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Freakonomics Radio expands as a publisher

Freakonomics Radio, the audio program that explores the “hidden side of everything” based on the popular book franchise by the journalist Stephen Dubner and the economist Steven Levitt, launched as a WNYC program back in 2009 and quickly became something of an early archetypal podcast hit. Indeed, you could perhaps detect some of its DNA in shows like Invisibilia and Hidden Brain, which privileges popular science and social science as fertile land from which stories can be harvested, and these days, you can even thread it out to some extent to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast work via Revisionist History and the expanding Pushkin Industries, which has been really hammering down the author-to-podcaster pipeline.

As an entrepreneurial venture, Freakonomics Radio also has the distinction of being a prominent example of a public radio-originated program that eventually broke off to establish itself as an independent publisher. In 2018, the show left WNYC Studios to take up a partnership with Stitcher, though it continues to retain a partnership with WNYC for public radio syndication. That gambit — to break off and split distributional alliances — has inspired similar moves. Just last week, Hidden Brain, the NPR-originated audio program about the “unconscious patterns driving human behavior,” announced that it is following almost the exact same route: it’s spinning out as an independent company, Hidden Brain Media, with a Stitcher partnership in hand, a retained public radio syndication partnership with NPR, and designs for further cross-media expansion.

Later this week will see another step forward for Freakonomics Radio. This Friday, the show will launch a new spin-off called “People I (Mostly) Admire,” which the official press release regards as Steven Levitt’s solo podcast debut. (As a point of clarification, Stephen Dubner is designated as the sole host of Freakonomics Radio, with Levitt popping up as a recurring guest.) It should be noted that “People I (Mostly) Admire” is not the first Freakonomics Radio spin-off. That honor goes to “No Stupid Questions,” hosted by Dubner and the social scientist Angela Duckworth (you might know Duckworth as the author of “Grit”), which launched back in May.

But the upcoming launch of “People I (Mostly) Admire” will mark the establishment of a new podcast publishing shingle formed around Freakonomics Radio, which will be called (generically enough) the Freakonomics Radio Network. From the sounds of it, the entity appears to be a bid to go after a more specialized social scientist-to-podcast pipeline, which in my mind probably brings more competition to Pushkin Industries’ turf. There are plans to launch new programming through 2021, with at least one or two more pilot programs to show up in the fall. Ideas in development are said to include a book club and another show built around a “prominent sociologist.”

As a matter of process, I’m told that the network favors a soft-launch approach to piloting shows,  where they’d drop a test episode in the flagship Freakonomics Radio feed — which has come to drive millions of downloads — to get a sense of listener appetite. If the feedback is positive, those episode get spun out into full shows, as was the case with No Stupid Questions and the upcoming “People I (Mostly) Admire.” If not, at the very least listeners were treated to a fun experiment.

Interesting stuff. Seems like Stitcher is really profiting off these public radio branch-offs. Wonder if we’ll see more of this.