“UNFOLD,” UC Davis’s award-winning podcast focused on groundbreaking studies and the human stories behind them, is a must-listen for anyone who appreciates illuminating conversations about scientific research. Co-hosts Amy Quinton and Marianne Russ Sharp dive deep into a variety of timely topics, from the occurrence of dementia in Vietnamese refugees to why certain songs get stuck in our heads to the effects of climate change on the world’s poorest people. Past episodes (then cohosted by Kat Kerlin) garnered two coveted Signal Awards, and with good reason. In the spirit of celebrated podcasts like “Radio Lab” and “Hidden Brain,” “Unfold” is like listening to two of your smartest friends tell you about something amazing they just learned, making you smarter in the process.
LET’S START WITH THE TITLE OF THE PODCAST, “UNFOLD.” WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THAT PARTICULAR WORD?
QUINTON: The research we do here at UC Davis is often quite complicated. We were thinking about how to tell stories that are complex: You have to break them down; you have to unfold them. So that’s how it came into existence. It’s not just about unfolding research; the stories also unfold. We try to do these podcasts in a narrative format, so it just made sense to have that title.
UC DAVIS DOES SO MUCH IMPORTANT AND INTERESTING RESEARCH. HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHAT TO COVER?
QUINTON: Typically, we do some brainstorming around our research, thinking about what’s new, what’s out there, what people need to know about. Then we also look at stories we can tell from that research so that it’s not just a talking head. We always ask: How is that research actually impacting people? Also, what makes good audio?
RUSS SHARP: I think we’re really spoiled for choice. We are both former public radio journalists, so it’s a lot like deciding what stories to cover when you’re a reporter—what’s trending, what’s leading edge. And Amy’s dead-on about the audio, because it’s great if we can have a scene that takes you there. Writing for the air is different than writing for the page. At the end of the day, I think we’re looking to tell good stories.
I IMAGINE YOUR BACKGROUND IN PUBLIC RADIO IS ESSENTIAL TO THE SHOW’S SUCCESS.
QUINTON: [“This American Life” host] Ira Glass says audio is the most visual medium. You’re not just writing something on a page: You’re creating a picture in someone’s head; you’re trying to take the listener somewhere. That is something I try to do in each and every episode.
RUSS SHARP: I think it’s also about emotion. You’re looking to move people in some way. Maybe it’s tears, maybe it’s laughter. When I’m listening to something, I want to be moved. And I want to learn something. At the end of the day, we’re hoping that people are kind of in the room with us taking part in that conversation.
QUINTON: One of our goals when making the podcast was to make sure that it was for a lay audience. We didn’t want it to just be a podcast by researchers for researchers.
RUSS SHARP: Amy is really good at looking at it very holistically. It’s not just about speaking to one researcher; it’s about looking at the human side of things and including a very full picture of the story.
QUINTON: And it’s always been important to me to make sure that we have people in the story who are affected [by the topic we’re covering]. For example, this past season where we focused on health care, we had patients in almost every episode, if not all of them.
WHAT OTHER PODCASTS DO YOU THINK DO A GREAT JOB COMMUNICATING ABOUT COMPLEX TOPICS? CAN YOU NAME ANY THAT YOU’VE DRAWN INSPIRATION FROM?
QUINTON: The podcasts I like are NPR shows, or they started that way. One I particularly like is “Hidden Brain.” It is a science podcast, but it’s so interesting because of the storytelling. I really like “Radio Lab.” Another one I really like is “Endless Thread” out of WBUR in Boston. They get their story ideas from Reddit threads.
RUSS SHARP: I have listened to “This American Life” for many years, so that’s always in the background. I have an 11-year-old, so I’m always looking for podcasts that are good to listen to together. We like “Wow in the World” and also “The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel.” I also love “Hidden Brain” and “Radio Lab,” which is a perennial favorite. I always wish that we had the production abilities of “Radio Lab.”
YOU TWO HAVE SUCH A NICE RAPPORT AND A COMFORTABLE BANTER. THE CONVERSATIONAL TONE SEEMS USEFUL WHEN INTRODUCING A COMPLEX TOPIC.
QUINTON: We’ve known each other for a very long time. Marianne was my managing editor at Capital Public Radio. We know each other’s personality, so that helps in having the conversational style. But even though we have this great back and forth, we also have to stick to a script, because otherwise how do you tell the story? So it’s a delicate balance you have to have.
RUSS SHARP: Getting the rapport down wasn’t hard work because, as Amy said, we’ve known each other for a long time. We work really well together, so it feels very natural and the work is very fun, to be honest. There’s a lot of laughter when we’re working. The recording sessions would probably go a lot faster if we didn’t know each other, but they wouldn’t sound as good.
BECAUSE YOU’RE REPORTING ON COMPLEX RESEARCH, HOW DO YOU KNOW THE RIGHT LEVEL OF COMPLEXITY TO STRIKE FOR YOUR LAY AUDIENCE?
QUINTON: I’m so lucky that I have Marianne for an editor. The editing process for audio is a little different than it is for print. I will read the script to Marianne, and if there’s something she doesn’t understand, she’ll call it out.
RUSS SHARP: I think it’s a real challenge. When you’re the one doing the reporting, you already know so much about the subject, you can’t unknow it. That’s why the editor is the listener’s advocate. And it’s why we take the editing process really seriously. If we don’t quite understand it, then there will be listeners who don’t quite understand it. The other thing is that Amy makes a real effort to let people tell the story in their own words as much as possible. I think that adds to understanding and adds to the impact of the podcast.
WE’RE LIVING IN A TIME WHEN THERE’S PUSHBACK FROM SOME QUARTERS OF SOCIETY ON THE ROLE OF EXPERTS OR EVEN THE VALUE OF A UNIVERSITY EDUCATION OR UNIVERSITY RESEARCH. THE PODCAST SQUARELY PUTS EXPERTS AND RESEARCHERS OUT IN FRONT. WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT TO UC DAVIS, ASIDE FROM GETTING THE SCHOOL’S NAME AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS OUT THERE?
QUINTON: I’ll speak for myself personally, not the university. When I think about why we are interviewing UC Davis experts, it’s that these scientists and scholars have spent their entire careers trying to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. So why wouldn’t we put them out front? We’re also a public institution, and one of our major tenets is public service in addition to teaching and research, so I think the podcast fills that role as well.