Freakonomics Radio is like a box of assorted chocolates. Each episode is pretty different on the surface, but share some neat underlying themes, and ultimately they are all consumed the same way. The Freakonomics book series (including Think Like a Freak) is a similar (but shorter running) kind of assortment. Better get this out of the way right now: if you liked the books you’ll like the podcast and vice versa.
The basic format of the show is pretty conventional, probably because it is technically a public radio show adapted to podcast form. They broadcast weekly, sometimes rebroadcasting an old episode for incompletely-explained reasons. Each episode is 45 minutes, not really long in the world of podcasts. The background music is very well done, even allowing for the fact that this is a sound-based medium. Stephen Dubner’s voice is smooth: it’s too bad I already filled the chocolate metaphor quota.
There are three basic types of episode. Type the first is an interview with someone about their life and work, sometimes concluding with FREAKuently (*sigh*) asked questions. There are many interviews with economists, psychologists and sociologists. Over the past year there has also been an interview with a pilot, one with a cook, and one with a person who decided to eat a burger every day for weeks trying to determine once and for all which was the best burger in her town.
The second type (and my personal favourite) involves interviewing many people about a complex but often ignored topic, something that never makes the news but instead stays sketched into the background of society. These topics include mattresses, handwriting and pencils, the rise of the belt as the dominant pants-holding tool, sleep, and suicide. The show takes an interdisciplinary approach, reaching deep into both the natural sciences and the humanities in a search for answers. Somewhere in there a coldly considered economics perspective is usually mixed in: that is after all where the -onomics in Freakonomics was originally derived.
The third type involves interviewing several people about a topic in the general zeitgeist, from some odd unconventional angle. Some topics are flash-in-the-pan stories like the Leicester City Football miracle, guaranteed minimum income, and the brief outrage surrounding payday loans. Others are constant international headaches like the gender pay gap and education. Industry titans, sociologists, and economists dominate these episodes, as one might expect.
The wide variety of topics is a definite plus, but is there a common pattern of any sort? Yes, but it’s not in the surface content but in the attitude behind it. Stephen Dubner speaks and acts as a very curious, questioning layman. No question is considered too basic, obvious or unimportant, so long as more than one agreeable answer exists. Speaking of answers, there’s no real playing of favorites by the podcast team: the specialists have their say, and it is other specialists who challenge them.
Freakonomics Radio reveals piece by piece the true complexity behind our lives. It is a reminder that the humblest desk widgets and most mundane habits have long and involved stories behind them. It shows that no matter how uncool or irrelevant something seems, there is something to be gained from asking of it the immortal question: why?