Wendy Zukerman is the creator and host of the internationally acclaimed podcast Science Vs, which started at the ABC, and is now produced by Gimlet Media in New York City. We spoke to Wendy about finding the fun in science stories – with a healthy balance of facts, accuracy and rude bits.
What piece of audio has had the most profound effect on you – as a listener, as an audio maker or both?
‘Rodney Versus Death‘ produced by Tim Howard, while he was at Radiolab. I remember listening to it while running on an incredibly muggy day in Hong Kong. I was sweating like a pig, but the oppressive heat just disappeared as I became enraptured in the story of this young kid that got bit by a bat. I loved the way the story unfolded, revealing little bits of information just when you needed them, and not a moment too soon! It made me rethink how I could tell science stories.
Where did the idea for your podcast come from?
The ABC was looking for a science podcast, and I was approached by Kaitlyn Sawrey (now my senior producer at Gimlet Media) to be the host. She was in charge of new podcast production, and she had seen me presenting around the ABC.
It was about the time when there were reports that Gwyneth Paltrow suggested women steam clean their vaginas. And I thought: Science Vs Gwyneth Paltrow! I wanted to show that science could be funny, silly and very, very accurate. You just need the right amount of fart jokes. Later, Kaitlyn along with Sophie Townsend became my editors for the first season.
What’s your favourite part of making Science Vs?
I love helping people understand science. I’m very lucky – I get paid to spend hours upon hours researching issues that people care about. And then I get to find a fun, interesting way to tell people all about it.
I wanted to show that science could be funny, silly and very, very accurate. You just need the right amount of fart jokes.
What’s the hardest part of producing Science Vs?
The hardest part of making Science Vs is convincing people that we don’t have an agenda. In the US, there is a perception that all news is partisan – so even in the news there are no facts, only opinions. (That happens a bit in Australia too, but not as much).
Personally, I just want to know what the science says. If there is no evidence for an opinion, I want to tell people about it. Many people don’t know that what goes into the show is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the research that we do.
What’s the best thing about working with sound?
We tend to be very judgemental when we look at people. We think their appearance – fat, pimpled, blonde – tells us a lot about their personality. With audio, you can let peoples’ voices, literally, speak for themselves.
What’s the best advice you’ve received about radio?
Don’t try to sound like anyone else out there. With radio particularly, listeners know when you’re faking it. They can feel it. It’s uncomfortable, and unsatisfying, when you’re listening to a radio piece and the host or interviewee is putting on airs, or trying to act dumb. You’ve just got to be yourself, and – fingers crossed – people will like you!
What has been your biggest lesson as a producer so far?
I’m constantly learning! Right now, at this very moment, I’m listening to audio from a recent trip to the US/Mexican border and I’m cringing at the many, many things I did wrong. One of the most important ways to prepare for each interview is by really thinking: what do I need to get out of this interview? And how am I going to get that? That doesn’t mean that putting words in people’s mouth – in fact, it’s the opposite. It means getting to the heart of an issue, and giving people the opportunity to explain themselves when questioned.
With the cheekiest grin and a little wink, Australians can manage to whip out a swear word that would make the most liberal American blush.
Do you interact with your audience, or receive feedback or criticism about your work?
A little. I’m on Twitter – where I get some feedback, both good and bad. But Twitter’s not a good place for insightful criticism. Even if people have interesting insights into a show, with only 140 characters, it mostly ends up coming out as ‘YEH, BUT U SUK’. We have an email account – email@example.com – which my senior producer, Kaitlyn, reads. There, the comments are often more nuanced and useful.
If you could go out to dinner with any audio maker, who would it be – and what would you talk about?
I’m very lucky at Gimlet Media, because there’s a glut of amazing audio makers that I can go out to dinner with! But, I guess that’s ducking the question. There’s so many people in the industry that I would love to learn from – This American Life’s Zoe Chace, Radiolab’s Molly Webster, Gimlet’s Alex Blumberg … just to name a few.
A dinner wouldn’t do it though. I want to be a fly on the wall during their interviews and edits. Or better yet – have them sit on my shoulder during an interview while they prod me to ask better questions.
What are you listening to at the moment?
What’s your favourite Australian podcast, and why?
The Real Thing. I love the way that Mike Williams and Timothy Nicastri tell stories on this podcast. Nothing too schmaltzy – but still, after each episode, you somehow feel like you’ve listened to a big hug. Andrew Denton’s Better Off Dead is also remarkable.
What do you think is unique about Australian audio?
The swearing. With the cheekiest grin and a little wink, Australians can manage to whip out a swear word that would make the most liberal American blush.
What’s next for you as a producer?
I’ll be hosting and producing Science Vs for a while yet! Next season we’re doing more travelling, and getting out of the studios – because we want the episodes to sound and feel richer.