Michael Hobbes (@RottenInDenmark) is a journalist and co-creator of the hit podcasts Maintenance Phase—which he co-hosts with Aubrey Gordon—and You’re Wrong About, which he co-hosted with Sarah Marshall before leaving last year.
“Now, when anyone can go on Wikipedia and get a general timeline of events of what happened—that's not the hard part, putting things in chronological order. I want someone who's done a deep dive, and knows a lot more about a subject than I do, but is also able to tell me how it felt to them to read about it. …
“The fact that both shows are one person telling another person something, I think that's one of the reasons that maybe people like listening to it. It's fun to hear somebody who's like a super nerd for something telling you about it at a bar.”
Special thanks to Ashley Smith (@Cosmic_Bigfoot) for production support.Support the show
Michael Hobbes: Mike's just like a normal guy with some bad opinions and some pretty tedious personality traits, just like everybody else.
Mark Armstrong: Hi, everybody, this is Everything I’ve Learned, a podcast about lessons, mistakes and other turning points. I’m Mark Armstrong. A couple of months ago, I spotted an article from Bloomberg with the headline, “Podcasting hasn’t produced a new hit in years.” This was very confusing to me because I was actually friends with someone who produced not one, but two breakout hit podcasts in the last few years.
Not only that, he produced these shows with two friends he met on the internet with no big media support and almost no budget. His name is Michael Hobbes and he’s the co-creator of “You’re Wrong About,” a podcast that he co-hosted with Sarah Marshall. And he also co-created “Maintenance Phase,” another hit show that he co-hosts with Aubrey Gordon.
Both shows broken to the top 25 on Apple Podcasts, they’ve been profiled in The New Yorker and the New York Times, they’ve won major podcasting awards, and they each bring in thousands of paying subscribers each month, enough to become profitable media companies, even without featuring any advertising.
You’re Wrong About is a show that debunked scandals and moral panics of the last 30 years or so. While Maintenance Phase focuses on diet and fitness misinformation of the past and present. It also does a deeper exploration of anti-fat discrimination in our society. I’ve known Michael for several years. So, it’s been delightful and inspiring to see how he and Sarah and Aubrey have created these shows from the ground up. They’ve also helped define a unique style for podcasting, that is both journalistically rigorous, tightly edited and still casual and funny.
Michael and Sarah have described this as the teacher-learner format. It’s like one friend telling another friend about something that they’re super passionate about. The fact is, they’re all very smart likable people, and that’s why I love these shows so much. Michael recently left You’re Wrong About to focus on Maintenance Phase and some other projects. And I got a chance to talk with him recently about how he thinks about podcasting, journalism and more broadly, communicating ideas on the internet.
One small word of warning, there’s a lot of random cursing in this conversation, so just a heads up about that. And thank you again for listening. If you like the show, please leave us a review and a comment on Apple Podcast. And you can find out more by going to www.eil.show or my own website, www.markarms.com. Without further ado, here is Michael Hobbes.
Mark Armstrong: Mike, thank you for being here.
Michael Hobbes: Thank you. You’ve gone into formal Mark. I didn’t know if listeners know that we’re pretty close friends, but we have to do the thing where it’s like, we now have the interview versions of ourselves, we’re making things that more important. Hi, Mark.
Mark Armstrong: Michael Hobbes, thank you for being here. I think you should help direct me here because you have a process, which I am obsessed with. I’ve interviewed you and Sarah before together in the early days of You’re Wrong About, and so I’ve learned a little bit about your process and in our bike rides around Seattle.
Michael Hobbes: I miss our bike rides.
Mark Armstrong: I know, me too, but what is your process like with this? Because when you sit down and do a podcast, you’re recording for—you’re settling in for a long time, right?
Michael Hobbes: Yeah. I only know one way to make a podcast. I only really know one way to do anything, because my whole career has just been me just doing stuff and then putting it on the internet. And then eventually people have noticed. That literally is just what I have done from day one. And so, the only way I know how to make a podcast, because it’s really cheap and it’s really easy, and I don’t really know the production software all that well, is to just talk to someone, and then you have both of the parallel tracks and then you cut out the boring parts.
