Sean Rameswaram looks back fondly on his days as a reporter, and producer host at Santa Cruz’s now-defunct public radio station KUSP.
Rameswaram made $13 an hour at the station back in 2011. On the phone with me last month, he couldn’t help wondering if he might’ve been able to hang on for a little longer, so long as it meant living in paradise. Rameswaram knows that he probably made the right call in deciding to move away, seeing as how KUSP went bankrupt in 2016—the station’s spiritual descendent, the volunteer-run KSQD, is celebrating one year this week—and Rameswaram is the host of his own show, the podcast Today, Explained. The podcast is coming up on 500 episodes on Thursday, Feb. 13, and hits its two-year anniversary on Wednesday, Feb. 19.
Part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, Today, Explained fits into the explanatory news brand, envisioned in part by the outlet’s original Editor Ezra Klein, a former UCSC student and host of The Ezra Klein Show. The concept behind the show, as Rameswaram puts it, is “that news comes at you fast. Join us at the end of the day to help you understand it.”
Sprinkled within many of the episodes is the tongue-in-cheek flair of Rameswaram and his scrappy team. Notable episode titles include “UN-for-Greta-ble” (covering Greta Thunberg’s speech to the U.N.) and “To Bibi or Not to Bibi?” (about Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election race). Other highlights: “Son of a Biden,” “A Mueller Walks into a Barr” and probably my personal favorite, “Let’s Talk About Tax, Baby. Let’s talk about AOC.” Some episodes end with a clever surprise, like a masterfully produced parody song on the theme of the episode.
Recently, Rameswaram had Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) on the show—which gets more than a million downloads a week—to talk about why his presidential bid had faltered. Toward the end of their chat, Rameswaram casually invoked a conversation the two of them had in 2016. At that time, Kanye West had just “announced” that he was running for president in 2020. So Rameswaram had asked the senator back then if he would support West’s candidacy. Rameswaram played the tape. “If Donald Trump could do it, so could Kanye West,” Booker said in response, at the time, “and Kanye West might do it with a lot more style and a better haircut.”
When Rameswaram asked if Booker still thought West should run, Booker almost cut him off. “No,” Booker said with a laugh. “Hell no.”
“I think he got a kick out of it,” Rameswaram tells me. “Obviously, you try and go into an interview thinking about how you can have some real moments with him, not just a canned answer. So I’m glad we got one.”
In our talk, Rameswaram discussed his start in Santa Cruz, the behind-the-scenes workings of the podcast and much more.
How’s life in Washington D.C.?
SEAN RAMESWARAM: When you move to D.C. from New York, which I did, people sometimes ask you about life in D.C., as if a close family member had died or something. “Are you OK? How are you keeping? Do you need anything?” And to those types of gestures, I always just tell people everything’s fine. I have a community pool a block away from my house that has a water slide. It’s never busy. D.C. is beautiful. It’s chill. It’s basically dead on weekends. The tourists all hang out in one part of town. There’s free museums as far as the eye can see. You could spend your life trying to discover them all and fail. There’s good restaurants. People are nice. You can have community really easily. There’s a tennis court near my house that’s totally free, whereas in New York it costs like $300 to play tennis every season on public tennis courts. D.C. life is good!
I emailed your old boss, J.D. Hilliard, who now works at UCSC. He asked me to ask you, ‘Did your time in Santa Cruz affect the way you approach stories of national significance?’
I don’t think so. But, ironically, what he may not realize is my time at KUSP taught me quite a bit about everything I do in my job—which is cover stories of national significance. So I don’t think something about my time in Santa Cruz has so much affected the way I see the world, so much as my time in Santa Cruz taught me so much about journalism. Shout outs to J.D. Shout outs to Robert Pollie, the host of the great KUSP weekly magazine “Seventh Avenue Project” and Johnny Simmons, the legendary host of “Morning Edition” at KUSP, who’s still a dear friend of mine, and who taught me so much about being on the air and called me every time I made a mistake on the air to chew me out [laughs].
What’s a typical week like for you at Today, Explained?
