Ask Not What Your Podcast Can Do for You

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Has Freakonomics Radio changed your life? One episode inspired a listener to donate his kidney — and most definitely changed someone else's life. (photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Has Freakonomics Radio changed your life? One episode inspired a listener to donate his kidney — and most definitely changed someone else’s life. (photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Ask Not What Your Podcast Can Do for You.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

Now and again, Freakonomics Radio puts hat in hand and asks listeners to donate to the  public-radio station that produces the show. Why on earth should anyone pay good money for something that can be had for free? 

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.

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A couple times a year, we ask our listeners to join the 200,000 people who already donate to New York Public Radio and WNYC, the station that produces this show. Now, I can hear you thinking, “Why should I pay for something I can get for free?” That, my friend, is a great question! You may also be thinking, “But what about those ads I hear on your show?” Another great question.

So here’s the story. Even with the ads — or what public-radio people call “underwriting” — the public-radio business model is heavily reliant on listener donations. All you have to do is click here to donate. You’ll see all kinds of Freakonomics Radio swag there – t-shirts and mugs and whatnot — that are only available to donors.

Now, let me admit: this whole setup is a bit awkward for me. Because by my asking you to pay for a podcast that can be gotten for free, I’m implying the podcast is pretty valuable, right? Which puts me in the awkward position of trumpeting the value of my own podcast. So, we thought, what if, instead, we asked you to say whether the podcast is valuable? A few episodes back, we asked you, our Freakonomics Radio listeners, to tell us whether this podcast has ever helped you accomplish anything worthwhile. In this episode, you’ll hear some of those stories. Some of them are pretty trivial.

BRAD ELKINS: The argument for suspenders was so strong that I took action and decided to only wear suspenders with slacks.

Some of them are less trivial.

NICOLE KAPLAN: When I heard Anne-Marie talk about raising our sons differently, it really, sort of, put a light bulb on over my head.

And some of your stories are not trivial at all.

DUBNER: Now, had you ever considered giving a kidney before then?


MUSIC: The Hitchhikers, “Mr. Fortune

Today’s episode of Freakonomics Radio is brought to you by … you. It’s open-mic week. We asked to hear your stories of things that you’ve done, changes you’ve made, ideas you’ve had, that were inspired by something you heard on this podcast.


BRAD HENDERSON: Hey guys, Brad Henderson here from Provo, Utah.

KAPLAN: My name is Nicole, and I currently live in Columbus, Ohio.

ANDREW McMILLAN: My name is Andrew, and I am a high-school teacher from Sydney, Australia.

COLE DONELSON: My name is Cole Donelson, and I’m from St. Louis, Missouri.

COOKIE CHANDLER: My name is Cookie Chandler. I live in Bend, Oregon, and I work for a big company that helps people lose weight. I was out jogging, I guess late last summer, and I was listening to Freakonomics and you had an episode called “A Better Way to Eat,” and it was about a competitive eater. And I thought, “Wow, this really would be great for me to use during my meetings.” So I went home and I listened to the episode a couple more times and I made notes, and I designed my three meetings that week based on this episode. And I went to the meeting and I told the story of Kobi and how he became a competitive eater and I said, “and how do you think this applies to what we’re going through, trying to lose weight?” And the room immediately erupted; they immediately got what I was talking about. They were talking over each other, they were so excited about it.  And I thought, “Wow, isn’t it amazing and ironic that a skinny Japanese guy who smashed the world record for hot dog eating had something to say that would help a whole bunch of people who are trying to lose weight.”

DONELSON:  My wife and I are actually kind of homeless right now because we are traveling around to all 59 national parks in the U.S. over the next year. And one of the catalysts for actually jumping into this crazy adventure was the “Upside of Quitting” podcast. It just helped me realize that there are opportunity costs to everything. And we wanted to take this adventure because there might not be a better opportunity for us to go out and live one of our dreams, which is visiting these parks.  

McMILLAN: Over the course of a week in the middle of 2015,  I played a section of the “Think Like a Child” broadcast to all of the students I teach.  As a teacher, I hear students talk of how either they don’t know what to do or they’re just going to university because their parents want them to.  The message in your podcast was so important, I had to share it.  

KAPLAN: I am a mother of two children and a working mom, at that. So, I have a 6-year-old daughter and I have thought long and hard and spoken to her about all kinds of feminist issues, even bought her a biography of Gloria Steinem. And, again, she is six years old. But I have a two-year-old son and I had never really thought about how to talk to him or that I needed to talk to him any differently than perhaps would be natural to my husband and I about it. And when I heard Anne-Marie Slaughter talk about raising our sons differently, it really sort of put a light bulb on over my head. And so now I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to talk to my son about becoming a good family person, a real participant in family life.

HENDERSON: Because of Freakonomics, I quit my job and started my own company. So just about a year ago, I graduated with my master’s degree in accounting. I was working for a big firm out in D.C., when I realized I didn’t really like the work I was doing. But, fortunately, around the same time I became a pretty avid Freakonomics listener where I realized that what I was really passionate about was understanding and influencing human behavior. So I took the obvious next step which was to quit my job and start my own business where my livelihood depends on understanding people’s behavior and really, I love it. So I guess I could say I owe you one, Steve.

No problem, Brad – and Nicole, Andrew, Cole, and Cookie. (I also like that the weight-loss person is named Cookie.) Let me introduce you now to Ned Brooks.

DUBNER: Ok. Hello, Ned?

NED BROOKS: Stephen, how are you?

DUBNER: Hey! Great, how’re you? Nice to meet you.

BROOKS: Nice to hear you.

DUBNER: Thanks for doing this, the interview, but doing the actual deed.

BROOKS: It was a very easy thing to do.

Ned Brooks is 65 years old.

BROOKS: I live in Norwalk, Connecticut. I’m semi-retired after a couple of careers, on Wall Street and in real estate.

He’s been married for 34 years. Three grown children. One day last year, Brooks was in his car.

BROOKS: And we were listening to your podcast about Alvin Roth, the Nobel Prize winner in economics who created a model to trade indivisible items without the use of money. And I think he was talking about houses at the time, but it seems to work very well for the kidney chain as well.

The episode was called “Make Me a Match.” Al Roth was describing how he and others had created a series of algorithms that helped match people in need of a kidney transplant with potential donors

BROOKS: And I listen to the podcast with growing interest because what came through to me about the power of the kidney chain, as somebody with a business background, is the concept of leverage. That one altruistic donor — and an altruistic donor is someone who gives a kidney without having anybody particular in mind to receive it. And it provides a lot of options for the people who put these things together, to start a kidney chain. And that results in a sequence of transplants that can affect a lot of people.

DUBNER: Now, have you ever considered giving a kidney before then?

BROOKS: No, no I did not.

DUBNER: And what was it about, about the message from Al Roth in that podcast that either, kind of, alerted you? What did you learn, or what changed your mind that made you start to think about that, then?

BROOKS: Well, the concept that we have two kidneys and we only need one.

DUBNER: Now did you know that ahead of time, or not really?

BROOKS: Yes, I did know that much. What I did not know is all the benefits that accrues to one who donates a kidney. The process is lengthy in terms of the amount of testing that you go through to do so. But …

DUBNER: Now, you’re saying that the medical tests were the benefits?

BROOKS: Oh, absolutely.

DUBNER: I just want to clarify here.

BROOKS: Absolutely. Look, you get many thousands dollars of testing for free.

DUBNER: Can I just say something, Ned? I think you and I are fundamentally different people, because if I were going to get several thousands of dollars worth of something free I would want it to be, you know, golf, or something, fishing boat. Not medical testing, but tell me more about your great desire …

BROOKS: Well, you’re not 65, and knowing that all your organs are free of any contaminants is a very reassuring thing, actually.

Let me be clear. It wasn’t really all the free medical testing that made Brooks want to become a kidney donor.

