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The South African economy in one minute
How The Economics Minute podcast started
I vividly remember a presentation I had given in 2013. Titled ‘Chalk Dust to Star Dust: How Social Media Can Benefit Your Research’, the talk left colleagues who had attended the seminar at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Economics dumbfounded. They had no idea what I was on about. Tracking down that presentation took me down memory lane; I recall the frequent posts on the ‘econoblogosphere’ and my concerns that publishing and perishing was not all academe should be about. The clicks down memory lane – on my now defunct Blogspot site! – had me thinking back fondly to Johan’s 2014 clickbait post (now resurrected on Substack) that got both of us a mention by Justin Wolfers on Twitter (as it was known then). Those were the days!
I’m not a blogger anymore. I started The Economics Minute podcast during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. When I locked my office the day before the lockdown, I had no idea that I would be losing my real-life class interactions with Economics students for the best part of 18 months. I love teaching. We did make videos and had Zoom classes, of course, but I had time and much more to say. The inspiration for making a podcast, instead of returning to blogging, came from a bunch of young guys at church who successfully used the medium to engage new audiences. With a few pointers from them, I was able to get going. I started only in Afrikaans and later added the English version of the daily episode.
From the beginning, the essence of the podcast lay in its concise format. Although called ‘The Minute’, each episode typically runs close to two minutes but rarely exceeds that. The aim is to deliver insights from the world of economics as though you're receiving a brief voice message.
I aim to make economic news easy to understand and relevant for everyone. South Africa has major economic issues, but many people don’t know much about economics. For example, newspapers often use shortcuts to explain how exchange rates work. I try to clarify ideas like why our currency’s value is what it is, according to different measures like the Big Mac Index. I also explain more complex ideas that affect exchange rates, like sovereign risk and the policy spread. Another topic I frequently cover is changes in job numbers. Sometimes, data shows both more jobs created and more unemployed people. I take a moment to explain how that’s possible. My main focus is breaking down economic news and trends rather than giving stock market updates.
The key input into the production process is the daily newspapers. I also follow several blogs and keep an eye on what used to be called #EconTwitter. I also receive reports from research organisations like the Bureau of Economic Research and Codera. Occasionally, I come across an academic paper that takes the listener beyond what is in the news that week. I usually draft the text in Afrikaans and then Google Translate to English. I record simply on my phone. The podcast is hosted by Anchor and gets distributed through Spotify and all the other big platforms. (Waldo’s podcast arrives most mornings on my phone when my wife and I drive to work. When our Garmin watches simultaneously vibrate, we know The Economics Minute has arrived - Ed.) I also send every episode to a WhatsApp group and publish the text on a blog that pushes through to LinkedIn.
To my mind, the podcast’s success is due to the short audio format that has opened the door to more radio exposure. Sometimes, the podcast is the lead for an interview, but often, community radio stations use the audio clip as is.
I realise this form of the public intellectual role is not for all professors. A daily episode can be quite a commitment. In my case, it has almost certainly crowded out more serious research, but I have to admit that I enjoy my work a lot more. The podcast has expanded my network in the real world and enriched my teaching.
My advice to would-be podcasters: If you want to pursue the stardust, do it. These days, barriers to making a podcast, writing a blog or newsletter or making talking head videos for YouTube are low, and there is an audience for everyone. Do not mind the clicks or plays too much, and certainly don’t quit your day job.
But if you care about helping people understand topics like economics, doing something like a podcast can make a real difference. Probably the best example is the recent twentieth anniversary of the Marginal Revolution blog, in which they discuss the impact they have had. Their tagline reads: Small steps to a much better world. There are many wonderful economics postdocs nowadays, from Tyler Cowen’s own Conversations with Tyler, to Freakonomics, to Russ Roberts’ EconTalk. I believe that sharing research in simple ways can help people get smarter about money, jobs, and how the country works. The real win is helping people understand things better. And having fun doing so.
Sign up for Waldo’s The Economics Minute. ‘The South African economy in one minute’ was first published on Our Long Walk. Support more such writing by signing up for a paid subscription. The image was created with Midjourney v5.2.