmen, Venezuelan officers, and random murder. It was an especially difficult place to work during that time because there were checkpoints, even casual ones, all around. Authorities were looking for suspicious groupings of people in cars to figure out which ones could be protesters. There was a lot of paranoia on our part about who was watching us — and it was definitely justified. One day, on July 30 actually, the day of the Constituyente vote, a middle-aged man came up and snapped my picture, then rushed away. My colleagues and I were concerned we’d be picked up.

Your reporting took you to very different areas in Caracas — from affluent enclaves to some of the poorest barrios. Does the despair, and the reactions to it, transcend these divisions, or did you see it play out differently across socioeconomic fault lines?

Yes, we went all over the city. I wanted to make sure we saw the whole spectrum of opinions, and frankly, everyone young, without exception, was against the government. It didn’t matter if they were ultra-poor, like Gaucho, or wealthy, like Federica — who are both are featured in the story — the young people were universally against their government. It makes sense when you look at the statistics and realize that they no longer see any future for themselves in their own country. I think people sometimes discount or can’t empathize with how difficult it is to have to pack up and move to a different country, even if you speak the same language. I mean, moving apartments can be enough of a pain in the ass, but fleeing a country, finding a new place to live, building a new social and professional network, restarting school, finding a new job, starting a career from scratch, learning a new culture, establishing new routines. Those are all emotionally exhausting.

Bringing this back to a North American perspective, the concept of political “resistance” has seen a major resurgence this past year. And it’s almost always framed in optimistic terms. Your story shows the moment where a resistance movement very clearly hit a major, perhaps fatal, dead end. Is there anything that can be learned from the Resistencia activists you’ve witnessed in Caracas in the days before the July 30 vote? What’s in store for this now much-weakened movement?

I honestly have no idea what can be learned. I was shocked to see the movement die off the day after the vote. I expected some massive uprising to take place, as did many people, except for the veteran correspondents who’d spent years in Venezuela. Several people told me to expect nothing much, but it seemed like such an intense moment that I discounted that theory a bit. But that’s exactly what happened.

Some people tried to explain it to me afterward as the failure of the opposition politicians to actually keep the trust of the movement. Their message changed so often, from “Let’s march on the Presidential Palace!” to “Pull over and turn your cars off in protest.” People were disheartened by their leadership, especially when they saw their leaders willing to cooperate with the regime in the wake of the vote. I mean, people on the street were screaming “dictatorship!”, and yet the politicians who’d asked them to give their lives for this movement suddenly changed views and began to negotiate. I guess the people felt betrayed. The only way you can ensure that doesn’t happen is if you make the resistance movement apolitical, meaning you don’t let a political party co-opt it and lead the charge. You’d have to let civil society lead it, and do it for the betterment of society, not for the political goals of any party. How you can ensure that a politician doesn’t step in and take over is beyond me.

As far as what’s in store for this movement, I honestly have no idea. I feel like the country is just going to lose a ton of its young, talented people and devolve further into a shadow of what it once was economically and culturally. I don’t know if there will be a big challenge to Maduro’s regime anytime soon.

Read “You Can See the Battle Scars”

‘What Do You Say To People Who Think They Have Nothing to Hide?’

Hawa Allan Longreads | September 2017 | 3580 words (15 minutes)

“Big Brother” has become shorthand for the inescapable gaze of governmental authority, first defined by George Orwell in his novel 1984. Everywhere yet nowhere, Big Brother is all-seeing and all-knowing, surveilling not just every person’s movement, but every thought. Where Orwell referred to illicit states of mind as “thoughtcrimes,” Philip K. Dick called them “precrimes” in his 1956 short story “The Minority Report,” in which a futuristic police force arrests subjects for crimes long before they are committed. While Big Brother has become common parlance, the precrime unit illustrated by Dick is a more apt portrayal of the tools authorities have at hand to enforce the law, and commercial entities use to market their goods, in our digital age.

I reached out to Nathan Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project for a sober assessment of how the current state of governmental surveillance compares to the dystopian futures imagined by Orwell and Dick. When Target can determine if teenager is pregnant before her parents know, does the end of our anonymity as consumers mean the end of our rights to privacy as citizens?

