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The Voice of a Generation
Michael Barbaro made the New York Times podcast The Daily a raging success. Or is it the other way around?
By Matthew Schneier. Photography by David Williams

DANA,” says the voice you know by now, inaudible all caps. “WHEN DID THE UNITED STATES START TO FEEL A SENSE OF ANXIETY …” A pregnant pause. “Too much,” he says. And so Michael Barbaro, the voice of the New York Times, takes a breath, turns back to the Times reporter Dana Goldstein, and starts again.

This, as Barbaro announces every weekday morning, is The Daily, the Times’ tentpole podcast. In a studio tucked in the back of the New York Times Building on Eighth Avenue, in front of a four-legged spider of microphones, Barbaro spends most days interviewing his fellow Times journalists about a single splashy story of the moment, a deepish dive into the day’s news. Shrewdly edited for commute consumption (episodes hover around 22 to 25 minutes long, just about two minutes shy of the average American’s schlep), The Daily offers, if not wonkish completeness, a kind of cocktail-party competence. “You listen to The Daily and you’re better equipped to speak at a dinner party,” says Jenna Weiss-Berman of the podcast shop Pineapple Street Studios. “And that’s all you really want.”

Podcasting is an intimate medium, and podcasts live or die by their hosts. In the 40-year-old Barbaro, The Daily has found one who connects unusually, even unexpectedly, well. The Daily has turned Barbaro from a career Timesman into a celebrity, one with TV appearances, adoring fans, loving parodies, and a personal life chronicled by “Page Six.” The Daily introduced Barbaro to the wider world; it also introduced him to his fiancée.

In person, he is owlishly handsome (the little round glasses he used to wear amplified the effect, though he has lately swapped them for more rectangular frames), of roughly average height, and indifferently dressed, with a corona of salt-and-pepper curls and a scruffy, too-busy-to-shave beard. In 2017, People magazine named him one of the 15 sexiest newsmen.

But most of Barbaro’s admirers don’t see him. They hear him. The appeal is the voice and the peculiar prosody that gives The Daily its pulse. (“I think I like the way @mikiebarb says ‘natalie’ more than the way my girlfriend says it?,” Times reporter and sometime Daily guest host Natalie Kitroeff wrote on Twitter. “Help.”) His delivery sits between the clipped authority of NPR and the pirate-radio shagginess of the archetypal podcaster; it is remarkably free of filler (a beloved grandfather, his story goes, trained the ums and likes out of him) with deliberative pauses that never hit exactly where you expect. These gaps are practical (they make it easy to edit tape), but they’re also stylistic, a soothing, if syncopated, snare-drum beat.

That voice is a development of the show, which is not to say an affectation. Barbaro (BAR-BAR-O; he says each syllable is stressed equally, though on-air it sounds like he’s giving the O short shrift) cops to having undergone “a second pubescence” finding his voice on tape. Now he doesn’t put it on or take it off. It’s how he orders at Starbucks as much as how he queries his colleagues on the show. “I don’t remember him quite as staccato in real life,” says Sam Dolnick, who oversees the Times’ audio programming as well as its film and TV projects and has known Barbaro since their days together in the “Metro” section in 2009. “But now when you hear him talking, he does do it,” he says. “I have a little bit of trouble listening to The Daily because I know Michael so well,” says Ross Douthat, the Times opinion columnist and a friend since middle school. “I can’t get over listening to him do his radio-host voice, knowing him since he was 13 years old.”

FOR THE TIMES, audio represents, in Dolnick’s words, “the next big opportunity.” The Daily’s audience skews tantalizingly young—three-quarters are under 40, almost a decade younger than the average print reader—and is impressively, even unnervingly, committed. More than one person I interviewed confessed to harboring a romantic interest in Barbaro based on his voice alone. In three years, The Daily has become an integral part of the “report,” as the paper (increasingly not just a paper) calls its coverage. “The Daily is the modern front page of the New York Times,” says Dolnick. In fact, it’s bigger. More than 2 million listeners download each episode, compared with the 443,000 who read the weekday paper in print. “The Daily is a monster hit with an astonishingly valuable audience,” CEO Mark Thompson told investors on an earnings call in November, “and it just continues to grow.”