BROOKS: I think this is something I have to do. It required some thought, discussion with my wife that day in the car. I spent one restless night, probably about three hours trying to understand what my own motivations were and if they were the right ones to be doing this. And once I put that to rest, then it was a very easy thing to do.

DUBNER: Did you decide immediately to become a non-directed donor? Meaning that your kidney would be available for anyone who needed it? Or, did you think about trying to help someone in particular?

BROOKS: As great as it would be to help someone in particular, I didn’t know anyone who needed a kidney. And in fact, the leverage comes from being an altruistic donor. You can’t start a kidney chain unless you’re altruistic about it.

DUBNER: Let’s say I need a kidney and my wife is willing to donate or someone else in my family is willing to donate, but they’re not a match. They’re not a physiological match for me. But they would donate a kidney of theirs to someone else who is a match. They then enter the chain, correct?

BROOKS: So, call them “Couple A.” And Couple B is in the same situation as is Couple C, D, down the line.

DUBNER: But then there is this wildcard, X, that’s you. This guy who comes in that doesn’t have anyone that needs one, that just wants to give. Does that make you much more valuable?

BROOKS: That makes me valuable because it allows the algorithm to maximize the length of the chain and kick it off. If you didn’t have the altruistic donor to start, you’d have to have a perfect match. 

DUBNER: Talk about the procedure, working with the hospital, and talk about how the relationship works so that you are not made to feel that you’re being pressured.

BROOKS: Sure. In my case, I had the operation done at New York-Presbyterian. And I chose New York-Presbyterian because they do a lot of these operations. And I think that with any surgery like this you want to go to a place that does a lot of them. And so I was very comfortable with their record. They’ve never lost a donor yet. They provide you with two advocates. And those advocates are there to protect your interest throughout the process. And you go in for testing, you do it through your advocate, you go in for psychological testing, physical testing. They want to make sure you are financially able to this, because, of course, you cannot be compensated for a kidney donation.

DUBNER: To what degree did they push back? In other words, to what degree did they try actively to discourage you or at least make you take a step back and think it through a little bit more?

BROOKS: They didn’t actively discourage me.  The psychiatrist probed quite a bit. But after I seemed to have satisfied her on the answers, that was the end of it.  What they will not do is they will not come after you to keep you coming to hospital for every procedure that needs to be done. In other words, they set the time and the date for your next appointment, and they won’t call you. It’s up to you to make sure that you’re there.

DUBNER: Oh that’s interesting, yeah. And at no point did they catch on to the fact that you were just in it for the free medical testing?

BROOKS: Actually, actually yes. The doctor I spoke with there said, “This is a little-known secret, but the testing is so good that everyone should at least start out to be a kidney donor and find out how their tests go.”

DUBNER:  That is a secret that I’m guessing they really don’t want broadcast. Because I can see an army of senior citizens flooding in for their tests saying, “You know, I think I’m going to hang on to this — to the other kidney.”  And then talk to me about your family’s response.  Was everyone on board?

BROOKS: My wife was supportive. As I said, I have three children. One was very supportive, one was skeptical, and one was opposed. And I guess that’s what you get when you get three children. But the skeptical one, and the one who was opposed, turned around once they felt like they got a lot more facts about it.  It’s a very safe procedure relative to surgery, in general. And once they understood that, then I think their reservations went away.

DUBNER:  I understand you wrote a letter to your family when you had gotten pretty far along in the process. By then you’d undergone some of the testing?

BROOKS: Yes, yes.

DUBNER: Do you happen to have that letter handy?

BROOKS: Actually, I do have it here.

DUBNER:  If you don’t mind giving that a read, that would be great.

BROOKS: Sure. This is a letter that I wrote to my family when I realized that it was what I wanted to do, and I wanted to inform them all at the same time. So, I sent them an email and it goes like this:

All, as you have commented upon, I have had a number of medical tests over the summer. I did not fully answer your questions about those because I wanted to wait until I had cleared all the tests. I’m happy to report that I’m about as healthy as is possible for a 65-year-old male to be.  

