The interview: Cenk Uygur, The Young Turks

29 Sep 2014

The Young Turks founder and CEO, Cenk Uygur, outside St Patrick's Catherdral in Dublin

As the self-described ‘grandfathers of YouTube’, The Young Turks and its CEO Cenk Uygur run the largest and oldest news channel on video-sharing site YouTube, while taking aim at traditional media.

Arriving in Dublin for the first time to host a panel on developing a YouTube channel as part of Google’s Creative Academy, it’s fair to say that as mentors they can put themselves in the position of showing others how it’s done.

In terms of its origin story, The Young Turks (TYT) was first aired back in 2002 on Sirius Satellite Radio after Uygur wanted to create a liberal-minded news show to compete with the well-established traditional TV news and radio news channels including CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.

While being Sirius’ first dedicated talk show and proved to have a dedicated following, the growth of their audience was something that was not yet able to reach the levels that Uygur would have admittedly aspired to.

However, their big break came in 2005 when Uygur and his small team decided to set up a channel on a new video sharing website that had just been set up but was proving to be growing in popularity by the day.

That site was, of course, YouTube.

This was, despite the fact, advisors and those with the finances firmly on the front of their mind argued against the idea of pouring all their efforts into YouTube and not uploading more content to their own website.

Something which Uygur says was advice he was glad not to have taken.

While speaking with, he said: “We poured all of our energy and resources into YouTube and a lot of people thought you should concentrate everything on your own website and you shouldn’t drive audience to YouTube.

“But that was the wrong strategy and we realised that it wasn’t a matter of us driving traffic to the site, it was a matter of where you’re going to meet the audience on YouTube.”

12 years later, that one channel has grown into 35 different channels across one large TYT network with Uygur’s current affairs show being its flagship show, along with other channels dedicated to topics including sports, film reviews and entertainment news.

Uygur giving his thought on TYT about the on-going ISIS threat in the Middle East.

‘The Titanic is a lovely ride, as long as you get off before you reach the iceberg’

According to Uygur, the show has 1.4m viewers daily which, he’s quick to point out, is twice as many as primetime on MSNBC, a channel where he joined briefly in 2010 as a stand-in anchor, only to leave after conflicts developed between himself and management.

Comparing the growth of online content compared with the current TV format, he describes it quite eloquently as: “The Titanic is a lovely ride until you get off before you reach the iceberg.”

Certainly it would appear that to the more traditionally-minded people, the possibility of running a feasible news organisation entirely online is outside of the advertisers’ comfort zone.

“If we made revenue the same way TV does with the same audience, oh, we’d be unstoppable,” says Uygur.

The difficulty for advertisers, he feels, is simply that they’re massively out of touch with the ever-changing markets online: “[Advertisers are] having a hard time understanding [YouTube] as, unfortunately, they’re not in our demographic and so they think: ‘I don’t know PedDiePie, I don’t know Ray William Johnson, so therefore they can’t be big.’ Wrong! They’re gigantic, just ask your kids.”

Of course, YouTube revenue alone doesn’t cover the bills. Deals have been struck with a number of online content providers including Roku and Hulu to stream their content, as well as offering their production services on the open market.

Uygur regularly co-hosts the flagship TYT channel with Ana Kasparian.

Online isn’t a pool, it’s an ocean

TYT certainly has competitors in its native US, none more so than the similarly liberal-minded, but altogether different format, Vice News, and the Libertarian, pro-gun conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ Infowars.

The latter of which famously posted a video of himself, shirtless, on YouTube claiming that Uygur and TYT’s viewer numbers are not as high as his, something which could only happen in the competitive scene of online news on YouTube.

And yet, while proud of their viewer numbers and feeling a sense of competitiveness with similar channels, he rather thinks YouTube is much more open-minded and free-market than traditional TV possibly could.

Speaking of the comparison, he says: “If I do well on one TV station, I take away from the others. But online it’s not a pool, it’s an ocean.

“So you build an island and like-minded people come to that island. If you build a good enough island, it’s a continent and so then you’ve created more than a show, you’ve created an identity.”

‘So it turns out I’m a fat, Muslim, Jew, terrorist, Communist, Fascist’

As any frequenter of YouTube will know, or even any website with a comment section for that matter, it can often be a murky place where the worst in society rears its head to make a variety of vile and disgusting comments.

As a liberal-minded person and head of TYT, Uygur has had his fair-share of comments directed specifically at him on his network and even other videos.

Unlike some however, he says he’s been able to handle it pretty well and has utmost respect for his audience in particular: “First of all I have tremendously thick skin from day one, so it turns out I’m a fat, Muslim, Jew, terrorist, Communist, Fascist.

“Those comments don’t bother me. The only comments that are troubling yet helpful are the ones that are right. So, sometimes there will be criticism that will make me think, ‘Hmmm, they might be on to something there’, and I’ll do some self-reflection on that.”

The corporate tax elephant in the room

While being over in Ireland to give a presentation at Google, when the topic of Ireland’s infamous low corporate tax rate is brought up, he certainly has strong feelings as both the head of a corporation and as an American.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple; they’re all here because they are legally subverting American tax laws by basing themselves in Ireland and this is something Uygur feels is harmful to American taxpayers: “I love Ireland and I heard that their input has created something like 250,000 jobs here, so I understand why it would be hard to let it go and I get why the government does it, but it allows corporations all over the world to cheat.

He continues: “I run a corporation, TYT is a corporation, but I would rather have the corporation pay taxes, rather than the guy down the street because the point of a corporation is to make profit, which is what taxes are taken from. Unfortunately, Ireland contributes to that and I wish they wouldn’t.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic