NPR Tech Host Manoush Zomorodi Taps Her Podcast Listeners in Research

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Manoush Zomorodi has an unerring way to remember the exact point where technology and our relationship to it all changed. "I like to say that my son and the iPhone were born three weeks apart," she explained during a recent interview with MediaVillage.

That was in 2007. At the time Zomorodi, today a tech journalist at NPR who hosts its TED Radio Hour, was not exactly an early adopter.

"Those first couple of years, I still had a flip phone," she recalled. "I felt really disconnected as a new mother, pushing around a stroller on maternity leave." When she did get an iPhone, "I suddenly was like, 'Whoa! I can take work calls and check my e-mail at the playground!' I had the ability to be in two places at once. It blew my mind!"

Zomorodi continued to marvel at such advances as she began reporting more about technology and business at WNYC public radio, after stints at the BBC and Reuters. Her reporting on NPR led to podcasts like Note to Self and a new podcast this fall specifically addressing the physical effects of technology, Body Electric.

During this era of tech reporting, she said, "I think a lot of people were more interested in upgrades and downloads and new gadgets. But this idea that it was shaping us in a sociological, psychological, physiological way … was not mainstream yet."

Zomorodi dove into this fresh field by creating large, crowd-sourced experiments with her growing public radio audience.

The first was called "Bored and Brilliant," with WYNC, which she said dated back to those pre-iPhone days pushing her stroller idly and "being incredibly bored, and then missing that boredom, because I had my smartphone. Every time I got bored, I could check Twitter, I could check the weather or e-mail or social media."

She wondered if losing that boredom could mean missing the kind of creativity that comes from such a state. She spoke to cognitive psychologists and neurologists and did her own research with listener volunteers.

"At the time, phones did not track your time, so we partnered with an app to get people to track their phone time," Zomorodi said. "We had daily challenges: Today don't take any photos."

It was a way to explore how taking photos affects the memory or changes one's experience of something.

"We did those for an entire week, and it was great," she exclaimed. "We had 20,000 people sign up, which was amazing. I ended up writing a book on our findings." The resulting Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Creative Self (2017, St. Martin's Press) began being cited in serious research and led to further audio experiments.

"We did one about information overload and how we process information and how we can make better use of the information that we take in all day long," Zomorodi noted. "We had 30,000 people sign up for that, which is awesome."

The Privacy Paradox in 2017 was a third experiment, conducted at a time "when people were starting to understand how much of their personal information was being hoovered up by all these companies and used to target them," she said. "We had 40,000 people sign up for that."

It underscored the degree to which people were interested in how their daily lives were being shaped by technology. But, Zomorodi added, "They don't want to necessarily read medical or scientific papers. They want to make it fun and interesting and interactive."

Podcasting, which has already been very influential in changing the approach of public radio through the use of a more casual, natural way of speaking rather than what Zomorodi calls "the booming, broadcasting voice," is a good way to draw people to participate.

"I think people want to have a trusted friend in their ear and on the radio, and podcasting ushered in that new desire," she asserted. "Podcasts as a research tool, I think, are underrated."

Podcasts are known to foster an unusual intimacy between the host and listener. "But it can be used to improve society in ways, too," she added.

As with other podcasts, her results will be shared with listeners on NPR, where her TED Radio Hour is carried on 500 stations and further enhances her approach. On it, she said, "I get to talk to the smartest people in the world all the time, and that's incredible."

It's part of a family of titles that have helped make NPR a leader in the competitive world of podcasting -- currently ranking third in the Podtrac industry tracker ranking publishers on U.S. audience size despite having far fewer titles -- 49.

What sets NPR apart from other creators, Zomorodi believes, is quality. "There's a level of standard that I think people expect from NPR," she concluded. "The only way you can do that is to be laser-focused on high production quality and hardcore journalism."

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