of Print

Jason Concepcion is Taking His Shot

by Jonty Cruz

The writer and podcast host on the X-Men, what forced him to be extremely analytical growing up, and what he’s still learning about the podcast business.

The small talk got real, real fast. After exchanging some pleasantries, Jason Concepcion and I immediately found ourselves talking about the pandemic, authoritarianism, and how everything’s come together at the worst possible time. “It’s like the worst man met the worst moment,” Jason tells me. He says it feels like we’re caught in “an unholy alliance between a once-in-a-century event and the most colossal piece of shit that could’ve been imagined to have the reins of power during this time.” We talked about how all this inequality and oppression and the failures of our institutions aren’t new. If anything, the pandemic has just opened more eyes to what so many have already known for so long. “I’ve come to understand more clearly now what civilization is,” he says. “What I had deemed as normalcy previously was simply a pushing-out of the worst outcomes to an area beyond my daily awareness. And now it’s here.”

“It’s terrifying, because what comes next?” Jason says. “[Authoritarianism] is the most extreme thing that people have tried. And as immoral and as wrong as it is, it’s extremely popular. So now what?” I tell him how so many people have been encouraging others to register to vote for the 2022 elections, and how the cynic in me questions if there even will be elections. Nothing about these past years has been normal. The last time anything like this happened, the guy was in power for 30 years. “They’ve acted only aggressively towards anything that might suggest that they would ever leave power,” he replies.

This was supposed to be a discussion on podcasts and Jason’s career—and it still is. But these kinds of conversations are also why Jason finds himself in a new company and at a new phase in his life. On November 3rd of last year, Jason announced that he was joining Crooked Media—the home of one of the world’s most popular political podcasts, Pod Save America. He was coming from The Ringer, where he had earned himself a strong following and some much-deserved accolades. His podcast, Binge Mode, which he co-hosted with Mallory Rubin, was a massive success and was even featured in The New York Times. His satirical basketball video series, NBA Desktop, won a Sports Emmy in 2019 for Outstanding Digital Innovation. To use a basketball reference: as far as Jason’s value to The Ringer was concerned, he was First Team All-NBA. So the announcement of his move came as a shock to those who follow Jason. But also, it was a sign that he was ready to be part of arguably a more exciting world and a much larger conversation. In a recent interview with Vulture, Jason laid out some reasons for his move. “Well, it was an opportunity to go somewhere where I could really lean into some of my ideals in a significant way, while still being able to cover the things I love talking about,” he says. “The events of the past 12 months—and, you know, the three or four years before that—really hammered home for me that I wanted to be more active in the things that are happening in the world in whatever way that was possible for me.”

This past March, Jason launched his first two projects as part of Crooked Media. There’s Takeline, a sports and culture podcast he co-hosts with Renee Montgomery—“Takeline every Tuesday, wherever you get your podcasts. Please like and subscribe and give us the five-star rating.” And then there’s ALL CAPS NBA, a video series that evokes the same spirit as NBA Desktop.

Jason talks more about podcasts, our shared love of comics, and “the business” over Zoom.

The following interview has been edited for publication.


Out of Print: Hi Jason! You’ve really made a name for yourself on Twitter and through podcasts, but I’m curious to know what you wanted to be growing up?
Jason Concepcion: I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to draw for a living. When I was really young, I thought maybe I could draw comic books. As I grew older, I thought that it was maybe unrealistic. So I thought maybe I could be an architect, since that involved design and drawing as well. And then later on, I got into music as a vehicle for creativity. It wasn’t until I discovered, quite by chance, that I was good at writing that [I considered] it could be a thing I would do.

How did you discover that you were good at writing “by chance”?
Social media. When Twitter happened, I got on it because I wanted to follow my fantasy basketball team. At that time, around 2008 or 9, there was no good way to check if players from other cities were injured or whatever, so I would use my Twitter account to follow writers from different sports cities. It started as a news-gathering device for me. And as I was watching basketball games, I started tweeting at people who were funny and it just grew from there. I guess I had an ability to capture people’s attention in a very short span of text. It started to take off, and from there I would get offers to write longer stuff.

When you started writing longer pieces, did you have to activate a different muscle for that?
Yeah, for sure. There’s a structure to things to make pieces flow better, give them shape, and allow them to be more effective in the argument they’re making. It took a while to figure that out, but luckily there are all these examples of how to do it. So it took a while until I thought I knew what I was doing—and I still don’t really feel like I know what I’m doing—but at least now I understand that every time a process is really hard, to not be totally taken aback by it.