Back in the spring, I was listening to a Freakonomics podcast about a man who won the Nobel Prize in economics for constructing a model of a market to trade indivisible objects without the use of money. He was thinking about houses, but it turns out that the model works very well for other things. His work had been used to create an extensive network for the matching of kidney donors and recipients. The more I listened to the podcast, the more fascinated I became as I learned that just one altruistic donor — a person who donates without a targeted recipient — can launch a chain of kidney transplants that can number as high as 43.

I spoke with the National Kidney Foundation and learned more about the process. I registered as a potential donor and began extensive series of tests at New York-Presbyterian, which have now concluded with me be being accepted as a kidney donor.

So why am I doing this? Many of our friends and acquaintances have had their share of health challenges in recent years. It is mightily frustrating to watch the pain and suffering and be unable to give any help. I, on the other hand, am in perfect health. I have no need for my second kidney, and I appreciate that my actions may greatly benefit the lives of not just the recipients of those kidneys but their entire families. Without it being too much of a stretch, my one wholly redundant organ can potentially change and improve the lives of hundreds of people.

There were 5,355 kidney transplants from living donors last year, and there are over 100,000 people on the wait list right now for a kidney.  The operation is several hours. They start about 3 a.m. in order to catch the morning flights around the country, particularly Los Angeles. L.A. does more transplants than any place in the country, and New York-Presbyterian does the most east of the Mississippi. They’ll have me walking that same day, and I should stay two days in the hospital. I’ll be uncomfortable for two weeks, and fully recovered after four weeks. The operation is laparoscopic, with a single incision in the abdomen. I’ve been working hard with my trainer on my abs.

My advocate tells me that because I am blood type O, a universal donor and an altruistic donor, I will light up computer screens across the country when they list me tomorrow. I am happy to report that Mom is fully on board with this. I could go on for a while, but I think you have the picture. If you have interest in hearing the podcast that inspired me, you can find it here and the short Freakonomics blog on the subject here. Let me know if you have any questions.

Love you all, Dad.

The left kidney that Brooks donated wound up launching a three-recipient chain.

BROOKS: I knew nothing about my recipient until the day of the surgery when I was told that it was a 37-year-old female in Denver area and that she was very, very sick and unlikely to find a donor anytime soon. And that this was a real one-in-a-million match.

DUBNER: Did you know anything about the cause of her illness? And would that have mattered to you if you did know?

BROOKS: No, I had no idea.

DUBNER: Look, you’re not getting paid; you might get thanked, you might not get thanked. You’re doing this for your own set of reasons. Was it important to you that that person appreciate those reasons, or appreciate you? Or did it not really work that way for you?

BROOKS: This is where the leverage comes in. They ask that same question in the initial stages in a little bit different way. What they ask is, “If something happens to your recipient, how upset are you going to be?” Quite frankly, my answer was, “This is multiple people who are getting a transplant because of what I’m doing. And if one of them doesn’t work out, I’m terribly sorry, but it’s going to change the lives for all the others.”

DUBNER: So Ned, you learned a little bit about your recipient, and from what I understand, you’ve been in contact — you’ve received a letter from her — is that right? Expressing her thanks?

BROOKS: The way this works is I go through my advocate at the hospital writing a letter to the recipient that goes through the advocate at her hospital to her. Then if she chooses to do so, she comes back to me with whatever she wants to say. And then through the advocates I go back and disclose my identification, then she does that back to me if she wants to. And that’s the way it worked. And we’ve exchanged emails. And I’ve gotten Christmas cards and such from her family, and so forth.

DUBNER: So you haven’t met with her or spoken with her by phone?

BROOKS: I have not met or spoken to her.

DUBNER: OK so, here’s the story. I believe that if technology has served us well that she’s on the other line right now. Danielle from Centennial, Colorado.

BROOKS: Oh my god!  I’ve not spoken to her yet! This would be great.

DUBNER: Danielle, can you hear us? This is Stephen Dubner.

DANIELLE SHAFFER:  Hi, I can hear you guys.

