Q&A: Sam Sanders on his new NPR show, audience engagement, ‘going off script’

Photo courtesy of NPR

Sam Sanders is on a mission: to go beyond the headlines. His new NPR talk show, It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders, covers what’s happening and also tries to understand how it makes people feel. As one of the original co-hosts of the NPR Politics Podcast, Sanders broke down the 2016 election cycle for listeners near and far. He’ll be bringing the same charm and sense of humor to the new show, which will cover the intersection of politics and pop culture. According to Sanders, you can’t talk about Black Lives Matter without talking about Beyoncé or Chance the Rapper.

The two-episode-per-week podcast is a bit more upbeat than what you’re used to hearing these days in Washington. The Tuesday morning episode will feature interviews with celebrities or other public figures, like the hilarious Lena Waithe from the Netflix show Master of None, or a conversation about a specific newsworthy subject. On Friday evenings, Sanders will recap the week’s news with guest panelists, often journalists or experts. Since February, Sanders and his producer, Brent Baughman, have been piloting the show on the NPR One app.

Sanders recently spoke with CJR about the idea behind It’s Been a Minute, the importance of listener feedback, and the need for more laughter in public radio. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Hear more from Sanders on this week’s The Kicker podcast.

RELATED: Reporter posts front pages of LA Times, WashPo & NYTimes. Something was missing.

 

It’s been a minute since we last heard you on the NPR airwaves. Throughout the 2016 election, you were keeping me and thousands of others in the loop on all things politics. Now you’ve got your own talk show. Can you tell us about the new project? What can listeners expect?

Sign up for CJR's daily email

We have been tinkering with the format and the formula in NPR One since February, and we have locked into a pretty straightforward, twice-a-week talk show. The Friday episodes try to help our listeners make sense of the week in news. It’s a discussion of headlines big and small with two colleagues or friends from inside or outside the building, with a lot of listener input. And the Tuesday episodes are what we’re calling “deep dive”—long conversations between me and one other person or on one topic. We’ve kind of been doing the Friday round-ups in NPR One consistently for the last two or three months, and those are pretty fully-formed. We talk about the week in a few different ways. We ask people to describe how the week felt to them in three words. We ask the panelists to come on and talk with me to talk about a story that they loved, or were obsessed with, or hated, or [a story they] did themselves during the week.

We ask listeners to call us and tell us what’s going on in their neck of the woods, and we always end that show on Fridays with having listeners tell us the best thing about their week, and that’s been really touching and poignant. People are sharing things like the first job or childbirth or graduation—just really, really fun, uplifting stuff. And I think that’s really important to have because it’s good to remind people in this season that has been so full of crazy news cycles that the world is still good, and people still have good things happen to them and it’s OK to celebrate our lives.

 

Thank you for validating that it’s okay to celebrate.

Yeah. Our goal in every episode, without fail, is to laugh. We laugh at ourselves, we laugh at like the craziness that is right now, we laugh at all of it, and that’s OK to do. I think that especially in the height of the rancor in the campaign season last year, people didn’t know whether they can feel a certain kind of way because things felt so serious. Can I laugh? Can this be funny? Must I take everything so seriously? Am I allowed to be a little flip? And to have a tone that does not line up with X, Y, Z? And like the goal of our show is to say you get to feel how you feel, and I actually want to talk about it with you.

 

How are you hoping the show changes the way people consume their news?

We’re not just trying to have news conversations; we’re trying to have conversations about how the news feels, you know, and understand that by the time a lot of people get to Friday evening and they’re pulling up Apple podcast and turning me on, hopefully, they’ve seen the headlines all week. They know what’s going on. They read the text of that bill. They saw Donald Trump’s tweet. They’ve seen the first photos of Beyonce’s twins. They don’t need a news ticker. They need some sense of how to put all of it into perspective. And so what I hope those Friday conversations do is help myself and our listeners get some of that right.

 

So, unlike All Things Considered and Morning Edition on NPR, which are breaking the news, this seems like it’s trying to better contextualize it. Is that what makes this different from other programming already on the airwaves?

