Since our first interview with Politico’s Jake Sherman in January 2014, HeadCount has been taking a deeper, bipartisan look at the consultants, reporters and others who make and report the news in New York, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere — and we’re talking to them about (what else?) music. It turns out that the people who shape the political and reporting landscape are as passionate about music as they are about their jobs. We’ll continue to talk with them about the bands they love, and the shows that changed their lives. All interviews in this series are conducted by HeadCount Board Member Gordon Hensley (@GordonHensleyDC)
Today, we chat with Robert Gifford (@giff18), a senior broadcast producer here in NYC with Bloomberg Politics, and a key player in the success of With All Due Respect, hosted by campaign reporting stars Mark Halperin and John Heilemann seen daily at 5pmET. Robert’s really into Phish and the Grateful Dead, and here’s his story:
Robert, the obvious first question: What did you think of Fare Thee Well and Trey’s assimilation into the band and its overall sound?
I think the entire production was a great. Watching it, reading about it and the aggregate buzz about the event among so many passionate Grateful Dead fans represents an important musical and cultural
So when and how did you stumble on to the Grateful Dead?
My Dad was a huge music fan, but not really a Deadhead. He had a big box of cassettes and in it I found that old Dead Set live release from ’81, and I listened to that a lot and liked it, despite the fact I didn’t really know anything about the growing legend of the band. When I was about 11, I discovered the Grateful Dead hour on the radio on Sunday nights. I was kind of growing up in the last Golden Age of local New York FM radio, and that was my big introduction to the band. I wasn’t obsessed, but I was well on my way.
On the North Shore of Long Island, where I grew up, being a Deadhead was embraced both culturally and socially. I grew up playing lacrosse, and being a ‘lax bro’ was also very much about being a Deadhead at the time — we had steal your face and dancing bear stickers on our helmets, and we dyed our sticks with Dead logos. We were athletes, but we were Deadheads, too. The Dead were all over the place in my town and huge on Long Island, and still are.
In ‘93, and ‘94 I was still a kid, basically a “tween,” and I got to see some Grateful Dead shows at Nassau and Madison Square Garden, and my parents let me go. I saw the parking lot scene and Jerry Garcia in the flesh, and it’s pretty amazing to think about having done that when I was 12 or 13. Of course, I didn’t even realize at the time how cool it really was.
After Jerry died, I started digging into the Pigpen era, and the more bluesy and psychedelic late 60’s sound. That’s when I really, really got into the band, and discovered their truly unique genre of psychedelia, folk, country, blues, jazz, space, and everything else they did. So I went into it backwards, or kind of differently – Grateful Dead to Phish and then back to Grateful Dead as my main interest — mostly because of my age at the time, and Phish’s accessibility in the post-Dead era.
So when did you eventually start opening your ears to Phish?
As I said, I was a Dead listener before I knew anything about Phish, but I came of age at the time Phish was starting to blow up into a real phenomenon. I went to and then later worked at a summer camp called Camp Dudley near Lake Champlain in upstate New York, about forty-five minutes from Burlington, and as you can imagine I was around a lot of guys who were into Phish. They were a lot of Deadheads, of course, but Phish was the hot new thing — and the band was local. So these guys all turned me on to Phish, which, as I said, was more accessible than the Dead by then. I saw them at Sugarbush in ‘94, and that was sort of a life-changing experience for me. So through high school and college, I was really into Phish, saw lots of shows, and the return of the Grateful Dead came a little later for me in terms of having that total fixation.
Have you seen Phish lately?
I saw Phish last summer at Randall’s Island, and it was the first time I’d seen them in a long while. There’s not much to say other than they were incredible –and the best I’d seen them probably since the ‘99-‘00 years right before their hiatus. It was even better in some ways because they so perfectly mixed their funkiness with their earlier vibe, and I think a lot of that came about because the band was at a place where they were more mature, and had other priorities in life besides the band, and I can relate to that because I feel the same way. Phish still has it going in a big way, and I was pleasantly surprised.
