March 16, 2021

Below is an excerpt from The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter for women in media. Subscribe here to get it in your inbox every two weeks.

Like many millennial women, I don’t watch TV. I haven’t had cable my entire adult life! I am embarrassed to say I found out who Al Roker was during the intermission of the Broadway musical “Waitress” when he was playing diner owner Joe.

I’m a podcast-listening, newsletter-reading, YouTube-watching kind of gal.

Apparently, a lot of the women who work for CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” the decades-old public affairs Sunday broadcast show, are, too.

“There’s only one person that I’ve hired within the last couple years who said that she watched ‘Face the Nation’ every weekend before we hired her,” said executive producer Mary Hager. “And that was because her grandfather was an editor for CBS! She grew up with ‘60 Minutes’ every Sunday night, ‘Face the Nation’ every Sunday morning. That person — and she’s actually one of our podcast producers at this point — is very, very, very few and far between.”

Unlike the other Sunday shows, “Face the Nation” has its own dedicated YouTube channel. It has a “Five at 5” newsletter. And now it has a new podcast, called “Facing Forward.”

This move to cater to digital audiences has added up.

“I’ve been executive producer of ‘Face the Nation’ for coming up on 10 years now, and when I started, our digital to linear proportions were probably 20 to 80,” said Hager. “In the past few years, it’s been creeping up. I think we’re pretty much 50/50 now at this point.”

Even as the “Face the Nation” team is experimenting and investing in digital, the TV broadcast has been the most-watched Sunday morning public affairs show for 14 weeks collectively this season, according to Nielsen.

CBS News, at many levels, is led by women. Susan Zirinsky is president and senior executive producer of CBS News. Norah O’Donnell is the lead anchor and managing editor of “CBS Evening News.” Margaret Brennan is the moderator of “Face the Nation,” leading the team with Hager.

For The Cohort, I interviewed Brennan via email and Hager and digital producer Emily Tillett on the phone. I wanted to see how their team dynamics impacted their workplace culture, the products they produce, and the audiences they serve.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity, and to stitch together two different conversations.

MEL GRAU: Why add a podcast to your workload? And why now?

MARGARET BRENNAN: We have such a smart and engaged audience that we felt there was a genuine interest in deep dives. We’re in the midst of massive social, political, and economic change during this pandemic. Throughout the past 12 months, we felt that there was so much to cover that we needed a longer broadcast or another outlet, particularly because we were researching and digging into so many deep-seated issues. The podcast is one way to chronicle and understand some of that change in a conversational way.

MARY HAGER: The show is on a parallel track to the podcast. … We try to answer, “Where do we go from here?” Which is not something that we can do on the broadcast. The broadcast is much more of here’s what you need to know now.

The thing that frustrates all of us is that when that conversation on the broadcast is cut short. It’s limited. It’s six minutes, it’s five minutes …  in a really big interview maybe you get 10 or 12. Podcasts allow a longer, in-depth conversation where you can go different directions.

As executive producer of “Face the Nation” for the last 10 years, Mary Hager oversaw much of its digital growth. (Courtesy: CBS News)

MEL: Who are you trying to reach with the podcast?

MARY: Definitely reaching out to a younger demographic … also a female demographic. We’re trying to provide a longer conversation, but also tailoring it to new listeners, to new people.

EMILY TILLETT: The folks that we get on our Twitter Q&A … are asking very different questions than we may see on a Sunday program, not just ours. The pandemic showed us that there are issues and real-life problems that transcend age and demographic. So I think the fact that when we’re able to touch into these platforms — be it Twitter, be it any kind of podcast streaming — we’re able to reach beyond the typical Sunday public affairs program viewer.

MEL: This is a majority woman-led team. How does that dynamic impact your day-to-day work life?

EMILY: I can honestly say that you cannot feel the sense of camaraderie and the sense of support that you do on this team in any network I’ve ever worked at. The pandemic economy has marginally and overwhelmingly impacted women. I know for myself having a 2-and-a-half-year-old at home and another kid on the way, having schools closed … you know, this has been illuminating. To have a team that sees those issues as not just women’s issues but as American issues, and as issues that our viewers can relate to every single day, is so important.

It makes me feel very proud to be part of a team that, yes, is mostly female-led, but it’s led by a team of people that cares deeply about the product that we’re putting out because we know it impacts people.

MEL: Does that support allow for more experimentation?