BROOKS: It’s Ned.



SHAFFER: How are you doing?

BROOKS: I’m doing great.

SHAFFER:  Good, good. This is exciting.

BROOKS: This is very exciting. It’s great to hear your voice. How are you feeling?

SHAFFER:  I’m doing good! I’m feeling real good. Lately it’s been a struggle since the surgery but I’m doing good. A lot better than I was.

BROOKS: Are you on lots of meds?

SHAFFER:  Yeah, unfortunately, I’ll have to be on a ton of meds for probably the rest of my life.  

DUBNER: Hey Danielle, this is Stephen. Can you tell us a bit about what led to your need for the kidney?

SHAFFER: Sure, sure. It all started October 8, 2014. I had received a call from my doctor saying that my blood work had come back — I’d gone to my regular doctor just because I was having a severe headache that wouldn’t go away. And so they did some blood work, they called me the next day and said, “You need to get to the hospital immediately.” They were telling me creatinine was at a 12 and I had no idea what that was. And so, I went to the hospital and was immediately hospitalized for the next 15 days, getting biopsies and MRIs and plasma freezes and dialysis and getting all these tubes put in my neck and chest. It just all happened so fast. To this day, they still don’t have any reason. It happened three weeks after I had my son but they don’t want to associate it to that. So they really have no answers of why this all happened to me.

DUBNER: And what was your, a) I guess, prognosis? Did they think that you would survive? And what was your prognosis for getting a donated kidney?

SHAFFER: Well, when I was hospitalized and they had no answers, and they were functioning a small part, but they said that they were failing. But they had hope — since they really had no idea what was going on with me — that they would kind of kick back in and restart themselves. So we kind of just waited and I started dialysis and everything. And while we were waiting for those next couple months, I actually tried acupuncture for, you know, organ treatment, specifically for that. You know, I was trying everything. And I said, you know what, I’m not going to wait any longer for them to restart. I better get on this transplant list now. So, come January of 2015, I started the process of getting on the transplant list. And starting there.

DUBNER: And what were you told about how long that would likely take you to get you a donated kidney?

SHAFFER: Well, it came back that I had antibodies in my blood from blood transfusions that I had during the hospitalization, and from having children they said I had created all these antibodies. So it made me a very rare match for  — I wasn’t a match to any of my family and so they said because of my rare antibodies I could possibly be on the list five or six years. So that’s the kind of range they gave me back in January of 2015. That, I was looking at five-to-six years being on dialysis.

DUBNER: Wow. How long was it before you heard that there was a donor?

SHAFFER: Well, it was probably come May of 2015 that I started getting word. Me and my father, we decided since I was having such a hard time and nobody in my family matched with me, my father really wanted to donate on my behalf. So we heard about the paired-donor program through the hospital and he wanted to donate his kidney on my behalf. So, it was probably around May of 2015 that we started the chain process. I had several chains lined up throughout the summer of 2015 but it kept falling through due to scheduling with some part of the chain — it kept falling through. So I had many chains lined up throughout the summer, and it was finally in August that we found — I guess Ned was matched to me, and we got the surgery date of September 22, and it kind of just happened really quickly from there.

DUBNER: Way to go, Ned.

BROOKS: Thanks.

DUBNER: What’s it feel like for you, Ned, hearing Danielle talk now? She’s obviously in a much better situation today with your kidney in her than she would be without. So what’s that feel like to hear her on the other end of the line?

BROOKS: It’s emotionally very powerful. It means a lot. A great deal.

SHAFFER: Yeah, it was a real struggle going through dialysis in the last year. I had to do four hours of treatment three days a week. So basically it took 15 hours out of my time every week. And I would go into a dialysis center. And, the first thing you do is you get checked in and they do your blood pressure, your weight, your temperature. They go through all your symptoms that you’re feeling. There’s really no privacy when they’re doing that — I mean, the next patient is five feet from you in their chair, and you’re talking about all of your bodily functions that are not going well for you with all the medications you’re taking and everything and it takes away a little bit of your integrity having to do that so publicly. And then, just to sit there for four hours doing nothing. I can’t get up, I can’t move. My blood is just sitting there, you’re watching your blood go through this machine and it’s really, really depressing. And, it was hard for me. I mean, I cried the first couple times just because I would sit there and I’d look around and I was the youngest, you know obviously, in the whole building. I was 37 years old. And I was the only one driving myself there. It’s just a really hard and depressing time to spend in your day. It was really hard for me to do because I have two small children as well.  

