Podculture: Sean Rameswaram, the host of Today, Explained, pops by and talks life

Cassidy Jackson, Audio Editor

CASSIDY JACKSON: I’m Cassidy Jackson, and welcome to Podculture, a podcast covering all the biggest events in entertainment. For this installment, we’re doing something different. Your regular hosts, Wilson, Abigail and Emma, won’t be reviewing the most-talked about series and movies. This episode, we have a guest: Sean Rameswaram. Rameswaram is the podcast host of “Today, Explained,” a daily news explainer. He visited campus this past Friday, hosted a roundtable discussion and sat down with me after. Listen as I pick his brain on college, career and overcoming fear. 

JACKSON:  So since this podcast is geared towards a student audience. I guess I’m curious, who were you in college?

RAMESWARAM: So I went to junior college for two years and then transferred to a four-year university, which I think is kind of rare when I look around at my peers in journalism. There aren’t a lot of people who are at a junior college, which I think I’m proud of. I like went to school two to three days a week and worked almost full time as a bank teller, the rest of the time, and then I transferred to UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) after two years, and I continued to work as a bank teller on the weekends and sometimes Fridays. And that was great because I felt like I got financial independence like I went to Europe while I was in college, and I paid for the trip myself. I went on, you know, trips with my friends and funded it myself, and after college, I went to Chile and volunteered for a year and I funded a lot of that myself. I think I had a pretty solid grasp on the real world, not certainly on any industry. And you know, I loved going to shows and taking advantage of the amazing culture that flows through UCLA, so many movies to see for free all the time like early screeners of this and that. We got to see “The Departed” in like one of our halls at school before the movie even came out. It was bananas. 

JACKSON: You kind of mentioned that you found parts of yourself while in college. And I feel like a lot of people talk about those four years in college of like, “You find yourself.” What were some things you think you discovered about yourself in those years? 

RAMESWARAM: I think I discovered that I had a real ambition to make whatever I did work. I wanted to transfer to UCLA or UC Berkeley, and I did. I transferred to UCLA. I wanted to work as a bank teller. And I did. And I got promoted to a lead teller. I wanted to volunteer for a legal organization. And I did. I worked for a company called JusticeCorps. It wasn’t a company. It was an organization that was part of AmeriCorps. I also tried a lot of things and failed. I took the LSAT. I wanted to do really well, and I didn’t. I wanted to join Teach for America, and I applied and I didn’t get it. But what I realized in college I think, that was really important and it serves me to this day, is when I did get an opportunity, I had the work ethic and the humility to learn and succeed. 

JACKSON: In the group discussion, Rameswaram mentioned that he didn’t get to explore journalism, as UCLA didn’t offer it as a major. 

RAMESWARAM: I did not study journalism. At UCLA, I decided that journalism was something I’d be interested in. I went to their counseling office, and I was like, “Can I do journalism?” And the counselor was like, she basically laughed at me and said, “We don’t have a journalism program here.” First of all, why don’t we have journalism? Second, why are you laughing at me? I’m a child! Rude!

JACKSON: And you mentioned in the group discussion that you didn’t major in journalism. How did you discover that that was what you wanted to do?

RAMESWARAM: Yeah, there was just a lot going on politically as there is now. But, you know, we were in two different wars when I was in college, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. And on a college campus, it was hard to forget, a lot of people making a big stink about these wars we were in and I felt pretty engaged and interested, and at times angry and upset about how these engagements were being carried out. Watching a lot of public TV and listening to a lot of public radio, I found a very accessible outlet to learn more about these stories that meant a lot to me, and an outlet that felt fair and felt thorough and felt respectful. And that’s sort of what turned me onto journalism.  

JACKSON: Rameswaram didn’t get to experiment with journalism in college, but he started his rise at WAMU 88.5, a radio station in Washington, D.C.  

RAMESWARAM: WAMU 88.5. I got to go into that newsroom and just hang out and find the thing that worked. I did it for free for a while until I found that thing and then they started paying me immediately. And that was great. I’m so grateful for that opportunity. Yeah, it was amazing. You know, you go into an institution like that scared, intimidated. These people know what they’re doing. They’re like professionals, oh my gosh, they’re working the dream, they’re living the dream. As long as you’re humble and hardworking, I find that people will give you a chance. And then you learn and you learn, you learn, you learn, you learn and now those people are my peers. They’re not my superiors. You know, we’re all on the same level playing field now, which is amazing. And I’m so proud of that. I’m so grateful to them. 

JACKSON: Fear is a common denominator in any person’s story. For Rameswaram, it touched him at the beginning of his career and also right before taking on Today, Explained. In the roundtable discussion, Rameswaram said… 

RAMESWARAM: I didn’t necessarily think I should be the host of the show. But then they asked me if I wanted to host it. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, compete with The New York Times and NPR. That’s scary.” And then I was scared, and I hadn’t felt scared in a long time. 

JACKSON: Something you brought up that I thought was interesting was you said how when you were asked to be the host of Today, Explained, you had a lot of fear around entering with the greats like The Daily. How did you control your fear? Fear is something we all encounter in our lives, so how did you deal with it in that opportunity?

RAMESWARAM: Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting question. I’m gonna sneeze first. I am so sorry. I’m so sorry. I think I worked really, really hard. I worked night and day. I woke up and I opened my laptop and I would fall asleep with my laptop open. The only time when I wasn’t working is when I was biking to and from work. You know, if you’re going to take on a challenge like this, you got to be prepared to put in the work. It ain’t gonna come easy when you’re competing with the greats. And I think we compete with the greats which is amazing to me. But it’s because we put in the work and we still put in the work. 

JACKSON: Today, Explained is a top podcast, reeling in hundreds of thousands of downloads each episode. I couldn’t help but wonder, does Rameswaram think he’s “made it”?

JACKSON: I guess for this term “you made it” or “you make it.”  Did you ever have a moment where you felt like you made it in the journalism industry? Or is there a moment you look forward to that could be that you made it moment?

RAMESWARAM: Yeah, it was when I got invited to speak at the Medill School of Journalism.

JACKSON: Wow we’re here today. Why was that moment special?

RAMESWARAM: Which is happening right now. Can you hear me? I’m sorry I coughed.

JACKSON: Why was that moment special or this moment special?

RAMESWARAM: Isn’t this one of the best journalism schools in the country? Is it the best one? When I was starting out, thinking about journalism school, all roads point to Medill and here we are in Medill right now. We’re inside Medill talking about journalism. You’re asking me questions about journalism. I should be asking you questions about journalism.

JACKSON: I don’t know if that’s true.

RAMESWARAM: When I was younger I thought about applying to come here to be a student but I didn’t because I thought you would never have me. But here I am as a speaker. Life’s a trip. 

JACKSON: That’s cool, though. And I guess finally, what advice would you give to college students that are approaching the time of having to transition into full-on adulthood?

RAMESWARAM: So if you have the luxury to be in college and to not have to work at the same time, to not have to take care of a kid or anything like that, take advantage of every minute: socially, have fun, but also professionally. If there’s an opportunity for you to go hang out in a newsroom, because that’s what your dream is then take any chance you get because a lot of those opportunities actually disappear once you graduate. Take full advantage of all the opportunities that are available to you in an institution like this one, what an amazing institution. Because no matter what your school is, that’s sort of like having membership somewhere and there are benefits to that membership.

JACKSON: Well, thank you so much. 

RAMESWARAM: Thank you. 

JACKSON: This was great.

RAMESWARAM: I had a great time. Sorry, I coughed and sneezed. 

JACKSON: This is Cassidy Jackson, and tune in next week to hear Wilson, Abigail and Emma comment on The Little Mermaid Live in the next episode of Podculture.