And so if we record for three hours, we usually end up with about an hour, to an hour and 20 minutes of usable footage. So, it’s like the actual end product is ‘the best of’ of whatever conversation we’ve had. Because a normal component of human conversations is like you kind of come back to the same points. You go down little diversionary pathways that lead nowhere. You ask questions that is not really an interesting line of questioning. And so, the whole thing is guided by my own very short attention span. I cut out all the boring parts and then I have a show, basically.
Mark Armstrong: Did you learn that just through the process of doing it? Or did you come in like as a podcast fan and knowing specifically I want to do something like super tightly edited
Michael Hobbes: Well, I mean, one of the things that me and you have discussed on many of our Seattle bike rides is various podcasts that annoy us and forms of punditry that annoy us. And so, the only guiding principle is just, like, I find it really boring when podcasts do X. I notice myself doing it and then I’m like, “Hmm, I don’t want to have a podcast that does that,” so I cut that stuff out. A lot of it is really the conversion. I’m talking about like the editing process now, not necessarily the research or the recording process, but the editing process is trying to convert something from a conversation into a podcast.
And I think there are things that make it fun to participate in a conversation that are not fun to listen to in a podcast. And so a lot of those things that come up in a normal conversation are normal things. Like you mentioned, “Oh, that reminds me of my sister.” You kind of end up going on this winding meandering path away from the main subject. That’s a totally normal thing that happens in conversation, but that’s not necessarily something that you want to share with a podcast audience, who is there to hear an actual narrative and wants to have something a little bit more tight, or at least I do. And I listened to podcasts and that’s my only guiding principle as what I would find boring.
Mark Armstrong: Yeah, but there’s also a flip side to that, which is, you’re also inserting things that say like classic traditional, you talked about me turning on my host voice, like classic traditional public radio would cut out in your conversations that make it fun and relatable. So, where is that line and how does that work?
Michael Hobbes: Also, just from my own being annoyed or not annoyed by other podcasts, I want to hear what people think about stuff. I think that thing of having omnipotent narrative. That’s like, “In 2003, we invaded Iraq” or whatever. I don’t find that to be a useful journalistic trope, especially at a time now, when anyone can go on Wikipedia and get a general timeline of events of what happened, that’s not the hard part, putting things in chronological order. I want someone who has done a deep dive and knows a lot more about a subject than I do, but is also able to tell me how it felt to them to read about it.
Like, “Yeah, I read about this and this person sucked, like Donald Rumsfeld is the whole reason we invaded Iraq and fuck that guy.” That’s a much more interesting way to hear information, than in this weird, fake, I’m telling you events, but I have no perspective on them, that’s not the way that humans tell other human stories. The fact that both shows are one person telling another person something, I think that’s one of the reasons that maybe people like listening to it, it’s fun to hear somebody who’s a super nerd for something telling you about it at a bar. Oh my God, have you come across this guy on YouTube, Mark, Post 10?
Mark Armstrong: No. What is that?
Michael Hobbes: Get ready to go down like a week’s long rabbit hole Mark. So, I forget how I found this guy, but this is a guy who drives around the entire Northeastern corridor, unclogging drains. That’s not a euphemism or a metaphor for something. He literally sees like, washed out roads or he goes out during floods, like when it’s raining really hard, with a fucking rake and he’ll go and pull the debris off the storm drain. And you know those massive four-foot-deep water thingies that form in roads. And everybody’s Prius is floating around like a rubber ducky. This guy goes and he rakes a storm drain and it drains within five minutes. And he’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s because they’re not maintaining the storm drains.” Anyway, I have not as a human being thought about urban drainage in my entire life.
Mark Armstrong: That sounds like some sort of public works ASMR.
Michael Hobbes: Exactly. And that’s literally what it is. Some of the videos are an hour long, but because this guy is so enthusiastic and so—you can tell he’s just deeply unhealthily obsessed with drainage, it’s so soothing and just fascinating to have him tell you how this works. He is like, “Oh, these are family of beavers that keeps blocking this culvert. And it’s the same three beavers block the same culvert over and over again. And they hate me and I hate them and we’re locked in this battle of wills.”