DUBNER: It’s remarkable. You say you were crying then. Now you sound so strong. Ned’s on the other line blubbering there. I’m on the border, holding it together. So…

SHAFFER:  It’s emotional every time I talk about my story too, so.

DUBNER: I’m curious, you said that your dad had entered the donor chain. Did he end up giving a kidney, and if so does he know who the recipient was?

SHAFFER: He ended up giving his kidney. And all we really know is that it went to Connecticut over there where Ned is, and we have not heard from the recipients on that end.

DUBNER: I have a copy of the letter that you wrote to your donor. It’s unclear to me whether you knew exactly who Ned was at this time. It begins, “To my wonderful kidney donor, I don’t even know where to begin.” And I’ve already started to cry. Sorry. I have nothing to do with either of you and I’m crying. OK. So, but then, toward the end, you write, “Just to let you know, your kidney is doing awesome, and I’m already getting my energy back.” Danielle, what’s it like to have this guy Ned’s kidney inside of you? Do you feel whole again? Do you feel different?  

SHAFFER: You know, it was amazing because the very next day after surgery, I felt incredible. I felt 100 percent different. I didn’t feel any of the symptoms that I was having before with the illness and the nausea and the anxiety and everything I was going through. I immediately felt better. My body felt better, and yeah. I was eating and drinking the foods and liquids I was restricted to for so long, and it’s just — I do have the energy again. It’s amazing how much better I feel. And I don’t know if he had any food habits that I’ve picked up, but.

BROOKS: How do you feel about single-malt scotch?

SHAFFER:  You know, I haven’t had the craving for any scotch. It is funny because we joke about that with my dad because he’s a single-malt scotch drinker too, and we say, “Oh, that person’s probably craving it now.”

DUBNER: Well, Danielle, I’m glad you’re doing better and I hope you continue to do even better.

SHAFFER: Yes, thank you so much. And Ned, thank you so much for everything you’ve done for me and my family.

BROOKS: No need to thank me anymore. Thank you for being such a great recipient, and we’ll be in touch.

SHAFFER:  Yes, we will. Thank you.

DUBNER: Danielle, thanks for jumping on the phone with us. Bye bye.

SHAFFER: Alright bye guys.

DUBNER: Bye. Well, Ned, how do you feel now? See what you’ve done now?

BROOKS: Boy, I was shaking in here. This is really something. She’s a great person.

DUBNER: Well, I know you didn’t do it for the thanks, but thanks!

BROOKS: My pleasure.

Ned Brooks, inspired by his own experience — and the huge need for more kidney donations — is starting an organization to help build more altruistic kidney-donor chains. It’s called Donor to Donor.

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PHOEBE GAVIN: My name is Phoebe Gavin. I’m a veteran. I joined the military right out of high school in 2004 and shortly after I got to my unit, we were slated to go to Iraq. I ended up being in Iraq from 2007-2008 for 15 months during the surge strategy.  I wrote in because “The Suicide Paradox” episode had certainly stuck with me over the years that I listened to it and as I’ve worked in the veterans’ community for quite a while, it’s affected the way that I’ve communicated about suicide and how I have convinced other people to talk about suicide. I think that over the course that all of the campaigns that I’ve used “The Suicide Paradox” to illustrate how important it is to talk about suicide responsibly, we’ve certainly reached millions of people combined and it seems reasonable to expect that someone out of those millions of people decided not to take their life that day because we did our campaigns responsibly.

