Hot Take Swan Song

Hot Take Swan Song

Hey Hot Cakes!

We’ve been relatively quiet about the end of the podcast and newsletter. Mostly that was because we’ve been patiently waiting for Crooked to return our feed to us, which they were supposed to do in January, after they canceled the show in December, four months before our first season with them would have ended. They held the feed hostage unless we signed a termination agreement  with a very detailed non-disparagement agreement. When we refused to do that, instead of returning the feed to us, they deleted it from Apple. That means all of our subscribers, ratings, and reviews disappeared, and we can never get them back, even though most of them pre-date our move to Crooked and no one has ever disputed that we own the show. As OG Hot Cakes know, we started the show back in 2019 and had 3 successful seasons before joining Crooked. They managed to successfully kill it off in about 6 months.

But beyond our specific petty grievances, of which there are many (these are folks who slipped a BP(!) ad into our feed before they canceled the show, when, theoretically, we were on good terms), we also see our experience as pretty illustrative of how large media companies deal with climate and with ideological differences in ways that desperately need to change. So, we decided to send the newsletter and the show off in the way we’ve always done things: with brutal honesty and moral clarity. Hark, our swan song.

Back to the Beginning

By Mary Annaïse Heglar

I remember where I was the first time I listened to Drilled: wandering around the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan, sweaty and stinky after hot yoga, Amy’s voice literally ringing in my ear. I was blown away by this woman who was putting not only words, but evidence, to so many of the things I’d been feeling about climate change. Her anger felt like a balm and I couldn’t get enough.

That was spring of 2019. A few months later, I shot my shot in her DM’s under the guise of planning a dinner party. She couldn’t come, though. Turns out, California was too far from New York for a dinner date, but we met up for coffee a few months later when she was in town came to New York for a reporting trip. We became fast friends and next thing we knew, we were talking about launching our own podcast together.

I will admit that I was afraid to take on a podcast. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep it up, that I’d let people down. Also, I had no idea what I was doing. But Amy knew everything: how to record, how to cut tape, how to set up a feed. That helped it seem less scary. But I had some ground rules: I needed to be able to cuss and I needed to be able to laugh. If I was going to do this, it had to be fun. As much as possible, we had to make it feel like “not work.”

We thought about making it just straight news, but I was worried that would start to feel onerous, and then it hit us: let’s make it about media criticism! It was the thing we were always texting about anyway—omg did you see this story? It’s amazing! But did you see this one? Who edited this?? I can still remember the glee in our text chain when we thought of the name, then googled it and found out no one was using it. It felt like a sign.

Pretty soon, we were on the air and having a ball. I loved the freedom we had to pursue any guest, any topic we wanted. My favorite episodes were the ones where we took an issue that might not have had an obvious tie to climate change (hello prison abolition!) and tied it together so tightly, the listener could never unsee the connections. We wanted to take advantage of the podcast format as one of the last places where you could have messy conversations, learn new things, and change your mind in public to break apart climate discourse and put it back together. Especially after the pandemic, the climate conversation was largely taking place on Twitter, a notoriously unforgiving atmosphere, and we wanted to create a space for constructive criticism.

It turned out we had so much to say that we launched the newsletter so we could keep up with our audience in between seasons. I was worried that it would become too much work too, but it was actually really fun! Especially in the days of Deep Quarantine, it was nice to have the outlet for my thoughts that wasn’t Twitter. I also think it was a great exercise in collaboration because we got to edit each other’s work and the stories we published together often later became longer pieces that we published elsewhere, like in our series at The Nation. (You can find many of those stories under my or Amy’s byline on their site).

Still, as fun as it was, Hot Take was a lot of work. Like, a lot, a lot. Hours of research, of structuring the outlines, booking guests—not to mention recording and listening to the episodes, cutting the tape, and putting it out there. We tried to divide the labor by me doing most of the prep and Amy doing most of the post, but it was still so much. By the time 2021 rolled around, we knew we needed to find another way of doing it. So, we started looking for bigger networks with more resources so they could give us the marketing and production support that we desperately needed. It was either that, or quit the show.

Enter: Crooked.

There were a lot of red flags before we signed with them: a contract that kept coming back with the same problematic clause, shady business practices with Amy on another show, and our very apparent ideological differences with the heads of the network. Suffice it to say that Amy and I were far, far to the left of just about every show I’ve heard in the Crooked Universe. You kinda have to be if you take climate change—and especially climate justice—seriously. You can’t just take the talking points from Uncle Joe as gospel cause it ain’t. If neoliberalism was going to save us, it would have done it already.

We never hid how far to the left we were. How could we? We joined them with three whole seasons under our belt. And I even brought it up at a point of the contract negotiations where it looked like it wouldn’t go through. They said that’s why they wanted us. Soon enough, we were signed.