I guess the other question there would be, since you started on Twitter (where wit is most essential), how did you translate that wit to your longform pieces? Especially when, as they say, brevity is the soul of wit.
I think it’s about unpacking what the insight is. I describe Twitter now—when people ask me what I use it for—as essentially batting practice. Especially when I’m writing something, I’ll throw out an idea on Twitter and see if it catches on at all.

It’s also about allowing my natural curiosity to do the leg work and research—what’s interesting to me about this topic, and just following that through whatever path it takes me.

In your interview with The New York Times, you said that you consider yourself extremely analytical. What was that like, growing up?
Here in the States, I grew up in a very white area. So you’re aware right away that you’re not like everybody else. That you look different, and you’re reminded of that by people. So you have to be very aware of people’s moods, of the signs they’re giving off, the subtext of what they’re saying, what that may imply for you in the next five minutes or hour. You just develop that as a very young kid as a survival mechanism. Not to make it sound so existential, but everything seems existential when you’re that age, right? Are people going to make fun of me? Am I going to be bullied?

That seems like such a hard way to know yourself at such a young age, how it’s based on how others see or know you.
Is there an easy way? [Laughs]

That’s fair. But it sounds like you had to second-guess everything. Like it’s imposter syndrome without even knowing who you are yet.
That’s true. And I think finding out I was good at writing is another example of this. I kind of dedicated everything, all my social capital and emotional capital, to this idea that I would be a good musician. And when that didn’t work out, it was devastating. I really thought that that was what I was supposed to do. So when it came to writing and having to turn on that inside voice that said, “Okay, you’re allowed to be good at this,” it was hard to kickstart it. Because I thought I would just work at a restaurant, or I’d do something that I wouldn’t enjoy to make a living. I just didn’t have that antenna anymore for my own talents. It took a lot of convincing of myself that I’m good at this. There is something here that I can pursue.

So did you feel like you were good enough when people started asking you to write for them?
Oh, of course! I mean, forget any “creative”—just for any person, what do we seek all the time? It’s some kind of validation in what we’re doing. That’s what binds us to other people. You’re always looking to see if they accept you. You develop that as a kid and it never leaves you.

So when I saw people, whose work I knew, start following me on Twitter, that was a moment where I thought, “Okay, I have to be on my game now.”

Before we start going deep into your career, I want to ask you about comics. Because that's a similar entry point for me as much as discovering that a writer I respect is Filipino. You’ve talked about comics before, but I wanted to ask: what was the one comic that really resonated with you, growing up?
The comic? Well, let me go back a bit to when I found comics. I was actually in the Philippines one summer, and my older cousin, it seemed to me, had every Marvel comic. He had Iron Man, Avengers, X-Men, and some Spider-Man, and he had them all bound in like, encyclopedias. And it wasn’t like he bought them like that. He had them bound, and I’d never seen anything like that before. I thought they were just incredible. I was super young, like eight years old. And this was post-Marcos, when it was chaotic, and I was told I couldn’t leave the house or else I’d get kidnapped, and everything on the TV was in Tagalog so I had no clue what the fuck was going on. And so I just gravitated to these comics. When I got back to the States, the first comic I ever bought was The Uncanny X-Men #212. After that, I was super hooked on it.

What was it about the X-Men that you liked? Or, I can imagine as a child, it was really about the art?
Oh, for sure it was the art! And that era with Chris Claremont, and especially when John Byrne took over the art. It was great. It was better than anything I had ever seen at that point. And when I really started buying comics, Art Adams was the guy. He was so detailed and everything was mind-blowing; you’d just lose yourself in it. And I just thought that the stories and the drama of it, the soap opera-ness of it, was really compelling. And the central metaphor of [the X-Men], bigotry, was just tremendously effective—and effectively deployed.

It’s great to hear that you started right in the middle of the Claremont era. When I started reading comics, that was all in the past for me. And I was so jealous, and imagined what it must have been like to read this era-defining thing as it was happening in real time. I think it took me a while to start, up until Jonathan Hickman started on Fantastic Four.
Yeah, [Claremont] was my first foray into this, and I had no idea stories could be like this. The shock of the Dark Phoenix turn and Jean Grey’s death was tremendously heartbreaking and I had no reference point for anything else. And when Claremont was doing the “Mutant Massacre” arc—which was what was happening as I really got into comics—that was heartbreaking, too. I didn’t know how good it was. I got lucky in that sense. I didn’t realize comics could be anything else other than that.

