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You Didn’t Build That

A tale of two podcasts…

The title of NPR’s How I Built This podcast perfectly describes its contents. It’s a series of interviews with founders and CEOs about how they built their companies. The “I” is critical: In How I Built This, it is the executive, not the workers, who does the building. In fact, workers hardly appear at all in How I Built This. The typical narrative is of a scrappy young entrepreneur with nothing but a vision and some grit, who manages through a combination of individual hard work and flashes of serendipity to find themselves presiding over a billion-dollar corporation. The story of the company is the story of its founders, who Create it through their dedication and insight.

How I Built This fully swallows the Silicon Valley mythology about “changing the world,” describing itself as “a narrative journey about innovators, entrepreneurs and idealists—and the movements they built.” Movements! The founders of LinkedIn and Edible Arrangements did not just build companies, they built movements. The host, Guy Raz, struggles to contain his giddy enthusiasm for the world of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The New York Times remarked that he “sounds like no matter what he is saying, he is also saying ‘Wow,’” and he seems positively agog whenever a guest cites some absurdly large valuation or sales figure. Raz is captivated by the drama of business, saying he is interested in “human experiences” and narratives.

As you might expect, there are not many critical questions asked on How I Built This. Raz, a veteran news correspondent, apparently “does not consider himself a reporter anymore,” and he isn’t one. The program is a 40-minute infomercial for some of America’s largest companies subsidized by NPR listeners. (Those who donate to NPR may want to bear this in mind and consider giving their money to less sycophantic media outlets.) Founders and CEOs get to spin out whatever self-serving Horatio Alger story they have honed over the years, with Raz offering the occasional “Wow” or “How did that feel?” Raz seems to believe he is extracting some important confessions from these people—“I ask them, ‘Are you willing to come to this interview and surrender?’,” he told the Times, which reports that he “gets founders to open up and tell wrenching stories about sacrifices, late nights, self-doubt and the mistakes that led to success.” But every CEO loves to tell a story about sacrifice, late nights, and the bumps on the road to success—they’re just telling Raz exactly the story that they would put in their “How I Made It” business book.

A few examples of the Raz technique, from my sampling of the podcast. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey is known for being viciously anti-union, calling labor unions “parasites” that “don’t create value” and “are not part of the solution at Whole Foods Market.” Allegedly, the company tells its workers that “unions are deceptive, money-hungry organizations who will say and do almost anything to ‘infiltrate’ and coerce employees into joining their ranks,” and gives them a pamphlet entitled “Beyond Unions.” Whole Foods has successfully stopped organizing campaigns at many of its stores. Naturally, when Mackey came on How I Built This, awkward questions about labor rights were avoided in favor of Mackey’s feel-good personal story about the building of his empire and his creation, in Raz’s words, of “an organic food revolution that changed the way Americans shop for groceries.” (Personally I still shop for groceries the same way I did before the local Whole Foods opened, because I can’t afford to go to Whole Foods.)

Here is a representative selection of the dialogue exchanged between Raz and Mackey:

RAZ: Were you scared? I mean, you were still a kid.

MACKEY: No. I wasn’t scared at all.

RAZ: You thought this was going to work.

[…]

RAZ: Were you freaking out?

MACKEY: No, but the investors were.

RAZ: I bet!

[…]

Towards the end, Raz does mention that Mackey “inspires pretty strong opinions” and has both “fanboys” and “haters.” How does he respond to those with strong opinions? “My take is, of course, that the people that know me like me,” Mackey replies. Raz does not go into the reasons Mackey inspires such “strong opinions,” such as his statement that “climate change is perfectly natural and not necessarily bad… most of humanity tends to flourish more when global temperatures are in a warming trend.” Grilling Mackey on this might spoil the uplifting story. It would conflict with the purposes of the show, one of which is “to leave people with a sense of possibility.” Raz says he’s “not looking for news,” but “looking to get into your heart and mind.” It’s good he’s not looking for news, because he definitely hasn’t found it. 

So, when Raz interviews someone like Joe Gebbia of Airbnb, there will be no discussion about the allegations that Airbnb destroys communities by causing large percentages of historic neighborhoods to be converted to short-term rentals (leaving residents thinking “I’d like to have my neighbors back”). Instead Raz asks things like: “Last year Airbnb was valued at 20 billion or more. Is that crazy to you?” Here is Raz’s version of a critical question:

RAZ: [Some people say] ‘hey, you guys should be regulated like hotels.’ How do you respond to that?”

GEBBIA: I think about that question in the context of innovations over the last 100 years…. [insert predictable self-serving blather about how every important invention was opposed by haters who tried to destroy it because they weren’t visionary enough to understand it.]

When corporate executives talk like this, they should at least get a follow-up, e.g., “But people don’t necessarily demand regulation just because they don’t understand the value of a room-rental service, they support it because unchecked ‘creative destruction’ can cause significant damage to people’s livelihoods. Why are you incapable of understanding that?” Here’s Lyft’s John Zimmer talking about how his co-founder Logan Green realized that public transit was “broken” and in need of some good disruption:

[Logan] quickly grew to realize the challenges in public transportation and came to the conclusion that across the country when you pay to get on the bus, you’re really only covering about 30% of the operating costs, so what that means is that a 3 dollar bus far actually costs the government 10 and as the lines get more busy, they get harder to fund and harder to add service levels so actually the more busy they get the worse they get. So he came to the conclusion that public transportation was broken… He then traveled to Zimbabwe where he saw people sharing rides out of necessity and got inspired to build a website that would connect people going the same way to be able to sell a seat in their car, and that’s why he called the website “Zimride.”

