► Talking about being or talking nerdy – the podcast is not Talk Nerdy To Me because that property lies somewhere else, correct?
Yeah. It’s a little weird. I did a pilot for HBO, called Talk Nerdy To Me, that didn’t get picked up. But pretty soon after that I was hired by Arianna Huffington to come work for the Huffington Post. They didn’t have a science page at the time, and I joined them in setting one up. The role that we found for me was to be the science correspondent and to develop a web series. She had seen the pilot and wanted to adapt it for the web. So after the initial pilot for HBO, I did the weekly web series with the same name on Huffington Post for a year and a half. And, yes, because I did at HuffPost, it was their property. After I left, they continued it with a different host – a great girl who used to be my associate editor.
► But, technically, it was your thing…
I feel it was my baby and my brainchild and they have just taken it and continued with it, but I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, nor did I want to try to mimic something I had done somewhere else. And I think, in a lot of ways, that chapter had closed, and I wanted to move on to a more long-form conversation, so I could have room for nuance and real discussion and debate and argument and fun, which is a little hard to do in a scripted three-minute format.
► In an early episode, you mentioned that a lot of people who are like you earn their paycheque in television, which allows them to do things like a podcast on the side. Is that how you see Talk Nerdy? Or would you like it to be your main focus?
I would love for it to be my main focus. I’m not in a position yet where it would be lucrative enough to be that, though. And I may never be. But I don’t know that I would say that the podcast is just on the side either. When I started it, I was still in one of my old jobs – which I am not doing anymore, and that allows me to speak a bit more freely now. I was on a live daily television show, which was a lot of work. We were in the office all day, doing the prep, figuring out the news stories we were going to do. Our writers were working really hard, too. It was a great opportunity. I was very close to my co-host. But my executive producer was, let’s say, difficult. There were a lot of power struggles. And there was the before mentioned pressure from above to be a certain way. What developed out of that was a general discomfort and a constant second guessing of myself. Which, I guess, was the intention of my executive producer. In a lot of ways, the podcast was born out of that because I was starting to lose my grip on what my voice was and starting to lose my confidence. So I wanted to do something that is me. At that time I had already been a guest on Joe Rogan’s podcast a few times. His fans had been really positive and supportive, and Joe had gone above and beyond in being supportive. He insisted that I need to do this because, according to him, the podcast format would be right for me.
► So there was an inherent desire to do something but the impulse for what that something was exactly, a podcast, came from the outside?
Certainly. Maybe, somewhere in the back of my mind I had been thinking that it could be interesting. But then I was probably also thinking that it would just be a lot of work. But I had amazing people tell me that this is the platform that I should be on because they know me and they know it makes sense for me as a person. Then one time I was on Joe’s podcast he asked the listeners, ‘Should she do this? Go tell her she should!’, and I got hundreds of amazing comments. That’s what really pushed me over the edge and made me comfortable with doing it. And it’s been huge for me so far. Everything about podcasting is amazing. It’s long-form, so it allows me to have real conversations. It’s uncensored. It’s self-contained in the sense that I am the producer and editor, and no one gets to tell me what to do or how to do it. No ‘The advertisers don’t like that!’. No ‘The network executives want you to change that!’. And lastly, it’s audio only, which means I can do it in my pyjamas. (laughs) Literally! I don’t have to wear makeup either. You may have heard me mention that on an episode, the one with Ana Kasparian: There is this horrible thing on the web where all people seem to want to talk about is how you look. I don’t have to deal with that on a podcast.
► You’re looking for something that is you. You get the impulse. You take your own money to start it, not knowing that you’ll ever get it back…
Well, yeah, but it wasn’t that expensive. It was $1,500 because I had to buy all this equipment – microphones, stands, this cool mixer thing. For me it was a lot of money, but it is not a huge investment in terms of starting a new thing that has the potential to grow. Then someone had to show me how to work GarageBand. That really was it for the start. And it’s been a learning curve ever since. It’s not perfect now and it was even less so at the beginning. But people stuck with me. See, I have a lot of fans who are scientists and who want to become more of a science communicator. They keep asking me how to get started. My answer is: Start a blog. Then they say, ‘But what if I’m not good at it?’ To which I say: That’s not a problem – in the beginning, no one is listening or reading anyway (laughs) That’s how I felt about the podcast. I knew I didn’t have a listenership yet. So if I made mistakes, no one would notice. Or not a lot of people.
► Well, you say you had no listenership. Doesn’t an endorsement by someone like Joe Rogan give you at least a bit of a head start?
Oh yeah. Totally. And I say all the time that I owe a great deal to Joe for getting me started in this. I mean, I didn’t know him personally. He asked me to be a guest on his podcast because of the things I had done already. That said, when I was a guest on his podcast, we clicked, and somehow he saw something in me that was right for the podcasting world and he offered me great advice. Without him I wouldn’t be doing this right now.
A lot of girls deal with guilt – and the media certainly doesn’t help.
► But that’s where it stopped? He gave you the idea, he encouraged you. But nobody did anything for you? Nobody sent advertisers your way, etc? The doing of it all, that was really up to you?
Exactly. I started out with no advertisers. Now I have some advertisers. And that’s how it works. But – and I think this is an important conversations to have – I would have never even gotten into this field to begin with, would have never been on television, if it had not been for my ex-boyfriend Bill*. This is 100 per cent true. I was a graduate student when we started dating. I was still working on my Ph.D. and I had no thoughts whatsoever of doing any entertainment related work. I was actively involved in advocating for Women in STEM, as well as for Latinos in STEM. I was talking about awareness in mental health issues and I was already a pretty open and outspoken atheist. But all of that was just my personal life. The work I did was as an adjunct professor and as a researcher. At the beginning of dating Bill, when I was spending time with him in L.A., I would go to these fancy shmancy Hollywood parties and didn’t have a pair of high heels to my name and I had no fucking idea what I was doing. The first party he took me to was, I think, a Globe party, and I was told, ‘Just be comfortable, it’s out by the pool’. So I turned up wearing a tank top, ripped-up jeans and Chucks. And all the women were wearing gowns. I was so embarrassed. But he would take me to parties and introduce me as, ‘This is my girlfriend. She is a scientist. Tell ‘em what you do’. And the more he saw me talking about it and saw my passion for it, he started saying that I have to bring this to a bigger audience. It wasn’t my idea. He pushed me into it – pushing in a positive way. The pilot we talked about? He produced it. He pushed me into doing interviews. The reason I’m telling you this is because it is a common theme especially women are struggling with: Doors are opened for you in your life, all the time – by people who care about you, by people who mentor you, by people in your family. But they can’t walk through them for you. When someone opens a door for you, you should be grateful. And you should seize the opportunity, if it’s an opportunity that is meaningful to you. But you have to be the one who makes something of it. Even if someone gets you a job, you have to be the one who keeps it. This is an important point, because a lot of girls deal with guilt – and the media certainly doesn’t help. Let’s say you are not in the public eye – you still deal with the microcosm that is your social circle. And there might be people saying, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t even have this job if your daddy hadn’t talked to that guy’. That may even be the case, but it is not the reason why you are now thriving. It’s because you worked your ass off for it. That’s why I don’t think we should be ashamed when people that matter to us or to whom we matter open doors for us. At the same time you’d better see it as a responsibility. If I am presented with an opportunity, I work damn hard and I make sure that I don’t fuck up. Have I been lucky? Yes. Very, very lucky. But I’ve tried to match my luck with just as much hard work.
* Bill Maher, host of Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO