Shankar Vedantam Has a New NPR Podcast. But Really, It’s a "Mini-Startup"

"Hidden Brain" might become an events business.
Shankar Vedantam Has a New NPR Podcast. But Really, It’s a "Mini-Startup"
Vedantam. Photo courtesy NPR.

Not long ago, Shankar Vedantam found himself drawn in to a 30-minute podcast about children who are picky eaters. And it gave him an idea.

“I realized, before I became a parent, I might have been interested in a five-minute version of that story,” the NPR science correspondent says. “Now that I’m a parent, I might listen to a 30-minute version of that story. But if I was a parent who actually had a real problem with a child who was a picky eater so it was a serious medical issue, I might want to have the two-day version of that story.”

Vedantam’s new podcast about human behavior, Hidden Brain, will debut later this month, and it will be organized around that idea of stories told at various lengths, or even, in the case of the “two-day version,” hashed out at a “Hidden Brain” event that takes advantage of what he calls NPR’s ability to “play the role of convener.”

That approach is very much in line with NPR’s direction these days. Its hit program Invisibilia was birthed with an imperative to appear on multiple platforms—its stories are unspooled on Radiolab and All Things Considered as well as in podcast form. Under newish CEO Jarl Mohn, the network is balancing the needs of its member radio stations while serving a robust and growing digital audience. And a podcast with stories that could morph into events? That’s on-brand, Lynette Clemetson, NPR’s senior director of strategy and content initiatives, says.

“We see a lot of potential in Hidden Brain to reach across all of our platforms and to bring together existing and new audiences,” she writes in an email. “We know there is a hunger for conversations that reveal the unseen patterns in our lives, and we look forward to exploring all the ways Hidden Brain can tap into that.”

You can get some hints of of the ways the show will do that tapping in this preview that appeared Friday.

Unlike Vedantam’s appearances on NPR’s news shows, the Hidden Brain segments I’ve previewed tend toward narratives that support the scientific research he discusses on the show. That reflects an essential challenge of science reporting: Research is the story of data. But human brains respond much better to the stories of individuals.

So Vedantam inverts what is standard operating procedure for many journalists. “Rather than find the story and say, ‘What sort of science can we pack underneath it?'” he says, the podcast will “start with the science and say ‘Here’s what has been rigorously found,’ and try to find a story that basically brings it to life.”

But the perfect story, alas, isn’t always available. So Hidden Brain will also feature “games” like “Mad Scientist,” in which he describes some research—”social scientists are constantly conducting these really crazy experiments”—and asks a guest to guess the outcome. That’s not just a gimmick, he says: “This is what actually happens in laboratories, where you have people sitting down and saying, if we run the experiment this way, we’re going to find this, if we run the experiment that way, we’re going to find that. And the idea of ‘Mad Scientist’ is, in a very accessible and entertaining way, to bring that process to the surface.”

There’s another process underlying these storytelling techniques: Vedantam’s method for sorting through volumes of scientific studies while he decides what to feature. Years ago, he says, he created an “internal database that was very easily searchable.” Vedantam says he is not blessed with great memory in all parts of his life (“I forget things that I’m supposed to buy in the grocery store, and I forget peoples’ names and faces all the time”), but he has terrific recall when it comes to research he’s read. When he hears about a news event, he can often think of research that connects to it, no matter when it was published.

“It’s not the latest research that interests me,” he says. “It’s the most relevant research that interests me. And the most relevant research may have been conducted eight years ago or ten years ago.”

Vedantam has continued his regular NPR hits while working on Hidden Brain with the podcast’s core team of Kara McGuirk and Maggie Penman as well as a large cast of contributing producers, reporters, and editors including Anne Gudenkauf, the senior supervising editor on NPR’s science desk. “I’m getting fairly little sleep right now; that’s been my business model,” he says, laughing. But there’s a larger goal behind this pileup of tasks—”the idea of this project is to build a mini startup in NPR.”

And like tech startups, Hidden Brain will be ready to pivot depending on what it figures its customers want. “I’m much more interested in where the audience is and what the audience wants than the medium that we’re using to connect to the audience,” Vedantam says. “The medium is the medium. It’s where the audience is and what their needs are that’s relevant. The medium sorts itself out if you focus on the audience.”

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously the news editor and lead media reporter for the Poynter Institute, arts editor for the now completely vanished, and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.