Stephen J. Dubner’s “Freakonomics Radio Live!” is onstage at the Sydney Goldstein Theater on May 16. (Courtesy Audrey Bernstein)

Stephen J. Dubner brings ‘Freakonomics Radio Live!’ to The City

Podcaster revamps popular program for the stage

By Joshua Rotter

Special to S.F. Examiner

The student loan debt crisis, the ineffectiveness of rent control and the financial struggles independent musicians face in the streaming era are just some of the problems Freakonomics Radio podcast host Stephen J. Dubner grapples with. To get a better handle on these and other hot-button issues, he picks the brains of experts and insiders on his weekly interview show.

But when it came time to take his popular podcast to fans around the country with a series of live tapings, the award-winning journalist and co-author of the bestselling book, “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything,” wracked his own brain over how to make Freakonomics Radio Live! — which makes its West Coast debut in The City on Thursday — as appealing to a live audience.

“You would not want to see a typical episode of Freakonomics Radio live,” Dubner says. “It would be us sitting around for hours and hours reading, researching, interviewing and cutting a lot, so we definitely don’t want to recreate any element of that.”

So rather than risk putting the audience to sleep by digging into just one extensive topic, like the economics of bananas, for example, with interviews with a banana economist, banana scientist and banana company CEO, he’ll mix things up by chatting with four to six different guests from different disciplines.

Each will come onstage one at a time and attempt to impress Dubner, his co-host and “Grit” author Angela Duckworth, a real-time fact-checker and, most importantly, the audience, with interesting factoids they’ve uncovered in a game called “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know!”.

The winner, voted by the audience, will receive a prize.

Dubner promises to strengthen audience engagement by incorporating a fun mockumentary about the making of the weekly podcast show as well as intermittent music from the newly formed Freakonomics Radio Orchestra into the live taping.

The Freakonomics Radio podcast, now in its ninth year, grew out of the 2005 “Freakonomics” book, co-written by Dubner, then a New York Times journalist, and University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, who made a name for himself applying economic theory to a variety of subjects largely ignored by traditional economists, including sumo wrestling, drug dealing and baby names.

In the book and subsequent 2010 documentary film, Levitt and Dubner posited that economics was, at its core, the study of incentives.

But Dubner’s podcast veers outside of “traditional” Freakonomics by tackling an even broader range of subjects that are often only loosely tied to economics

It’s more about getting closer to understanding the “riddles of everyday life and the weird wrinkles of human nature” that Dubner — and hopefully his audience — are curious about at any given moment.

“We want listeners, both live and on the podcast, to come out of this as if they’ve been at the most exciting dinner party,” Dubner says, “where everything that everybody said added another fact, story or laugh to the conversation.”

IF YOU GO

Freakonomics Radio Live!

Where: Sydney Goldstein Theater, 275 Hayes St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. May 16

Tickets: $39.50

Contact: (415) 392-4400, cityboxoffice.com

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