The podcast began not by accident but as a lark. It was 2010, and Steven Levitt and I had just finished our second book, SuperFreakonomics. I’d done a lot of radio and TV as the Freakonomics co-writer, but I never really enjoyed being a guest on other people’s shows, because you don’t have a good control of anything. I thought, I like the medium; it might be nice to actually have a show that could be mine. One of my big inspirations was Tavis Smiley. I really liked that he had created this whole ecosystem he controlled, that he built around the possibility of him expressing his ideas. So I hired this really great producer, and we produced a few episodes and released them as Freakonomics Radio. It was just a fun thing, but it grew and grew and became my main thing.
You and Steven Levitt are a really high-profile duo, but you don’t always work together. What’s the process for launching a Freakonomics-branded project that he’s not involved in? Does it ever get awkward?
For us, it’s comically simple. Basically, one of us will say to the other, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing this thing. Do you want to do it?” And then it’s either yes or no. And if it’s no, it’s like, “Well, if you don’t want to do it, how do you feel about me doing it?” “Yeah, great. Have fun.” That’s pretty much what this is. Levitt’s done things like written an econ textbook that had a bunch of Freakonomics stuff in it, and he started a consulting firm. In those cases, he asked me if I wanted to be more involved, and the answer was no. But I’m happy to help him do whatever he wants to do to get that going. And the same with me.