Despite the chocolate rum, Sam Sanders was full of good humor.
“I smell my booze,” he said. “I took a secret photo before coming here.”
Sanders, a longtime radio and podcast host, was in a conference room in New York magazine’s Lower Manhattan office, dutifully shoving his way through a watered-down gauntlet. Someone had posted in Slack about the proliferation of celebrity-owned liquor brands, a topic it was pointed out that could make for a fruitful segment on “Into It,” Sanders’ new pop culture podcast. from New York, Vulture and the Vox Media podcast network.
Now it was 3:24 p.m. on a weekday in May, and Sanders, with the help of a few colleagues, was getting daytime drunk on a blind taste test. The chocolate rum – SelvaRey, by kitschy pop and R&B star Bruno Mars – won over the host mainly because of its perfectly cheeky slogan: “Made in the jungle”.
“It’s cheesy, cheesy and cheesy – but it works,” he said.
“Into It,” which debuted Thursday, enters a crowded talk show podcast space, distinguished by a deep bench of contributors – care for Vulture, largely absent from the action in podcasting until present – and a generous pour of irreverence. Like “Culture Gabfest” and “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” it promises smart reviews on the week’s news and trends. Like on “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” and “Love It Or Leave It,” the studio games (the booze tasting will appear in an upcoming episode) and listener calls will provide a sense of dynamism. But the clearest indication of the show’s ambition is Sanders himself, previously best known as the founding host of NPR’s pop culture podcast and radio show, “It’s Been a Minute. “.
For Sanders, 37, “Into It” is both a reset and a moment of emancipation. He spent 12 years on public radio, first coming to prominence during the 2016 presidential election, as one of the original co-hosts of the “NPR Politics Podcast.” In all that time, he says, he had honed a character that felt cramped on public radio but takes center stage on “Into It”: uncensored, uninhibited and deranged.
“Every year at NPR, you could hear me pushing the line: What can you say? What can’t you say? How can you tell?“said Sanders in a recent interview. “I didn’t want to think about it anymore. At a certain point, it became [Expletive] line. I passed that.”
On “It’s Been a Minute,” which debuted in 2017, Sanders attracted a loyal following with a combination of old-school gravitas and dashing informality. He was a solid announcer of hard news, updating listeners in the White House about Trump and the start of the pandemic. But the show leaned into conversation rather than monologue. Sanders brought a convivial generosity and enthusiasm to group discussions and lengthy interviews – often conveyed with an audible “mmh” or “go” or “talk about it” – that recalled the barbecue friend you can’t. not wait to chat or sympathize.
Brent Baughman, a senior producer at NPR who developed “It’s Been a Minute” with Sanders, said he took note of the host’s unusual effect on listeners while working on the “NPR Politics Podcast.” . At an event for that show in 2016, fans wore homemade t-shirts screen-printed with Sanders’ face.
“It was clear he had star power that transcended politics,” Baughman said. “People were just tuning in because they liked it.”
Sanders’ candid, conspiratorial style imbued “It’s Been a Minute” with a generative vein of unpredictability. Speaking in 2018 with actor Brian Tyree Henry, of the FX series “Atlanta,” he upset what could have been a number-based exchange by asking how Henry ordered his hash browns.
The actor, who had lamented his inability to eat undisturbed at Waffle House, responded with a deadpan rhetorical wrist snap, “That’s none of your business.”
Sanders yelled in protest and both men laughed. When Henry finally divulged his order (“smothered and covered,” with sautéed onions and melted American cheese), he followed it with a surprisingly earnest tribute to the pluralistic appeal of the Georgia-based restaurant chain – a paradise for people watching also like potatoes.
“That’s what I loved about Atlanta, man,” he said, his voice softening. “Every nook and cranny has something.”
Uncovering unusual pathways for emotional sincerity has long been the focus of Sanders’ work. In his first job at NPR, as a postgraduate fellow in 2009, he turned to subjects with an undercurrent of pathos. In 2016, after a deadly shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which came a year after a fatal shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Sanders provided a rare note of catharsis on the “NPR Politics Podcast”.
“You think of the mother who lost her life in Charleston – the reason she needed this safe space is because she’s not sure her son could be killed for carrying a bag of Skittles,” said he declared. “People at the Orlando club, the reason they need this safe space is because they don’t know if they’ll be beaten up for kissing their boyfriend, or if they’ll be able to keep their jobs because they’re gay. I hope we understand that a lot of people in America, in this society, don’t feel safe every day.”
Born in Seguin, Texas, Sanders never expected to work as a journalist. He was raised in a strict Pentecostal family and once thought he would become a preacher. He pivoted during his college years, preparing for a career as a campaign strategist or political fundraiser. It wasn’t until the final year of a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government that he considered applying to NPR, which he and his mother had become romantically involved with. on hour-long journeys to and from the church.
“It was a way to stay informed and get involved without having to do politics,” Sanders said.
He learned reporting on the job at NPR and first embraced the nonprofit’s strict rules of impartiality. A 2012 ethics manual urged journalists to “transcend how we feel on a topic and convey to our audience what we know about it, and what we’re not doing.
Although he flirted with the idea of bringing more of himself to his stories, Sanders worried about getting too personal. In his remarks about the Pulse nightclub shooting, he made no mention of his own sexuality. (Two years later, he discussed coming out as gay on an episode of “It’s Been a Minute.”) Like many reporters at mainstream news outlets, he largely hid his feelings about Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, avoiding the use of words. as “racist” and “lie”.
“It took years of working on myself to get to the point where I felt comfortable sharing something personal in the middle of a story,” he said.
Sanders said he realized he needed a fresh start sometime in the middle of last year. The announcement this spring of his departure from NPR came amid a flurry of high-profile outings from other correspondents of color, including Audie Cornish, Noel King and Lulu Garcia-Navarro. (Garcia-Navarro joined The New York Times last fall.)
King, Garcia-Navarro and others previously alleged pay disparities within the organization between male and female hosts, among other issues. NPR said improving diversity and equity was its “top priority” and pointed to competition from deep-pocketed rivals as an explanation for the departures.
Although Sanders said “matters of fairness” were a factor in his decision, he added that the choice was largely personal, fueled by his desire for maximum creative freedom.
“I spent a third of my life in this place and it still means a lot to me,” he said. “But I wanted the time and the space to carve out an identity that wasn’t ‘Sam Sanders from NPR’.”
In the first episode of “Into It,” Sanders was lithe and snappy, a distance runner who moved forward in stride. In 30 minutes, he went through a series of games with Vulture colleagues who highlighted the concerns of the week: Jennifer Lopez (“a human angel here on earth”), Ben Affleck (“something dead behind his eyes”), Keke Palmer (“a breath of fresh air”).
The structure of the show, over which Sanders has wide discretion, is deliberately flexible. His lengthy interviews are back in the mix (the first episode included a deep dive on Beyoncé with journalist Danyel Smith) and he leaves room for what he calls “jinks for jinks’ sake,” like tasting celebrity booze.
Above all, he says, he wants to talk about what makes him feel good and invite others to do the same.
“I think the best thing I can offer is a place where you can come recharge, learn, be entertained, and then go back out into the world feeling a little relieved,” Sanders said. “That’s what I wanted for my listeners from day one.”