► How much hard work has the podcast been in this first year? Or how difficult was it for you?
Well, the podcast itself has been pretty easy. (laughs) Podcasting isn’t that hard. It’s a lot of work for no money or for little money at the beginning. I have done quite well with some advertising and I have some amazing fans who make contributions. There is also the merch, although that is not really making me any money, as you have to spend so much to create it. You get in the hole for it, then you make it back, only to go back in the hole with it for the next round. That’s not really a moneymaker for me. The act of podcasting itself is super easy. It’s what I would naturally do anyway if I was sitting with somebody over a cup of coffee, except that I now have a mic in front of me. The hard stuff for me is remembering to post on Facebook and reminding people that I have shirts they can buy. I’m not crying about it, but I still think this part sucks. I’m not good at selling stuff. I feel weird for even asking. In terms of really hard work – that’s the TV and the web stuff I’m doing; working 14 or 16 hour days, doing shoots in the freezing cold. But then I’m not building bridges either. It’s hard, but compared to what? I can even say that my job now is 100 per cent better than when I was slaving away in a lab. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
► What I find interesting about podcasting: You don’t have a choice – you can’t really make a for-pay podcast these days…
That’s true. The good thing about it is that podcasting isn’t a very expensive thing to do. You have your upfront costs, but after that it only costs money in terms of investing time. If I decide to take a day for podcasting, that’s a day I can’t take a job that might pay me. Outside of that? Talking is free. It might take you some gas money if you have to drive somewhere to do a great interview. But I don’t even have that problem, because I drive an electric car. (laughs)
► Of course funding through advertising is not just a difficult thing to get. I remember you mentioning that you only take on advertisers you feel comfortable with. That elevates the level of difficulty even further. How do you make sure to toe the line?
What I do is I tell an advertiser that this is an ad copy I’m comfortable with – this is my voice, this is what I’d be happy with telling my listeners. Then they can decide whether or not that is something they can live with as an advertising read. Think about it not like a pure journalist, but still keep the journalistic ethics in some ways. The simple question I ask myself is: If I’d say this, would I be lying? Also, you should always be very clear about the fact that something is paid for. You don’t have to always say, ‘This is a paid endorsement’, but you can still make it clear. I might have an advantage over other podcasters by dealing mostly with small businesses. I’ve had deals with some of the bigger companies that deal in podcast advertising, but for the most part it’s small businesses. That has even allowed me to do trades, like a great artisan who worked with leather and got ad time on Talk Nerdy, and I got custom-made leather merch with my logo on it. That’s a little more work than a regular deal, but it is also a cool way of supporting each other, since we’re both hustling. A lot of people now work for themselves. We don’t have employer health care in this country. You have to get Obamacare – which is a huge improvement over how it used to be, but still. We have legacy structures in this country that really support traditional means of employment and family. Married with 2.5 kids, with a mortgage, working in the same job for 30 years, and a pension. But that model isn’t modern, it doesn’t work anymore. A lot of people are struggling because they have to buy their own health care and have to pay double social security as employer and employee and so on. So any way that we can support each other is really great.
► If the for-pay model would work, what model would you opt for?
I think I’d still pick a hybrid model. My listeners matter to me and I want their feedback and their influence. But, just like I don’t want to be reliant on advertisers, I wouldn’t want to be solely reliant on the listeners. If I want to interview someone, then I will interview them. Yes, maybe some people don’t like a particular interview partner. I see that sometimes when I interview comedians. That gets some ‘Where was the science in that one?’ feedback. And when I interview a theoretical astrophysicist, there’ll be some ‘That one wasn’t funny!’. So if the whole podcast would rely only on listeners paying for it, that would give them an almost editorial power because I’d have to ask myself how many people will pay for a certain interview. A hybrid system helps – even now the mix of advertising, merch and voluntary listener support. And that’s an amazing thing, by the way. Some people, who don’t have to pay for it, still do that out of their own volition. It doesn’t make a big dent financially, but it does make you feel very special. People steal music and movies all the time because it is easy online. For someone to go out of their way to pay for something they can have for free? That’s cool. And I am very grateful for it.
