Monday, June 28, 2010

Interview with Desiree Schell of Skeptically Speaking

The time was right to get the hell out of Toronto. The G20 was in town and the protesters, hippies, anarchists, drum circle troupes, and juggalos came out in full force to protest something or another. The city shut down, traffic was to be a nightmare, and it was going to rain. I really didn't want to spend all weekend holed up in my condo, on my couch, in tears as some juggalo smashed my favorite downtown Starbucks and international investment bank. But where to go for the weekend? A quick trip to let me convert my Petro-Canada, Esso, ClubZed, and Build-a-Bear loyalty points plans into airmiles. I had enough to reach Edmonton. Hmmm. Edmonton. It's been a billion years since I saw my best gal pal Leah in Edmonton so I grabbed a WestJet flight out there Friday night.

While in Edmonton, I thought I'd get an interview with the host of what I believe may be Canada's only skeptically themed broadcast radio show. Yes. Not a podcast although you can get episodes in the podcast format. The show is called Skeptically Speaking and the host is the joyous Desiree Schell. Each week, Ms. Schell has on a broad range of interesting science types to discuss some skeptical topic. Schell always has a raft of great questions.

I met Desiree at the West Edmonton Mall Earls. Over a late lunch of salmon and maple syrup burgers, Nanaimo bar salad, and a Molsons beer-battered prairie oysters, we talked about her radio show.

So far most of my interviews have been with hosts of podcasts that are regularly reviewed within the pages of Skeptical Review. However, Skeptically Speaking is, to me, a recently discovered gem. I'm a bit like someone who has recently discovered yoga and vegetarianism and I want to evangelize it to anyone who will still listen to me. For blog readers who know nothing about your show, could you tell us a bit more about Skeptically Speaking?

I deeply enjoy interviews that start with that many compliments. Thanks, sir. Skeptically Speaking is a live call-in talk show that airs initially on CJSR 88.5 in Edmonton, Alberta. We invite scientists, authors, and other experts on the show to discuss a variety of topics, and the format is an interview peppered with audience questions. Recent episodes have covered cosmetics claims, vitamins and climate change, but we're equally likely to cover transhumanism, paranormal research, or cryptozoology. Any topic that we think could benefit from a bit of evidence-based coverage is fair game. The podcast version is made available for download via itunes, and that version is rebroadcast on, currently, 21 other stations.

How is doing a live radio show different from doing a podcast?

With a live show, you only get one chance to not make a fool of yourself. That applies to the guest, and to me. Then there are the audience questions: screening emails is easy, but screening phone calls can be problematic. It can be difficult to tell when a caller has a legitimate opposing opinion, or needs genuine clarification on a point, and when they just really want to talk about how homeopathy works for them and we're being really closed minded and the First Nations People have used it for centuries and why are we so culturally insensitive? Sometimes those sneak past. But even those calls are only really an issue because they tend to be quite long and involved, and we only have an hour. We're at the point in the show's life that we're getting more questions than we have time to answer, which a nice problem to have.

And our host radio station runs mainly on ancient equipment seemingly held together with duct tape and the undying love of hipsters, so we work under the constant threat of sudden and unpredictable technical difficulties. We deal with that by having a far larger team than most shows: I do research and interviews, Ryan Bromsgrove is on the sound board, Mike Harrison and Grant Harris take care of everything computer-related and screen audience questions by phone, email, twitter and the chat room, and K.O. Myers of does post-production work and moderates the chat. Also, if a podcast is out a day late, no one but the hardcore fans are going to be too put out. If our show isn't available for download by Sunday at noon, it has repercussions for our rebroadcasters, which could also damage our long-term relationship with them. So it's usually stressful, but completely worth it.

Do you have a favorite store in the West Edmonton Mall?

It used to be the children's science store, but that was before it started selling crap. I'm not sure if the owners changed or if they decided to shift their focus, but it now sells dowsing rods next to the microscopes. I'll do my nerd shopping at the Science Centre, thank you.

Your show reminds me a bit of Monster Talk where the "woo" is kind of the entry point into a deeper discussion of actual science with a guest. How do you select a guest and topic each week?

That fact that you just compared us to Monster Talk makes me squee a bit. Cryptozoology has never been my thing, but you're right, they present it in a science-based way that makes it interesting to me. And the Cthulhu episode was excellent. Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn, y'all. If you know what I mean.

Selecting topics is easy, as our listeners are brilliant. Many of the ideas are sent to us by the audience, and I'll do the research to find an appropriate guest. Occasionally listeners will hear a guest interviewed on another skeptical podcast, and they have some questions, and want us to have the same guest on to take advantage of our call-in format. Others, like the upcoming episode on Ants with Mark Moffat, are people that I've seen interviewed on other programs and thought that they'd be a good choice for Skeptically Speaking. Our unofficial tagline for the show is "Stuff Des finds interesting." And I find almost everything interesting.