I think so. I mean, I think in some of those Tuesday conversations, there will be some news broken. As we book more newsmakers who are willing to sit down and talk with me for an hour or more at a time, they’ll break news in those conversations. But no, it’s not going to be nearly at the speed at which you’d hear news break on Morning Edition or All Things Considered. And we’re fine with that. I also think a lot of what we’re trying to do in the show, and a lot of what you heard happened in the NPR politics podcast, was just to pull away the script, just take it away, and let people who were informed on these topics just talk about it. And when you do that, you just get a different level of analysis because we end up not just saying here’s what I know, we end up saying here’s how this feels weird, here’s what else I don’t know, here’s what I still want to figure out, here’s why I still have questions. And I think hearing people have those conversations out loud, they kind of mimic the conversations you and your friends might have.

 

I remember hearing about this project months ago before the idea was fully formed. And one of the things I loved about it then was the emphasis on audience engagement. You piloted the show on the NPR One app starting in February, and listeners submitted feedback throughout the so-called “beta” phase. Why was it so important to have them involved? And what were your key takeaways?

One, it’s for them, so they should be involved, right? That was a no brainer. Two, when you’re making something that is just like your voice, and your baby, you’re really too close to it to know if it’s good or bad. Like all the stuff that we made, I don’t know if it was great, only that I liked it. I knew that I was talking to people that I wanted to talk to. I knew that it fit into the editorial standards that I had for myself as a journalist. But besides that, I didn’t know if it was good. And our listeners really did a great job of giving us a gut check of what was good and what was bad. Not just through seeing all of the data that NPR One can give us, which shows when they listen, how long they listen, when they cut out, whether or not they keep us on afterwards. Besides that, we had a survey for all of our listeners in NPR One to fill out, and we had thousands of responses. We had so many emails.

There was one last week where a listener was making suggestions on when to post music for a new segment intro—like really, really detailed specific instructions, and it’s just like you need that, you need that. I feel really confident after that months-long process that we’re going to be giving listeners something that is their own. It’s their show as much as it is my show and not just because I want to have their voices in pretty much every episode, but because like they literally help us make the show.

ICYMI: Do you live in a Local News Desert? Check out this really cool interactive to find out

 

Each episode of It’s Been a Minute will end with listeners sharing the best thing that happened to them that week. Why do you think their voices should be heard more on public radio?

So I do that on my Facebook feed all the time. I think like in the churn of this crazy space and in social media, most of everything is just snark and mean. It’s nice to have a space once a week that is just nice, right? And so when we began to plan for the new show, we had a bunch of planning meetings with people from in and outside the office, and one of my colleagues, who was also a Facebook friend, said it might be really interesting to hear that Friday thing you do on Facebook, to hear that in your show just because it feels good. So she suggested it, and we were just like, OK let’s try it, and it works. There was no grand strategy to it.

I think what is really working about it is that we’re putting these very, very personal stories unique to these individuals right next to these conversations about the news of the world and the news of the week. And you don’t really hear too many shows that do that. But that’s the way that we live most of our lives. I live every day of my life not just following what politicians and celebrities are doing, but I also like follow what my friends are doing. And so why not have a show that tries in some way to mirror the way that we actually consume life? Like the way that we consume news in life is the high, and the low, and the big, and the small, and the serious, and the non-serious. It’s not just hard news, it’s not just soft news, it’s kind of like whatever feels right that week.

 

There’s a longstanding tradition of great talk shows on NPR. Pop Culture Happy Hour, Car Talk, It’s All Politics come to mind. What’s different about It’s Been a Minute, at least from my perspective, is its more casual, conversational, youthful style. Do you think this show is a way for NPR to reach an audience that it’s had difficulty targeting?

I think that a lot of the metrics that we saw in the audience for the NPR Politics Podcast were really inspiring. A vast majority of the listeners to that show were 35 or under. And I think a lot of those folks are going to follow me to this new project, and what the NPR Politics Podcast did and is still doing is creating the future of NPR’s audience, because once we get that high school student or that college student or that young working person listening to us—to the NPR Politics Podcast or this new show—once we let them know that it’s OK to believe in NPR, we’ve got them. Before you know it, they’ll listen to the radio, and they’ll check out our web site. And so like my goal is to make sure that this new show that I’m doing doesn’t just speak to that core of listeners that have loved us and supported us forever, but to make sure that I can be that gateway for those new listeners, and let them know like “hey, you are welcome here, and I want to be what gets your foot in the door.”

You can listen to the show starting on June 23.

RELATED: Study: Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Meg Dalton is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.