EMILY: Absolutely. Even in the pitching process … that support is essential. I think that’s what is missing a lot at other networks, and I think it’s what’s missing on content that I consume — making sure that those voices are heard.

In December, Margaret Brennan shared on Instagram that she is expecting a baby boy in the spring of 2021. In January, she and the “Face the Nation” team launched the “Facing Forward” podcast. (Screenshot)

MEL: Margaret, you recently told your audience that you are expecting your second child. I think it’s pretty awesome that you launched a new project with you at the center while you were pregnant, knowing you’d need to pivot quickly. Tell us about that process? 

MARGARET: Thanks. I’ve been wanting to launch a podcast for some time. As for it coinciding with this baby, I believe that having a family should not be a disqualifying factor or reason to lean back. Women have superpowers in my view in terms of their abilities to multitask. No part of it is easy. We’ll take a podcast hiatus during my maternity leave and relaunch on my return. The “Face the Nation” broadcast will continue in my absence just as it did with my first child. I will be back in the moderator’s chair as soon as I can be.

MEL: Burnout is a constant topic of discussion in our industry, especially in a year like this and especially for women. I have to say, you all sound energized. How are you managing to be creative? 

MARY: Never before has this world seen a story like the coronavirus and what it’s done on so many fronts. Yes, it is a difficult time. But it is invigorating that there is so much content out there and that we have this wonderful gift of an hour every Sunday. Margaret and I have been conceiving the show, along with the staff, as an hourlong PSA every week since the pandemic started. And that really kind of gives you a solid goal and a feeling of, “How can I contribute in a positive way in dark times?”

RELATED: After six decades, CBS’s “Face the Nation” transforms for its biggest story yet, and earns its best viewership in years

EMILY: One of our big mottos of the show is context, context, context. And just making sure that people feel like they have a place where they can go to genuinely seek out answers to the questions that they have: Do I feel safe? Am I OK to send my kids to school? These are all questions that I ask myself every single day … so the things that I’m going through, I know our viewers are dealing with tenfold across the country.

MARY: The things that are of great concern to us are the things that I think that have really resonated with our viewers at times. Emily is the only one on staff who takes her son to child care, so she pushed KinderCare. We put the CEO of KinderCare on to talk about taking your kids back to daycare. Margaret has a 2-year-old. Margaret was hearing from parents: Is it safe to take kids to the playground? So we asked Dr. Fauci. That was one of the biggest headlines coming out of a Fauci interview last spring. Fauci said no, don’t take your kids to the playground. Parents across the country thanked Margaret for asking that question.

MEL: In the spirit of “facing forward,” what are you looking forward to in 2021? Both professionally and personally.

MARY: Well, with the caveat that people are vaccinated and we get to a point of immunity where it is safe to do things like go to baseball games again — I can’t wait to go to a baseball game! Professionally, I cannot wait for Saturdays. We work Wednesday through Sunday in the office schedule normally, but I miss Saturday the most. The majority of us involved in the actual production on Sunday mornings are going in on Sundays, but Saturday was the day where it was casual. Everyone had a lot of work to do, but it was such a sense of camaraderie and community.

EMILY: I will be very excited to not use a VPN to do my work anymore. There’s nothing like being able to bounce ideas off your colleagues in real time. We are a small but loud bunch on our floor, so it’ll be nice to kind of yell across the room about something wild I saw online. Personally, I will be very excited when I’m able to have folks come over to see our new baby.

Emily Tillett has been working from home since last year at this time. Previously, she worked from the control room during Sunday broadcasts of “Face the Nation,” as shown here in 2019. (Courtesy: CBS News)

MEL: Margaret, what do you think is the future of the public affairs broadcast?

MARGARET: You can get an opinion anywhere these days. However, there is still a premium on fact, context, perspective and access to the decision-makers who are reshaping our country. I believe there is a great need for quality public affairs broadcasts and we strive to make “Face the Nation” live up to its storied history each week.

Subscribe to The Cohort to access curated lists of mentors, get to know more about each featured guest, and participate in an ongoing conversation amongst women in media, technology and news.

Correction and update: “Face the Nation” has been the most-watched Sunday morning public affairs show 14 times collectively this season as of today, not consecutively

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Mel Grau is the senior product specialist at The Poynter Institute, focusing on Poynter's training experiences and newsletters. She previously edited The Cohort, Poynter’s biweekly…
Mel Grau

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