Paul Fidalgo and Point of Inquiry: Part of a Legacy

Written by Morgan DeLisle

Insider secret: most of these articles have the same kind of narrative arc. It goes something like: a person exists in some state of discontent, they find podcasts, they start a podcast, the podcast struggles, then the podcast becomes a success and we revel in its glory. Not a bad story, and there’s infinite room for variation in it. Plus we get to learn from people who have mastered their craft and hear their varying perspective on the journey, which is great. Also, a set arc makes it easy for me to structure my articles. When I interviewed Paul Fidalgo, I was robbed of that comfort.

See Paul is the former host of Point of Inquiry, but he didn’t start that show and it has continued on without him. I’d never talked to someone with that story and, while I do miss my typical arc, I think you’ll really enjoy this one.

A Change in Course

If you read Paul Fidalgo’s “about” page on the Center for Inquiry site, you’ll immediately notice that he’s got a lot going on. If you move beyond the education and work experience that clearly qualify him for his role as Communications Director for the Center, you’ll find this: “Paul is also an actor and musician whose work includes five years performing with the American Shakespeare Center, and he currently directs productions for the University of New England Players.” How did someone with such a profound love of theatre come to work for a Center whose mission is “to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values”?

The two aren’t antithetical, just very different, so I asked how that shift came about. Paul explained: “I used to be a professional stage actor. I was doing a lot of Shakespeare, stuff like that, and I decided I wanted to move into something more related to politics, policy, and advocacy.” The decision was driven by Paul’s view that he “could make more of a difference, being good in the world, if [he] started steering [his] skills and talents in that direction.” At the time Paul was beginning to believe that working as an actor wasn’t having the level of impact he wanted. Paul was quick to tell me that he no longer ascribes to that logic, saying that he “thinks that the good that can be done through the arts is immeasurable” even if it doesn’t necessarily appear in legislation.

But that’s what was running through his mind when, driven by a desire to see good done in the world, Paul decided to change careers. He went to school and got a Masters degree in political management from George Washington University and began to work for different advocacy groups and organizations. At the same time, Paul came across a podcast called Point of Inquiry: “It was exactly the kind of content that I didn’t know existed and had hoped existed because I was getting into, and didn’t realize I was getting into, the skeptics movement.” Paul had no idea that there was an organization that was founded on “critical thinking and addressing specific claims of the paranormal and religious,” but Point of Inquiry was put out by exactly that kind of organization: the Center for Inquiry.

Paul listened to the show “religiously” (excuse the pun) and “was introduced to a lot of figures [he] had never heard of.” He was later officially brought into the wider movement of secularism while he worked at the Secular Coalition for America. After a few years, a position opened up at the Center for Inquiry and, when he was chosen as Communications Director, Paul finally got the chance to work with the people he had admired for so long. Being part of the organization was awesome, but a real dream came true when Paul became the host of Point of Inquiry a few years later.

The Show

It may not be quite clear yet, so let me explain a bit what Point of Inquiry is. Or, let me tell you how Paul explained it: “It is a long-form interview podcast that centers on topics relating to science, religion, politics, philosophy, and media. It tackles some of the bigger questions that are some of the more hot-button topics of today with a focus on things that the Center for Inquiry works on.” Okay, so what does Center for Inquiry work on? Who are they? The website defines Center for Inquiry as “a charitable nonprofit organization dedicated to defending science and critical thinking in examining religion. CFI’s vision is a world in which evidence, science, and compassion—rather than superstition, pseudoscience, or prejudice—guide public policy.”

When I talked to Paul he went a bit further, explaining that “it’s not about just saying ‘these people who say these things are wrong,’ it’s about saying ‘there’s a claim out there, let’s go check it out.’” The Center for Inquiry actually has several outlets through which they “check out” claims. The Center puts out two magazines: Free Inquiry which focuses on religious and philosophical claims, and Skeptical Inquirer which looks into the paranormal, alternative medicine and pseudoscience claims.

Point of Inquiry is the middle ground of the Center for Inquiry’s outlets by discussing topics from each of the above categories but not in researched articles. Instead, Point of Inquiry investigates claims via in-depth interviews with experts in a plethora of fields, including but not limited to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Greene, Susan Jacoby, Richard Dawkins, Ann Druyan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Eugenie Scott, Adam Savage, Bill Nye, Howard Fineman, Sam Harris, and Francis Collins. Paul explained that all of those huge names come together on the show and center on “the importance of truth, facts, critical thinking, and the value of those things to society at large.”

The only thing that may be cooler than the stars and geniuses that make up Point of Inquiry’s guest lineup is the way the show is passed down from host to host without losing the essence of the show.

Building a Legacy

The Center for Inquiry decided to make its podcast in 2005. If you know much about the history of podcasts, you know that in 2005 there weren’t a ton of podcasts and the ones that existed weren’t quite the quality we’ve become so accustomed to fourteen years later. Paul explained that many podcasts at the time were the equivalent of “someone turning on their microphone and yammering into a recording and whatever they put out they put out.” Of course, there were varying levels of quality with some podcasts being made by professional audio companies, but many were less than stellar. From the beginning, the Center knew they wanted a podcast on the high end of the spectrum. “CFI chose to go about it treating it like it was a full-scale radio show with production, music, actual research, and such. It was treated very seriously,” Paul told me. An excellent show revolves around engaging hosts and Point of Inquiry has certainly had a lot of those.

When I interviewed Paul, he was quick to explain that he is no longer the host of Point of Inquiry. In the last few months he stepped down, citing a lack of time with all of his other responsibilities at the Center. Because I mostly interview shows that have a single founder and a single host (usually rolled into one), I was curious about how Point of Inquiry kept their listener base as they handed the show off to new hosts.

Paul told me that “the show has remained remarkably consistent. It started very strong and had a very good foundation.” He explained that, while the show sticks to its purpose no matter the host and guests, that doesn’t mean the show fails to reflect the hosts. At times hosts have been outgoing and humorous or serious and academic and every point in between, but each of them held on to the format and goal of Point of Inquiry. Listeners may connect more to one host or the other, but if they love asking questions and critical thinking, the show will appeal to them no matter what.

Moving Forward

Knowing that Paul no longer hosts Point of Inquiry, I was curious as to what he was looking forward to as a fan of the show and as an employee of the Center. He didn’t even hesitate to point at the show’s new hosts. “Kavin Senapathy is a good friend of mine. She is a journalist and a pro-science advocate… she’s charming as all get out and wicked smart.” Paul went on to say that “James Underdown has been part of CFI for a long time. He heads the Las Angeles branch and our independent investigations group… he’s really good behind a microphone and he’s really funny.” The duo will trade off episodes for Point of Inquiry and bring a new and exciting point of view to fresh topics.

So, if you love investigations, critical thinking, seeking truth, science, or any of the other dozen things Point of Inquiry dives into, it’s time to give it a listen and leave a rating and review to let the hosts know what you think!

Behind the Streams is a new series by Podchaser that explores popular podcasts and the brilliant minds behind them. Email Morgan (morgan@podchaser.com) to tell her why your favorite show should be featured next.