Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California, created waves of intrigue and confusion when he launched his own political talk show on Current. The show has had strong start, making headlines with interviews such as a candid conversation with Lance Armstrong on doping accusations; Newsom was also perhaps the first non-Google employee to publicly try on their super-secret glasses. Newsom says his decision to host his own show as a sitting politician is an attempt to change the tone of the national conversation to “innovation” and not partisan division.
We sat down with Lt. Governor Newsom to learn about his plans for raising the bar for political TV with The Gavin Newsom Show. The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity:
FAST COMPANY: Could you describe the show and its impetus?
GAVIN NEWSOM: The impetus came from the experience I had as mayor when I was doing a weekly radio show. The idea of the radio show at the time was just to highlight, in public way, some of the conversations I was having privately with people who were making a differences and were adding value and I thought were interesting and provocative. And I thought, “Why waste the opportunity to have a private conversation when you can have a public one?”
So I thought I’d take that same frame as lieutenant governor and this time put it on video. It started as a request at Current TV to use their equipment to do a YouTube show as opposed to a radio show. That morphed into a conversation about “Forget using our equipment, which we’re not going to do anyway, but why don’t we do a formal TV show?”
What do you think makes the show unique?
Two things: one is I know a lot of the guests that I have personally. So, I’m able to have a conversation perhaps a little more casually and ask questions that one may not necessarily ask in a more formal setting.
Second, it’s a political show without politicians. Meaning, I’m in politics, I’m on a network that’s dominantly political, and I happen to believe, firmly, that for politics to change, public policy needs to change, meaning the best politics is the better idea. And, we cannot restrict ourselves in the political dialogue to sourcing ideas from the politicians and pundits. And, unfortunately, I see the same 150 people on all the national networks, recycled, day in and day out, asking each other the same questions with talking points that come from the morning news excerpts.
So I thought, why not get people from the outside who are having an impact in politics and policy, who are doers, not dreamers. People who are actually making a difference.
As the sitting lieutenant governor of California, why did you feel you needed your own show, and do you think that politicians in general should pursue this path?
I was surprised no other elected officials have had a national show, and apparently none do. They have local shows, like my old radio show, or state-wide local cable, or state wide free cable. But I think it’s a great opportunity from my perspective as lieutenant governor, a West Coast orientation in the national debate, because so much of the orientation in terms of the debate is East Coast.
So much of the punditry, so many people you see on TV and the cable talk shows tend to come from the East Coast. Here they are in Silicon Valley, the northern part of the state, with people who are having a profound impact on people’s lives, not only across the state, across the country and around the world.
It’s common for politicians to criticize the media, saying we prefer sensationalism over moderation and substance. Now that you have experience on the other side of the fence, what have you learned about the way the media functions?
That everything I thought it was is true. That media still has a bias for sensationalism [laughs] and controversy. And, I don’t know that that will go away. I get it. It’s interesting, the shows that have gotten a lot of attention got a lot of attention because of that.
One, Lance Armstrong, talked before the latest accusations were made against him, about the prospect that they would be made again, and that got a lot of attention. I mean, I remember reading that TMZ was talking about our show…how’s this possible?
The other shows, they may be of interest, but they don’t necessarily garner the attention, because they don’t have that sort of controversy or they don’t offer something that’s sort on the leading, cutting edge. So that’s what people are looking for, whether we like to admit it or not, I still submit to that belief and I think your question framed it perfected. I think it’s accurate that for the media, if it bleeds, it leads–and that’s for a reason.
Are you optimistic that whatever you’re trying to do to change the way the dialogue goes can get you the kinds of headlines that you’ve enjoyed over past few weeks?
Doubtful in many cases, in some cases, yes. But, I’m not seeking that, that’s the difference. And I made that clear to the folks at Current. If the purpose is to come on and scream and yell and to find controversy and to ask the pithy questions and get personal and focus on process and personality, I’m the wrong guy. If in the natural course and evolution of the show people come on and are offering a provocative point of view or are willing to talk about something they haven’t talked about elsewhere, or will offer up as point of a dialogue then we’ll experience, in the business model sense, the benefits of that. But that’s not what I’m seeking and it’s not what I’m about.
You have a decent following on social media with over a million followers on Twitter. Why not have a conversation with people online? What’s special about TV?
Well, it’s an “and,” not an “or.” There’s a great book, Built to Last, talks about the tyranny of “or” vs. the genius of “and.” It’s a focus on both. TV still is the dominant medium, particularly from a political frame. I’ve experienced that the hard way. I ran for governor against Jerry Brown, trying to build that grassroots [community], having dozens of town hall meetings, getting thousands and thousands of people to participate on those town hall meetings, building up over a million folks on Twitter, building up over 100,000 folks on these other mediums and connecting a real social media gauge. And I was running against a guy who did none of that and just raised money, and did a couple TV buys, and his numbers went through the roof, my numbers were flat.
My point of saying that, it’s not to suggest that’s not important, social media. In fact, I want to do more to raise the bar for what elected officials can do on that respect, and I really believe in its long-term benefits. But, one cannot substitute the traditional method of politics.
Out of pure geeky curiosity, what are the Google classes like?
The extraordinary thing is how impactful they’ll be. Everything’s mobile now, the idea that you’re still holding something, they’re now challenging that notion. I can imagine five years from now, we’ll all be moving to these devices that are using, I really believe it now, this idea of artificial intelligence. The ability to think and do, the capacity to multitask without using your hands. It’s real.
It’s no secret that Current’s ratings are still struggling. So, why Current?
They allowed me the liberty to be myself. I said, “Any topic?” They said, “Any topic.” Any guest?, they said “Any guest.” I said, “Can I be an advocate?” They said “Be an advocate.” My first show is about a tobacco tax in California with Lance Armstrong. We just hit right away on an issue I cared about, and I don’t know many TV networks that allows you that luxury. That’s a wonderful thing.
Is this a permanent career move? No, no. This back to my “and not an or.” It’s a great way of highlighting issues and people that I care about and think are important in a way that’s not focused on personality and process, in a way that’s focused on what to do instead of who’s to blame.
Think you’re going to continue doing a TV show?
As long as they’ll have me. Unless I get pithy and start attacking people and getting in screaming matches, perhaps the ratings won’t justify it. But, if the ratings are not as important as interesting conversation, then I’ll be around for a while.