A typical work week starts on Sunday morning. The first thing I do when I wake up is I spend a couple hours trawling through the news, the news of the weekend, breaking news developments on stories we’ve been covering. We always usually have a plan going into a week for that first Monday’s show. But oftentimes, that plan is upset by news that is broken—Friday night, Saturday, Sunday, especially in this particular news climate. So after doing that for a couple of hours, I’ll touch base with producers on the show. We usually have one producer who’s on call on Sunday. We’ll come up with a plan. And then we’ll hit the ground running on Monday with an interview first thing in the morning. The team and I will make edits to that interview, put the whole thing together, and then the show comes out at 4. And then Mondays are usually really crazy because we’ll start planning ahead for Tuesday’s show and Wednesday’s show. And so typically on Mondays, there’s lots of interviews to do. And then we kind of think about the week as a whole. What are the most important stories? And what are the stories we can explain the best?
You did an episode about taxation without representation in D.C. You live in a city with as much concentrated power as anywhere else in the world. And yet the city’s residents don’t have any votes in the electoral college or any U.S. senators. Your representative in the House can’t vote on many matters. What’s that like? Do you have strong feelings about it?
Weirdly, I don’t. And I try to keep my own personal feelings out of the episode, but I was very interested in it as an issue. It seems pretty obvious that everyone in D.C. should have federal representation. We’re citizens of this country. I think similar arguments can be made for a place like Puerto Rico, but I think our politics is such that it’s unlikely to happen any time in the near future, so I guess I’ve kind of accepted it. I wouldn’t choose the situation I’m in, but here I am in it. It’s hard to find someone who lives here who thinks they shouldn’t have representation in the United States Senate or a voting member in the House of Representatives. But, you know, a lot of voting members in the House of Representatives and a lot of United States senators feel differently.
You often call your mom for the podcast. Does your mom enjoy the show and being a part of it?
Mom 100% enjoys the show. I don’t know how much she actually enjoys me calling her, because I usually don’t give her any advance notice.
That’s the way it sounds! But you often can’t tell with podcasts.
That’s the real deal. Yeah, I don’t want it to sound rehearsed. So I just don’t tell her.
And so how did this project first start? Did Vox want to create a competitor to The Daily from the New York Times, and did they just go out and find you?
Yeah, I think they went out and talked to a lot of people. They liked me the most.
I can’t decide which I find more confusing—the fact that The Daily has a way bigger staff than you, and still manages to create a more boring show, or the fact that The Daily creates a way lousier product and nonetheless dominates the Apple charts. Which do you find more puzzling?
Jake, that’s a loaded question. Living in Washington D.C. has made me a better politician. And I’ll just say I am so proud that we make a show that—with its limited resources—can exist in the same conversation as a show with as many resources as The Daily from the New York Times. I’m incredibly grateful to that show for existing, because it’s the reason I have my job. And I’m so proud of the work we do.
Do you find yourself pretending like you don’t understand certain things in order to get good answers?
You might be surprised. I think a lot of times I’m asking genuine questions. I don’t like to pretend I know stuff that I don’t know. And I don’t like to pretend that I don’t know something that I do. I will sometimes ask what happened next when I definitely know what happened next. But I justify that by thinking, I’m the go-between—in the middle of the audience and the guests. What we’re really shooting for is understanding. And what sets us apart is that NPR is shooting for getting you a bunch of news, and I think The Daily’s shooting for how the New York Times told this story. And so I really do think our show is a different thing. And I like to think that I’m well-suited to bring that thing to people, because I’m curious and I don’t know.
You left KUSP to go out and make it as a journalist. Do you have any advice for young journalists?
That search took a very long time. I eventually moved back home and at various points felt very discouraged. I almost gave up on journalism and went to grad school to study environmental science. And I think a thing that saved me is—it must have been, like, 18 months or so between when I started looking for a job and when I landed my next job after KUSP—is that I always was making stuff. I was making podcasts for no one. I was making radio features for no one. I was pitching NPR like it was my job. And they constantly said no. But along the way, people were also encouraging, but I was applying for jobs that I thought I was totally qualified for. And I couldn’t even get an email back. I couldn’t work. I applied for a job at WAMU, a place where I was still temporarily employed. And I flew out to D.C. to interview for it, even though they told me they wouldn’t cover it. I paid for it myself. And I found out I didn’t get that job through a company-wide email. They didn’t even personally write me to tell me, ‘You didn’t get the job,’ and I worked there as a part-time employee. There were so many discouraging things that happened along the way. But I think, finally, when I had the interview for the right job at the right place at the right time, the thing that helped me get the job was the fact that like, in that in all those months and months and months of discouraging job-hunting, I was always making stuff.