The problems were apparent very, very early. Everything from the first drafts of the new cover art to the merchandise showed us that not only did they not understand our show, they didn’t respect us. We had a three-month incubation period with the network before we launched that should have been used to develop a launch plan and revamp our production process. Neither thing ever happened. I mean, they showed us a launch plan, but that was only after we harassed them for it, and it read like it was written just hours before the meeting.

Crooked told the world that we were going to be the network’s climate experts, appearing across their many shows to discuss climate. We were not. I was invited on Pod Save America, the network’s flagship show and one of the biggest podcasts in the world, a total of 1 times. Amy went on twice. Between us, we went on their other blockbuster shows Lovett or Leave It and Pod Save the World, a grand total of 0 times. I went on What a Day a handful of times, and Hysteria once. In fact, that time I went on Pod Save America was the only time I ever spoke to any of the Founding Bros—and it was only one of them. How, exactly, were we the resident climate experts?

And it wasn’t because there was no climate news to speak of. You may recall the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act? Biden’s big climate bill? Well, if you listen to all the shows I just named at the time that that bill passed, and then you go listen to our show? It sounds like we’re fighting. And I guess we were, but it took a while for them to land a direct blow.

Over the summer, in a very official meeting, Crooked called a meeting to tell us that our listener numbers were doing great, so I tried to tell myself that the weird vibes were all in my head.

They were not. We noticed an even more stark difference in the way the network treated us after we refused an interview with Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, but we’d always said that we did not do nonprofit interviews and would only rarely take on politicians. What on earth would make you think we’re going to interview a bureaucrat? Someone who’s going to come with a million talking points that we’ve all heard before? How is that supposed to be interesting? On a show about the media? Of course we refused it!

It was clear to me, on that occasion and others, that Crooked wanted us to cover the politics of climate change, not the reality of it. It’s actually a pretty common—if maladaptive—tendency in the media. I can’t tell you how many editors have wanted me to shrink the climate story into a ready-made box, to make it a more “linear story” or a “cleaner narrative.” In this case, they wanted us to fit it into a box made for political horseracing, making it more of a sport. We wanted to talk about climate discourse because we believed that you can’t solve a problem you can’t talk about. We still believe that.

All the while, the workload of the show did not let up at all. We had a producer now, sure, but we were also putting the show out every week. We had the book the guests since we were the ones with the relationships, and we remained heavily involved in the episode planning and editing, partially because we had a level of expertise and a vision for the show that we couldn’t just dump into someone else’s head. But also, we kept asking Crooked for more production support or best practices about how to cut down the workload and those conversations never went anywhere. That’s when we began to dread the newsletter, and eventually just stopped doing it. I’m sorry to all our readers that we let down.

That’s also when Amy came to the realization that she wouldn’t be able to sign on for another season, and we’d need to find a replacement for her. As much as I would miss Amy, I understood her decision and was fully supportive, and started trying to have talks with Crooked about finding a replacement. Amy was in no hurry and offered to stick around as long as it took to transition. We came up with a whole list of great possible co-hosts and reached out to a few to gauge their availability and interest. But Crooked would only schedule only one meeting about it, and then all they wanted to talk about was Michael Regan and the interview that didn’t happen.

I kept trying to revive the talks, suggesting new co-hosts—we even did episodes with a few of them as trial runs! But whenever I tried to schedule time to talk about transition planning, I got the runaround. To tell the truth, I hated meeting with them. Every conversation felt like a game show where they gave you chances to guess what they were thinking instead of just outright telling you. Where they said the wildest shit with a smile and then looked at you crazy when you caught the shade. Look, I’m from the South-South, we don’t do passive aggressive. If we finna fight, then let’s fight.

Finally, after Thanksgiving, I had enough and demanded a meeting, and this time I asked outright if they were planning to renew our contract. They scheduled a meeting right away. In it, they told me (Amy had an ill-timed power outage) that our numbers weren’t high enough and they had a new CEO and it was all about metrics now and they had to cancel the show, effective at the end of 2022, four months before the season was scheduled to end.

They told me at the beginning of December. In a meeting I asked for. Because of falling numbers that I was hearing about for the first time. Mind you, promotion was Crooked’s job and they objectively did not do it. In fact, on the few occasions they did mention our show on their other shows, they routinely told listeners that climate was depressing to talk about. How is that supposed to entice them to come to us? If our numbers were down, it was their job to get them back up. Instead, they were too busy clocking my Twitter because I absolutely got an email from them about this thread. My, how a hit dog can holler.

A few weeks after that December call, we got our final numbers report and guess what Amy noticed? We were 30,000 downloads above target. And breaking even or turning a profit on most episodes – after a little over 6 months, that’s actually pretty great.