► I want to finish by borrowing two of your own question, just slightly amended. First, what do you dread about the digital future?
Oh, nice. Let’s see. I dread a world where privacy is no longer even thought about as a right. I think about kids today, who are born into a world that has the internet, as opposed to people like you and me, who got to experience the development. We are not complete digital natives, but we – being of a similar age, with a similar experience – had it happen during a formative time of our lives. That allowed us to embed ourselves in it more readily than our parents. But kids today? I mean, you’ve seen the baby trying to swipe a magazine instead of turning a page. Or people going, ‘Why is there a hashtag on an old school phone? That’s weird. They didn’t have Twitter back then’. So what happens when the next generation or the one after that is born into a world where nothing is private anymore and everything is online, with cameras everywhere – maybe they even have some sort of bionic recording device because Google Glass is no longer outside but actually embedded in your body? It sounds like a dystopian scenario, but these things are right around the corner. I worry about what that will do to social interaction, to the sense of self and to personal space and individuality. But even more than that I dread a world without net neutrality. We’re already dealing with a digital divide. We live in a world right now where poor people who don’t have access to food or clean water or shelter also don’t have access to the internet.
The great equaliser amongst different races, genders, sexual orientations, classes or wealth levels is education.
► Which, of course, is not the same as saying that starving children in Africa are missing out on Twitter…
No. It means their inability to improve their own situation is exacerbated. To continue on a path where the divide between rich and poor increases is not a world I want to live in. And the great equaliser amongst different races, genders, sexual orientations, classes or wealth levels is education. It’s the only true underpinning to mobility. That’s why slave owners didn’t want their slaves to be able to read. It is why revolution occurs when people are empowered and informed. North Korea, for example, is in the dark, and that is why there is despair and death. To see that the poorest among us don’t have access to the wealth of information that the richest – and in some ways least grateful – have at their fingertips is not just sad but ultimately scary.
► Leaves the question what you are looking forward to in a digital future…
I look at my iPhone and think about all the amazing things it does. I had this experience a few years ago: I had a TV meeting in Maryland, and there was a blizzard. So I was standing in the cold at a subway station and I realised that I would be completely lost without my phone. Without it I wouldn’t have known who I am meeting, where to go to, how to get there. That moment I wondered what I had been doing before, when I only had a Razr phone without the internet and my life was bleak and horrible. (laughs) In the future, we will have a similar feeling, but this time it will be all in our heads. Then we will wonder how we could ever manage anything without integrated technology.
► So embedded technology is something you’re looking forward to?
Yes. I’m definitely not afraid of it. I believe it will free us to be so much more efficient and creative and unbridled. It could enable us to work with other people in ways that allow us to actually tackle major social problems and create a world that is better. The only thing I’m afraid of is that I’ll be an old lady before that happens. I read the other day that little kids are now learning how to code – the way you learned a second language because you grew up in a country that isn’t the US, where we’re generally very lazy about learning other languages – so that they will be able to communicate with machines in a way that is just native and fluid to them. And we are going to look like idiots next to our kids or their kids.
► So, do you think you and I will live in a world where I get Talk Nerdy streamed directly to my brain via some sort of implant?
You and I might. Our kids will. I definitely think, before long, we will be able to have information directly streamed to us. That’s a very different thing to say than that we’re going to live forever, because we can download our brains into jars. To me, there is a big, distinct difference between sci-fi that hasn’t done it’s homework in terms of how the brain works and sci-fi that is based in true research. Scientists are actively developing micro implants for people with seizure disorders and people with different types of neuronal injuries, to both be able to stimulate and record. We are very close to implantable devices that don’t require any external wires – cell-sized implantable devices that we can control in a microscopic way. And since we are so close to having these technologies for people with disorders or injuries, it is only a matter of time before it gets modified for other, more mainstream uses. :x:
This interview first appeared in issue no.2 of XCENTS.
photo credit featured image: Rachael Porter
Interview by Ewan McGee.