I actually think—this is not a podcast thought, but like a YouTube thought—that something that YouTube and amateur media has unlocked, is just the idea that in general, it doesn’t really matter the topic, but just listening to somebody explain to you something they are weirdly way too into is just fascinating and great. Like, just listening to somebody describe their passion to you is awesome.
And nobody can do it as well as somebody who truly spends all their day thinking about blocked culverts in the Northeastern corridor, it’s awesome.
Mark Armstrong: And they know it intimately. But in that case, you’ve got someone so low on YouTube, who’s really into it. I feel like in podcasting—well, at least you’re two shows like Maintenance Phase and You’re Wrong About are two co-hosts. Is there something about YouTube that allows for like that solo conveyance of excitement versus the podcast, does that require two hosts?
Michael Hobbes: Honestly, I watched some YouTube videos, those people that will just point the camera at themselves and talk for like 45 minutes, and I’m in awe of those people. I don’t know how you talk with no feedback at all. People kind of give you signals that you’re veering off a little too far, that, you know, this is something that’s not quite interesting to me, they’ll pull you back to the topic with a question that’s more directed—like you just did.
That, to me, anyway, I’m much better at telling stories when I can bounce it off somebody and try to make them laugh. There are certain things that I know Sarah is going to react to, that I know Aubrey is going to react to and I love finding those in the research. I’m like, “Oh, Aubrey is going to hate this, I have to tell this to Aubrey.” That’s also really fun interaction of I’m like, presenting these things to her on a platter, and I have her in mind when I’m doing the research.
And also, I’ve been really lucky to work with two ladies who are just really good storytellers. And I want to hear them tell me stories too, because both of them, whenever they get down a rabbit hole, they’re like junkyard dogs chasing after these stories. And I just love having them present that to me. So, I also get the best of both worlds that I get to tell people weird stuff, and I get to hear their word stuff.
Mark Armstrong: Well, it’s so fascinating that you’ve got such a great dynamic with both of them. How do you even start to think about… you reached out to Sarah and Aubrey out of the blue and you just started pitching them?
Michael Hobbes: Yeah!
Mark Armstrong: Or how does that work? It feels like putting a band together.
Michael Hobbes: It’s weird, I know. And I’ve been so lucky that they both turned out to be so cool and not weird to work with or not difficult at all. So, I don’t know, they were just people that I knew from the internet. We both have people that we DM with pretty frequently, or we know their work or we feel like we know them through their work.
Sarah was the person doing the smartest writing on the 1990s and the stories we got wrong. And Aubrey is the smartest person doing work on anti-fat bullshit. I was just like, man, it would be really cool to spend more time with these ladies and do a show together.
And that’s it, it’s just like an idea that I had and I reached out to them for both shows. I had no idea that they would find an audience and that there’d be people that liked them and that they would last as long as they did. And me and Sarah, we just started doing a couple of test episodes and we just kept doing it. And eventually people found it. And so, I’ve just been really lucky to find the two coolest lady writers in Portland to work with.
Mark Armstrong: Yeah, Portland.
Michael Hobbes: I have a very narrow band of people I’m willing to work with.
Mark Armstrong: And before this though, you have done tons of great work that was on Longreads, HuffPost Highline, and then also you did a bunch of YouTube stuff as well. So, did you hit this point where it’s like, “It’s time to go into podcasting. I’m going to go try this.” Did you think you had those skills already before you even came into it?
Michael Hobbes: You’ve seen my YouTube stuff; I don’t know if good would be the way to describe it. I don’t know if I was ever all that good at those. But I really have no idea what my guiding principle is. It’s always just been something… I think it would be fun to do work in a different medium. I feel like longform magazine articles were having a moment when I started doing that, like that was the beginning of Longreads, Longform. And then I was like, “This is a really interesting, medium to me. And I want to try doing this,” and I tried doing that.
The video stuff, that was like the pivot to video time. And I was like, I love [inaudible 12:53] acting in all these six minute-long animated explainer videos. That was a genre of thing before YouTube changed its algorithm. And now it rewards much longer videos. At the time, they were rewarding clicks. So, everybody wanted their video to be less than eight and a half minutes and just get you in, explain something, get you out.
