Written by Ben Sisario
Former President Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen are liberal icons, vacationing friends and rhapsodists about the dreams and travails of everyday Americans.
Now they are also podcast hosts.
On Monday, Spotify released the first two episodes of “Renegades: Born in the USA,” featuring the 44th president and the singer of the anthemic hit name-checked in the show’s title. In “Renegades,” which will release six subsequent episodes weekly, the two men speak intimately and expansively on topics such as race, fatherhood and the painful divisions that persist in American society.
Drawn from a series of one-on-one conversations at Springsteen’s home studio in New Jersey from July to December, the show is a searching, high-minded discussion of life in the United States from two masters of the form.
“In our own ways, Bruce and I have been on parallel journeys,” Obama says in the first episode. “We still share a fundamental belief in the American ideal. Not as an airbrushed, cheap fiction or an act of nostalgia that ignores all the ways that we’ve fallen short of that ideal. But as a compass for the hard work that lies before each of us as citizens.”
“Renegades” also represents a kind of high-water mark for podcasting. The show is produced by Higher Ground Productions, the company founded by Obama and his wife, Michelle, and the two men’s collaboration seemingly would have fit in with the Obamas’ slate of TV and film projects with Netflix.
But podcasting, once seen as a low-stakes sandbox filled with comedians and public-radio regulars, is now a booming, competitive media business that attracts ever-bigger names. This month, former President Bill Clinton began his own show, “Why Am I Telling You This?”
“It illustrates exactly where we are at this moment in time,” Dawn Ostroff, chief content officer of Spotify, the exclusive outlet for “Renegades,” said of the show. “It says this is the next big thing — or it has already arrived.”
For Spotify, which has made a big push into podcasts over the past two years (including buying the studio Gimlet Media and launching “The Michelle Obama Podcast” last summer), the show is partly a bid to attract older listeners. Nearly half of American podcast listeners are under 35, according to a market survey last year by Edison Research and Triton Digital.
The president and the rock star met on the 2008 campaign trail, and over the years they have cultivated a warm friendship. In January 2017, as Obama was preparing to leave office, Springsteen gave an intimate, career-spanning performance at the White House, which he then developed into his solo show on Broadway. In “Renegades,” Obama, 59, and Springsteen, 71, laugh heartily as they recount some of the meals, chats and impromptu singalongs they have shared.
Dan Fierman, head of Higher Ground Audio, said Michelle Obama’s experience making her show last year spurred the former president to create his own podcast, and he selected Springsteen as his interlocutor. Their first recording session took place July 30, just hours after Obama delivered the eulogy for John Lewis, the civil rights hero and congressman from Georgia.
Their conversation mingles the personal and the mythic. Obama discusses growing up in Hawaii with the confusion and discomfort of being of mixed race — “I wasn’t easily identifiable; I felt like an outsider,” he says — and they each share lessons of masculinity they drew from the failings of their own fathers.
They are a mutual-admiration society. Springsteen, who now and then picks up a guitar, tells the story of his 1984 song “My Hometown,” with its echoes of racial conflict in the 1960s. He marvels at the universality and patriotism that comes through when concert crowds roar out its line, “This is your hometown.”
“I always get a sense that they know the town they’re talking about isn’t Freehold,” Springsteen says, referring to where he grew up in New Jersey. “It’s not Washington. It’s not Seattle. It’s the whole thing — it’s all of America.” Brief pause. “It’s a good song.”
“It’s a great song,” Obama quickly adds.
The show reflects a big-tent centrism that has long been part of both men’s approach. Springsteen released a Jeep ad during the latest Super Bowl — his first commercial ever — that called for Americans to meet in “the middle.”
Surveying the nation’s divisions, Obama asks: “How did we get here? How could we find our way back to a more unifying American story?” That push for a middle ground was sometimes a liability for Obama during his presidency, and may be at odds with the hyperpartisanship of the moment.
“Renegades” also arrives while news is still fresh that Springsteen had been arrested in November on charges of drunken driving, a rare scandal for one of rock’s living saints. (Springsteen has not commented about the arrest, and he is expected to appear in court as soon as Wednesday.) Fierman said the incident did not change the company’s plans to release “Renegades,” and stray references to alcohol in the show were left intact.
Obama and Springsteen declined to comment for this article.
Although the show is positioned as an attempt to understand the divisions in American society and to search for solutions, Obama and Springsteen largely avoid politics and stick to personal stories.
Yet political tensions inevitably loom over “Renegades.” For a discussion of national divisions in the eighth and final episode of the first season, Obama added an introductory note about the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol.
Obama also says little about his successor, former President Donald Trump. But his view of the man who took his place, and of the state of the country, is clear from Obama’s very first words in the first episode, setting the scene of 2020 as a moment of anxiety and conflict in America.
“For three years I’d had to watch a presidential successor who was diametrically opposed to everything I believed in,” Obama says. “And witnessed a country that seemed to be getting angrier and more divided with each passing day.”