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Creating a leading podcast for Nature — Nature Editor, Brady Huggett

Exploring the journey of creating one of the first science interview podcasts — from advice for scientists trying to tell their stories, to describing what he thinks makes for a compelling interview.

By Aoi Senju in Interviews

Brady Huggett is the Business Editor at Nature Biotechnology and host of the Nature First Rounders Podcast. Prior to joining Nature in 2007, he was managing editor at the biotech daily news service BioWorld. In this interview, he explores the journey of creating one of the first science interview podcasts, he offers advice for scientists trying to tell their stories, and describes what he thinks makes for a compelling interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Aoi: Brady, do you think you can tell me a little bit about your background and how you ended up at Nature?

Brady: I studied biology at Wake Forest, and after that, I got a master's degree in journalism. This combination of an understanding of science and an ability to do journalism got me into science journalism.

My first job out of grad school was for this biotechnology publication called BioWorld. It's a daily news site. I didn't really know all that much about biotechnology. Certainly didn’t know much about biotech as a business. And I did that for about six years before leaving that job and coming to Nature Biotechnology to be an editor on what we call the “front half,” which is the news, the features, and the section “Building a Business,” which I've been running for many years now.

Aoi: I also know that you host the First Rounders podcast. How did First Rounders come about? You're now at over 60 episodes. How has it evolved over time? What are some things that you did in the first 10 episodes that you wouldn't do again?

Brady: Partly what I was hired to do at Nature Biotech was this section we call “Building a business.”

The biotech industry sprang up organically. The startup culture evolved around where scientists would take a scientific premise and start a company around it and see if that premise worked out. This culture of entrepreneurship is an oral tradition that has been handed down. Those who have done it would sometimes talk to other people about how to do it.

My job was to gather information, articles, features, and Q&As about this process. How are biotech companies founded? How did they start? How are they started by scientists? You have these people who've been educated up through a PhD level and don't know any business. They don't have any business acumen at all, but they want to start a company. How is that done?

I would go off and have interviews with people and they would tell me about their company, how they started, how they got their first round of funding, how they protected their IP, and all these other things. As I was having these interviews, I would sometimes think, “Boy, I wish that other people could hear this original interview without having to be condensed down into article form and then published online or in our print magazine.”

That was the concept. Well, if I could get these conversations that I'm having in an audio format that we could send out, that might be a thing that would work.

So we began to do that. The original idea was, “Let's talk to people about the first company they started. How did they do it?” And of course it's broadened since then, but that was it. Podcasts certainly weren’t what they are today, but they were around, and I thought, well, I could probably do this. We tried it and launched the first one back in 2013. And I've been doing it ever since.

Aoi: Do you have any practices that you have changed since starting the podcast in 2013, particularly as the podcasting space has evolved from a smaller industry to now what's incredibly competitive with thousands of podcasts out there?

Brady: I didn't know anything about the technical sides of it. The gear and everything else. We had a tiny little studio in our old office. They'd taken an old broom closet and transformed it into a studio. And we had a person in there who could run the board, who could set up the microphones and do all those things.

For the first one, I had him help me. He said, “Okay, here's the table. We're going to put a microphone here, and a microphone here. Your guests are going to be here. You're going to be here. I'll set all the dials. I'll hit record.”

I was at that person's mercy as to how the show was going to sound. And I'll never forget it. The first interview, we brought in this great guest, Henri Termeer. He was a titan in the industry. He’d been running this company for years and everybody knew him. He was a wonderful person. And he said, “Henri you are going to sit there, and Brady you’ll sit there. And Brady, you're going to say, “Hello, my name is Brady Huggett.” And you say the name of your show, and then say the name of your guests. And then I'm going to point to Henri. And then, Henri, you say your name and that you're happy to be here. And then we'll go back to Brady for a question.”

And we did that. And I hated it. I hated how stiff it was. I hated the “now you speak and now I speak” aspect of it, and it showed up on the audio. It felt uncomfortable and stiff. And I thought, I never want to do that again. And we never did one like that again. That meant that I had to learn how to do all those things myself, so that I could control the situations to do it the way that I wanted to do it.

For most of the guests, we aim to have them be scientists through a PhD level who have made the switch to industry in one form or another. They're either running companies. They founded companies. Sometimes they're financiers there. But they came from science and moved into business. That's the thread that holds the whole show together.

The key is that you almost have to act like you already know the person. That is how you settle in. You do know their background, because you've prepared yourself for this interview. But you almost have to act like you've met before. And that immediately begins to put them at ease. They understand that they're in the hands of someone who's done this before, and it's going to be an easy, comfortable conversation.

As far as prepping, I do a lot of prep before I interview people. You want to know who you're talking to. I'll do all that background and I will commit probably 30 questions that I have in mind to paper. I will put down that I want to ask about these things, usually in some order. And once I have those questions down on paper, I throw it away, and I don't look at it. I don't bring anything into the interview room or the studio. But those things are in my mind enough so that when we're talking about their education and they mention where they did their PhD, I know where that is. My mind will pull it up because I already had it on my list of questions. And that leads me through the interview.

That gives it a shape in my mind, without it being question number one, question number two, question number three. Once it's already in there, then you can guide it from the outside without it being as formulaic.

I found that works pretty well. But I will say there's a fine line with that. I did this interview with a man named Jan Vilcek. He’s a super-interesting human being. He had survived the Nazi invasion of the Slovak Republic as a boy. And then he lived through Communism coming in and taking over the Czech Republic. And he eventually defected. He got to Austria across the border and defected to the United States. He came to New York, became a great researcher, and was a huge contributor to this drug called Remicade. Massively, commercially successful. Millions of people have used this drug.

He’s got all this money and he put a hundred million dollars into NYU. He's a great philanthropist and started this thing called the Jan Vilcek Foundation, which, every year, they hand out awards to immigrants who've made contributions to America through the arts and sciences. He had this incredible life, and he'd written a memoir. And, of course, I read the memoir before I interviewed him so that I knew who I was talking to.

But in that instance, I honestly think that I knew too much about him because I realized as I was interviewing him and he would answer a question and I would say, “Well, but what about this. Because you also did this.” Or, “At that time, you'd also done this.” I thought, I'm leading him through his own life. It's never the way I want to do it. And I thought, I can't over-prepare like that again. I probably still would have read the memoir, but it hurt me in the interview because I knew too much.

Aoi: What I've learned about building relationships with people is that I need to approach people with familiarity, like what you describe about talking to people for your interviews. The best way to approach people with familiarity is, regardless of their background, regardless of how many accolades they may have, you treat them like a peer. People want to be treated like peers. People don't want to be treated like they're some zoo animal.

Perhaps one of the takeaways from this is, in the process of doing so much research, it makes it harder for you to approach an interview as this peer, and makes you more of a fan. That makes the interview a bit more awkward.

Brady: You're definitely onto something there. These people that I'm speaking with have massively successful research careers. They've also had success in business, and some of them are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more. And those things could lead you to be intimidated.

You have to throw that all away. In this room, when the two of us are talking, we're equals and we're talking as peers. If you go in thinking, “This person is somehow above me or I should feel belittled by their accomplishments,” I don't think that is going to make for a good interview. That can lead to fan-boying and that's not comfortable to listen to either.

Aoi: What do you think makes a compelling interview? Perhaps when you look back on the episodes that have performed the best, why do you think they did well?

Brady: There isn't a massive difference between downloads from one guest to another. They're all going to be in the thousands. People will find the show and then go back through the archives. And interviews that I did six, seven years ago are still getting hits today because people find them, and they like it, and they go back and listen to them all.

It might be because, honestly, we don't do six of these a week. We do 6, 7, 8, 10 a year. When they're that infrequent, each one has a little more importance.

But I remember having a guest on. The person was not a native American English speaker. He was a French speaker. Face to face, that was okay. We understood each other. But I realized, over audio, that without the face-to-face, and the hand motions, and seeing people's lips, that it had gotten hard to understand that person.

And even when I listened to it, I thought, “Oof, I'm not fully sure I understood that sentence.” That limits us somewhat to who we can have on as guests, which I hate.

The goal is always to get the guest into a place where they are comfortable, where they almost forget that there's a microphone in front of them. When you get someone in that space, where they are comfortable and they feel that they're being taken care of and they forget they're in a studio, they will say interesting things. When I finish an interview, and someone says, “I probably shouldn't have said that,” I know that I won.

The goal was to make them talk about things openly and honestly, and if they say that, I understand that we succeeded in doing that. That means I've earned their trust. And that is how you get a good interview.

The show is meant to talk about who these people are. Who are these people that are founding companies that are working on drugs that are saving lives, that are pushing the forefront of research? Who are these people? And how did they get to be that way? And what drives them?

The human element is always interesting. In anything that we do, whether it's books, movies, interactions on the street, your family, we want to get to these human elements. And that makes for a compelling interview. If we just talked about science, I don't think the show would be as popular as it is.

Aoi: What advice would you give to scientists who want to improve how they tell their story?

Brady: Talk about the things that excite you. What excites you about your research? What excites you about your company or the clinical trial that's ongoing or anything in your life? If you talk about those things, then that passion automatically comes across.

When you're excited, the listener is excited. When you're saying, “I love working on this,” and you're very passionate about it, that can't help but come through. That makes people sit up, pay attention, and get interested.

Aoi: Do you have a favorite interview question that you use frequently that I can steal?

Brady: I almost always ask at some point in the interview where that person was born. That question opens up all kinds of other things.

You would not start an interview and say, “Hey, Aoi, I was wondering, what relationship did you have with your father?” You'd be taken aback by that. And you probably wouldn't answer it. You wouldn't feel like you even should answer it. But if you begin the conversation with “Where were you born,” that might lead you to, “Well, why were you there? Did your family work in some area that brought them to that part of the country or that part of the world?”

Then you might start talking about the family and then you might start talking about the influences. “How did you get interested in science?” Then you begin to lead into the questions that you really want to get down to. “Why are you interested in science? How did you choose this life? Where did your career go from here? What schools did you decide to go to?”

But that one question “Where you were born,” which almost everybody's willing to answer, can lead you into those broader questions that are sometimes difficult to get answers to.

Aoi: Are there any skills that you're working on today or anything you're trying to improve?

Brady: One of the things I'm charged with is what's next. We should probably be doing some stuff on Clubhouse. That's a nice way to expand the audio element. We should probably be doing more on video than we do, honestly. There's going to be a learning curve there. How would you actually use video to help communicate science and communicate things that 10 years ago were only printed?

Aoi: Brady, thank you so much for your time.


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