And I was like, this is lit. And so, I started making those. And then I just got sucked into the tractor beam of digital media and then of course, spat out because everyone does, right? And then the podcasting thing was also just like, I like listening to podcasts and I think some of them are good and some of them are trash. And so I was like, “I want to try making one of the good ones.” I think everything I’ve done, everything anybody does, the first 10 episodes of You’re Wrong About are pretty rough. And I don’t really listen to them, I find them really difficult to re-listen to, because there was a lot editing errors and me and Sarah didn’t know each other that well at that point and, you know, everything takes a while to gel.
But I just kept doing it and same with the videos and the articles and everything else. I just kept doing it until they were better. It’s always just been guided by, like, “I think this would be fun to do.” And then I just put it onto the internet and then it seemed to work out, eventually. That’s like a very white dude thing to say, it’s like, “Oh, I just do stuff and everything is fine, everything just works out for me all the time.” But it sort of has. I’m sure there’s all kinds of privilege conversations to have around the mechanisms by which that happens. But I’ve never mapped any of this stuff out in advance remotely.
Mark Armstrong: Well, the thing I also appreciate is that you’re not really dogmatic about a certain format or form. I feel like in our conversations, you’ve been this is about communicating ideas. And so, if there is a great way to communicate an idea on a different format, or I haven’t seen you on TikTok yet, but…
Michael Hobbes: I can’t dance, Mark. I can’t dance, that’s why. I’m not like those teens.
Mark Armstrong: Yeah. But I feel like you’ve been very open and in terms of how you deliver or how you communicate. Is that something you feel strongly about?
Michael Hobbes: Well, one of the reasons why I’m interested in video again…I think one of the factors that was driving me to leave You’re Wrong About when I did was also there’s a lot that you can do in podcasting that you can’t do in the written word, but there’s also a lot that you can do in video that you can’t do in podcasting.
So there’s quite a few stories that I didn’t think would really work on the Wrong About format or in the Maintenance Phase format because they have visual elements, or they have like an emotional tonality that just wouldn’t really work in that format. And so think podcast…
Mark Armstrong: What’s an example of that?
Michael Hobbes: Well, one of the things that came up this week with Maintenance Phase was there is a grifty influencer that we’re talking about and one of his sins was in his book. He printed a bar graph that had this very clear result. It’s like, “The more you sleep, the healthier you are.” But then people found out that he had actually removed one of the bars on the bar graph in the original paper that made it seem like it’s actually more of a U-shape. And it’s actually more complicated than that. The relationship between sleep and health is more complicated.
But even in me explaining that to you right now, it’s like U-shape? Like a bar and a bar graph? You sort of need the visual to make it make sense. And so there’s a lot of that sort of stuff, where I’m like…especially with the scientific de-bunkey stuff that I’m interested in. There are certain things you just can’t really present in an audio-only format. Anything involving numbers, I’ve noticed, people gloss over. If you’re like, “He said it was 14 billion, but it was actually 21 billion,” people just turn off, because anything involving a number, we don’t really process those visually.
I’ve been dabbling in starting to make videos again, just because there are stories that I really want to tell, but I just can’t really do them as a podcast because you’d have to be explaining the bar “and this is taller than the next bar…” It totally breaks down.
Mark Armstrong: Could you translate a Maintenance Phase episode into a YouTube video?
Michael Hobbes: That’s what I’m working on actually. One of our episodes we did recently was about the link between obesity and health. And I did my best to present that work in a narrative way, but you just have to show people graphs and shit. You can’t really present that topic and talk about the science without… you can’t describe to people what a U-shaped mortality curve is, or a J-shaped. You have to show people, or else it doesn’t make any sense. And also, I think those names are terrible.
Mark Armstrong: You did not start in journalism. You started in international development, right? So, tell me the path that gets you to this point.
Michael Hobbes: Have we ever talked about this, Mark, like, our past lives?
Mark Armstrong: I knew you worked for an NGO, but I don’t know the extent of what else you did.