Could you tell us a bit more about yourself? What's your educational background? Is it rude to ask how old you are? Have you been to a TAM in Las Vegas?

I'm a bit varied in my interests, and my education reflects that. I have diplomas in Security and Private Investigations, Community Mental Health Work, and Fund Development, and somewhere in there I put some time in towards a degree in political science that I changed my mind about. You'll notice there's not a lick of science in there. I think that actually helps the interviews, as I'm starting off with the same utter-lack-of-background-in-the-subject that the listeners are. A week's worth of research on the topic is basically just enough for me to ask some reasonably-informed questions. I'll probably end up getting another diploma or three, because some subjects seem to benefit from being learned in a classroom rather than self-taught. At 33, I'm still an education junkie. And having a 15 year old son that demands evidence of me, because I short-sightedly chose to raise him that way, forces me to do research on things that I might not otherwise. Expect shows on drugs, teen sex and possibly "Does wearing AXE body spray in large amounts make girls more likely to want to date you" shortly.

TAM 7 was my first Amazing Meeting, and I'm heading back again this year. I'll be moderating the Events and Programming section of the Grassroots Organizing workshop, and I'll also be doing a live group show with Swoopy from Skepticality, Heidi Anderson from Podcast Beyond Belief, and Barb Drescher, a cognitive psychologist that writes the blog ICBS Everywhere. So if anyone out there wants to stop by and say hi (please do!), you know where I'll be.

You cover a lot of topics that aren't 100% core to the traditional skeptical turf (UFOs, homeopathy, etc.). For example, you did a show about personal trainers and the lack of scientific rigor in that field. You also did a show recently about cosmetics. At times your show reminds me of CBC's consumer investigation show Marketplace. Unlike Wendy Mesley you let the scientist talk for more than 15 seconds. It's nice to be told some herbal supplement doesn't work, but your show lets the scientist go into depth about the why. Am I seeing an angle you're not intentionally playing or are you trying to bring more science and skepticism into real world choices the average listener is faced with on a more daily basis?

Absolutely the latter, and thanks for noticing! Skeptically Speaking is a bit of an experiment, to tell you the truth. Our goal is to offer people a topic that has some relevance on their lives or their wallets, and attempt to make it entertaining and informative. We hope to give people the tools that they need when they go shopping, or watch television, or read the news. Skepticism is relevant to people's lives, but most people don't realize that until they can relate to a topic personally. Although we've had tons of support from the skeptical community (thank you!), we attempt to not solely speak to them. We're speaking to all the non-skeptics; people that are in their cars driving home and happen to hear a snippet of something they find interesting. Interesting enough to pull over and send an email or call in. When that happens, it makes me ridiculously happy. It's very important to everyone on the team that we not preach to the choir, so we avoid in-jokes and acronyms, and we define terms, and basically assume that everyone listening is listening for the first time. We really want to do effective outreach.

Where I think skeptics can benefit from the show, is with that additional detail that the experts offer. Sure, we know that many vitamins probably aren't necessary, but do we know why? We know that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn't really an island of trash that you can walk on, but do we know what it actually is, and why it's still a huge problem? We hope to give our community a little more ammunition than "Pssh. It's bunk!"

Have you ever had a Pirate Pak at White Spot?

Yes. And it is everything you think it would be.

Who was your favorite guest?

It's a toss up between Adam Savage and Barry Schwartz. Adam, because the genuineness and enthusiasm just spills out of him. He has the ability to speak to people on an emotional level, with is rare for a science communicator. He's a fantastic mainstream ambassador for skepticism. But Barry and I had such an enjoyable, wide ranging discussion on how the plethora of choices we encounter on a daily basis is actually hurting us. Maybe "enjoyable" isn't the right word, as I was a bit depressed after that episode, but regardless, it was fascinating. Emotive, intellectually challenging guests that help us understand why we do the things we do are always my favorite.

What guest or topic required the most research on your part?

Oh my gosh. Anything to do with math. I'm awful at those shows. Numbers frighten me. I might have been an economist if it weren't for the numbers.

"Raise a little hell, with Desiree Schell". Clever theme song. Who did your theme song?

The song was created and performed by A.O.K (Assault of Knowledge). He's an Edmonton rapper, who happens to be an atheist and skeptic, but doesn't necessarily focus on either of those topics in his music. There's a secular or science-oriented lyric or song sprinkled here and there on his albums, and that's exactly the kind of approach I enjoy. I don't think there's always a need to beat people over the head with skepticism. Subtlety has advantages.

