Five Questions With Adam Davidson (New Yorker Journalist, Planet Money Cofounder & Generally Smart Person)

In the design of social apps, we’ll sometimes talk about how there’s a Friend Graph and an Interest Graph, and they don’t always mix. Well for my personal Venn diagram of those two, Adam Davidson sits squarely in the the overlap. We first got connected via a mutual friend around the cause of independently funded journalism, but found the topics of mutual joy (and distress) to be even broader. This is a longer Five Questions but I think an absolutely spectacular one and I hope you enjoy it.

Hunter Walk: You were one of the first reporters to focus on Trump’s money trail instead of his tweets, in both longform New Yorker articles and your Swamp Chronicles series. Are you still convinced that his downfall will be tied to these issues versus other accusations?

Adam Davidson: Donald Trump has spent the vast majority of his life–even the vast majority of the time he was running for president–doing business, not politics. His clear overriding ambition throughout his life has been to be celebrated as a rich person. Power and politics have never been a major focus of his. So, it seems to me, the money-trail is a great place to look to find out what is driving him and what he has done.

As it happens, the Trump money trail is fascinating. He ran a business that has long been famously riding the edge of legality, working with people that few other business folks would work with on deals that bear many of the hallmarks of financial crime, such as money laundering, foreign corrupt practices, and tax evasion.

So, yes, I think it all comes down to money. I think Trump is driven by money or, more precisely, driven by the desire to be perceived as someone who has money. I think Trump has shown himself quite willing to take enormously risky moves when he thinks he can get money. I think that his greatest legal liability–by far–is in his business deals. I feel confident that money was his motivation in running for President and in doing whatever it is he did with Russia.

I feel confident that money was his [Trump] motivation in running for President and in doing whatever it is he did with Russia.

If I were on Mueller’s team or if I were working for one of the many other federal, state, and local prosecutors looking in to Trump, I would spend around ninety-nine per cent of my time following the money. Which is, roughly, how I do spend my time.

I also imagine that Trump would choose impeachment and removal from office over losing money or being revealed to have far less money than he claims. If he were impeached, he could spin it to his base as proof positive that he’s their hero. But if he loses his money or is revealed not to have much, he will be laid bear in a way I imagine would be truly unbearable to him.

It would take many, many years for any prosecutor to actually get his money. That’s hard to do, even in non-political prosecutions. But the threat must feel terrifying, I would guess.

HW: I’m mostly an optimist, but sometimes when reading your Trump coverage, I think “yeah, that’s all true but the average person just thinks this is how all rich people act” and/or “this is just evidence of how the system is rigged in general.” So the greater risk beyond just Trump is severe mistrust in institutions – perhaps deservedly! Adam, respond to this question with something encouraging!

AD: Overall, I think it is important to see the Trump era as a net-negative. America is worse than it was before and, probably, worse in a semi-permanent way. Trump has revealed deep structural problems and has created to a path that a more careful politician can take advantage of. We are far more like a corrupt developing country than we had realized. And the shameful behavior of the GOP suggests that our assumptions of political party self-preservation were wrong (it feels a bit like the mistaken assumption that big banks, or the people who work for them, wouldn’t take company- and economy- destroying risks for short term profit).

So, I am deeply, deeply upset. But I am, somehow, also optimistic. Genuinely! And not just when forced to be in a Q and A. There is a good (though far from great) story to be told about the global fight against white collar crime, money laundering, and other financial bad behavior. Much of what Trump has done financially is extreme but far from unique. One of the main lessons of this period is that it is very easy to commit blatant international financial crime and get away with it. Just look at what Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort have admitted to, activities that wouldn’t have been prosecuted if they didn’t work for Trump. There are tens of thousands, maybe far more, doing the same. However, we know about their crimes–and Mueller was able to quickly suss them out–because of a transformation of global financial enforcement.

It’s hard to believe but up until 1986, money laundering wasn’t a crime in the U.S. Right through the 1990s, money laundering and foreign corruption were barely ever prosecuted. There were few tools prosecutors had access to, even if they suspected someone was up to no good. But the U.S. and British governments have forced much of the rest of the world to create a more transparent financial system in which bad actors are more likely to be reported to authorities. Most offshore jurisdictions have had to shift their businesses away from helping

I don’t want to jump up and down and say: problem solved! The current enforcement is both infinitely better than what existed before and only a tiny step in the right direction.  It is still very, very easy for people of means to launder money. But we now have some very good tools and there are some others that could be implemented. We just need political will to increase enforcement and to public will to ostracize those who engage in illicit finance. It may never be a fully solvable problem, but it is addressable and I allow myself to believe (or hope) that we’ll have reforms not unlike the post-Nixon reforms in the US, that make it slightly harder to do bad financial dealings.

I don’t know if this counts as optimistic, but recognizing you have a problem is the first step and boy oh boy do we have a problem and far more people recognize it.

HW: How’s the 2019 Twitter Resolution holding up? Spending less time tweeting? Fewer battles with trolls?

AD: It is amazing how great it is to be far less active on Twitter. I can’t think of anything I’ve done in years (aside from getting married and having a kid) that has brought me so much concrete happiness so quickly. I’m not joking. I was a frequent twitterer and a regular arguer with others on Twitter. It was often exciting, but also stressful, enraging, distracting. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I have more hours in the day, more focus on my work, more time with my family and more time when I’m not obsessing over some slight from someone. I feel pathetic to admit that I had that problem. But I feel like an evangelical with some good news: you, too, can break free of the clutches of evil and immediately have a better life.

It is amazing how great it is to be far less active on Twitter. I can’t think of anything I’ve done in years (aside from getting married and having a kid) that has brought me so much concrete happiness so quickly. I’m not joking.

