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Ways We Work

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Inquiring Minds Podcast

Behind the scenes look at how the podcast is made

Inquiring Minds is a podcast delivering an in-depth exploration of the place where science, politics, and society collide. They're committed to the idea that making an effort to understand the world around you through science and critical thinking can benefit everyone—and lead to better decisions. We talked with one of the shows hosts Indre Viskontas, with a PhD in neuroscience and a Masters in Music, she explains both her passion for science communication and how Inquiring Minds goes about delivering interesting and important scientific knowledge on a weekly basis. With an audience of 30,000 listeners we're excited to show you some of the inner workings of the podcast and the people behind it.

This week we're trying something new, you can read the interview or listen to the full recorded interview with Matt and Indre above.

Interview by: Matt Quinn_
_Edited by: Amandah Wood

Tell us a little bit about how you got started with the Inquiring Minds podcast?

Sure. A few years ago I did a television show for the Oprah Winfrey network, in which I investigated people’s claims of the miraculous using the scientific lens. As a result of promoting that show I was invited to be on podcast called Point of Inquiry. It was the podcast for a foundation called the Centre for Inquiry. They’re a skeptics organization and their goal is to disseminate skepticism across many different topics. While I was on the podcast as a guest, the producer of the podcast Adam Isaak liked me and asked if I would consider co-hosting that podcast. I said yes. I started co-hosting Point of Inquiry with Chris Moody maybe 4 years ago. About a year and a half into that project the CEO of the Centre of Inquiry made some unfortunate comments at a women-in-skepticism conference. That wouldn't have been so bad except when he was called out on it there was a huge kerfuffle. He reacted badly on Twitter, and he wrote a blog post that people found really offensive. This kind of snowballed and it divided the skeptical community into people who found this really offensive and people who were supportive of keeping things status quo. We felt that as a podcast, one of our goals was to make women welcome in science. Not only having women as guests on the podcast but also encouraging women to listen to the podcast and we felt that our affiliation with the Centre for Inquiry was going to be hard fall in meeting that goal. So we expressed our displeasure and nothing happened, so we quit.

When we left the podcast it was a scary thing to do because we loved podcasting. We had a good subscriber base and good listenership but we felt we needed to have our own integrity. At the time Chris Moody was the co-host with me and he was also working at Mother Jones here in San Francisco. He had told Mother Jones what was happening and they expressed interest in having us as part of their network. Even though they hadn’t had a podcast before and weren’t known for their coverage of science, they had an audience that we felt would be interested in our topics and we thought bringing more science to Mother Jones would be a good thing for everyone concerned. So we started a partnership with Mother Jones and we relaunched three months later as Inquiring Minds. A year ago Chris got a job at the Washington Post where he is now and it’s an all-consuming job so he didn’t have time to keep doing the podcast. We were on the hunt for a new co-host and a few months after Chris left we found Kishore Hari. He's the director of the Bay Area Science Festival and he’s now my current co-host and that’s Inquiring Minds.

How do you and the others working on the podcast divide up the various things that need to get done?

So I should be clear, the person who does most of the work on our podcast is Adam Isaak. He’s our producer and he’s the one who hired me. He’s the character that you never see, and never hear, but is the person that keeps the show going. He does all the editing, he also suggests guests and keeps his eye out for science in the news. However, the majority of the content work is done by Kishore and I. We look for guests for the long-form interviews in a variety of ways. We keep our ears and eyes open wherever we are for a guest. You really want someone who is able to talk about their topic to a lay audience for 30-40 minutes in depth, that’s a pretty specific type of person. They’re often hard to find but we always scour the latest books out within science non-fiction and look at those for potential authors. We have connections to certain publishing houses who send us galley copies of books they think would make good interviews, we listen to TED talks, we go to conferences, we read papers, and we invite people to give us suggestions. There’s a number of different ways that we come up with someone for an interview. When there is particular topic in the news that we want to cover we’ll look for an expert in that specific area as well.

“I kind of have this strategy of labelling things by the four F’s. Friends, future, finances and fun. Whatever I choose to do has to meet 2 out of those 4 F’s.” —Indre

When creating the podcast itself is there a certain structure you follow as a team?

