Mention of Kara Swisher’s name has long intimidated the elite of Silicon Valley, where the preeminent tech journalist is famous for her tenacity and larger-than-life personality.
Recode Decode, her thrice-weekly podcast for Vox Media, has extended that talent for candid conversation beyond the inside baseball of the tech industry and established itself as a premier media destination for long-form interviews of any kind.
On it, the Recode co-founder hosts an eclectic roster of guests from the worlds of politics, entertainment and culture, ranging from Kathy Griffin and Megan Rapinoe to Ronan Farrow and Edward Snowden, in addition to tech newsmakers like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. Democratic presidential hopefuls Andrew Yang, Marianne Williamson, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg have all appeared on the show this year.
“I’m a firm believer that smart people want to have smart conversations,” Swisher tells Adweek. “And so even if everyone says, ‘Oh, Kara’s so tough,’ they kind of are like, ‘Well, it’s a friggin’ relief to be able to have an actual conversation where I’m going to be challenged.’ I think many people are dying to get away from their PR talking points.”
In recognition of Swisher’s hard work creating a podcast that has transcended both its medium and its genre, Adweek’s editors have selected it as the 2019 Podcast of the Year. Recode Decode was selected from among the top winners across 20 categories in the first Adweek Podcast of the Year Awards.
The awards program’s selection jury, made up of a wide range of industry experts with direct podcasting experience, honored Recode Decode as Tech Podcast of the Year and Swisher’s weekly Pivot podcast with co-host Scott Galloway as Thought Leadership Podcast of the Year. Both are produced by Vox Media, which acquired Recode in 2015, shortly before the launch of the Recode Decode podcast.
In addition to featuring some of the biggest names in tech, culture and politics, Swisher also uses her platform to elevate lesser-known figures she finds especially interesting or representative of an important issue.
One example was Axon CEO Rick Smith, a body camera maker who refuses to use controversial facial recognition techniques. She also spoke this year with Shoshana Zuboff, an author who studies “surveillance capitalism.” Her Pivot co-host, NYU Stern professor Galloway, even appeared first as a guest on Recode Decode.
The binding force behind what might otherwise be a slightly chaotic lineup is Swisher’s contagious curiosity for each subject matter. That’s underscored by the fact she draws on her deep digital Rolodex to do most of the calling and booking of guests herself.
“Kara Swisher is the organizing principle,” says her executive producer, Erica Anderson. “You might not know who Shoshana Zuboff is or who [former Google design ethicist] Tristan Harris is—or you might not have a great opinion of Kathy Griffin. But if Kara Swisher is interviewing this person, you know you’re going to learn something new, you’re going to have a different insight. It’s not going to be the same interview that someone else did.”
While podcasting might still be an emerging channel for Vox Media, which now oversees a network of more than 200 titles across its expansive list of media properties, CEO Jim Bankoff says old-school journalistic chops still underpin the success of a show like Swisher’s.
“It’s like how Picasso knew all the techniques before he went to his more visionary stuff. She knew all the techniques of great journalism,” Bankoff says. “She’s a dyed-in-the-wool amazing journalist.”
The expansion of Swisher’s show beyond Silicon Valley is also fitting given the trajectory of tech coverage at large, as the topic has come to pervade every facet of society.
“She’s been able to build the deepest possible sources and understanding of this important beat that started out as technology and Silicon Valley but has now emerged as the most important beat there is,” Bankoff says. “It impacts politics. It impacts culture. It impacts social justice.”
But Swisher has also been willing to have some fun with the format, twice creating branded content for HBO’s satirical Silicon Valley. Most recently, she interviewed character Gavin Belson, an executive of the show’s Google-esque tech giant Hooli, as a promotion for the show’s sixth and final season:
Swisher’s ambitions for the show don’t end with presidential candidates and international pop culture stars. She hopes to have more world leaders stop by for a chat this year, she says.
As far as her dream guests, she names Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump (“It would have to be in front of people, though, because he needs that.”) and Pope Francis.
“In this twitchy time, substantive discussions matter,” Swisher says, “and people like them because they’re searching for education, they’re searching for for answers, they’re searching for insights.”
You can read about all honorees in the 2019 Adweek Podcast of the Year Awards here.