Wendy Zukerman has a tough job as the creator and host of Science Vs. In each episode of this popular podcast series, Wendy takes on sometimes controversial topics to find out, as the podcast’s description reads, “What’s fact, what’s not, and what’s somewhere in between.”
Though it’s a tough job, it’s okay with her. With a new home on the podcast network Gimlet, Wendy Zukerman is more energized than ever to ask the tough questions and put gut feelings and ideals aside to find out the facts. It’s no wonder why Science Vs is constantly a top science show on Apple Podcasts.
Wendy Zukerman of Science Vs Podcast
When did you know that you wanted to pursue a career that revolved around science?
It’s funny, I initially wanted to be a war correspondent, but that went out the way pretty quickly. If I looked at the history of my life, I could make it sound like I was somewhat always going to be a science journalist.
When I was a child, I wrote a book about how teeth get plaque. I wrote that when I was in second grade or something like that, and it’s effectively exactly what I do today. I’m pretty sure the teacher did not tell me to write a book about science or a book about a science-related topic. I think she was just like, “Write anything,” and that’s what I chose to write about.
So clearly, I was kind of excited about the world of science from a pretty young age, but I definitely would not say that I was particularly good at science in high school or college.
Early in your career you were a writer for New Scientist magazine. What is it like writing about the mysteries of the universe?
It was really fun working for New Scientist as my first journalism job. I was the Asian Pacific correspondent, so every day I was writing about a different area of science. It was amazing! One day it’d be some discovery about dinosaur bones, the next day there was some space mission that I had to get my head totally across.
It was all pretty fun. It was crazy stressful to have one day to get across an entire new branch of science, but it definitely prepared me for Science Vs and for having the confidence to ask really silly questions.
Do you have a science hero?
I love science and I appreciate the scientific process, but there wasn’t a poster of Einstein or Einstein’s wife on my wall, as a kid. If I had science heroes, it would be my parents. My parents are both scientists. My mum’s a computer scientist and my dad’s an electrical engineer.
I think as I’ve gotten older I really appreciated, particularly my mum at some point, as being a woman in computing in its early days. She was a minority within her class and had professors saying things like, “You shouldn’t be here,” to her. She just didn’t let it phase her at all. She couldn’t understand why anyone would let that sort of thing phase them.
I think she did come across a lot of problems in her career that she didn’t even recognize, because she was a woman. She just didn’t fit into the crowd or didn’t fit in. Now she’s a professor and has been so for a while. I think as I’ve grown up she’s probably become a little bit of my hero.
When did you discover podcasting and what were your initial thoughts on it?
I discovered podcasting really, really late in the game. My friend told me about This American Life, the gateway drug of podcasting, and I really liked it. I then soon moved on to Radio Lab. It’s a very classic tale, but when I started Science Vs I think those were the only two podcasts I was listening to. I was such a virgin in this landscape. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into at all.
Do you remember the first time you hosted a podcast? Did you think podcasting would ever get to the level it is today?
The first podcast I ever hosted was Science Vs in Australia. I didn’t know anything about the terrain. It’s kind of mind boggling that I’m now looking outside this big window and I see Brooklyn, and it was podcasting that got me here to New York. When I started making Science Vs it was this tiny operation, where it was me and my senior producer, Kaitlyn Sawrey. There was no expectations on us. We just pressed the publish button and all of a sudden people started listening.
It was this crazy moment when we started looking at the charts and we realized we were doing really well in Australia. Then we looked at the US charts. I remember that moment. I was like, “What? How are we in the US charts?” It was just unbelievable, because I went in with so few expectations and such little understanding of the industry. When I went on the microphone to host it, I didn’t even really know what that meant. I just knew that I needed to present the science in a fun and exciting way, and that was all I was trying to do.
It’s amazing being at Gimlet. Science Vs is now a proper job with a team. In Australia, while I was at the ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, it never felt like it was going to be a full-time job. It always felt like it was going to be a side project that was really fun to do. At Gimlet, it’s really taken seriously. I have two reporters, a senior producer, an intern, and editorial help. I also have a travel budget, which has just been unbelievable.
This season, I’ve been all around America. I got to go inside a nuclear reactor core for our episode on nuclear power, which is coming out in about a month. I went to Atlanta to interview a couple who’s been in love for 60 years. Those opportunities were just never possible in Australia. The seriousness at which people make radio at Gimlet is pretty unparalleled. The joy and the experience of making radio, and all of the little tools and the tricks that they have to produce shows, is just unbelievable.
One person who reviewed Science Vs on Apple Podcasts said, “This podcast holds science against our beliefs and feelings.” Would you agree, and is this the overall goal of the show?
Yeah, I think it is. I think it’s an interesting one. I think Alex Blumberg has often said that Science Vs is really science versus feelings. Those ideas that we have in our gut and putting them to the ultimate test. I think for some people, that is an irritating proposition. I don’t think everyone wants their closely held beliefs to be put up against science, but for me, I really like doing it and I really like testing those gut feelings that I have. As a result of the show, I’ve really learned to tamper down any gut feeling that I have about any political stance or about any ideal out there.
Some of your most recent episodes of Science Vs include some current hot political topics. How do you manage personal opinions seeping into the science of the subject?
You just make sure that there is a paper and that there is a scientific consensus behind every sentence that you say. That’s the test that I do. Every single time there is a sentence that sounds like a fact, I’m thinking, “Have we done our homework? Do we know this is a fact, and why, and how?” I think that’s how you really clamp down on your opinions seeping through the science.
Podcasts are increasingly becoming more popular as a source for both education and entertainment. How do you think the platform compares to television and radio?
I think it’s really prominent now, isn’t it? The way that it has progressed in just a couple of years. I’ve been in New York now for a year and a half and the quality of the shows is just totally ramping up. It felt like just a couple of years ago there were maybe a handful of shows that were highly produced, and everything else was just a couple of people on a microphone, and if they happened to be interesting then those shows would do well. I think those kinds of podcasts will still remain popular though, because there is this kind of low-fi attraction to them.
Sometimes people listen to podcasts for different reasons. Sometimes, you do listen for this highly produced, wonderful, story-like experience that is like an HBO TV series, but other times you listen because the hosts are kind of like your friends and you don’t care if they pop the mic a little bit or if they’re making a noise in the background or if their dad walks in, because you’re just like hanging out with them.
What we are seeing now with S-Town, and now Gimlet’s just come out with Mogul, which is a very different type of story, but these incredibly highly-produced serialized podcasts. It does feel like we’re entering a TV-like world, and I think it will be really interesting to see where it goes and whether it sustains.
If you could offer some advice to someone who wants to start or host their own podcast, what advice would you offer?
You have to be yourself. I don’t know any successful podcasts where the host isn’t being entirely themselves. When someone on the microphone is trying to be a certain something, whether they’re trying to be funny or they’re trying to be proper or they’re trying to be the voice of authority, you can really tell. You can just smell that they’re trying to be something else, and you don’t wanna listen. There’s something unappealing about listening to that kind of show. But when people are just being themselves, it’s really lovely.
I would also encourage people who are trying out hosting to just try and be as comfortable as possible on the microphone. Treat the microphone as your friend. Pretend that you are talking to your friends, because that’s kind of what you’re doing. Be yourself.
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