So, that’s the story of what happened with Hot Take. While I’m proud of the work that Amy and I did—and grateful for the friendship we’ve built—I’m pissed at the way Crooked handled it. I actually feel that Hot Take had come to a logical end point and I don’t miss recording a podcast every week. Like Amy, I have plenty of other projects I’d like to pick back up, like teaching and writing something longer than a 3-paragraph newsletter story. (You may have heard, I announced a couple of book projects.) I couldn’t do that without getting rid of something and, well, Hot Take wasn’t really paying no bills..

But… it did not have to end like this.

One Word: Bitchmade

By Amy Westervelt

To be clear, Mary and I are both at peace with the end of Hot Take. Despite all our efforts to the contrary, it was taking up far more time than either of us could really afford to give it. I had some big reporting projects looming, and Mary wanted more time for thinking, writing, and teaching. So when Crooked told us they were canceling the podcast, in a lot of ways we were relieved. But the way they went about it (surprising us in early December with the news that the show would end in two weeks, then hijacking our feed and, with it, the audience we built long before we worked with them) and the way they handled the show in general is also a really good example of how and why mainstream media keeps consistently failing to cover climate well. As a media criticism newsletter and podcast focused on climate, we didn’t feel like we could see what we saw and not talk about it all, so we turned down a payout in favor of telling it like it is. Here goes nothing:

My first experience with Crooked was producing their first and so far only Peabody-nominated podcast season (Season 2 of This Land), and being rewarded for doing a great job on that by having their staff attempt to recreate my company (Critical Frequency) internally. They copied how we work, downloaded various process documents, and tried to hire all my people. So I was less surprised than I would have been when their first offer for Hot Take included barring me from working on any other podcasts, then from working on any other climate podcasts, in exchange for less than an intern’s salary. Nevertheless, Mary and I figured this was a group of people that really needed to get a grip on climate and we thought we could speak to their audience in a way that they might listen to.

We were not prepared for being actively blocked from speaking to that audience. In the lead-up to the show’s re-launch, and even before we signed the contract, we had several conversations about the fact that our views on what’s needed to act on climate differ from what we’d heard Crooked’s top brass saying on their shows. “That’s fine! That’s why we like you guys! We want to bring divergent viewpoints into the network,” they said.

When it was announced that Hot Take was moving to Crooked, they sent out a press release declaring that Mary and I would now be the network’s resident climate experts. That was news to us, but welcome news; it indicated that they realized we knew what we were talking about and that they were open to hearing our input.

So we got to work preparing the show for an Earth Day 2022 re-launch. When we hadn’t heard anything from their marketing or PR teams by the first week in April we wondered if maybe the launch date had shifted. The answer was the first of several instances of gaslighting – the launch was on, why would we think otherwise? There had been a ton of outreach and marketing prep done, just look at this slapdash presentation we put together! Do you understand what marketing for a talk show looks like?

Meanwhile, the merchandising team had told us months before that they were working on a shirt to release along with the show, in celebration of #FuckBPday, which is right around Earth Day. But a week before the launch, they were scrambling to design something in time. We worried that what they came up with was too derivative of stuff activists on the Gulf Coast had done during Deepwater in 2010, and not in an “homage” way so much as just straight copying. We said we didn’t think there was really enough time to get it right. They pushed for us to get behind a design. We pointed to the part in the contract where we were given control over creative decisions, and they said yes you have approval but you need to approve one of these. Again, the insinuation was: stop being crazy and high maintenance.

I’d been running my own podcast network for more than five years by that point and had run marketing for dozens of show launches and new seasons. This didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen but I figured they must be right. They are huge and we are tiny, after all. As the show got underway, again we thought okay this is good, we’ll grow, we’ll reach people with new information that they really need! And the first few episodes went well. They invited us on Pod Save America and a couple of other shows, and people kept telling us that they heard various other hosts on the network hyping Hot Take. It seemed like they were actually supporting the show. But within a few months we started noticing lots of bad takes on climate on various other Crooked shows. And I don’t mean “bad” like they didn’t agree with us and that’s bad, although yes sure definitely that was happening. I mean “bad” like inaccurate and not researched. Ignorant. Desperately in need of a fact check. Here we were just a Slack message away, why wouldn’t they just ask?