Michael Hobbes: Yeah, that’s the thing, I feel like working in human rights is one of those things where it’s like being a lawyer or something where you tell people you’re a lawyer and they’re like, “Okay.” There’s a vast range of what lawyers do. And so, when you tell people you’re in human rights, they’re like, “Oh my God, you’re such a good person” or whatever.
And it’s like, well, A, no. B, there’s a really wide range of things that people do in human rights. So, my career, which was totally serendipitous, I got an internship at a human rights organization that became an 11-year long career in this field. All of my work was based on the human rights impacts of corporations. So, I did various, like, I did research projects. I did consultancy for corporations, where corporations would hire us to be like, “Oh, what do we need to know about in this country?”
I did trainings for NGOs in Africa, I did field work in Africa. I did a bunch of other random stuff, and it was all based around the ways that corporations affect human rights. And a lot of my work was building these sort of country reports or impact reports of all of the ways that, for example, like the mining sector affected people in a mining community. So, you go there, you interview people and you make literally a list of, okay, the security guards are harassing people and there’s the environmental impact and it’s effects on the local economy.
And you literally try to find every single thing and just put all of these impacts and all these sources into these little buckets of different categories. And then you make a report that’s like 40 pages, 100 pages long. That it’s like, okay, here is every single way that this mining company is affecting human rights in this area of Papa New Guinea or wherever it is. And weirdly that’s basically what I do with journalism now, is, I’m just like trying to figure, trying to systematically break down, what are the reasons why this happened? Or what are the chapters of the story?
I’m working on this piece right now about trans rights and I’m trying to identify every argument against trans rights. And there’s a finite number. It’s like, there are seven arguments. And every single piece in the fucking Economist or whatever that you read, it all falls under one of these seven headings. And so you can actually just organize all of the arguments against trans rights into these buckets. And you can be like, okay, there’s also the debunking of all seven of those arguments.
I really only have one setting, and it’s just like, “This is what I did for 11 years of my career.” Which is just like, these are categories of information. And then I will break those down and present all of them in a row, essentially. So, it’s really not that complicated Mark. You know that I’m a simple man.
Mark Armstrong: But you found that one thing at this NGO, did you decide to make that pivot all at once to journalism?
Michael Hobbes: No.
Mark Armstrong: Or was that just a gradual thing?
Michael Hobbes: Yeah, I just started doing it. I mean, you are a part of my origin story. I just started writing stuff for my blog, and then I got an email from Mike Dang at the Billfold who was like, “Hey, your blog is cool, can we post your stuff on The Billfold? Do you want to start writing for us?”
And then like, I started writing for The Billfold and then I think it was somebody from New Republic reached out or maybe it was HuffPost at the time that had these contributor accounts or something that you could get a byline on HuffPost. And then it just went from there. But there was a long period, actually, I think more than a year where I was just writing stuff and putting it on my blog.
I was at the time working at an abysmal NGO in Berlin and I was really unhappy and I would sit at my desk, and I had read somewhere that Jeffrey Eugenides, when he was writing, I think the Virgin Suicides, was working at a book publisher, and apparently, he would sit there with a word document opened with the letterhead of like Scribner or whatever publisher it was.
He would sit there with the letterhead open and he would sit at his desk and he would write his novel in the word document so that if anybody walked past, they would look and be like, “Oh, he’s writing a letter on the letterhead, he’s obviously doing work.” And so what I would do is my version of that is I would open an Outlook file and I would do compose mail. And I would have like a composed mail window open, and I would write these articles of whatever I was thinking about at the time for blog posts and then every three paragraphs, I would alt + tab over to a word document, paste them in the word document, and then alt + tab over to Outlook and keep writing, so I didn’t have too much text in the Outlook window because it would seem suspicious.
Mark Armstrong: You’re writing very long emails.
Michael Hobbes: It was just like, man, Mike’s been writing this email for four hours now. And nobody got wiser because the whole problem with that job, there was actually nothing for me to do. So, I was just sitting around. So, I just started writing stuff. And you guys noticed, and pretty soon… I think I wrote a blog post at one point, it was actually on Long Reads, which was the fucking biggest deal in my life ever. I was like this totally random dude with a dumb blog and it got 50,000 hits.