Now, there are a number of questions here you can ask if you are a journalist, such as “Aren’t the failures of public transportation in part due to several decades of neoliberalism and a failure to provide adequate funding? Why would you adopt something Zimbabweans do out of necessity rather than pushing for greater investment in public transit?” These are not questions Guy Raz is interested in.

Okay, so the guests on How I Built This are self-aggrandizing and Guy Raz is a credulous bootlicker. So don’t listen to it, Robinson. But there’s something I honestly find disturbing about How I Built This. It’s the way workers, without whom none of these market triumphs are possible, simply disappear. You’ll rarely if ever hear the word “union” on How I Built This. Talk about labor conditions is nonexistent. You don’t really find out what kind of a boss they are, even though Raz insists that he only picks people who seem “kind” and have ethical business practices. I am certain that plenty of these people’s employees have listened and thought “That guy is an asshole who is lying through his teeth.” And by hosting such a podcast, NPR is contributing to the devaluation of workers’ lives. It’s putting out propaganda, because it’s allowing people at the top to tell the story, and not allowing anyone at the bottom to have a say.

My friend Max Alvarez has recently written for this magazine about the ways that workers are robbed of their voices. Everyone talks about The Working Class but nobody actually bothers to listen to them. NPR, that “liberal” radio network, only cares what the boss has to say. Max has tried to do something different, starting his own podcast that offers an instructive contrast with How I Built This. It’s called Working People, and on it you’ll hear average individuals talk about their lives, struggles, and aspirations. Max interviews the people who drive the Ubers and the people who work in the Amazon warehouses. Surprisingly enough, they often have a somewhat different view of the corporate world than the bosses on How I Built This.

Lately, Max has been interviewing people affected by GM’s recent mass layoff of 14,000 people. He doesn’t want to hear the inspiring success story of the one guy who founded a company, he wants to hear the less romantic day-to-day life stories of the thousands of people who work for that guy. Max’s GM interviews have been heartbreaking:

MAX ALVAREZ: When we hear these kinds of stories it’s very difficult to wrap our heads around the human costs to families in these industrial towns… How are y’all getting by?

ROCHELLE CARLISLE: When we first saw the news, I was in total shock. And then your mind starts to wonder ‘Oh my gosh, it’s not just me that’s losing everything, it’s the whole community, I mean what’s going to happen to property values?…. It’s a trickle down effect because when people aren’t working, they don’t go out to eat, they don’t tip… I don’t understand how a CEO as a human being can wake up in the morning and say ‘You know, I’m going to take everything from these 14,000 people, and I’m going to sleep great tonight.’ How, in your heart, are you able to make that decision and be okay with it? … I understand they’re about profit, but where do you draw the line, as a person, to have compassion towards any other person?  

[…]

TOMMY WOLIKOW: When General Motors closes its doors, I’m not going to be able to sell my house and get what I put in for it. Who is going to want to buy a house when they know that two miles away the heart of the area just got closed? When I got laid off from GM everything was going really well. I had zero credit card debt, I was paying my mortgage… and I went from having that financial stability to now I am in the 20,000 dollar range of credit card debt… My kids, they want certain things for Christmas and it’s really hard scraping the money together to be able to get your kids what they want for Christmas at a time like this.

These are not fun stories to listen to. But they’re far more worth hearing than the autobiographies of millionaire entrepreneurs, because they show you what life is actually like in this country for most of the people who live in it. And Max isn’t simply collecting tales of woe. His podcast also asks important social questions, finding out what people think about unions, the extent to which there is a shared working class identity, the ways that people resist and survive. In the GM interviews, Nanette Senters talks about a phenomenon I’d never thought about: resentment of people who work at GM by people in the area who don’t work at GM:

Because it’s so economically depressed around here… they look at an average line worker making $60,000 a year as an overlord or something. You know, we’re better than them and they hate us. This has been a common problem “Oh you work at GM, you can afford it.” No, I can’t. I’m just scraping by… Most of us help our families and donate to charities out the wazoo.

These are the kinds of barriers to solidarity that need to be understood, and if you don’t share these life experiences, you’re not going to find out about them unless you actually listen to people rather than theorizing about them in the abstract. The interviewees on Working People are unpolished, unlike the entrepreneurs who have spent years practicing their “elevator pitches.” The show isn’t as easily digestible as How I Built This—there’s no dramatic music, no carefully edited structured narrative, no cheerful “anyone can make it” message. But it has the advantage of being true.

There’s no better proof of Max’s thesis about the silencing of working class people than the fact that How I Built This is one of NPR’s flagship podcasts, while Working People is surviving on a few Patreon bucks. In a just world, NPR would hire Max and let Guy Raz go swoon over billionaires on his own time. But it tells you something about the “age of inequality” that “left-wing” radio consists of a man going “Gee whiz!” as bosses talk about how successful they are.

Read Max’s article here. Listen to Working People here.

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