Nearly 10 years ago, Cenk Uygur launched The Young Turks (TYT) network on a budding website called YouTube. A multi-channel network of now 30 shows, TYT Network generates an astounding 90 million views per month. The flagship program, The Young Turks is one of the largest online news shows in the world, covering topics ranging from politics, pop culture, and social trends, and is hosted by Uygur and Ana Kasparian, Now, the L.A.-based cofounder and host shares the lessons he has learned on the road to success.
Uygur graduated from the Wharton School of Business and Columbia Law School, but found the world of law unfulfilling, especially after working on a particular case. “If ever there was anything that was going to make no difference in the world, this [case] was it,” says Uygur. “In my own crazy way I wanted to make a little bit of a difference. Being a lawyer, I felt like I was going to waste my life away.”
At one point, Uygur decided to turn down a contract for a quarter of a million dollars because it would require his company to be exclusive with SiriusXM Radio. “They didn’t want us to do online video and [that] was the future,” says Uygur. “Under no circumstances would I give that up. So we turned down all that money and had not much to fall back on. We went back to square one and built our way up.”
Uygur knew that to grow his audience he had to go where they were, which was YouTube. “We were A/B testing before it was called A/B testing,” he says. “Back then it was called trial and error. Every other platform felt flat and YouTube took off like a rocket.” In addition to streaming on their own website, YouTube, and Hulu, TYT Network launched a series at the beginning of this year titled Final Judgment, where Uygur sounds off on the biggest stories, optimized for the newly created Facebook video platform. “In April we had 24 million views,” says Uygur. “It’s unbelievable. Now for the first time in 10 years, there’s a real competitor to YouTube in terms of video platforms.”
When it comes to the competition, Uygur feels it’s best not to focus on the titans. “I think if you’re a young person trying to get into the online video business, don’t worry because you’re actually in better shape than the bigger companies,” he says. “They’re having enormous trouble adjusting and they keep heading in the wrong direction. If you’re doing an authentic show, you know who your audience is, and if you’re passionate about what you do, then I think you stand a better chance than the giants.”
With so many topics of interest, Uygur and the team always ask themselves what they can add to a story instead of just regurgitating it. “We try to come in as open-minded as we can, look at the facts and analyze it, and see if there’s value we can add,” says Uygur. “What can we leave the audience with? That’s also true of the lighter stories as well.”
Uygur’s own show, The Young Turks, moves at a lightening pace, discussing between 15-20 stories a day. He believes the key to working accurately and efficiently with the daily news is simple—hire smart people. “If you’re not smart, you’re going to be severely exposed,” says Uygur. “We have to hire smart people who are passionate about what they do and can do great analysis and commentary on air, otherwise they are not going to survive.”
While TYT Network shows shoot out of a studio in Culver City, CA, Uygur says that high-tech equipment isn’t necessary to online success. “You can work your way up to the fancier set once you have the money and resources to do so, but you can do it out of your living room,” he says. “You can shoot it on your iPhone. The audience is very forgiving in that sense in this day and age.”
If you’re hoping to hit it big quick, don’t bother, says Uygur. “The most important thing is to do something you love. If you don’t love it, you won’t be able to work 16 hours a day on it. Nobody has enough willpower to work hard enough on things they don’t love. The answer is always relentlessness, an unstoppable persistence. If you’re passionate and you’re persistent, you’re most of the way home. If you have those two things, anything is possible and you have almost as good a chance as anybody of finding success.”
Rakhee Bhatt is a freelance writer and storyteller based in New York City. View her work on her website.