When several former staffers from the Obama administration prepared to launch a podcast to coincide with Donald Trump’s inauguration, they needed a name for the parent company. Trump, of course, loved to chide the “fake news,” and he’d branded his opponent “Crooked Hillary.”
So they called the company Crooked Media.
“We decided to lean right into it,” says Jon Favreau.
A little more than two years later, “Pod Save America” — the twice-weekly podcast that Favreau hosts with old friends Tommy Vietor and Jon Lovett (on Mondays) and Dan Pfeiffer (on Thursdays) — is one of the biggest success stories in the burgeoning world of podcasting. The show, which breaks down the latest political havoc from an unabashedly liberal perspective, averages nearly 2 million listeners an episode.
Though “Pod Save America” is a product of studio conversations and interviews with current political figures, the hosts quickly learned that the show takes on another kind of urgency in front of a live audience. As part of a spring tour, they’ll tape a live episode at the Boch Center’s Wang Theatre on Thursday, one night after a live taping of “Lovett or Leave It,” Lovett’s comedic quiz-show offshoot.
Favreau, who grew up in North Reading and was class valedictorian at Holy Cross, served as Barack Obama’s chief speechwriter. He says he was bewildered at first by the prospect of taping the podcast onstage: “What’s the deal? Who would want to see that?”
But he and his colleagues quickly came to find that the live shows were one of their favorite parts of the job. That’s where they can gauge how much they’ve met their goal of fostering community engagement and participatory politics.
“We meet all these people who come up and tell us they haven’t been involved before, but now they’re knocking on doors and donating to candidates for the first time,” Favreau says. “There’s a sense of community camaraderie that I think we’ve all missed.”
Vietor, who grew up in Dedham, was a spokesman for the National Security Council under Obama. After listening to the show in your car or through your earbuds, he says, “there’s something cathartic” about attending a taping in person. Last year they presented “Pod Save America” for a large crowd inside Harvard’s hockey arena as part of the Boston Calling music festival.
“One thing we always hear is ‘You’ve helped me stay sane.’ You can’t believe what’s happening on a day-to-day basis. You feel like the world is going crazy all around you.” And it’s reassuring to know you’re not the only one who feels that way, he says.
For Lovett, going to work in the Obama White House — he wrote speeches for the Clinton and John Kerry campaigns before joining Obama’s staff — was the culmination of a youthful ambition.
“I’ve always been obsessed with politics, ever since I was a nerdy, let’s say ‘underfriended’ 13-year-old boy,” he says. “It was a way to step outside myself, as a kid in the closet. That was my dream job ever since I saw ‘The West Wing’ in high school.”
Though he grew up on Long Island — unlike his cohosts, he jokes, “I will not have rows and rows of surly Boston relatives” in attendance at the Wang Theatre shows — Lovett too has Massachusetts ties. He graduated from Williams College in 2004.
He’s the jokester of the group. Before entering politics he took a stab at a career in stand-up comedy, playing open mic nights for a year or so around New York City.
‘People . . . tell us they haven’t been involved before, but now they’re knocking on doors and donating to candidates.’
“I was working as a paralegal temp during the day,” he says. “I was doing paperwork for asbestos law firms, and I was terrible at it.”
“Lovett or Leave It” grew out of a discussion he had with a friend, a writer for “The Office,” who suggested he create a Friday “week in review”-style pub quiz as an adjunct to “Pod Save America.” The show, typically recorded before a live audience in Los Angeles (where Crooked Media is based), features recurring segments with game-show panelists and guests such as actor Rainn Wilson and Congressman Adam Schiff.
When the team launched “Pod Save America,” they began with a concise mission statement: They wanted to “inform, entertain, and inspire activism.” A typical episode includes a roundtable discussion followed by a conversation with a newsmaker; recent guests have included former US attorney Preet Bharara, presidential candidate Senator Cory Booker, and singer John Legend. The hosts dig deeper than most cable news shows, but they also swear liberally and crack bitter jokes.
“If you don’t ever laugh, they’re not gonna listen,” explains Vietor.
Crooked Media now has a full slate of podcasts, including “Pod Save the World,” which covers foreign policy, and “The Wilderness,” a 15-part series on the past and future of the Democratic Party.
According to Vietor, podcast analytics have not reached the same level of detail as metrics for social media usage or YouTube views. But it’s clear that the bulk of the “Pod Save America” listenership falls within the 25-40 age range.
“Here’s what we get all the time — former cabinet officials who tell us their kids like the show,” Vietor says.
And how about their ex-boss? When they do hear from the former POTUS, Vietor says, he’ll usually joke that he’s still surprised they have an audience at all.
Vietor feels the same way.
“Every time I walk out onstage, I’m surprised there are people there,” he says. “I’m always anticipating things crumbling. It’s a very New England thing.”
Hey, but these days, we’re fairly sure the rest of the country can relate.
Lovett or Leave It
At the Boch Center Wang Theatre, April 10 at 8 p.m. Tickets from $28.75, www.bochcenter.org
Pod SAVE America
At the Boch Center Wang Theatre, April 11 at 8 p.m. Tickets from $28.75, www.bochcenter.orgJames Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.