When we asked for your help in putting together this episode, we heard from all sorts of people, from all over the world, doing all sorts of things:


JILL DONNELLY: Hi, I’m Jill Donnelly from Los Angeles, California.

CHRIS WILLIAMS: My name is Chris. I’ve from Britain but I currently live in China.

JENNIFER THOME: Hey there Freakonomics. This is Jennifer Thome and my husband and I own a small, authentic Chinese restaurant in Boulder, Colorado.

JOHN PFLUM: My name is John Pflum and I live in Nashville, Tennessee.

RACHEL LEWIS: I am Rachel Lewis. I teach 5th grade in Jacksonville, Florida.

COREY STROCK: Hi, my name is Corey Strock and I am from Mountain House, California.

CHRISTINA LANG I’m Christina Lang and I’m from Ft. Collins, Colorado.  I have the best job in the world because I am a busy primary care doctor, practicing internal medicine and pediatrics.

We also heard from a lot of people who quit something – a job, a relationship, a habit – because of our episode called “The Upside of Quitting.” And we heard from a lot of people who are in the teaching profession. These two, for instance:

LYNN WALDREN: My name is Lynn Waldren. I am the social studies department chair at Springdale High School

SCOTTY PERSON: And my name is Scotty Person. This is my seventeenth year at Springdale High School.  

Person teaches world history. This is in Springdale, Arkansas:

WALDREN: Springdale is a town of about 70,000, approximately. If you have ever eaten any Tyson Food products, their headquarters is in Springdale. Our school is one of two high schools currently in the city. We have about 2,200 students in grades 10th, 11th and 12th, and we are a minority-majority school. We have a fairly large Hispanic population, that is a fairly recent thing within about the last 10 or 12 years, or so.

Scotty Person heard our callout for listeners who’d used Freakonomics Radio to good effect.

PERSON: Your program recently that asked for information about how your podcast has changed lives really spoke with me. Several years ago I listened to the podcast, I believe it was called “What Do Public Schools Have in Common with Bad Radio Stations,” or something to that effect.

Very close. It was actually “How Is a Bad Radio Station Like Our Public-School System?  It was about a pilot program in New York that would let a school customize the learning program for every kid in the classroom.

PERSON: And, of course, you know, I got a little bit defensive. I loved the story about the pilot program in New York and what they were doing to give the kids more freedom. And, of course, I looked at it from a teacher with 30 kids in the classroom — relatively small classroom — 48 minutes, you know. How can I do this with the limitations that I have, which is to give kids more freedom. And so I tried something.  Without really knowing it, Lynn and I were both listening to a lot of the same podcasts. So we started using these podcasts to add a little bit to our class. But it didn’t have the same effect that we’d hoped. We would bring in interesting facts and tell them a little bit. But a lot of the kids, whether we found it on the internet or found it in a podcast, they were not as engaged with it as we’d hoped. And so one day, Lynn just said, why don’t we start a class specifically using podcasts.

WALDREN: I think from when we first decided to give it a shot, and I made that first phone call to the Arkansas Department of Education in November of 2012, until we got it actually, finally approved by the state in April of ’13 and then finally our own school district in June of ’13, that’s about an 8-month process. The state asked for roughly six revisions to get it to where they wanted it. And once we got that, then we had to figure out how to get it into the classroom. And we knew that we could — once we got it in — that there are so many interesting podcasts, that we could find the ones that would hook them, that would get them interested and get them thinking about stuff. As one of my students just the other day said, she said, “This class makes you think about things you normally wouldn’t think of, or things that you’ve never even heard of before.” And that’s really what our goal was, I think, initially, was just to expose them to things that they would not have normally come across.

Some of the podcasts they picked for their students …

WALDREN: Freakonomics was one of them. Radiolab, those were probably the first two.

PERSON: Planet Money, Memory Palace.

WALDREN: 99% Invisible.

PERSON: History of the World in 100 Objects is one I like to listen to.  

WALDREN: And the students really enjoy the idea that this is the only class at Springdale High School and probably the only class in the state of Arkansas that you have to have earbuds. You get in trouble if you don’t bring your earbuds that day. And the students really get a kick out of that.