Our goal is to be about a month out of interviews in the can, so that we have a little bit of shuffling we can do if something kind of newsy comes up. It's also important that we’re not struggling at the last minute to do an interview because that can lead to disaster. We put out an episode every week, so if you don’t have an interview ready and it’s Monday we have to upload it Thursday night. That doesn’t give you a lot of time to find someone, make sure they’re available, get them into a studio, record the podcast, edit it, and so forth. So, we try to have a month of interviews, it doesn’t always work that way but that’s our goal and we record them whenever we can. For example, today is Thursday and we just recorded the intro for a show that’s going out tomorrow morning but that interview I recorded three weeks ago. Monday we’re recording two more interviews for the coming weeks and we have another interview in the can, so that kind of gives us a cushion of three to four interviews. Once we have interviews scheduled we’ll look at the calendar and we’ll space them out, usually we’ll try to do it so that we’re alternating hosts. We also want to make sure that we’re keeping topics relatively broad, so if we have two shows about eating we’re going to try to space them out.

So speaking more about the interviews, what do you think makes an interview great vs not so great?

The interviews that I think are great are when I’m surprised by some of the answers. The answers are really interesting and the interview just sort of flies by. I think the interviews that are tough are the ones in which I’m struggling for the next question. So usually the way I prepare for an interview is in my head I’ll imagine what the arc should be. I want there to be a beginning, a middle and an end (I’m theatre trained after all). I usually start broad and get into detail and then come out broad again. I'll set out a series of questions that I think will probably lead to this arc. I’ll have read the person's book or have an idea of what I want to talk about. Sometimes I know exactly what they’re going to say because they’ve been on a book tour for three weeks and they have canned responses. For those interviews I try to think of questions that no one else would ask. I’ll zero in on a particular chapter of their book that hasn’t been covered as much in the news or that I think might be fascinating to delve more deeply into. That’s kind of what makes our podcast different from just any other 10-minute news segment.

The moments I love the best are when you have a really seasoned author who’s been on a book tour and they come in super confident, they know the questions and then they say in the middle of the interview “Wow, no one’s ever asked me that before.” That’s what I think makes a really great interview. Most of the interviews end up being around 30 minutes long but I record about 45 minutes of content so that it gives my editor something to play with.

You have a PhD in neuroscience - how did you go from that to working in media and doing a podcast?

Before I went to grad school I had this dream of being an opera singer, so after I finished my Bachelor’s of Science I moved to England for a year and tried to make it as a singer. I was an usher at the Royal Opera House and it was super fun watching opera six nights a week but it was a hard life. That made me realize that even if I was going to be an opera singer, the next 5-6 years of my life were going to require a lot of training. How do you pay for the training that that requires, how do you ensure that you can set yourself up for a fulfilling life afterwards if something happens? For me the PhD was a 5 year project. I didn’t know what it was going to teach me - I had some ideas but we never know exactly what we’re going to be doing until we’re in it. I thought that at least it would give me a well rounded education, a credential that would open doors later on. Most importantly that it would allow me to spend 5 years doing things that I thought were interesting and that I thought I could make a living doing. I applied for every scholarship out there so that during my PhD I was able to make a living and put away a little bit of money, so that once I finished I didn’t immediately have to go out and find a job to pay off student loans. I had no student debt so instead I could take all the money I'd saved and go do a Masters in Music.

That was my path, while I was doing the Masters I wanted to keep a foot in science so I did a part-time post-doc. During my post-doc I wanted to try and bridge the gap between the neuroscience that I had trained in and the music that I was passionate about. I worked in a lab in which we were looking at creativity in patients with dementia. So that bridged both worlds for me and while I was doing that I got an email from a production company in LA. I had just finished my Masters and signed with an agent because I really wanted to do as much as I could to make a living as a performer. So I sent this email to my agent asking if it was legitimate. They were looking for a host for a television show and it seemed like total spam. She said “oh no, no you should audition this is a legitimate production company, they’ve had some really successful shows so give a shot.” So I did the audition and won the audition miraculously, I still don’t know how but I got to host this show on the Oprah Winfrey network and it changed my life.

First of all it was super fun, I learned a lot and it was very challenging. 12 weeks of shooting 6 days a week all over the country, it was a trial by fire. I’d never been on television before, I had to learn how to speak, how to do my makeup and do all that stuff. It certainly was a learning curve. The first episode aired and over a million people watched it. In television that's not a huge number but if you’re a scientist that’s like “omg a million people?!” That bit me. I felt like I was a stronger science communicator than I was a neuroscientist and if I was going to do science I wanted to do more in science communication rather than doing my own original research. After I did the show I toyed around, pitched some ideas in Hollywood and started to feel that if I really wanted a career doing only television it was going to be hard to be at the intellectual level that I wanted to be at. I felt like the audience that I wanted to speak to is the kind of audience that reads the New Yorker - not that watches the Kardashians. Those are two different audiences for the most part, so I felt like podcasting, creating my own content, creating lectures, writing and doing that kind of work was a better fit for my personality and skill-set than doing reality TV.