And I was like, “Oh my fucking god, 50,000 hits.” This was orders of magnitude larger than anything that had ever happened to me. I was on cloud nine the entire day. Then it was just the ball got rolling. And then I spent the next, I think it was like five years where I was still doing human rights work. I ended up moving to a different human rights job and in the evenings and on the weekends, I would go to this—there’s like a local hookah bar near my house and I would smoke hookah and write stuff in the nights. Also really healthy, really good for me. Just great, great habits all around.
Again, there’s all privilege wrapped up in it too, I had a job that paid me enough that I could just fuck around on the evenings and weekends with nothing else to do. So, I was able to get into a job in journalism, the way that most people do through like, wildly large amounts of existing privilege. I was a guy with a reasonably well-paying full-time job, living in Berlin where my costs were really low and I could afford to do this basically. It never would have happened if I was bartending. It never would have happened if I was living in New York. It never would’ve happened under a bunch of other circumstances.
Mark Armstrong: Yeah, you were in Berlin and Seattle and not necessarily like, the center of all American media.
Michael Hobbes: Yeah. I was never part of the vortex. I have a huge chip on my shoulder about it, just like everybody else. I went to a community college. I am not from New York. I don’t… Yeah, it’s bullshit, because of course, I have all these forms of privilege, anyway. It’s not like I’m really broke and from the outside. Of course, that’s not true. But there is a kind of a club of people that live in the Brooklyn gang. Anytime I hear somebody lives in Brooklyn, I’m like, “Ah, I’m a Brooklyn person,” which is totally mean, and I don’t know, some of my best friends live in Brooklyn,
Mark Armstrong: But fast forward to these podcasts, You’re Wrong About, these were not released by big podcast companies. I feel like they’re two really great examples of successful independent media over the last couple of years. They really blew up with mostly word of mouth,
Michael Hobbes: Yeah, that’s wild.
Mark Armstrong: That’s pretty amazing.
Michael Hobbes: We did no marketing of any kind. We literally just like made a podcast and put it on the internet and tweeted about it. I don’t think we ever set up an Instagram account. We didn’t do anything. We literally just put it on the internet and told people.
And eventually, people found us and people wrote about us. And also, both me and Sarah are journalists, so we know a lot of journalists. This is something that I don’t think like, this is not necessarily a path that is available. If you’re a flight attendant or something and you start a podcast, when you tweet about it or you post on social media, you don’t have that many journalists seeing it.
And journalists write about things that they personally are doing. So, because me and Sarah know a lot of journalists and editors, they were like, “Hey, this guy, Mike, that I know is tweeting about his podcast, I’ll give it a shot.” And then they start listening to the podcast and then they’re like, “Well, I’m going to assign a story, someone is going to write a story about You’re Wrong About,” and then it becomes... Like then we started getting much more attention, partly because we were already part of those networks. I don’t think this is a path that’s available to everybody, but we had done enough freelance writing that people knew us on Twitter, basically.
Mark Armstrong: Yeah, but there was a tipping point where it went from, “Hey, we’re just hanging out, posting this stuff,” to like totally blowing up.
Michael Hobbes: Yeah, it was weird, it was really weird.
Mark Armstrong: What was that moment?
Michael Hobbes: There was also this weird thing that the first 18 months of the show, it was hosted on my dumb WordPress blog. Which is how you guys found me. So, I’ve had this blog for a decade and it has this extremely janky podcasting feature where it’s like, “Post A Podcast,” but it’s not designed for that, it is not fit for purpose at all. But whatever it works for this extremely basic functionality.
So, we used this WordPress thing that would post on Apple, but we had no statistics. So, we could look up Apple statistics, but they’re super incomplete. We could look up Spotify statistics, but they’re super incomplete. So, for the first 18 months of the show, we had this general sense that it was growing, but we literally had nothing to compare it to. And then when we finally switched over to a legitimate hosting service, the show had been going at that point for 18 months and we were like, “Okay, we probably have maybe a million downloads in the whole time. The show is growing. Maybe we have a million downloads.
And it turned out that we were getting a million downloads every two weeks. We were like, “Oh shit, this is a much bigger endeavor than either one of us had any idea about. And then that was also at the beginning of quarantine, I think. And then also our show just actually exploded in quarantine, partly because we doubled or tripled our release schedule. But then I think there was something comforting about us in quarantine somehow. A lot of people got into us in quarantine.