Yeah, I totally get that. The first comic I got, Stuart Immonen was the artist. And of course I thought, wow, this is great, I guess all comic books look like this. And then you get your second and third comic and you realize, oh wait, no, this guy Immonen is special.
Yeah, he’s the king! And it really is an incredible moment when the story and the art combine like that. It ruins you. It was hard for me to be rational about other artists for a long time. I think what happened only later was my appreciation for Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and the older guys. Because when my guys were John Byrne, Paul Smith, and Art Adams, I’d see the Jack Kirby stuff and be like, “This looks like shit.” [Laughs] But then as I grew up, I realized that they started it. They came up with everything. They had no reference point. And now I look at it and say, “This is fucking amazing.” It’s a great era now to like comic book art. I mean, the ‘90s were terrible. [Laughs]

I mean, in some ways, DC is still there now. So much of their art has to look like it was drawn by Jim Lee. He’s great, but it seems like they really want to focus on that style.
It really is. A lot of it still seems like it’s really stuck in the ‘90s. And not just the art. The stories are like that, too, where there’s just tremendous bloodshed, and how humanity is lost, that kind of thing.

The cover of The Uncanny X-Men #212, the first comic Jason ever bought.

Okay, so from writing, how did you get into podcasting?
It just became a part of my job. I was working at Grantland and we had various podcasts going. And I’d just be writing about stuff they’d already be talking about, like basketball and Game of Thrones, so I’d get opportunities to guest. And by the time I got to The Ringer, they decided to do Binge Mode, which was going to do every episode of Game of Thrones. That was originally supposed to have rotating hosts. I moved out to LA just as they were about to launch it and I started it with Mallory Rubin, and it turned out that we were good at it. And since we had to do episode after episode after episode after episode, by brute force we just got better at it.

Was it something you immediately felt comfortable doing? This might be a bit of a stretch, but like music, podcasting is a performative thing.
Yes and no. I’ve always liked stand-up comedy and entertaining speakers. Making other people laugh has always been a source of joy for me. But in terms of speaking extemporaneously, I guess in one sense it wasn’t that difficult because it’s like writing. You have to organize your thoughts, and part of my writing process is to read my stuff out loud. So in that sense I was kind of ready for it. But I had also gotten to a point where I just didn’t care. It’s weird to say, but I didn’t care what people thought I sounded like, or if I did something stupid, or if I was expressing how I felt about an idea or a theme from a show in a way that was goofy. I was going to do it in the most natural way to me. I was just gonna let it go and not worry about it.

Jason co-hosted Binge Mode from June 2017 to February 2021. During which time, it was considered one of the best podcasts by several publications including GQ, Vulture, and Time. Photo courtesy of Jason Concepcion.

With Binge Mode, I’m just in awe of the research and preparation you did for that. And when you listen to it, you can almost imagine reading everything you and Mallory wrote for it, like a book. Each episode is just packed with information and insight. Could you talk a bit more about making Binge Mode?
It’s that value proposition, right? The idea is you want people to give you their time, which is extremely valuable. So what are you providing for them? You want to give them the best and most thought-out information you can provide in the most entertaining way you can think of.

With Shea Serrano, who I work with a lot, we both have this philosophy that the more frivolous or “dumb” the concept is, you should work that much harder to make it worth someone’s time to read it. I wrote a piece once exploring whether Paul Pierce shit his pants or not during the NBA Finals. I worked tremendously hard on that. A lot of research went into that. Because if I’m asking people to read this, and on its face it’s ridiculous, then I really need to make it worth their time. That’s basically what I try to do with all the stuff I’m doing.

When you wrote that, I couldn’t send it to my brother fast enough, since we’re both die-hard Celtics fans. And up to that point I was a non-shitty pants truther. But after reading that, I was like, “Huh. Maybe he did?”
And the fact that it turned out that he did—and in the article I was leaning that he didn’t, but I was hoping he did—the fact that he eventually admitted it, I just couldn’t believe it. [Laughs]

But yeah, that’s the amount of work I also put into Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Marvel on Binge Mode. For one, these are subjects that a lot of people have already covered, and they have an active and engaged fan community that existed way before we even considered making a show. So you have to respect that and respect the amount of time people put into this community. And the way to do that, Mal and I both agreed, was to work really, really hard and be as honest about our thoughts and feelings as we could be. For any creative, that’s the thing that makes you unlike anyone else or even a machine. The reason why machines haven’t figured out how to do all this yet is because people are able to engage whatever their inner compass is to create a thing that other people know is unlike other things.

Was there a particular Game of Thrones episode or Marvel movie that was hard to rewatch or get insight from for Binge Mode?
Something that Mal and I have talked about a lot is sometimes we had the most fun working on the worst movie. Because it allows you to be more free and for your thoughts to flow more. There’s nothing to live up to since it’s a piece-of-shit movie. You can say whatever you think and have fun with it. Counterintuitively I guess, it was the bigger ones where we felt we had to really come through. Like Endgame, we had to fucking crush it. Same thing with Game of Thrones, or with Harry Potter and certain chapters, it was like Jordan and Game 7. So yeah, in that sense, there was a little flip.