What have some of the challenges been being a public figure head in science?

That was one thing I had to learn, a lot of us put ourselves in front of the public because we like to be adored. We’re performers because there’s some insecurities in us that’s fed by the love of strangers. By the same token we're setting ourselves up for criticism and the more public you are the more you have to be okay with being criticized. For a long time I found that very difficult. I didn’t sleep at night after reading a bad review or getting a bad email, I felt very anxious. Over time you develop a thicker skin. You make choices all the time. I'd ask myself "do I want to do things that are never going to offend anyone or do I want to do something that is true to how I feel and think?" I think that’s one thing that I found really challenging early on. It’s still awful when someone writes a bad review about something that you’ve spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears making but I put things out there and now I’m less prone to obsessively googling myself. I just put it out there, make it my best work and I don’t really care what people are going to think. I never read the comments on any of our shows or my Mother Jones articles because they can be hurtful. If someone emails me and takes the time to look me up I'll read the email. If I feel like it’s something that's respectful I’ll address it and respond. Those have been the challenges but they’re also things that have made me function better in the world, especially in the entertainment industry.

“A director I coached with once told me to be nice to the crew. Best advice I ever got - since the crew are often treated like crap but they have the power to make you look good or bad. And also, they are usually the most fun on set.” —Indre

What have you found to be the most rewarding thing doing the podcast so far?

I think the way it has allowed me to kind of hone my communication skills. I feel like I’ve slowly gotten better and it feels nice to become more masterful at something. That’s been really enjoyable for me to sort of track that growth. My most fun moments in the podcast are when I’m either talking to the interviewee or to listeners. I find the recording of it really enjoyable and I find the interaction with the listeners really enjoyable. The reading of the books and all that stuff is interesting but I do find the actual performance part of it and feedback really rewarding.

Zooming out a bit what’s been the most rewarding part of working in science communication?

Of course I enjoy doing it and getting better at it, but for me the moments when I’ve felt the most pleased by it are the times when I’ve gotten emails from people who say that whatever I said or did changed their behaviour. For example, after I did the television show I got a lot of hate mail, but I also got a lot of fan mail. Some of the fan mail came from people who felt ostracized in their communities. For example, there was this one woman who was part of a baptist church in the American South and she started questioning some of the things the people in the church believed and how they were treating each other. She felt very alone until she watched the show. She felt like she connected with me and what I was saying and for the first time she felt like she had people out there who were more like her than anyone in her community. We’re still in touch to this day. We’re Facebook friends and I’ve been able to watch her come out of her shell. I know I’m not the one responsible for everything she’s done, but if I had a tiny hand in helping her that makes me feel really good.

What's some of the greatest career advice you've ever received?

If you produce a product that you truly think is worth doing, someone else will think that too. Anything worth doing is going to take a lot of time and effort and if you really think that it might be the way to do it, don’t let people discourage you and talk you out of it. When I would say to people that I wanted to do both neuroscience and music, I got a lot of “well you’re going to have to pick one”. Then one of my mentors said “okay, if you’re really passionate about it and you think you can do it, go do it and prove the others wrong.” If you make something good enough, people will come and buy it from you - whether that’s an academic paper or a podcast. They’ll buy it with their attention if not with their finances.

Why do you do what you do? What makes everything worth it?

For me, what makes it all worth it is knowing how important science communication is in our current political climate. All the time I see that people are making decisions on the basis of information that they’ve read or been told and if that information is not true like in the case of vaccines it can have damaging results. I’ve had the experience where I’ve given someone the scientific facts in a way that they can understand and digest and that has changed their mind. It doesn’t happen all the time but it has changed the way that people behave. Even in the case of the latest S.C.O.T.U.S ruling of gay marriage being something that is an equal right for all people. That’s fundamentally changed our society with one ruling and I feel it’s really encouraging that a few years from now the vast majority of people are going to think that it’s no big deal. It’s just going to be like segregated marriage - it’s no big deal now if a white person marries a black person - we don’t think about that as being morally wrong or against nature. This one change is going to have such a far reaching effect. I think that that’s true when you use science to inform your decision making, that’s why I feel that what I’m doing is really important. It brings people the science in a way that is enjoyable and entertaining to them and digestible so that they are then going to listen to it. Not everyone is going to read the primary articles that we talk about on our show, in fact most people are not going to read them. Even if the 30,000 listeners that we have right now learn about those findings, that makes a huge difference if those findings can have an impact on society.

Twitter: @inquiringshow, @indrevis and @sciencequiche