Read more…

The Trump Whisperer: A Conversation with Washington Post Reporter David Fahrenthold

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | September 2017 | 8 minutes (2193 words)

 

Before David Fahrenthold won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for covering Trump’s candidacy, he spoke to the then-candidate on the phone last May. Trump called Fahrenthold “a nasty guy.”

One of Fahrenthold’s most impressive journalistic pursuits came after that conversation, when he began to investigate Trump’s charitable giving. Trump had long made loud claims about his charitable donations, but Fahrenthold discovered that although Trump claimed to have donated millions of dollars spread among 400 charities, very few of those charities had any record of Trump’s supposed contributions.

Read more…

How Can Alt-Right Women Exist in a Misogynistic Movement?

Days before the events in Charlottesville, Harper’s published the cover story from their September issue about the prominent women of the alt-right: Women who want to bring others into a movement that is misogynist at its very core. In the piece, “The Rise of the Valkyries,” Seyward Darby profiles Lana Lokteff, the “queen bee” of the alt-right who David Duke has described as a “harder-hitting” Ann Coulter with a “movie-star quality.” Lokteff finds likeminded women online and promotes them via Red Ice, a white nationalist media company she runs with her husband. But for women to have a voice in the alt-right, let alone be prominent in the movement, is its own paradox, as Lokteff admonishes women to give counsel to men and embrace classic notions of femininity. I spoke with Darby about what it takes to interview a subject whose very existence appears to undermine her own claims. Read more…

Can Apple End Smartphone Addiction?

According to Tristan Harris, it’s going to take more than infinite willpower for billions of people to resist the infinite scroll of the attention economy. It’s going to take regulation, reform, and Apple becoming something of an acting government.

Harris — a former Google design ethicist and the founder of Time Well Spent, a nonprofit that encourages tech companies to put users’ best interests before limitless profit models — insists that our minds have been hijacked in an arms race for our attention. He also insists that, with the help of a Hippocratic Oath for software designers, we can win.

“YouTube has a hundred engineers who are trying to get the perfect next video to play automatically,” Harris says in a new interview with WIRED‘s editor in chief Nicholas Thompson. “Their techniques are only going to get more and more perfect over time, and we will have to resist the perfect.”

See? This is me resisting:

In an interview with WIRED, Thompson and Harris discuss why now is the moment to invest in reforming the attention economy.

THOMPSON: At what point do I stop making the choice [to use Facebook or Google or Instagram]? At what point am I being manipulated? At what point is it Nick and at what point is it the machine?

HARRIS: Well I think that’s the million-dollar question. First of all, let’s also say that it’s not necessarily bad to be hijacked, we might be glad if it was time well spent for us. I’m not against technology. And we’re persuaded to do things all the time. It’s just that the premise in the war for attention is that it’s going to get better and better at steering us toward its goals, not ours. We might enjoy the thing it persuades us to do, which makes us feel like we made the choice ourselves. For example, we forget if the next video loaded and we were happy about the video we watched. But, in fact, we were hijacked in that moment. All those people who are working to give you the next perfect thing on YouTube don’t know that it’s 2 am and you might also want to sleep. They’re not on your team. They’re only on the team of what gets you to spend more time on that service.

Again, the energy analogy is useful. Energy companies used to have the same perverse dynamic: I want you to use as much energy as possible. Please just let the water run until you drain the reservoir. Please keep the lights on until there’s no energy left. We, the energy companies, make more money the more energy you use. And that was a perverse relationship. And in many US states, we changed the model to decouple how much money energy companies make from how much energy you use. We need to do something like that for the attention economy, because we can’t afford a world in which this arms race is to get as much attention from you as possible.

The opportunity here, is for Apple. Apple is the one company that could actually do it. Because their business model does not rely on attention, and they actually define the playing field on which everyone seeking our attention plays. They define the rules. If you want to say it, they’re like a government. They get to set the rules for everybody else. They set the currency of competition, which is currently attention and engagement. App stores rank things based on their success in number of downloads or how much they get used. Imagine if instead they said, “We’re going to change the currency.” They could move it from the current race to the bottom to creating a race to the top for what most helps people with different parts of their lives. I think they’re in an incredible position to do that.

