Cenk Uygur may be the most widely watched political talk show host you’ve never heard of. Uygur, a former lawyer, started The Young Turks, a talk show, on Sirius Radio in 2002. (The name derives from a phrase referring to rebellious members of an institution, while also nodding towards Uygur’s Turkish heritage.) He brought his show to YouTube before you had even probably heard of YouTube, in 2005, and after dabbling as a commentator on MSNBC and Current TV, Uygur has doubled down on his online network. He claims to have the most widely watched online news show, with 1.9 billion views to date.
If you haven’t heard of The Young Turks yet, its breakout moment may be near. A documentary about Uygur’s trajectory has just premiered. Last week, he sold out a live show at Hollywood’s Troubadour theater. The Young Turks recently began distribution on Hulu, and TYT’s eight shows are beginning to grow and consolidate into a 24-hour live web stream.
We caught up with Uygur to learn more about the past, present, and future of The Young Turks—and of new media in general.
FAST COMPANY: Let’s review your trajectory in a nutshell.
CENK UYGUR: The Young Turks’s trajectory has been pretty much the same trajectory of new media. We started out on radio, but then came to see and experience the decline of radio, in our opinion, to mere insignificance. The audience there is really minuscule and hard to reach. Then we went on TV and began to see the waning power of television as well, which is still a juggernaut but definitely waning. In 2005, we started a live daily stream, and inch by inch, day by day, we saw the enormous growth of online media. Right now, our feeling is that you’d be crazy to be anywhere but new media. All other forms of media are collapsing, while new media is growing by leaps and bounds. We bet on the right horse.
Most people think of YouTube stardom as a ticket to TV stardom. Was that ever your plan—to just use new media as a springboard?
Honestly, no. You’re right that everybody thought that’s what you’re supposed to do: use YouTube as a launching pad to get on "real media." Even people in my own company thought that that’s what I was doing, but I never thought of it that way. My idea was to use TV more as a springboard for getting bigger online. People in old media have a stereotype that if you’re on TV it’s a big deal, but online media is not a big deal, and they’re 100% wrong. Al Jazeera offered me a job and I turned it down flat. You see their ratings, they’re now at like 15,000 a night. On our network, my show gets 1.4 million views a day. Even on MSNBC we did 700,000 a night. Now our YouTube Channel does twice that. Old media can’t wrap its head around the idea that online is much bigger than TV, and only growing. So the point has always been to build our castles in new media. That’s where our foundations are, where our fortresses are.
I’ll be honest that despite the size of your viewership, I hadn’t heard of you until recently. Why do you think that is, and why does TV still have so much influence on the rest of the digital conversation? Is it possible to reach the "wrong" million people?
I’m very ambivalent about that. On the one hand, you’re right that the people on television reach the "right audience," the decision makers and people in the advertising world who decide how much you’re going to be paid. But I can’t play that game. That involves gatekeepers, and sucking up to the establishment. That’s not our strategy. Our strategy is to win the crowd. Win the crowd, and you win your freedom.
But it’s true that right now we’re at 1.9 billion total views, and most people in old media haven’t heard of us. They just don’t consume media that way, and since they haven’t heard of you they won’t cover you. So it’s a source of frustration for us. When Anderson Cooper does a show, ten times as many people hear about Anderson Cooper than actually watch him, because all the magazines and TV shows say, "Oh, Anderson Cooper..." When you do online, you have a massive audience, but only that audience sees it. So that’s the frustration, but if one billion didn’t do it, and 2 billion didn’t do it, then we’ll get to 5 billion, or 10 billion, and we’ll make it loud and clear that we are undeniable.
What, beyond sheer growth on your part, are the forces that will make old media finally listen to you?
I use the analogy of theater and movies. When movies first came out, the theater actors laughed and laughed. They were convinced, not just for a little while, but for a long stretch of time, that movies were never going to amount to anything. That’s happening all over again. As old media looks around and says we’ll never amount to anything, they’re already being consumed by our tidal wave. As they see the water receding, they’re going closer to the beach, but they don’t know the tsunami is coming to crash on their head. At some point, when the audience they have has left, they can deny all they like, but we will already have won.
So if you and people like Jon Klein of Tapp are right, what does the future of TV look like? Is it just a set-top box with stations I subscribe to like podcasts?
I think that’s exactly what it is. Everything will become one giant ocean of content. And the people with the best branding will win. You will have to have advantages in search, in sorting, and in branding. If you’ve built a loyal audience, you have a tremendous advantage. Right now, I’d rather be us than them.
This interview has been condensed and edited.