3 questions with Freakonomics Radio podcast host Stephen J. Dubner on exercise and academics


Stephen J. Dubner is the host of the Freakonomics Radio podcast. His weekly episodes explore the hidden side of everything.

Stephen, your Freakonomics podcast is freakin’ awesome. We know you’re crazy busy interviewing and researching for your shows, but we wondered if and how you find time to exercise? So, let me ask:

1) Do you engage in an exercise routine? If so, do you do it because you’ve heard it’s good for you or do you have other reasons (e.g., to relieve stress, to obtain an endorphin high in order to generate more podcast and book ideas, etc.)?

I do tend to exercise pretty regularly, though to be honest I don’t enjoy it very much in the moment. But I do enjoy the aftereffects, whether the hard-to-appreciate-in-the-moment long-term ones (cardiovascular, etc.) or the more immediate (feeling of accomplishment and general sense of feeling better). My favorite exercise is always going to be non-gym activity: playing sports, hikes (through nature but through cities too), etc. But the gym is a good complement to all that. Also, I have found one magic combo (for me at least): riding the stationery bike while reading for work, whether it’s a research brief, a script, a book, etc.: the combination of mental output and physical output somehow mix to make each more enjoyable. So I’m grateful for that.

2) The Freakonomics podcast is in its 9th year and has gained a tremendous world-wide audience. What has been the biggest challenge and greatest reward of the venture?

The biggest challenge has been trying to find like-minded colleagues (producers, media partners, etc.) since most media is produced and distributed in a traditional way that I often don’t feel is very valuable/wise/interesting. One reason I’ve always loved being a writer (and Freakonomics Radio is, at the end of the day, a piece of writing) is that you have a lot of freedom to explore interesting ideas as you see fit; it’s the reason I *didn’t* like being a beat reporter or standard-issue journalist: chasing the pack always seemed pretty unattractive, and not a very good use of a reporter’s time or the reader’s/listener’s time. I’m happy to say our current production and business team on Freakonomics Radio is fantastic, and a lot of the show’s success is due to them — but, as I said, it’s not so easy to find people like that. As for greatest reward? The audience! One of the unheralded upsides of the podcast model is that listeners, if they like your show, have basically opted in to keep listening (that’s just the nature of the podcast technology; yes, there’s some individual-episode sampling, but free subscriptions are the norm). Which means that if you do good work, there is a devoted audience that comes along with you on the ride every week. That’s a huge attraction for me, as it makes it possible to do a totally different show every week, knowing that this audience has not only opted in but has at least a little bit of institutional memory about past episodes, etc. Which makes the entire relationship (between show and audience) that much more resonant.

3) A theme that you routinely discuss (and that I’m fascinated with) on your podcast are the habits of successful CEOs. You’ve interviewed just as many academicians as you have CEOs. In your opinion, what could academicians learn from CEOs when it comes to developing pragmatic research questions that are far-reaching beyond a laboratory setting?

Just to be clear, I’ve interviewed *way* more academics than CEOs, probably 50 or 100x. Anyway: I’m not sure most academics really *want*, as you suggest, to steer their work more toward real-world settings. It seems (to me at least) that for many academics, the appeal of their ecosystem is that they don’t have to get too involved with the hurly-burly of the business, political, or other environments. The incentive structures are *very* different; it’d be hard to argue, e.g., that academia has much of a bottom-line necessity. That said, there are exceptions — and personally, I do wish there was more interface/overlap. There is an astonishing amount of academic research (much of it taxpayer-funded, BTW) that never makes the impact it could because of this lack of interface.

Thank you, Stephen. We really appreciate your time!

Stephen J. Dubner is an award-winning author, journalist, and TV and radio personality. He is co-author of the “Freakonomics” book series, which have sold millions of copies in 40 languages, and host of Freakonomics Radio, which gets 15 million global monthly downloads and is heard by millions more on NPR and other radio outlets. Dubner’s journalism has also been published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Time, and has been anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing, The Best American Crime Writing, and elsewhere.

Visit www.freakonomics.com to learn more about Stephen Dubner or to listen to the Freakonomics Radio podcast:

Or follow Freakonomics on Twitter: @Freakonomics

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