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Uncovering Freakonomics Radio

A Review

Freakonomics Radio, a podcast produced by WNYC Studios, explores the “hidden side of everything.” Inspired by the book, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economics Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, written in 2005 by economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist, Stephen J. Dubner, it touches on a range of topics from crime to gender to sports to politics. It questions, challenges, and probes into aspects of everyday life from an economic perspective. Building off the success of the book, it is a place to carry on conversations about the unseen side of everything.

Practical and approachable, the podcast explores the whys of socioeconomic phenomena through storytelling, data, research, and insight. The methodology of economics in Freakonomics is based on the principle that incentive-based thinking unlocks the mysteries of human behavior. This means that humans respond to incentives in order to allocate their resources in a way that benefits them and provides the highest possible returns. An objective of the show is to demonstrate that incentives for decision making are a key tool for economic reasoning.

The success of Freakonomics lies, in part, in the way it tells new stories about economics that everyday people care about in language they can understand. Episodes feature a variety of topics, including “How to Get More Grit in Your Life,” “The True Story of the Gender Pay Gap,” “Why are We Still Using Cash?” and “The Economics of Sleep.” Conveyed in an accessible way, Freakonomics takes mundane things and turns them into subjects and issues that matter to the larger economy. Balancing the colloquial with the formal, the show encourages its listeners to look at the world in a new and redefined way, keeping their minds alert, open, and eager for information.

Freakonomics offers listeners an intuitive new way to navigate questions with scholarly data, and it allows them to uncover stories they would not otherwise hear.

The podcast is produced as an enlightening and thought provoking story explored elegantly by the host, Stephen Dubner, and each episode explores a question or topic from various angles, contexts, and disciplines. His role is that of a narrator and guide, steering the listener through an abundance of information. Dubner asks new questions and analyzes data to understand the results. The listener is privy to his thought process as he works his way to arrive at an answer, while still posing more questions. Dubner conveys a neutral tone, not jumping to conclusions and not forcing the listener towards one opinion or another.

Combining micro and macroeconomics, episodes provide necessary history and context for an urgent, contemporary issue. Dubner typically provides the hard data and research, while the experts and guests supplement with knowledge, experience, and information. He takes something that an expert says then enhances with research or data, allowing the listener to dissect in more detail. In an episode about politics, Dubner describes the following to frame the episode: “In 1958, the American National Election Study found that 73 percent of Americans said they trusted the government either most of the time or just about always. So: 73 percent in 1958. As of last year, that number was 19 percent. Congressional approval ratings have plummeted: they now range from roughly 10 to 20 percent. So it’s probably no coincidence that the US has one of the very lowest voter turnout rates in national elections among OECD countries, at just over 50 percent.”

The episodes feature experts from various fields who contribute to, and elaborate on, the narrative. For example, in an episode about gender barriers, Dubner features an interview with Myra Strober, a labor economist and Professor Emerita at the School of Education at Stanford University whose research focuses on the economics of work and family. Strober also provides her personal account of her experience with job-related segregation. The mix of Strober’s expertise and direct experience renders the issue both more legible and more relatable to a listener who may have had similar experiences.

Studies by experts from diverse fields are typically featured to highlight varying viewpoints concerning a given topic. For example, in an episode that that investigates overlooked data concerning suicide, two professionals contribute their expertise, highlighting the complexity surrounding suicide. Daniel Everett, a linguist studying the Piraha tribe in the Amazon, explores why suicide — a grim statistic in the United States — almost never occurs within this tribe. Then David Lester, a psychology professor, speaks about alarming rates of suicide in the US: “For people from ages 25 to 34,” he notes, “suicide is the second leading cause of death. And it’s in the top five for all Americans from ages 15 to 54. In terms of timing, suicide peaks on Mondays.”

The podcast’s website is a wonderful resource to access audio of each episode along with complete transcripts that make research and evidence directly accessible. The website is also a hub that highlights a combination of different types of media: book, audio, blog, and social media. Sources and resources are hyperlinked so that listeners can learn more about the people and their insights in each episode.

Freakonomics is a professional, interesting show that presents critical research in a straightforward and compelling way. The listener is left with a sense of how one topic can open and expand into many different questions and insights. It also shows that economics journalism, and perhaps all scholarship, can be fun. Freakonomics unearths the truth behind the truth in understanding human behavior, keeping listeners curious, entertained, and better informed citizens of the world.

Tracy Varites

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