Mark Armstrong: Did you have any interactions that started to. “Oh, wow, this feels like fame.”
Michael Hobbes: I got recognized in a locker room. That was the one thing.
Mark Armstrong: Well, that’s interesting that you are recognized because it’s your voices, was it through your voice?
Michael Hobbes: I mean, this is actually very early in the podcast and it was something I had done all of these dumb cable shows, cable news things, which I will never do again, because I had to wake up at five in the morning and you sit with the backdrop behind you, with the space needle as if you’re sitting in front of the skyline and you have a dumb earpiece. The whole thing was just so contrived and horrible. And later that day, one of my editors, actually—somehow, he must have had an alert set up or something, but he DM me with somebody who tweeted.
He’s like, “I just saw Michael Hobbes in the locker room at the Rock Climbing Gym in Seattle that I used to go to. I appreciate his takes on various things, but I didn’t want to say hi, because we were both in a locker room.” and I was like, man, that was the one fucking time I get recognized was in a locker room. This is why I feel deeply ambivalent about ever being on TV or achieving any level of public figure. I don’t see the benefit of people knowing anything about you or knowing you in any way.
Mark Armstrong: Well, do you grapple with that? You’re operating in a format where people feel intimately familiar with you and they feel like they know you. And that cuts a couple of ways. One is you’ve got a really great Patreon subscriber base, so the business side takes off. And then the other side is people start to really connect. So, how do you figure out what’s good and bad about that?
Michael Hobbes: It’s really weird having other people have a parasocial relationship with you, because on some level, they do know you, and people know you through podcasting in a way that they don’t know you through the printed word, which was actually really cool. I think one of the best things about podcasting is that it’s a much better place for challenging ideas than print because people will stop reading halfway through a print article.
But if somebody is doing the dishes or walking the dog, unless you’re really, egregious, they’ll probably stick with you for the whole show, especially if they have a preexisting relationship with you. So, one of the things I like the most about podcasting is you can tell people things that they don’t want to hear, because they trust you. And because they can’t really take something out of context.
If you want to make a nuanced argument… We did an episode about sex offenders for You’re Wrong About, and that’s an issue that just requires a lot of nuance and long explanations about like, what are the actual dangers to children? Like what are these laws actually doing? Who is a registered sex offender? It’s like a really complicated issue. And it’s a kind of thing doing in print is really hard because people can take one paragraph out of it and they can tweet it or they can stop reading right there and they can email you and call you an asshole.
But in a podcast, people will follow you for the whole 45 minutes. And I actually love that you can challenge people and be like, “I’m going to tell you something that you might not be comfortable with, but please just hear me out.” That’s really exciting and really cool. So, the fact that you’ve built these relationships of trust with people, I love our listeners, our listeners are so smart.
I have phone calls probably three or four times a week. One of our listeners will write in and they’re like a subject expert on something we’ve talked about. They’re like, “Oh, I’m actually a criminal prosecutor and I want to talk to you.” Over the summer, I talked to a public defender who got in touch and I was like, “Tell me about the criminal justice system. I love that, it’s so cool.” But then there’s also this weird thing that people feel like they know you obviously, of course, because that’s what the podcasting medium is for, but they know this version of me, that is like, it’s not, not me, but also like I said, these are three-hour long conversation and we’re boiling it down to one hour.
So, it’s like, I tell bad jokes and sometimes I’m not that funny. Sometimes I just go on these meandering things where I’m really self-indulgent or really horrible in some way and I’m like, “Oh, I’m a prick there, cut it out.” So, people have this idea of me that I’m much funnier and smarter and more clever and more charismatic – whatever. All of that stuff is amped up by 50% because you’re getting this best of version of whatever conversation I had.
I’m always afraid that people have these like high expectations of me and then when they meet me in real life or we have a conversation they’re like, “Oh, my Mike told a joke and it wasn’t funny, I haven’t heard him do that before.” That isn’t something they’re expecting.
