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Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur founded an online empire worth millions on the heels of a campus magazine. Their project boiled down the interesting wormholes of college lectures, offered a curious and fun dorm-room tone, and eventually the duo realized that this approach would make for killer audio.
Seventeen years after launching Mental Floss out of a Duke University dorm room, they’ve joined up with the crew at HowStuffWorks to launch a podcast. With a nod toward those transcendent, stoned conversations you used to have, and a sincere love of nerdy knowledge, the hosts are naturals.
Part-Time Genius, launched this month, offers the weird thoughts and analysis that made Mental Floss successful, and does so in a format that feels natural and fun in your ears. Listening to the longtime friends discuss why Ayn Rand is a political rockstar or how tax havens became a thing is like hearing your dorm neighbors chat, laugh, and argue through the wall.
“Those conversations at night were just so much fun—they weren’t pretentious, they were just super interesting,” Hattikudur tells the Daily Dot. “You’d have someone who’s an economics major relaying the most fascinating topics about why econ is interesting, why beer was sold in six packs, or why Miller Lite is actually a really interesting craft brew.”
Apparently beer was sold in six packs because it was the perfect weight for women to carry.
The podcast works as a standalone experience, lacking a throughline between episodes. I was fascinated by studies on how humans can feed 10 billion people or how to live without sleep; I wasted my time while listening to Pearson and Hattikudur discuss the ultimate superhero animal—which is the point.
Pearson says that just like with Mental Floss, they’re building a database of episodes that listeners can scroll through years from now, cherry-picking interesting topics.
“I love the idea of being able to create a show where something that the guys did for Stuff You Should Know five years ago is still being discovered today,” says Pearson, referring to another HowStuffWorks podcast. “And that was really appealing to us for being able to create this really fun archive that people could dig into once they discovered a show.”
Other show topics include: the enduring survival of rats, how boy scouts conquered the U.S., degrees of cleanliness, and a deep dive into what the most American place in the country actually is. At its best, the series takes topics you’ve never considered and makes them into essential and engaging lectures.
Pearson and Hattikudur likewise deliver strong guest experts, many of whom are alumni of Mental Floss. It’s a who’s who of internet culture: guests include YouTube sensation Simone Giertz, Saturday Night Live’s Streeter Seidell, and best-selling author John Green. In each episode, guests compete for the coveted Part-Time Genius award: a handwritten note of praise from the hosts addressed to the winner’s mom or boss.
In addition to these guest stars, the show also spotlights fans who have day jobs tangentially related to the topic du jour, say Zumba instructors or architects, who come on to ask trivia questions. This segment can be inane, but I appreciate that it brings the listener back from an encyclopedic journey to a fun, informal aside.
How Stuff Works is a network consistently ranking in the top five of overall podcast listener metrics, and is pushing for more podcast market dominance. In addition to bringing on Pearson and Hattikudur, it’s recently also hired the founder of Cracked.com, Jack O’Brien, who will be launching HowStuffWork’s first West Coast Studios and spearheading the network’s expansion into comedy.
The launch of Part-Time Genius marks the 14th podcast series in the HowStuffWorks network, which was founded nearly 20 years ago in 1998. The podcast joins the ranks of notable shows like Stuff You Should Know, Stuff Mom Never Told You, and Stuff You Missed in History Class. This spring HowStuffWorks debuted FoodStuff and released the second season of The Stuff of Life—the company says it’s reaching nearly 30 million unique visitors a month.
“We joined HowStuffWorks as well because of their plans for the future,” Pearson says. “The company will be launching additional shows and the opportunity to play a role in how those take shape and how those launch will be a lot of fun as well… I think you’ll see over the next six-to-12 months.”
HowStuffWorks is a quirky network for the nerdiest of nerds, and Part-Time Genius fits right in.