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‘Trump Wouldn’t Be President Without the Neoliberalization of New York City’

Sari Botton | Longreads | July 2017 | 18 minutes (4,600 words)

In 2007, when a writer going by the pseudonym of “Jeremiah Moss” launched the blog Vanishing New York lamenting the closure of one iconic small business after another due to rapidly escalating rents, I was instantly hooked. It wasn’t long after, though, that I started to notice some major publications dismissing Moss as cranky, overly nostalgic, and naive about the inevitabilities of gentrification. I remember disagreeing with those assessments, and wondering whether I was missing something, or the writers of those pieces were.

It wasn’t until I read Moss’s new book, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul, that I fully put it together: the difference between those writers and me was that I had lost my place in New York City. In 2005, when I was evicted from my apartment in the East Village so that a famous filmmaker could pay four times my rent, my foothold there, well, vanished. As a casualty myself of New York’s rising rents, I heard Moss’s message loud and clear.

Now I’m living in Kingston, New York, where, as was entirely predictable to me, a new tidal wave of what Moss calls “hyper-gentrification” threatens to displace me once again.

Last week I met with Moss — who recently came out from under cover in a New Yorker profile as psychoanalyst Griffin Hansbury — at a Cafe in the East Village, to talk about his book (we have an excerpt), and how artists and creatives like me can hang on, and play a different role, when outside money starts rolling in to the depressed areas we move to.

So, should I be talking to you as Griffin or Jeremiah?

I think Jeremiah.

Is the main reason you used a pseudonym, and didn’t go to your own demonstrations, that you’re a therapist?

Not really. The time I started to blog I was working as a social worker at a LGBT community clinic and I was doing copyrighting and copyediting freelance on the side to make ends meet, and I was just starting to get my private practice off the ground. So that’s where I was. When I started to blog, I didn’t put a lot of thought into it. I was sitting on my bed one night and was like, “Oh, I could do a blog. I have all these pictures and journal entries and why not?” And I had written this novel that’s not published about a guy named Jeremiah Moss and I liked writing in his voice. I wanted to keep writing in his voice.

Is his voice very different from yours?

No, not really. But it’s distilled . I just put the blog and the book in his name to kind of keep it separate and not have to worry about. It’s just easier.
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Inside ESPN’s ’30 for 30 Podcasts’ Launch

When Jody Avirgan was asked to transform ESPN’s widely-praised 30 for 30 docuseries into a podcast, the producer, who has created podcasts for WNYC and FiveThirtyEight, mused whether the easiest solution might be to convert the documentaries wholesale. That notion quickly faded. “If we are going to uphold the standard and approach journalistically and aesthetically that 30 for 30 films have set, we need to think of these as original audio documentary efforts,” Avirgan told me recently by phone. “It’s not two guys in a room talking sports—it’s reporting original new stories that fit for audio.”

This was Avirgan’s dilemma for 30 for 30 Podcasts, which launched its first season in late June with an exploration of Reebok’s marketing build-up for the 1992 Olympics, a campaign built around decathlon favorites Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson. Sports is a visual medium. We consume sports live, often on high-definition televisions — and soon, possibly, in VR — and conveying the intensity of a tackle is difficult to translate through audio. That’s why even though we are in the midst of a podcast renaissance, there are few devoted to sports.

“I want to see Barry Sanders break five people’s ankles in a row, I don’t want to hear about it,” explains Avirgan. But buoyed by the docuseries’ success, the podcast has found an active audience: While download data isn’t readily available, the inaugural three episodes of the podcast have been ranked consistently in iTunes’ top five downloads, which include producer Rose Eveleth’s episode on the first all-female trek to the North Pole, and Julia Lowrie Henderson’s episode on the bootleg T-shirt industry that introduced the world to the taunt “Yankees suck!”

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