According to Podtrac, which publishes rankings of the month’s top podcasts by unique U.S. audience, The Daily was the No. 1 podcast every single month of 2019 and in the No. 1 or No. 2 spot for all of 2018. (Podtrac only considers podcasts that participate in its service, which excludes certain monster hits, like The Joe Rogan Experience, that do not opt in.) The Daily was the most downloaded show on Apple Podcasts in 2018. In October, the Times threw a party for its billionth download.

That scale is thanks largely to the work of Barbaro and the editors and producers who make The Daily every day: Lisa Tobin, 34, who runs the Times’ audio team; Theo Balcomb, 32, the executive producer of the show; and the now-30-strong audio team that has mushroomed out of what had been, as recently as 2017, a staff you could count on one hand with room to spare. When, that January, Balcomb arrived from All Things Considered and The Daily began, it was four people in a storage closet on the building’s 16th floor. (Andy Mills, formerly of Radiolab, filled out the original team.) Now 16 or 17 are working on the show at any given time with the rest dispersed on other audio projects.

Every morning, team members gather over MacBooks to plan for the next day, later that week, and beyond, scouring top stories to figure out what will connect with an audio audience, batting around ideas, arguing for passion projects (Taylor Swift was the subject of a recent vigorous debate), and hashing out logistics (who can be reached in Hong Kong in the midst of the protest demonstrations there?). Human interest can sell a story, or an element of shock or surprise, or even just great tape. (One editor announced that a writer covering the climate crisis hadn’t recorded any interviews during the reporting of a piece in the weather- ravaged Florida Keys. The entire room groaned in unison.) The ranks swell nearly weekly as the Times brings in new journalists from public radio and competing podcast companies, who join the shared Google Docs in which the shows are scripted and edited.

Despite the group effort, Barbaro is the public face and, accordingly, gets much of the public credit. The Times, pinnacle of newspapering though it may be—it considers itself the paper of record, not a paper of record—has historically been leery of creating stars. It may pride itself on having the best in the business, but they work for the Times, not the other way around. Jill Abramson, the paper’s former executive editor, laid down the party line while negotiating (and ultimately failing) to keep Nate Silver, the polling guru behind FiveThirtyEight, who in 2013 was considering an exit. “The New York Times,” she told his agent, “is always the prettiest girl at the party.”

Barbaro had been a distinguished reporter for the Times as well as a savvy operator in its internal politics. His is a “tenacity that maybe has shades of ruthlessness,” his old friend Rebecca Angelo, who followed Barbaro into journalism before becoming a screenwriter, puts it. He’d already been a vocal presence in the newsroom, highly regarded by himself and others. He hobnobbed at the paper’s highest echelons, hosting, for instance, a party for his new colleague Maggie Haberman when she joined the Times that was attended by the paper’s elite. The gatherings have only gotten more glittering. Invites for a spring party he hosted last year went to A. G. Sulzberger, the Times’ publisher, and Meredith Kopit Levien, its chief operating officer, in addition to a number of political reporters and editors.

With The Daily, Barbaro has risen above the competitive ranks of reporters elbowing one another for assignments—I was one from 2014 to 2019, though I didn’t know Barbaro— to ascend along a parallel track that, before him, didn’t exist. He now has a bird’s-eye view of a highly segmented newsroom and a rare perch from which he can, like almost no one else inside the institution, elevate a story. None of this was a given. He went into what could have been a new media backwater and, practically overnight, became an unusual thing in the Times firmament: a star whose shine doesn’t dim outside the building’s walls.

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January 20 - February 2, 2020