While the outspoken and quick-witted Baldwin seems like he’d be a potentially intimidating interviewer, his on-air chats are as congenial, intimate and warm as they are intellectual. Baldwin is present, engaged and thoughtful, sometimes sharing anecdotes from his own life.
Baldwin says the first few moments of his interviews are key for drawing out his guests. Speaking to Billboard over the phone, he says, "The beginning of the show is the billiard break. You want to ask the question that opens up to multiple opportunities after that. It’s never confrontational. You never want to make anyone feel uncomfortable."
He adds that it’s essential to make guests feel as if they are revealing themselves as opposed to feeling led. "The goal is not to snatch things from people," he continues. "If you give them the space and you talk to them with language that shows you’re not out to bring up the worst moments of their life and bring up humiliating times of their life, which everyone has, they’re more free to talk and they end up saying everything you wanted them to say. You make it their choice."
Baldwin has also made it his firm bottom line to keep the show positive. "This is a show about appreciation. We’re here to talk about whatever you want to talk about," he says. "We’re here for you to talk about the most positive and soaring moment you’ve had in your career.... We’re not here to sit here and probe people about their problems or reversals."
"I think Alec is actually one of the best interview shows in media today," says Conal Byrne, president of the IHeartPodcast Network at IHeartMedia. "Here’s the Thing highlights a whole other part of him that is deeply intellectual, incredibly smart.... And he does something that the best folks in media do: He makes what he does look extremely easy."
With the acquisition of Here’s the Thing, Baldwin adds to iHeartPodcast Network’s high-profile podcast creators, including Will Ferrell (The Ron Burgundy Podcast) and Questlove (Questlove Supreme). But while Byrne says Baldwin’s fame is helpful for promoting Here's The Thing, it isn’t what makes his show alluring. "I think what makes the podcast special is when you’re in the middle of an interview that Alec’s having with one of his guests, you forget the fame and you just hear people talking. The fame falls away and all you’re getting is intelligence."
Beyond celebrity-driven podcasts, Byrne says iHeartPodcast Network, which has entered into partnership deals with Viacom, Blumhouse Productions and Vice Media Group, among others, also prides itself on its diversity. "We are not single genre," he says. "Wondery is mainly crime. New York Times is mainly news. We have strength in 17 or 18 genres and we rank better in more genres than any other network and that was deliberate. We wanted to be strong in a lot of different genres, not just one or two." He adds that while the true-crime genre dominated podcasting for years due to the popularity of the long-running investigative journalism podcast Serial, the pandemic has caused significant growth in two new podcasting genres: news and comedy. Predicting fiction as the next growth genre, Byrne says iHeart has several new fiction podcasts in the works.
With 500 national podcasts individually driving hundreds of thousands to millions of downloads a month -- as well as 750 to 1,000 local podcasts continuously being launched and tested across the country -- iHeartPodcast Network comprises the biggest commercial podcast publisher in the United States. Over the last year, however, Spotify has been aggressively trying to dominate the podcasting game. In May, Spotify partnered up with the popular The Joe Rogan Experience in a $100 million exclusive multi-year deal, while in June, it signed an exclusive deal with Kim Kardashian West to host her criminal justice podcast. It has also reportedly spent approximately $500 million on purchasing podcast producers including Gimlet Media, Anchor and the Ringer. However, Byrne says iHeartPodcast Network stays a step ahead of Spotify in a variety of ways, including widespread distribution.
"We do not exclusively paywall content onto the iHeartRadio podcast app even though we could," says Byrne. "We widely distribute because we want the biggest audience for the best creators so the biggest brands can come in and use that scale. Wide distribution is better for everybody -- creators, listeners, and brands. Spotify accounts for somewhere between five and 12% of listening by our own metrics. I can’t imagine exclusively paywalling something there because you’d have to go to a creator and say, ‘Trust me, only 10%of your audience will be able to access it, but that’s good for you.’ It’s not. It’s not good for the creator, it’s not good for the brand that may want to sponsor that creator and it’s not good for the listener who may want to use a different app."
It’s not just money that brought Baldwin to iHeart (he says he uses ancillary income like this to help fund his philanthropic foundation), but also his editorial independence. When Baldwin invited his longtime friend Woody Allen onto his show, he says WNYC required him to ask Allen about long standing accusations by his daughter Dylan Farrow, who says Allen sexually assaulted her when she was 7 years old. Allen, who was never formally charged, has always maintained his innocence, and while several actors who have worked with Allen -- including Mira Sorvino and Ellen Page -- have publicly denounced him and voiced support for Farrow, Baldwin has always stood by the filmmaker. "Once WNYC said, 'We won’t air the interview unless you ask these questions' and forced that editorial content on me like that, I knew I was out of there." (The Allen episode aired in June and Baldwin says he asked some of WNYC’s questions after warning Allen in advance.)
"That might be the only criticism of NYC that I have," Baldwin adds. "I’m not saying to people to turn their backs on them or not support them. This is an experience that I had that was a singular experience which I thought was handled very badly by them. Having said that, I think there is still a lot of good there."
Byrne says he feels confident leaving editorial decisions in Baldwin’s hands. "This is a partnership. You trust the creator’s instinct because you have to," he says. "We are well aware of what Alec wants to do and the integrity that he brings. He’s going to trust us, too, to be able to blow that audience up bigger for him and support the show. This is the same thing that drives all of our relationships with all of our creators. There’s got to be a trust. You have to be able to know that someone has your back, that they’re going to trust your instincts, that they believe in your integrity, and that they’re going to follow you if you feel that it’s the right thing for you to do."