In an effort to try to keep them informed on climate anyway, I used to send weekly emails with bullet points on what was happening each week, and links to media stories. Mary used to do the same with organizations to donate to whenever there was an extreme weather event. They just got ignored, so eventually we gave up. When we pushed back on a suggestion that we interview the EPA administrator on an episode (we’d never even interviewed a politician, never mind a member of a presidential administration, and couldn’t imagine either existing or new listeners getting charged up about an interview with a government official), again we were accused of being unreasonable. When another Crooked show was interviewing John Kerry from COP27 and I asked why they hadn’t thought to get any input on possible questions or background info from us…unreasonable! How would that even work? Never mind that we’d seen exactly how it would work if they respected us: The hosts of the legal show they brought on at the same time as Hot Take were always being asked for input on key Supreme Court cases, they wouldn’t dream of covering one without getting their input. If they even said the word “Supreme Court” on any other Crooked show, they plugged Strict Scrutiny. But they’d talk reckless about climate and never mention our existence. Why was it the complete opposite when it came to climate?

I think racism, classism, and sexism all played a role. So,too, did a general lack of understanding that climate is different from other political issues (if only for the simple fact that it has a deadline that politics cannot move) and that knowing a little bit about it is not the same as really understanding it. The fact that we were unwilling to tow the party line and applaud Biden as a climate champion played into the network’s shift from supporting to working against the show, too. Our take on the Inflation Reduction Act seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. We acknowledged that it was the largest climate bill ever passed, but also that it came with some serious problems: it doubled down on the idea of “sacrifice zones”—areas that are allowed to be polluted because people who are less valued live there—for a start, and it carved out so many loopholes for the fossil fuel industry that it was hard to see how it would actually deliver on the best-case scenario that boosters of the bill were promising. We didn’t pan it entirely, but we were real about it. A few days later, the network’s heads took to their own shows to declare that anyone who was being critical of the bill was an idiot who didn’t know what they were talking about and should be ignored. Shots fired?

Now, months later, the fossil fuel industry’s anti-renewables army is out in force and Republican states are changing their laws to declare fossil gas “clean energy” so as to take advantage of IRA incentives. Last week, executives of the world’s top oil companies gathered at their annual conference (CERA Week) to crow about how great the IRA has been for the industry. I take no joy in being right about the potential downsides of the IRA, I’m only pointing this out because again it seemed very strange to me to bring climate experts into your network and then ignore and discredit them. But more than that, it’s the exact sort of thinking we’ve called into question so many times on our show and in this newsletter: you can’t expect politics as usual to solve the climate crisis, you can’t expect fetishizing compromise to mitigate the risks of the climate crisis, and you can’t apply the same exact thinking that created the problem to solving it.

After trying every which way we could think of to reduce the amount of production time required to get the show out every week, and make sure it was both entertaining and accurate, I came to the realization that there was no way I was going to be able to pull off the investigative reporting projects I had planned for this year and keep doing Hot Take. Something had to give, and I figure I can do the most good on the reporting front; but I didn’t want my move to kill the show, so I gave Mary and then the Crooked folks several months’ notice and offered to stay on as long as it took after the first season ended to make sure that the transition was seamless. Instead, I may have given them the excuse they were looking for to cancel their first and only (?!) climate show.

In the 20 years I have been covering climate change across various forms of media, I have seen this cycle over and over again: increasing public and political awareness of the problem creates pressure for media to cover it, larger media outlets hire reporters and acquire smaller outlets and make big announcements about how committed they are to “the story of our time,” but they give no authority to any of their climate efforts, they give no support to the launch of these new shows and verticals and newsletters, they silo them off in a drab little corner, and then a year or so later they go welp we tried but there’s just no audience for climate content.

The thing is, we know there is. We know there is because we study the climate media universe. And because I produce other climate podcasts as well, I am acutely aware that there is an audience for this type of content. Finding that audience, though, and speaking to them, requires listening to the experts you’ve hired to do just that, supporting them and amplifying their voices, not ignoring them or, worse, shutting them down when they don’t agree with you. Without anyone in key leadership positions who knows climate, I don’t know that any media entity is actually capable of pulling it off. In fact, when you look at the climate media landscape, it’s usually the outlets that have an editor or staff reporters with real in-depth experience on the beat that are doing a good job of it: The New Republic (and its Apocalypse Soon vertical, with lead reporter Kate Aronoff), The Washington Post (with its new climate reporting hub, led by veteran climate reporter Juliet Eilperin), The New Yorker (with Elizabeth Kolbert and Jane Mayer), The New York Times (with Hiroko Tabuchi, who manages to get important stories out in spite of some institutional reticence), NPR with Neela Banerjee, The Boston Globe (with Sabrina Shankman and Dharna Noor).

The media’s willingness to let itself be used as a tool of climate denial and delay for decades has still not really been reckoned with. If we have any hope of addressing this crisis in time to stave off the worst impacts of it, we need the largest and most-resourced media entities to actually grasp the importance of it and cover it accordingly.

Bye Hot Cakes, we love you!


Only paid subscribers can comment.
Please subscribe or sign in to join the conversation.