And it’s like, “Oh, Mike’s just a normal guy with some bad opinions and some pretty tedious personality traits, just like everybody else. So, I always want to highlight that, yeah, I’m kind of a piece of shit, just like everyone else. I’m not the Mike that you know from your telephone.
Mark Armstrong: Well, the good thing is I’m not editing this conversation before I post it, so…
Michael Hobbes: Oh, great.
Mark Armstrong: As announced earlier, you’ve left You’re Wrong About, and you did double down on the production of the podcast. Was there a burnout aspect? Is there anything that you feel like, “Oh, we shouldn’t have done this many or we should’ve paced it?” Were there any lessons from that?
Michael Hobbes: Well, I don’t think there was a burnout in that, or maybe there is. It’s up to listeners if they think that my episodes were bad or something. But the purpose of leaving when I did, was to try to leave on a high note. I could see it in myself and I’ve seen it in myself, in other jobs, throughout my career in human rights, I ended up leaving my jobs every two to three years.
And that was just like, I could tell that my heart wasn’t in it anymore with whatever I was doing. And so I would switch to something…Even within human rights, there’s a lot of different, you know, you can do communications or fundraising or research or all these things. And so I would make these big switches every two to three years because I could just feel that it didn’t grab me anymore. And I could feel that happening or starting to happen with You’re Wrong About, I just felt like…Especially once lockdown was over, we had done so much in lockdown, like lockdown and the show, the show was such a lifeline for me during lockdown.
And then once lockdown was over, it just felt like there was this new chapter in my life that needed to get started. And I could just feel myself kind of procrastinating the research, kind of procrastinating the editing in a way that never had happened before. And I was like, “Mike, that is it. It’s starting to happen.” Knowing myself that I would start to get lazy if that happened and eventually, it would start to show up in the show that my heart wasn’t in it anymore, it would become obvious to people.
And so it was like, I don’t want to be the kind of person who makes a show where they’re like, “Oh, yeah, the first couple of years you’re okay. But man, that last year, man, Mike was really folding it in.” Basically, the season eight of Game of Thrones is the thing that my boyfriend said. Nobody wants to leave the legacy… all anybody remembers is the last year of Game of Thrones. And we’re all just like, “Ugh.”
So, the last episode that I worked on was about the McDonald’s hot coffee case, which is like the canonical You’re Wrong About. And that, I went super-duper down the rabbit hole. I loved the research for that. The editing went really well and it was just like, okay, this is my Magnum Opus. There are so many little threads in that story that we had pulled on in other episodes, it was such an overture for the entire show.
Mark Armstrong: Going through the process of putting a show together, it just blows my mind because the research, the recording and the editing requires such different parts of one’s brain. And the fact that you were involved in all pieces of it. How did you switch between those tasks in a given week to do that?
Michael Hobbes: I mean, poorly. I was also extremely burned out just from a time perspective, because there was a six-month period where I was working at HuffPost and doing You’re Wrong About and secretly recording Maintenance Phase with Aubrey, because we wanted to have a bunch of shows ready and have like six at once.
And so there was a period where it was just like…I mean, this was during lockdown where there was nothing else to do. So, it was like every moment of my life was dedicated to one of those three things. And that was another thing of coming out of lockdown was just like, I hadn’t really had a life for a really long time.
And especially once the weather was getting warmer and there was like sunny out and it was not like the chop was happening and everything. It was like, there’s another life for me and I can actually go do stuff now. But there was this eight-month period during basically all of 2020, where I just had a schedule that was totally unsustainable. So, it feels a lot more sustainable now.
Mark Armstrong: That’s great. Mike, it’s so wonderful to have you here. Thank you for doing this and thank you for sharing.
Michael Hobbes: Thanks, Mark. I’ll see you in my DMs.
Mark Armstrong: So, that’s our show. I love the way Michael thinks about research and communicating on the internet. It’s changing constantly and he always seems to be curious and open to new approaches. So, I’ve learned a lot from that. The world is changing. social media is changing, and nothing says we have to stay in one place or just do one thing.
So, thank you again for listening to Everything I’ve Learned. If you liked the show, please leave us a five-star review with a comment on Apple Podcasts, or go to www.eil.show. I’ll see you next time.