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Infrastructure podcast built on how things work

Civil engineer Joe Schofer's long-running show a labor of love

Joe Schofer
Joe Schofer

“The economics of it are completely nuts.”

That’s how Professor Joseph Schofer describes his seven-year-old podcast, The Infrastructure Show. Schofer has taught and conducted research in civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science for more than 40 years, and in 2009, he was approached by a stranger to do a podcast.

“My first reaction was ‘ I don’t know what a podcast is. I don’t know who you are. This all seems crazy,’” Schofer said.

Schofer has worked with journalist Marion Sours, former managing editor of a Chicago engineering magazine, ever since, releasing one 15 to 20-minute podcast each month. No one gets paid for the effort — not Schofer, Sours, or the show’s guests. In fact, Sours funded the recording and produced The Infrastructure Show for the first five years, and Northwestern donors keep it going today. Schofer selects the topic for each episode, and Sours tracks down and schedules the guests. In the early years, Sours sent Schofer an Amazon gift card as a thank you for taking on this project.

“The mission of the podcast is to help people understand about infrastructure and why it’s important,” Schofer said. “I want non-infrastructure experts to find value in the podcast. I try to do stuff that’s hot, stuff that’s important to people, like the Flint water issue. I’m not going to teach you how to be an engineer or how to design a structure. I’m going talk to you about why we need infrastructure.”

I’m not going to teach you how to be an engineer or how to design a structure. I’m going talk to you about why we need infrastructure.”

Joe Schofer,
engineering professor

Schofer’s guests span multiple sectors, from law and policy experts and transportation executives to construction managers and government officials. He has also sought Northwestern’s expertise, interviewing Emeritus professors Surendra P. Shah and Elmer Lewis, civil and environmental engineering professors David Corr and Charles Dowding, and earth and planetary sciences professor Seth Stein. Before each recording, Schofer dives deep into the chosen topic, making sure to ask questions that will bring the most relevant issues into the interview. While Schofer works hard to stay on top of infrastructure news and trends, he says he still learns from his guests.

Comparing The Infrastructure Show to a dog or a baby that needs constant care and feeding, Schofer says he isn’t exactly sure why he does the podcast each month. Sometimes, he says, he wakes up in the night thinking “What the hell am I doing?” But it’s clear from talking to him that curiosity is what keeps him going.

“I like to know how things work,” he said. “It’s really important. And I feel like you should know how the world works. You don’t have to be able to design a bridge, or build it. But you should know what’s going on.”

In 2015, after six years of producing the show privately, Northwestern began hosting the show. Schofer and his co-creator Sours don’t meet face-to-face often, mainly at the December holidays. Now, since Northwestern is the producer, Schofer gives her the annual gift card.

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