If Binge Mode was able to continue, is there any franchise you would have really wanted to tackle next?
Yeah, there was a lot of stuff. We talked about Lord of the Rings a lot. Avatar: The Last Airbender was another one. Just any kind of fantasy story. Those are just the things we gravitate to and would’ve loved to do.

Wow, Avatar would have been amazing. Okay, so NBA Desktop is by far my favorite thing The Ringer has ever done. What do you think it is about the NBA that opens itself up to satire?
Well, for one, the league has always been sold as a personalities league. Unlike baseball and football, where it was always kind of about the laundry and the team aspect. With the NBA, from the earliest days, it was like the star ruled. There’s a famous photograph of an early NBA game: it was Lakers versus Knicks at Madison Square Garden but the [marquee] said “George Mikan versus Knicks.” Then there’s just something about the creativity and emotion that’s so clearly on display that makes it like a drama or stage play, you know? Even the court is lit up like a stage in many cases. In that sense, it kind of lends itself to meta-commentary more naturally than football or baseball.

Is it because, with the personalities, the NBA encourages a sort of silliness? Whereas with something like American football, it looks like I’m watching a military exercise and it’s all so…
Macho and with this martial energy. Yeah, for sure. I think there is a distinct lack of martial energy in the NBA. There’s a level of fun and goofiness that isn’t in football. There’s something to that. I think also about how the NBA dealt with rights issues. The NFL and MLB are very strict about people sharing images and videos from their games, and that made the culture less memeable. So the NBA helped in that regard, with them being so open about letting people post videos of plays, and do funny jokes. That really helped as well.

“You can talk about all the important things in the world until the cows come home, but if it feels like you’re just reading a Wikipedia page, then who gives a shit? You have to put the fucking sugar on the medicine so it goes down. That’s really hard to do.”

As fun as NBA Desktop was, is it fair to say that a lot of sports radio/podcasts encourage a level of discourse that breeds toxicity? Just from some of the Celtics podcasts I listen to, I often go, “Wait, this can’t be good for my mental health.”
I think—or I hope—there’s a style of sports discourse out there for everyone. I think what you’re seeing is sports radio maturing to a certain style. There are just naturally arising counter-reactions. While I agree that a lot of sports radio is toxic, I don’t know what could really be derived from that other than a lot of how we talk about anything is toxic. Whether it’s politics or movies, there is always a toxic voice.

You mentioned in an interview you did with the guys from No Dunks that Crooked Media provided you the platform to speak out on bullshit if you needed to. May I ask why you felt like Crooked was a better place for that, as opposed to The Ringer?
I didn’t necessarily think it was something I couldn’t do [at The Ringer] so much as I felt like it was something I could do more effectively, I guess, in Crooked Media. Because of the context that they had and the calls to action that they have been doing. Like for instance, we were doing the ALL CAPS NBA pilot about the right wing reactions to this culture war bullshit like, “Oh my god, Dr. Seuss is cancelled! This is the worst thing that’s ever happened.” You know, that kind of rhetoric. Meanwhile, people are dying in droves and a large number of people are out of work, and the government just passed a $1.9 trillion relief bill—why are you fucking talking about a cartoon book? And so I was able to bring someone on from the company who could speak on that directly. I think that’s the perfect example of an execution of a thing that I could really do at Crooked. To have access to that kind of insight and knowledge about the way things are and the ways they can possibly get better. And being aligned with people who are actually doing shit is thrilling. But yeah, I never felt muzzled [at The Ringer]. But I do feel now I’m learning from people who are used to actually doing stuff that makes things better—hopefully.

What do you think you offer Crooked Media?
Hopefully an increasingly popular sports offering. Hopefully hit shows. No bullshit. Bottomline: if people don’t listen to you, that’s the whole game. Erik Rydholm—he’s produced Pardon the Interruption and other huge ESPN shows—I’ve asked him for advice on numerous occasions, and one of the things he always tells me is that you have to get numbers. So hopefully that’s what I can give them. Without that, nothing else happens. Would I like to make the world better? Yes. But that can’t happen if people aren’t listening to this shit.

