5 Questions with… Baratunde Thurston, Taking a Sledgehammer to the Traditional Newscast

By Brian Flood 

304Baratunde_finalBaratunde Thurston is a modern-day Renaissance man. The Co-host of “TakePart Live,” a nightly news program on Pivot, Thurston is also a social commentator who frequently tackles highly charged, emotional issues like race, politics and social justice. In addition, he’s a comedian, speaker, author and co-founded Cultivated Wit, a company that uses humor, design, and technology to produce events like “Comedy Hack Day.”

From 2007 to 2012, Thurston was the politics editor and director of digital for The Onion, which he told us about in a “Media Beat” a few years back.

TVNewser caught up with Thurston to discuss his new show, his Twitter habits and what he’d like to be doing q0 years from now.


TVNewser: As the host of “TakePart Live,” how are you guys trying to break the mold of the “traditional” newscast?

Thurston: Slight correction: I’m a co-host of “TakePart Live” along with Jacob Soboroff and Meghan McCain. I’d hate for this interview to instantly destroy the cohesion of our team! In terms of mold-breaking, here are a few ways.

a) We’re young.

b) We have varying and often opposing opinions on topics.

c) We encourage the audience to actually DO something about the stories we discuss, and not just get excited or enraged. The connection to social action is a big shift, and we’re experimenting with what that means and how to share back with our viewers the impact of what they’ve done.

d) Just before every show, we have a plaster mold made of what a traditional newscast is, and we each take a sledgehammer and smash it.

TVNewser:  How has Twitter changed the way people consume news?

Thurston: Twitter makes it far easier for people to yell back at the news. I think there’s much more news-yelling happening in the world thanks to Twitter, so they’ve got that going for them. But yelling isn’t the only shift. Twitter simplifies the act of following news sources we like, and allows us to connect directly with journalists, sources, subjects and other news consumers, not just with the media outlet. Most significantly, Twitter has made it easy for “people who consume news” to become “people who produce news” especially with first-hand, on the ground reporting during major events like natural disasters or awards shows (which can be hard to differentiate because, have you seen awards shows lately?).

TVNewser: You’re on TV, have a New York Times best-selling book, you’ve also been successful in digital content and even on stage as a live performer. What medium is your favorite and what platform reaches the most people?

Thurston: I think I’m still most at home on a stage with a live, in-room audience. I’ve got decades of experience there from standup comedy, school theater, public speaking, and emceeing. The ability to feel (and perhaps inspire) the energy of a crowd is humbling and empowering. It makes me feel like a Highlander.

I probably reach the most people via social media, but it’s hard to really know. My book, “How To Be Black,” doesn’t ship with all the user data stalking that Facebook has, so I can only assume I’ve reached billions in the two years since it was published. But if you want “proof,” well I’d have to guess it’s all that tweeting. Then again, maybe no one is reading them. I did a web series for AOL with my company, Cultivated Wit, and lots of people saw that, and now it’s on Delta Airlines so trapped people have been watching me at 30,000 feet.

After thinking about it further, I have no idea on what platforms I reach the most people. It’s not raw “reach” numbers I’m going for, though. I’m trying to connect, occasionally inspire, affect, and other more powerful verbs. And in that, it just depends. I’ve gotten feedback about my Fast Company column that indicates some people have been truly moved by some of those pieces. It’s worth it for me to keep playing across platforms because I’m just trying to be where people are, and it turns out, we’re everywhere! Like carbon!

TVNewser: So, when do you sleep?

Thurston: I mostly sleep at night. Mostly.

TVNewser: In a perfect world, what will you be doing in 10 years?

Thurston: I wake up with the sun and turn on the holo-news feed to see that that US’s second Latina president, Celia Lopez, has awarded a White House Medal Of Freedom to a coalition of groups who successfully reduced the nation’s prison population to half of its 2014 levels and employed the majority in an epic and successful effort to install local, renewable, power grids across the country. On my front porch is a bushel of delicious produce harvested from one of the neighborhood gardens run by city kids. There’s a thank-you note in the basket from the team captain who’s still getting lots of followers on ZingderpStream thanks to the interview I conducted with her last week. I cook breakfast for my kids (both under 10 years old) while they finish contributing to a global youth project to re-code the indicators we use to measure our economy. My kids specifically are replacing the Durable Goods Report with a measure of Puppy Belly Scratches because they consider that a better indicator of progress. My kids are compassionate little geniuses. As I walk to work, part shared office, part community center, part water park, my wife buzzes. Apparently the president wants her to chair some commission on “The Present Of Work.” My wife is also a compassionate genius. I run into a few friends along the walk, and we make plans to drink whiskey later that week at the bar in one of their buildings. Last week was bourbon, so this week it’s Scotch, per our agreement. I have a brief thought that no one in the world has seen or heard from Donald Trump in eight years, and no one cares. It’s a beautiful day.

* Note: I am neither married, nor do I have children, nor do I have any current interests in any business with the name ZingderpStream, however, you asked what I’d be doing in a “perfect world,” and this is what my mind-machine cranked out. Thank you for playing.