Ari Melber On The Cultural Production Of News

“You can work on one case for five years or you can cover one hundred cases in five years,” explains Ari Melber, MSNBC anchor, legal correspondent, and host of The Beat. “What we’re trying to do on our best day, is cultivate more useful information in the world, with more insights and passion to bring interesting people together whether they agree or not.” Curiously uniting breaking news, politics, law, and music, Melber’s The Beat, reimagines traditional news by bringing in experts from disparate groups for thoughtful, contextualized conversations around key issues driving American culture – on live TV and across digital platforms.

Melber’s versatility and vulnerability are what make his work resonate. From reporting and interviewing witnesses in the Mueller Probe and former White House aides Peter Navarro and Corey Lewandowski, to creating a 10-part series on the power technology companies like Meta have, to talking with rapper Benny the Butcher about leadership, and introducing Civil Rights leader Alice Walker to Pulitzer Prize-winning musician Kendrick Lamar’s hit song “Alright,” which quoted her work from The Color Purple, Melber is putting people in unexpected rooms where meaningful connections happen. “I think he [Kendrick Lamar] is understanding the truth of it,” said Walker on The Beat, “it’s a good thing we can talk to each other across generations.”

Luring entertainers, particularly musicians onto live TV can be tough. Many artists are shy about press especially if the opportunity is not a performance, others are unable to connect live TV audiences with their very digital audiences, and some just don’t care about publicity and very rarely make appearances. Melber often has to sell guests on The Beat, “some artists don’t want to be put in some box to talk about their music and whatever the current issue is this week! I have to tell artists that I am not clout chasing and that I’m trying to talk to them about their work and art – artists are living in a world where everyone is trying to take a piece of them, and I am very conscious of that.” The commodification of policy advocacy can be constricting and some creatives can be at times tokenized into playing sides for social good.

Authenticity is the sweet spot for storytelling and music will always be the first responder, reporting live from the streets of the communities it embodies. Melber recently went down to Atlanta to meet with trap rapper Lil Baby to talk about work, life, and music. Lil Baby’s song “The Bigger Picture,” was released in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the larger BLM movement in 2020, and was the biggest protest song of that time – garnering over 161 million views on YouTube, premiering in a #1 spot on Apple Music and #3 spot on Spotify’s charts. Lil Baby created the song to talk about police racism and build more community interaction – which is a different narrative and approach than protest anthems of the past like NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police.”

“There’s still going to be a top story, there’s still going to be a banner headline on the screen – there are certain aspects of this that are what the news genre looks like,” says Melber, “you fill those in and figure out how you fit into the news ecosystem and figure out what else you want to say or add – and that’s where the interesting conversations come in. That balkanizing, whether it’s across our society which I think everyone knows about – even within media – is an impediment to the most important cross-cultural conversations we want to have.”

Slicing across cultures is The Beat’s special sauce. Home to two original programs, The Summit Series, featuring interviews with guests at “the summit” of their fields like Bill Gates, Clive Davis, and Fran Lebowitz, along with Mavericks, a music and storytelling concept show as told through the lens of cultural icons like Wu Tang’s RZA, Bon Jovi, Judd Apatow, and Swizz Beats, The Beat brand is strong. “Artists are storytellers and they know how to tell their story and promote their work one way or another – Bob Marley did it differently than Doja Cat but they are both very ambitious.” Mavericks will return for a new season in July with Dave Grohl and Samantha Bee among others.

Originally from Seattle, where he went to the same high school as Jimi Hendrix, Melber has been quoting song lyrics to make sense of life for as long as he can remember, “some of my old friends can’t believe I do this for work now.” Melber is what you might expect someone delivering the news on TV to look like – easy on the eyes, in the suit du jour, with coordinating ties and polished dress shoes. Scouring the internet you will not really find an image of Melber out of his anchor “uniform” and when asked about his fashion sense, Melber laughs and explains candidly “I have never had and do not have any fashion sense – and to avoid public fails, I keep it fairly simple.” Melber goes on about his love of Reebok Classic sneakers – to which he has six pairs in different colors, shares his brother’s disdain for his recent purchase of moccasins with external stitching, and reveals where you might find him when he’s not reporting the news – hiking at a national park, running around Brooklyn or reading at an outdoor cafe.

As the longest-running 6pm ET weekly show in MSNBC’s 25-year history, The Beat reaches over 1 million viewers each time it goes live along with its expanded online audiences across Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube – each platform complete with its own curated The Beat cultural content. “After personal human relationships – love and family and friends, culture to me is what makes life interesting and fun and what enriches us as humans in society – that’s what we bond over,” expresses Melber, “if you look at the political eras we have been living through, they are deeply tied to different pockets and aspirations of the culture that people want in America.”

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