There’s been a growing podcast industry here in the Philippines these last couple of years. What would be your advice for the ones doing it here? What makes a podcast special in your eyes?
I mean, it’s like anything else you create. Whether it’s TV or novels, you hope it’s good. You have to put a lot of work into it. It’s this magical alchemy of the moment and the mood, the right amount of promotion, too—and then hopefully it finds people. None of that is guaranteed. And if it was, then everyone would be doing it. I do know that it’s some balance of education for the listener, and that they got it in a fun or entertaining way—or in a way that moves them emotionally, that allows them to want to come back. It’s those two things: it’s entertainment and it’s education. You can talk about all the important things in the world until the cows come home, but if it feels like you’re just reading a Wikipedia page, then who gives a shit? You have to put the fucking sugar on the medicine so it goes down. That’s really hard to do.

Were there “mistakes” or things that, if you knew earlier on, you’d have handled differently?
I guess I’ve learned a lot about “the business.” That’s been most of where I feel I could’ve done better. Rather than the work, which I feel can always be better.

What do you mean by “the business”?
Like, how does this business work? Everybody who’s reading this or trying to make a career out of what they think about things, will come to these moments where they have to figure out what they do next. And there’s no way to accurately figure out what you do next if you don't know how everything works. And you have to figure that out for yourself. No one’s going to teach you how everything works. You may encounter people who can mentor you, and that’s a tremendous blessing. But also, no one really teaches you. You have to figure it out.

I guess I’m still a bit vague on what it is that you had to figure out.
Let me put it this way: it’s hard to advocate for yourself. As you become more successful, how do you stick up for yourself and say that you’d like something else, or you deserve something more? I think, for anyone in any kind of creative sphere, that will be a huge challenge as you move forward in your career. It’s very hard to do. And I think the people who find that easy are the people in this world who are assholes.

“For as much lip service that corporations, brands, and the government give to the essential worker, they’ll never give people anything unless they’re forced to.”

Apologies if this is too cheesy, but what’s your hottest take on the media today?
I spent a lot of time early on in quarantine playing Animal Crossing, which is a game about, basically, capitalism. It makes it this fuzzy and happy and wonderful thing that doesn’t hurt anybody, and medicine is just grass or weeds you pull from the ground. The fact that we can’t imagine another [economic] system, even when we’re being playful about it, makes me depressed sometimes. Is that a hot take? I don’t know. But I guess the promised “better world” will never happen because we can’t even imagine it when we’re imagining things.

Since you’re living now in the post-President Trump America, do you sense some momentum now for the changes you want or hope to see?
Yes and no. I think with any kind of change, there is always a calculation by those in power about the cost-benefit between repression and conciliation. Like, does it cost less to send police out to the streets and hit people on their heads, or does it cost less to give people access to healthcare? Right now, the opinion is strongly for beating people up. But if there’s one hope that I have, at least here in the States, it’s that so much of the rhetoric from the government and brands is raising up the essential worker. While I think that message is just extremely facile and exists to sell products in a way that seems noble, it also, I think, has a real effect that can’t be taken away. The distance between that message and reality can’t be squared. That will never be bridged without a real struggle. For as much lip service that corporations, brands, and the government give to the essential worker, they’ll never give people anything unless they’re forced to. I’m hopeful the recent elections, grassroots organizing, and the protests in the streets have turned that cost-benefit analysis to the right direction.

Concerning that momentum, and the increased attacks on Asian Americans recently, do you see any kind of progress to address that?
There’s been this tremendous amount of communal energy that’s been activated in the last several years, of like-minded groups who oppose white supremacy and anti-Black racism. And I think you’re seeing a lot of the voices who took part in that, really supporting Asian Americans. While it is specifically Asian Americans being targeted right now—in the past it has been people from the Middle East after 9/11, it has been Latin American immigrants, it has been Black people for the entire history of this country. The target is always changing but the person aiming is always white supremacy. The focus should be on that, because that’s the thing to dismantle.

Before we end, I just want to say that it’s been a thrill to see so many Filipinos or of-Filipino-descent people succeed and take key roles in publications and other creative outlets. But at the same time, it’s bittersweet because it always seems to happen at the worst possible times.
I mean, yeah, you really don’t get to pick the times you live in. I remember growing up in this country when nobody knew what the Philippines was. I was Chinese to everyone. You’d say the Philippines and nobody had any idea what the fuck that was. It’s only really been legitimately the last 10–12 years where there was an awareness of the Philippines outside of the Filipino and broader Asian community. The other thing is representation is still very slim. So you take your shot because you may never get another one. I was talking to someone about Crazy Rich Asians, and I didn’t love the movie, but at the same time I was so worried that if it wasn’t a hit, then we’d never see another movie with Asian people in it over here.

Well, I’m glad you’re there and I’m so glad we got to talk now, as opposed to any other time in the last few months. Thanks again, Jason!
I appreciate that. Thank you so much.︎


Jonty Cruz is a writer and a creative consultant.