Growing up on Long Island, Mike Pesca was an admitted lover of radio. And by his own admission, journalism was “OK. Making up stories seemed fun,” he said. He honed those storytelling and journalism skills at Emory University in Atlanta and eventually made his way back to New York, working for public radio station WNYC and the Leonard Lopate show. That experience led him to the NPR program “Day to Day,” and he became an NPR correspondent after the show was canceled. He later became a full-time sports reporter for NPR and stayed for six years before leaving in spring 2014 to host a daily news podcast from Slate called “The Gist.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Invoking Stephen Colbert: “The Gist,” great podcast or greatest podcast that’s not produced by “This American Life” staff?
I think it’s just the greatest including “This American Life.” It’s the greatest including daily news podcasts.
Speaking of “Serial” (produced by “This American Life” staff with host Sarah Koenig), what did you make of that rise to popularity and, I might say, cultural obsession? You defended it, particularly from other news outlets and commentators who were doing a lot of pieces – notably The Intercept for running a critical interview with Jay. A lot of the criticism against “Serial” struck me as podcast envy without real substance.
I think most of the people in podcasts were blown away. I don’t think the negative stuff came from podcasters. This was the greatest achievement in our medium. (There was one person, Jay Caspian Kang, writing for The Awl criticizing “Serial” and Sarah Koenig for coming from a place of “white privilege.”) He contradicted himself. He didn’t prove his point. The real truth is that anything people put up about “Serial” got lots of page views. I’m going to take everything at face value. I really couldn’t believe how bad (the criticism) was. There wasn’t one piece of valid criticism.
[Correction: Because of an editing error, this response originally noted an Atlantic article by Conor Friedersdorf as the piece criticizing “Serial” for “white privilege.” Friedersdorf actually defended “Serial” from critics in his article titled “The Backlash Against Serial – and Why It’s Wrong.”]
You’ve been doing this daily podcast for, what, nine months or more? Anything insightful you’ve learned about the process of producing a daily show that you didn’t realize before you left NPR?
(Podcast started in May 2014.) I knew I had a lot of ideas. Like one day I had a bad fever and the show didn’t really make sense that day, but overall it’s good stuff. What I learned is don’t hold on to stuff. You’ve got to get it out there as soon as possible. When I was a sports reporter, I was definitely coming up with fewer ideas. You write everything down.
Speaking of NPR, is it weird that I plan my Wednesday mornings around hearing Frank Deford’s sports commentary? Also, how often did you call up someone for a story and have to explain, no, this isn’t a prank, NPR really does cover sports.
That is weird. There’s so much on demand whenever you want it.
People would say that (about NPR and sports reporting), but people either kind of know NPR as a good brand name or they’re really into it. Or sometimes people have no idea what they are.
You did a week on “The Gist” where you highlighted OPPs – other people’s podcasts. So, what are your favorite podcasts that aren’t by you or “This American Life” staff?
I listen to “WTF” (with Marc Maron) all the time. Iliza Shlesinger (“Truth and Iliza”), I’m giving her a chance. I think what Alex (Blumberg) is doing is awesome. I’m loving “Invisibilia” from NPR. I like C-SPAN ones. That’s a little nerdy.
What’s different about podcasts, at least compared to most journalism models, particularly at NPR, is the sponsorship and editorial voices are the same. You’re pitching products – Stamps.com, for example – one second, and transitioning to an interview the next, which is different than what you were used to at NPR when the sponsorships were read by a person removed from the news. I’m not saying what you or any other podcasters do is unethical, but it is a little different. I just wonder if that took some getting used to.
No, because I’ve listened to radio all my life, and they do host reads. It’s only unethical if you make it unethical (and do things that are unethical). My challenge is to make those ads listenable.
Forgive my ignorance of New York sports loyalties, but I’m a West Coast guy (Go Mariners and Seahawks!). I’ve always wondered: Do pro sports loyalties align in New York along certain geographical or family or other lines? I mean, do Yankees fans only like the Knicks instead of the Nets, and only the Giants instead of the Jets? I’ve always been fascinated how sports loyalties work in areas with multiple teams in the same sport.
The Nets were nothing (previously in New Jersey), and now they’re in Brooklyn, so now people pick. Long Island is Jets and Mets. Manhattan is Yankees. Hockey is niche, and no one has to choose. Actually, that’s not true. But no non-Long Islanders (like the Islanders for hockey).
(For the record, his baseball, football, basketball loyalties, respectively: Mets, Jets, Knicks.)
Let’s say I’m in New York only long enough to get authentic New York pizza, preferably where waiters actually say, “How you doin’?” Where is that?
Di Fara is good, but sometimes they close it down for Board of Health reasons. Lombardi’s pizza. John’s pizza.
If you, Mike Pesca, weren’t doing what you’re doing now, or even working in journalism, what would you be doing? I suspect some form of comedy, but maybe you’ve secretly always wanted to be a Madonna back-up dancer.
Now, that’s (dancing) a form of comedy. Yeah, I did stand-up out of college, and it was tough. I looked at what comedy meant. I know a lot of people who do it. I did look at all these people doing comedy, and it seemed they were all miserable.
(One episode of “The Gist” featured a discussion about comedians and depression/mental health. It was recorded and posted online on Aug. 8, 2014, before Robin Williams’ suicide made news on Aug. 11.)
This issue of Quill has a story (read here) on the lack of female sports reporters and columnists/commentators/analysts in on-air positions. You covered sports for a long time. What would you say to young (or any age) women (or men) trying to break into that area when there are so few women in the field?
It’s true, it’s not an exaggeration. If you look around the press room, I remember covering the Final Four … maybe 100 men and six women. If you add in women on air, it’s a lot higher, and they’re hired because of their looks. It’s true, and it is stark, and because all the people holding the levers of power are men, there’s definitely a kind of jock-ocracy going on. I also think the institution of the sideline reporter (for TV football) is atrocious and needs to be amended. I’m not saying eliminate a bunch of jobs, but I am saying more of those jobs announcing (and reporting for print and websites) should go to women.
(People always ask me) how to break into sports. (I say) speak three languages – Korean, Japanese and Spanish – and you could be in any major league locker room. (He also advised instead of being the 1000th voice talking or writing about the same thing – for example, the Oregon Ducks’ offense – be the only voice talking about a niche topic. Own that niche area of coverage to stand out in the crowd.)