Tell us about your gig at Bloomberg, and your show “With All Due Respect” with Mark Halperin and John Heileman. As a daily watcher at 5pm ET, it’s obvious there’s a lot of fun going on amid the serious reporting. You must be having fun.
Oh yeah, we have a blast. I knew Mark and John from MSNBC, I knew them from Morning Joe and Now with Alex Wagner, both of which I worked on. I know Mark and John’s brand, I know what they’re about, understand where they’re coming from, and they obviously have big league skills and knowledge as campaign reporters and experts.
Josh Tyrangiel, who is the editor in chief of Bloomberg Businessweek and does a lot of other important things here, approached me last summer about With All Due Respect after hiring John and Mark. The combination of being multi-platform, having a TV show, a website, smart and interesting colleagues, aspirations to do long form, live events, and original reporting all in the name of political news coverage intrigued me. I felt like it would provide me freedom to try new things, take some risks and be a little experimental – much like Phish and the Dead do musically, in a way. It was a no brainer for me, especially in the context of this Presidential race. I’m really, really glad I’m involved.
Tell us a little about the Mark Halperin and John Heilemann you see and work with daily.
Well, on a professional level, Mark and John have the experience and the knowledge and the very best sourcing, so I come in every morning with a head start due to them. They’re very open to creativity, seeing things in a different way, and both have a great sense of humor. We have meetings and brainstorm ideas, but a lot of it is organic, and most of what we do is based on the fundamental principles of having fun, and making sure our hosts and guests get to show a more relaxed and real version of themselves.
Politicians obviously often have to stay on message and have control – and that’s understandable. But we try to see the human side. That all comes out in Mark and John’s books — but that’s after the fact. So it’s cool to see big name politicos – especially ones who are running for President – just be themselves in real time on the show. We want smart, serious and fair interviews, but we also want to have some fun so they can showcase their personalities. It’s a balance. That’s our goal, and I think we’ve been pretty successful at it so far.
For the benefit of younger folks looking to get into reporting, political campaigns and similar endeavors ostensibly requiring ‘specialized training’ so to speak, we like to ask what you recommend to those still in school who want to get into your line of work?
Once a year I go back to my alma mater, Princeton, and participate in a career services event for folks who want to go into media, and I take an approach that many student don’t usually expect: I tell them that you don’t have to study broadcasting, you don’t have to study communications, and you might not even have to study journalism — not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I emphasize that there’s so much more to being successful in my line of work than knowing the things you think you’re supposed to know.
I majored in history, for example, and I had to learn how to contextualize history, news, and world events and then synthesize it and tell stories. You really do have to work on your writing and communication skills, and like anything you get better the more you do it. I also tell young people: I read and watch a ton of news, sports, scripted dramas, and try to absorb a lot of information. I consume a lot of media. You have to be aware of what’s part of the Zeitgeist – that really helps you succeed in this business.
My point is that there’s no set way to get into or succeed in broadcasting and media, but there are three constants: You have to be informed, you have to work your ass off, and you have to love what you’re doing.
What did you do earlier in your career?
My first job out of school was working at NFL Films – such a cool place, and such an iconic brand. It’s a fully functioning film studio in the middle of New Jersey. I learned from the masters – Emmy award-winning legends like Steve Sabol. That’s where I really learned a lot of the skills for storytelling and the importance of story.
After that, I discovered live television — which is very different – and the adrenaline and intensity that come with it. I love it, and nothing compares to it. So working on films and learning storytelling was a great basis for what I do now. I’m really fortunate that I’ve done both.
What other plans do you have down the road?
I want to be right here, covering this election and growing and improving With All Due Respect. We’re just starting to scratch the surface and we still have a lot of things to do. There are ways to improve and expand the show and the brand. I’m lucky to be here at Bloomberg and fortunate to have been able to get in on the ground floor with the show. Things are great.