The chocolate rum notwithstanding, Sam Sanders was full of good spirits.
“I’m feeling my alcohol,” he said. “I took a secret shot before I came in here.”
Sanders, a longtime radio and podcast host, was in a conference room in the Lower Manhattan office of New York magazine, dutifully making his way through a boozy gantlet. Someone had posted in Slack about the proliferation of celebrity-owned liquor brands, a subject, it was pointed out, that could make for a fruitful segment on “Into It,” Sanders’s new pop culture podcast from New York, Vulture and the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Now, it was 3:24 pm on a weekday in May, and Sanders, with the help of a few co-workers, was getting day drunk in a blind taste test. The chocolate rum — SelvaRey, by the kitschy pop and R&B star Bruno Mars — won the host over mostly because of its fittingly cheeky slogan: “Made in the jungle.”
“It’s hokey, and corny, and cheesy — but it works,” he said.
“Into It,” which had its debut on Thursday, enters a crowded talk-show podcast space, distinguished by a deep bench of contributors — care of Vulture, largely missing in action in podcasting before now — and a generous pouring of irreverence. Like “Culture Gabfest” and “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” it promises smart takes from critics on the week’s news and trends. As on “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” and “Love It Or Leave It,” in-studio games (the liquor tasting will appear in a future episode) and calls from listeners will provide a sense of dynamism. But the clearest indication of the show’s ambition is Sanders himself, previously best known as the founding host of NPR’s pop culture podcast and radio show, “It’s Been a Minute.”
For Sanders, 37, “Into It” is both a reset and a moment of emancipation. He spent 12 years in public radio, first coming to prominence, during the 2016 presidential election, as one of the original co-hosts of the “NPR Politics Podcast.” Throughout that time, he says, he had been honoring a person who felt cramped on public radio but takes center stage on “Into It”: uncensored, uninhibited and unbothered.
“Every year at NPR, you could hear me pushing the line: What can you say? What can you not say? How can you say it?Sanders said in a recent interview. “I didn’t want to think about that anymore. At a certain point, it just became [Expletive] the line. I’m past that.”
On “It’s Been a Minute,” which began in 2017, Sanders attracted a loyal following with a combination of old-school gravitas and frisky informality. He was a sturdy enunciator of hard news, updating listeners on the Trump White House and the early pandemic. But the show leaned into conversation rather than monologue. Sanders brought a convivial generosity and enthusiasm to group discussions and long interviews — often conveyed with an audible “mmh,” or “come on,” or “talkaboutit” — that called to mind the friend at the cookout with whom you can’t wait to gossip or commiserate.
Brent Baughman, a senior producer at NPR who developed “It’s Been a Minute” with Sanders, said he took note of the host’s unusual effect on listeners while working on the “NPR Politics Podcast.” At an event for that show in 2016, fans wore homemade T-shirts screen printed with Sanders’s face.
“It was clear that he had a star power that transcended politics,” Baughman said. “People would tune in just because they loved him.”
Sanders’s candid, conspiratorial style infused “It’s Been a Minute” with a generative vein of unpredictability. Speaking in 2018 with actor Brian Tyree Henry, of the FX series “Atlanta,” he upended what might have been a by-numbers exchange by asking how Henry ordered his hash browns from him.
The actor, who had been lamenting his inability to eat undisturbed at Waffle House, replied with a deadpan rhetorical wrist slap: “That’s none of your business.”
Sanders howled in protest, and both men dissolved into a fit of laughter. When Henry eventually divulged his order from him (“smothered and covered,” with sautéed onions and melted American cheese), he followed it with a surprisingly earnest tribute to the pluralist appeal of the Georgia-based restaurant chain — a haven for people-watching as well as potatoes.
“That’s what I loved about Atlanta, man,” he said, his voice softening. “Every nook and cranny has something to it.”
Surfacing uncommon pathways for emotional sincerity has long been the object of Sanders’s work. In his first job at NPR, as a postgraduate fellow in 2009, he gravitated toward subjects with an undercurrent of pathos. In 2016, after a deadly shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., which came a year after a deadly shooting at a Black church in Charleston, SC, Sanders provided a rare note of catharsis on the “NPR Politics Podcast.”
“You think about the mother who lost her life in Charleston — the reason she needed that safe space is because she’s not sure if her son might be killed for carrying a bag of Skittles,” he said. “The people in the club in Orlando, the reason they need that safe space is because they’re not sure if they’ll get beat up for kissing their boyfriend, or if they’ll be able to keep their jobs because they’re gay. I hope we understand that lots of people in America, in this society, don’t feel safe every day.”
Born in Seguin, Texas, Sanders never expected to work as a journalist. He was raised in a strict, Pentecostal household and once thought he’d become a preacher. He pivoted in his college years, preparing for a career as a campaign strategist or political fund-raiser. It wasn’t until the final year of a master’s program in public policy, at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, that he considered applying to NPR, of which he and his mother had become in love on hourlong drives to and from church.
“It was a way to stay informed and get involved without having to do politics,” Sanders said.
He learned reporting on the job at NPR, and initially embraced the nonprofit’s strict rules regarding impartiality. An ethics handbook from 2012 admonished journalists to “transcend how we feel about a subject and impart to our audience what we know about it, and what we don’t.”
Even as he flirted with bringing more of himself to his stories, Sanders remained wary of getting too personal. In his remarks about the Pulse nightclub shooting, he made no mention of his own sexuality. (Two years later, he discussed coming out as gay in an episode of “It’s Been a Minute.”) Like many journalists at legacy news outlets, he largely withheld his feelings on Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, avoiding the use of words like “racist” and “lie.”
“It took years of working on myself to get to the point where I felt comfortable sharing anything personal in the midst of a story,” he said.
Sanders said he realized he needed a fresh start at some point in the middle of last year. The announcement this spring of his departure from NPR came amid a wave of high-profile exits by other correspondents of color, including Audie Cornish, Noel King and Lulu Garcia-Navarro. (Garcia-Navarro joined The New York Times last fall.)
King, Garcia-Navarro and others had earlier alleged pay disparities at the organization between male and female hosts, among other issues. NPR has said that improving diversity and equity is its “foremost priority,” and pointed to competition from deep-pocketed rivals as one explanation for the departures.
Although Sanders said that “issues of equity” were a factor in his decision, he added that the choice had been largely personal, fueled by his desire for maximal creative freedom.
“I spent a third of my life in that place and it still means a lot to me,” he said. “But I wanted the time and the space to carve out an identity that wasn’t ‘Sam Sanders from NPR.’”
On the first episode of “Into It,” Sanders was lithe and sprightly, a distance runner easing into stride. Over the course of 30 minutes, he bounded through a series of games with Vulture colleagues that highlighted the week’s concerns: Jennifer Lopez (“a human angel here on earth”), Ben Affleck (“something dead behind his eyes”), Keke Palmer (“a breath of fresh air”).
The structure of the show, over which Sanders has wide discretion, is deliberately flexible. His long interviews of him are back in the mix (the first episode included a deep dive on Beyoncé with the journalist Danyel Smith) and he is leaving space for what he calls “high jinks for the sake of high jinks,” like the celebrity liquor tasting.
Mostly, he says, he wants to talk about whatever feels good, and invite others to do the same.
“I think the best thing that I can offer is a place where you can come recharge, learn, be entertained, and then go back out into the world feeling a little bit of a lift,” Sanders said. “That’s what I’ve wanted for my listeners from Day 1.”