I do still use twitter. I post random thoughts. I find many people on twitter to have great thoughts when news breaks. And I probably type and delete 10 vicious attacks on my enemies every week. But I don’t send them. And that is great.

HW: You were co-founder and longtime co-host of Planet Money, one of the most successful podcasts out there. You’ve also hosted a podcast on Gimlet. What’s a “commonly held belief” in the podcast industry that you disagree with?

AD: Oh, boy. So, so many.

I guess the biggest one is that there is a thing called “podcasting” or the “podcast industry.” It is still such a vague, umbrella term that covers an enormous spread in quality and nature of content. We don’t talk about the  “video industry” to refer to everything from your cousin’s bar mitzvah video to some random unboxer on YouTube to Better Call Saul to the latest Marvel blockbuster. Similarly, we don’t talk about the “print industry” to refer to holiday cards, kids books, The New Yorker, and a Dan Brown thriller.  We recognize that video media and print media are divided into many, many categories and industries that barely overlap. They have different business models, different companies, different creators, etc.

Quality long-form audio was an obscure business a decade or, certainly, two decades ago. Very, very few people cared about it or learned how to do it. It strikes me that, over the first 40 years of a national public radio network, starting in 1970, there was a new big, successful, enduring long-form shows about once or twice a decade: Fresh Air and Prairie Home Companion in the 1970s, Car Talk in the 1980s, This American Life in the 1990s, Radiolab in the 2000s. There are others but not many.

There were other audio formats, of course. Talk radio was huge. Public radio also developed the magazine style show, comprised, mostly of short produced pieces of 3 to 5 minutes in length. But those short pieces and the magazine show have been largely irrelevant in podcasting. (This has been a pet peeve of mine for years, that NPR is still obsessively focused on the 3 minute reported story, which is entirely a terrestrial radio product. The skills required to produce a 3-minute story are wildly different from those required to produce a sustained podcast of, even, twenty minutes, let alone 60. Some can make the transition–like commercial directors who make movies–but many can’t.)

So, I think podcasting is going through a very natural maturation and segmentation right now. There are the equivalents of talk radio–Joe Rogan being the big hit. There are a bunch of great interview shows, especially WTF and How I Built This. And then there are the highly-produced shows, like This American Life, Serial, S-Town, and many of Gimlet’s shows, like Heavyweight.

I find, when talking to people without audio experience, they are not all that sensitive to the differences between these formats.

Highly-produced shows cost a fortune: tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per episode. They are like quality TV, requiring highly skilled production staff and a business model that can reward that level of effort.

The high quality interview shows are much cheaper to produce, but their success is tied to a host who then has enormous bargaining power and can capture much of the profit, so it’s hard for big companies to make money from them (a fact I like!).

Then there are the many, many other podcasts–half a million or more–that really are more like blogs or twitter feeds. They are small, inexpensively produced content for a narrow audience of friends or a small business network. These are more like hobbies or business promotion tools and most disappear fairly quickly.

I would like all the people entering the space–from VC investors to big media companies and others–to understand the different segments or categories of podcasts, to recognize that each has a different path to listeners and profitability, and, most crucially, each requires a different sort of talent.

A very common mistake that has happened again and again is that somebody–a news outlet, a media company, a celebrity–decides they want a podcast but doesn’t recognize there are different segments of podcasting. They try to do something like This American Life and learn, too late, that there are not that many people in the world who know how to produce audio at that level of quality. It’s not like TV or movies, where there is a long-standing, massive ecosystem of DPs and editors and producers. There’s, like, 20 people who are true pros in long-form podcasting/audio production and pretty much every one of them has a job they like and isn’t going to do work for hire.  

There are some–though not that many–solid, experienced radio producers, mostly from public radio, who can do a solid, if unexceptional job. And there are thousands of young folks who are working hard to acquire those skills and many of them will, so this problem will solve itself eventually. But there are very, very few audio producers who can do work at the highest level, work that has repeatedly proven itself with audiences. So, right now, the demand for quality podcast production is far, far greater than the supply of podcast production talent. But many people don’t understand the vast gulf between different levels of talent and, so, they hire incorrectly and are disappointed and conclude that podcasting doesn’t work.  

Just as understanding of podcast production is immature, I think the podcasting business model is quite underdeveloped and too much of an ad-driven monoculture. I would expect subscriptions, long-term IP value creation, overlapping podcast universes–like Bill Simmons–and other models, familiar to Hollywood, will become more common in podcasting.  

This is self-serving, because I will say, obnoxiously, that I do see myself as one of that small group of veterans who has proven an ability to create compelling produced audio that finds an audience. Though I definitely am not at the top of that list. There are several folks who are much better than me. I started to list them but then realized I’d inevitably hurt someone’s feelings by not including their name. But I do think that, if you asked the people who have created podcasts that consistently stay in the top 10 or 20, they would all give you the same dozen or so names, again and again, as the top talent in the field.

One other and related misunderstanding/pet peeve: podcasting, of any sort, can’t just be a quick add-on to whatever else you’re doing. Don’t just buy a USB-mic for $50, record yourself and a friend for sixty minutes, and then wonder why nobody listens. I am launching a podcast in May and I–along with a team of three–have already spent several months and well over a hundred thousand dollars getting ready and we feel way behind. Good podcasts are as hard to make as any other creative endeavor.

I find the telling example is the many celebrities who have failed in the space. The ones who succeed: Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, Conan O’Brien, stand out because they didn’t rest on their fame and built-in audience. They spent time and effort and had real pros helping them.

HW: Given that more people know your voice than your face, how many times a year does someone stop you midsentance and say “i just realized why you sound so familiar!”

AD: It’s probably happened a half-dozen, maybe a dozen times in my life. I’m always shocked.  

Thanks Adam!