And so with no textbooks, just earbuds, the teachers created a new class aimed at engaging students in a new way. They call this class:

PERSON: Pod Class Omni. 

WALDREN: Just using Freakonomics as an example, the recent episode, “The Cheeseburger Diet.” We might be talking about cheeseburgers and the best cheeseburger in Louisville, Kentucky, on one day, and then another day, also from Freakonomics, we might find the health benefits that derive from the power of poop. So it’s all over the place.  And it’s really, really been great for us and if I could teach this all day, I would probably teach another 10 years.  

PERSON: One of the most exciting podcast we listened to each year is after we finished the episode of “How to Think About Guns.” Generally, we’ll have some kids in there who have been shooting a gun since they could stand, been trained right and they know how to use them. We also have some students who have never touched a gun. So we have some really, really good debates in there. But it’s very respectful. And so the kids are learning how to express their opinion, but to do it respectfully. And then when they leave that podcast, generally they have a good understanding of both sides.

WALDREN: If I can piggy back a little bit off of what Scotty just said. One of the really high points in this class for me was, I guess, the third group that came through, which was the fall of 2014. I had a young lady, a senior girl, that came in one day. We had listened to a podcast. She’d gone home that night and told her family about it. And she told me the next day, that, “for the first time in my life I felt so smart.” And it gave me chills, and it still does today.  And she said that, that when she got home each day, the first thing that her family would want know was “what did you do in Pod class today.”  And what we are really hoping to do with this, what we tell the kids is take this out into the world, take it out there. Like Scotty said, you can really get into any conversation and speak intelligently about all kinds of topics. And that’s really, I guess, if we’ve learned anything that’s pretty much the bottom line goal that we are really looking for.

PERSON:  If I teach world history for the rest of my career, I will be very happy with my career. But having this class based on your podcast has made my life as a teacher so enjoyable. And I love all my classes, I love all my students, but this class in particular, to be able to have the ownership to say that we started it, and then to see in our students the same kind of reactions that we had the first time we listen to podcast. That’s probably been the most exciting thing for me as a teacher.  And it’s because of the production value, the topics, the things that you produce. So really,  thank you to all of you because without your podcast, I’m just another boring teacher standing in front of a class trying to get them to understand why, you know, guns are dangerous but swimming pools are more dangerous. We have been talking about the idea of, at the end of the year, taking up some small collection and sending it to Freakonomics in hopes that we would get some kind of autographed picture or some kind of Freakonomics something to put on the wall so that the kids could come back and see it.

WALDREN: Actually, I just want a Stephen Dubner cheeseburger.

Hey, Lynn and Scotty, I’d love to make you a cheeseburger next time you’re in New York. Until then, we will send some autographed Freakonomics stuff your way. I’m very happy to hear that Freakonomics Radio is useful in your classroom. And on behalf of all of us here who produce the show, and especially WNYC, thanks for your support. It would mean a lot to us if you made a donation to help us keep making this show. All you have to do is click here to donate. You never know what we’ll turn your money into — could be a story about guns, or kidney donations, or maybe just cheeseburgers. And don’t forget, we’ve got some nice Freakonomics Radio swag for you to choose from.

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And next week on the show, U.S. Senator Cory Booker is an optimist partly because he knows how far we’ve already come.

SEN. CORY BOOKER: My parents never hesitated to show me the wretchedness, the bigotry, the darkness of American life.

And he takes on the rumors of whether he’s in line to be named Hillary Clinton’s VP choice.

SEN. BOOKER: Yes, I will be Hillary Clinton’s Vegan Practitioner.

That’s next week on Freakonomics Radio.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Arwa Gunja. The rest of our staff includes Jay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Christopher Werth, Greg Rosalsky, Kasia Mychajlowycz, Alison Hockenberry and Caroline English. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook and don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.

MUSIC: All music for this episode was composed, produced and performed by J. Cowit and J. Cowit and the Ruthless Orchestra

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode: