Molly Wood is a host and senior tech correspondent at Marketplace, the public radio show produced and distributed by American Public Media.
Previously, she was a personal technology columnist for the New York Times, where she wrote in print and online about the trends and technologies that are changing the daily lives of real people, and produced a video series to drive the point home.
Prior to the Times, Molly was an executive editor at CNET, where she created, hosted and served as executive producer of Always On with Molly Wood, a broadcast-quality technology reviews and news show. She also authored the always controversial Molly Rants column at CNET News, for which she was a 2012 National Magazine Award finalist for commentary.
Molly is an online media pioneer: she co-created and hosted CNET’s flagship podcast, Buzz Out Loud, which was one of the first well-known tech podcasts on the web. She also created and hosted the Buzz Report, a tech news show that debuted in 2005 and was, for a time, the web’s longest-running weekly video series. Molly has done almost all forms of media, from print to books to magazines to wire services to video, TV and radio.
I was thrilled to bits when Molly agreed to chat with me. I’ve known her for a couple of years and have been seeking an excuse to pick her brain about her experience in journalism, especially in the tech sector for just about as long. This post is the first in a two-part interview project. There was so much good stuff, I convinced my internal, adolescent editor to grab a beer and chill on the back patio for this one. Molly would be proud. Or horrified.
EZ: You’ve covered a myriad of subjects during your career from general news to sports. How did you end up in tech?
MW: I moved to the Bay Area in 1999. There was, sort of no way NOT to end up in tech, even if you were a journalist. I quit my job at the AP and moved here, did some temp work and a friend of mine got me a position at a magazine that covered Apple. It was a MAC Magazine called MAC Home Journal. It was the baby competitor to MAC World. It’s no longer. It was a random, “Here’s a journalism job for you!” because I didn’t want to keep working for AP.
EZ: Had you felt like you found your niche at that point? Did you love it? Or was it more an understanding that this was where all of the stories are?
MW: I’d like to think that there was any sort of conscious decision making going on but it was more like I was living in Omaha working for AP and a friend called and said “I live in Oakland and I need a roommate! What are YOU doing?” And I said “I’ll be there in a month!” The whole thing was just a series of serendipitous events. I was considering the temp job for the time being and then the magazine job came along. I took the job because it was writing and I was just lucky enough to like what I was doing. I don’t remember being super conscious of ever thinking “I like this tech stuff!” Although it did happen when I wrote a review of the iMac DV…..(I blink in stupor at her).. cause this was SO long ago, right? I don’t even remember what the difference was. I think it had a DVD drive or something like that. I remember looking up all these specs and thinking….because it isn’t that dissimilar from sports because it’s specs and numbers and…it’s all dudes…
EZ: I never thought of it that way!
MW: It was kind of similar and when I wrote that particular piece I thought “Oh, I LIKE this. That was really fun.”
EZ: How did you take that experience and make more of that work for you?
MW: Again, I don’t think it was as conscious of a decision as it may seem in hindsight. I didn’t want to stay at the magazine forever. I mean it was great training. It got to the point where I was almost writing the entire magazine. There was a small staff and I…..like to work (she laughs). I played dumb little video games and wrote stories about them. But I did want to move on eventually and was lucky enough to fall into the world of the internet. I applied for a copy editing job at Salon.com back in the day which I did not get. But before I was hired at CNET I remember looking at them and thinking “Okay, well I’ve been doing this tech thing so I can probably get a job there.” I will say that it didn’t ever occur to me to go back to hard news. I knew I didn’t like that. It’s a lot of bad hours, it’s really depressing (she laughs sardonically into her drink) you have to work on Christmas and sometimes your covering a murder on Christmas! That just was not the kind of life that I thought I wanted. Also, CNET had good grammar. It wasn’t totally janky like so many of the things that I encountered on the internet.
EZ: LOLS! Srsly.
MW: We didn’t have that then. We had the turkish guy that was in love with you.. . The “I kiss you!” (again, I betray myself with my blank stare)… It was SUPER early days on the internet. I can’t say that I said to myself “I’m going to embrace this tech thing as a career.” It was more like, “okay, now I’ve been doing this for a year, so I know what I’m talking about and it seems like that’s what everyone’s doing here.
EZ: You ended up at CNET for quite a while after that.
MW: I got to CNET as an associate editor covering ISPs and 13 years later I had done just about every other editorial job that they had. Two great things happened to me while I was at CNET. One is that I left CNET. I wasn’t happy with my job at the time and I ended up leaving to do tech book editing at O’Reilly for nine or ten months for the shortest period of time ever. The second great thing was that I went back to CNET for a better job where I started doing podcasting and video editing and I was a columnist. So I had a platform! By the time that I left, I was definitely among their primary talent.
EZ: After you came back to CNET and established your platform, you developed some super creative ways of challenging the latest and greatest tech innovations that were either JUST about to hit the market or even just in the conceptual stages. How did you come up with your ideas and continue to create compelling material for your audience?
MW: I think that my approach to journalism was always a little bit 7-On-Your-Side. I was always the consumer advocate. It started because I was really into policy and I was forever ranting about net neutrality and digital rights management and even the refusal of studios to digitally distribute music and movies. It was always from the perspective of the consumer. From that, my specialty became that experiential approach where I wasn’t trying to me more of an expert, I wasn’t trying to be a tastemaker, I was being a real user. My approach to technology was always about how it would integrate with my actual life. I think people just responded to that because it’s practical. People would tell me that it was just honest. It wasn’t overly focused on what a particular company was trying to achieve. It was more like “Well, how does this work for me?” It made a ton of sense especially coming from CNET.
EZ: I also feel a large part of your audience and the market, let’s face it, are like me. I’m a single woman watching your approach to tech as a single mom with a BUSY life.
MW:(gently interjecting)…Also, this part of the market, while big, is not such a huge part of the reviewer base.
MW: Which I always felt was guys with nothing but time to figure this stuff out.
EZ: And your approach is so refreshingly unpretentious. Above all, it looked like so much fun. In fact, I feel like I almost want to answer this question for you because I think I know what it is, but I’ll ask anyway: What was the craziest thing you’ve done in the name of testing technology?
MW: (Laughs, knowing exactly to what I am alluding)….I mean, the helicopter jump…. is obviously.. the one. What was happening at CNET at this time was that I was kind of at the end of the line. At this point, I had not traditionally done gadget stuff. I was really more about trends and policy and then CNET was moving in a direction of wanting everything to be much more core to it’s central mission which was reviewing products. So I decided to create this show. I was thinking “THIS is it. This is my moonshot to try to do something that I feel great about that’s going to move my career and my ambition and my interest forward.” ….cause I like a lot of variety. So I launched this show that was like a baby startup within CNET. I made a budget for it and basically pitched it and asked for money. I said “I’m going to need this much money and these are the staff I want to hire, I want to hire totally external people and were going to shoot out in the world!” …and this had not been done before. I guess I had been there for so long and had done pretty much every job and had built up enough capital that they ended up approving my “moonshot’ budget. Remember, this was me going for broke. It was amazing! So I hired seven people and we just started coming up with crazy cool ways to present tech interactions. So one of the first ideas we had was to re-create this commercial we’d seen for this HTC phone where some guy jumped out of a helicopter and did a photo shoot, trying to capture this model in mid-air. And of course we were like “That’s not….that can’t happen.” At this point I was just trading ideas with a friend who happened to know someone really high-up at Go-Pro. So we ended up with the Go-Pro stunt team to work with us.
EZ: (agog) ….no way…
MW: The Go-Pro Bomb Squad. It was amazing…..I mean…IT WAS AMAZING!!! I mean, here we are with the Go-Pro Bomb Squad and we’ve set up this jump which is out of a helicopter and not a plane which is SUPER unusual for consumer skydiving. And these guys come in and they are all super tanned and ripped and they’re like (doing her best Keanu Reeves impression) “You’re gonna love jumpin’ out of a helicopter because the sensation of free fall is just SO much more intense!” Which basically means you’re jumping from a standstill and it’s just (mimes vomiting into her mouth)…it was all I could do not to vomit in mid-air much less take these pictures. One of the guys dressed up in a unitard and a feather boa and a helmet that my producer made that had feathers all over it, and it’s me and him in a silver unitard and a boa…. and I got the shot!! And all the Go-Pro guys were like “Dude, that was sweet.” They were like “We didn’t think you were going to get that shot at all!” And I was like “Dude, I thought I was gonna barf.” But that was the first in a series of amazing shows. For example, I rode on the back of an America’s Cup catamaran, which was one of the COOLEST experiences of my life, followed up shortly by taking a ride on the world’s fastest sailboat, I did a mud-run in Vail at eight thousand feet, where I thought I would die. I broke an iPad on the streets of Paris (she romanticizes this as if it were a wine and food pairing in a french bistro).
EZ: Tell me about the mind controlled skateboard. Of all the mind-blowing things you’ve done, that kind of took it to another level. By the way, you REALLY need to keep a catalogue.
MW: I really do! Just all of this amazing stuff that has happened in my life!
EZ: You have done a LOT of stuff in such a relatively short period of time.
MW: I have! Do you know that Kanye quote? I want to make this my Tinder profile: “My life is dope and I do dope shit.” That’s how I feel about my life.
MW: So, they had this mind-controlled skateboard, and it’s not a stunt. It’s actually a mind-controlled skateboard and they had this helmet with a bunch of electrodes which attach all over your skull and it’s this slimy, yucky thing. But you put on this weird electrode thing and you stand on the skateboard and the electrodes are hooked up to a Window’s tablet that powered the motor and you had to THINK the commands to drive the skateboard. It was the weirdest thing cause they would say “You can’t think ‘GO.’” If you just think “Go” you aren’t going to go. You actually have to think about going. You have to imagine yourself going. Which is even harder when you want to stop. Because you can’t just think “stop.” You have to actually imagine yourself stopping and so the focus that it takes for you to imagine yourself stopping for you to stop when you’re headed right into a wall is a whole other level.
EZ: That…..(Not..nope …not any words coming to me).
MW: (Mercifully interjecting) WE LIVE IN THE FUTURE! THAT THING ACTUALLY EXISTS!!!
EZ: Are they manufacturing this now for the general public?
MW: I don’t think so. They may be licensing the technology but they aren’t making the skateboard. It’s a company called Chaotic Labs and they are a lab. But THEY have a cool job. I mean I have a cool job…but they have a COOL job.
Molly is a recognized technology expert who appears on national media regularly. She has has built a strong brand with humor and sarcasm mixed with genuine and often outraged consumer advocacy. With more than 95,000 Twitter followers and more than 500,000 followers on Google Plus, Molly has a loyal and engaged fan base, and communicates with them regularly.
Tune in next time when we dive further in to Molly’s adventures in public media!