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“The Only Question Isn’t Who Gets More Votes”: Behind The New York Times’ New Politics Podcast

“I have never felt like the type of person who traditional political reporting speaks to,” said The New York TimesAstead Herndon, who’ll begin hosting a new midterms-focused politics podcast called The Run-Up next week. “I’ve never felt like they were writing for me in mind, never felt like they were writing for the places I came from in mind.”

Herndon, 29, has long been moonlighting as a member of the Times’ audio team, but officially made the jump from the politics team in April to launch a new show. The Run-Up may sound familiar; this was the title given to the Times audio team’s debut series, a political show hosted by Michael Barbaro that chronicled the final three months of the 2016 election (and gave rise to The Daily, the Times’ flagship show). But according to Herndon, the series is being resurrected largely in name only. “It felt like that version of a kind of strict horse race run-up isn’t the only question for right now,” he told me over coffee last week. “People stormed the Capitol. The only question isn’t who gets more votes at the ballot box.” The series wants to wrestle with murkier questions. 

“How did we get to the point where a record number of people think the country’s on the wrong track? How did we get to a point where a record number of people think democracy is broken? Legitimately, the expert people will tell you that this thing may not last,” said Herndon, referring to the private warning that historians gave President Joe Biden earlier this month about the threat to American democracy. The president recently likened the MAGA philosophy to “semi-fascism.” “Those are new words and a new, I think, disconnect of where folks are,” Herndon said. “And so the ‘how did we get here,’ to me, is like, How did this happen?” He added: “I feel like this show rejects the premise that Donald Trump was elected, then all this crazy stuff happened.” 

The plan is to air the first episode of The Run-Up—a shorter one that draws upon Times polling information and serves as a kind of thesis statement for the show—on Sept. 6, with a full-length episode airing two days later. After that, it’ll be weekly, with episodes clocking in at around 30 to 45 minutes. The Run-Up will, like The Daily, be anchored in conversations with Times journalists, but they’ll always be accompanied by other voices, such as those of news makers—initial ones include Kellyanne Conway and Rep. Jim Clyburn—or voters. It’s more of a “seasonal arc that speaks to each other in episodes, rather than it is a reflection of an individual story or a reflection of an individual race,” Herndon told me. To put it another way: “idea scoop rather than news scoop.” But there will still be a news component. “We want things to feel timely,” said Herndon. “It’s important that these conversations reflect what’s actually happening in the midterms.” 

Like the original iteration of The Run-Up, the election show has something of a built-in end date. Herndon insisted he isn’t bothered by the time limit. “I wanted to do a reported arc that spoke to this moment,” he told me. “In my head, it’s not worth thinking about” how, if at all, the show could live in the future—perhaps redeveloped for the presidential race—because “it’s hard to know what we would want to say after the midterms,” and “I wouldn’t want something that had to be instantly reactive,” he said. “It works when it’s intentional.” 

In 2020, Herndon was a lead reporter on The Field, a Times series that spoke to voters in towns and cities across the country in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election and often aired on The Daily. “I really felt like The Field allowed me to tell stories that stitched paper stories together in a way that I really liked,” said Herndon. The medium also had more space for nuance. “I felt like I was doing these stories on the road where I was only using the newsworthy part of some interview…and losing all of these interactions that were actually really illuminating throughout.” He said he kept thinking, “What if people got to hear the small talk before this thing? It’s actually not just that this person said this thing. It’s about the 30 minutes we had before that built them to the level of comfort to say it; you also learned about them in that too. And I just felt like I was missing that.”

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