Alberta is sort of Canada's Texas. It's very conservative politically and more conservative Christian than the rest of Canada. Edmonton, conversely, is sort of the Austen, Texas of Alberta. It's a bit more liberal than, say, Calgary or that stank hole Camrose. Any pseudo-science or denialism more prevalent in Edmonton as compared to the rest of Alberta? Any pseudo-science or denialism more prevalent in Alberta as compared to the rest of Canada?

Dude! What's with the Camrose hate? I'm going to assume someone from that lovely town left you at the altar or kicked your puppy or something.

Most Edmontonians are fairly reasonable on the pseudoscience front. As it is a conservative city, the majority don't want to spend their money on things that have no proven benefit. And it seems that there are more alt-med proponents here than in Calgary, but it still falls into pockets of hippie, more than the general population. Beyond the occasional snopes-worthy forwarded email and coworkers that swear by their chiropractors, I don't really have much to complain about. The only issue in recent memory was with a proposal to build more powerlines. There was a small outcry from people who think that they cause cancer, and I spent a few weeks forwarding links to people.

As to Alberta, only 33% of us were immunized for H1N1. And once a year or so there's a white-power rally that crops up in Calgary, but the anti-racist counter protest always outnumbers them at least 4 to 1. And we're home to "Friends of Science," the climate change denialism group. And of course Alberta is the only province with a Creationist Museum. But I remind myself that it's located a few kilometers from one of the world's largest dinosaur museums, the Royal Tyrrell. That makes me feel a bit better.

Do you own a pair of cowboy boots?

I bought a pair and didn't wear them. I kept looking down at my feet and feeling like an elf.

Your show is being picked up by a lot of other radio stations, mostly in Canada but it looks like you have a couple American broadcasters. Given your show is rebroadcast in BC and the Maritimes, you can say you're heard coast-to-coast and by an international audience. How do other stations hear about your show and acquire it? Any differences in the reactions from listeners in different parts of North America?

There is a lovely listener who volunteered to send out demos to radio stations and is our main station contact, who wants to remain anonymous. That was basically a full-time job at one point. Even when the content is something that stations would be interested in airing, audio quality that sounds fine on a podcast is nowhere near what stations require of a weekly program. Some of the stations were wonderfully supportive with providing assistance and quality-improvement strategies, so we could get the show up to their standards. And we've received fantastic feedback from the stations since then; one program manager got a job at a station in another province, and put us on his new station's schedule after he moved. There's a lot of reality-based goodwill. It's that, or they like to air shows that stir up controversy. Either way, it works for us.

I haven't noticed a significant difference in listener reactions based on province, although Americans seem to to send us more evolution-related questions or show ideas than Canadians do. Secular issues are a far bigger problem for them, even compared to Alberta. I will say it's obvious that British Columbia loves us best. 8 of our 22 rebroadcasters are in B.C., and the listener emails reflect that. B.C. also has a huge hippie population, with all the alt-health, anti-vaccination, conspiracy theory-ness that usually includes, so those prone to skepticism in B.C. are very, very supportive the show.

In my day as a campus radio DJ, we mostly spun canned shows from Radio Farabundo Marti, Voice of the Soviet Worker, and spoken word stuff by Jello Biafra. We had a free subscription to Deutsche Welle's news service but never played it. Deutsche Welle was kind enough to distribute its show on this quality German reel to reel tape that we'd bulk erase immediately and use for production work. Anyway, it was a very lefty, woo-friendly time. So it's kind of interesting to see campus/community radio is embracing a skeptical science show. Any head winds trying to do a show that might step on some of the touchy feely stuff people attracted to campus radio hold as sacrosanct?

Hm. It actually hasn't changed much from your time. To anyone who wants to do a show like this on their own community radio station, and not have it canceled, I suggest being the Vice-President of the radio station first. It helps. And then put a lot of time into helping with the station's annual fundraising campaign. It's much harder to knock a show that's bringing in money. And be unfailingly positive and friendly. It never hurts.

We haven't received any really angry emails in awhile, but the nuclear power episode was definitely not well received by some of the station's regular listeners. That was also before we started being rebroadcast widely, though, so I'm not sure how it would have been taken by the other stations. We're thinking of airing it again, because it was an important episode. We occasionally get the requisite "but science doesn't know everything" calls or emails, but they're fairly respectful, and often they have legitimate questions or want clarification. There is one guy who phones in almost every time we mention stem cells, mostly to say something about babies, but we know his phone number now.

One of the rebroadcasters in B.C. calls our show "the antidote to everything else we air," so I'm going to assume that there are more skeptics out there than we realize. And sometimes they're hiding deep in the programming departments of lefty radio stations.

- Karl

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