The heat has broken in New York City, and among those breathing a sigh of relief is sociologist Eric Klinenberg. His book on the fatal Chicago heat wave of 1995 earned him huge popularity among media looking for a seasonal quote. And because so many news organizations are based in New York, this summer has been a particularly busy one for him. Klinenberg tells Bob about being the media’s hot weather go-to guy.
BOB GARFIELD: How's this for a job description? Full-time teacher, seasonal pundit. That's Eric Klinenberg, the NYU sociology professor who published a book four years ago about the Chicago heat wave of 1995 that left hundreds of that city's residents dead. Since then, whenever the mercury tops 90 or so, he becomes the talking head on heat. Last summer, we were among the news outlets that called on Klinenberg, and this year he's making the rounds again with appearances on the networks, in major metropolitan dailies and on National Public Radio – three times. Make that four.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Summer is down time for most academics, and for me it's the busiest time of year. I would say that every July I get a couple of phone calls per week from reporters doing heat wave stories, but if the heat wave hits California, Chicago or New York, then it spikes, and I'll wind up doing several per day.
BOB GARFIELD: What exactly are reporters asking you?
ERIC KLINENBERG: Actually, they ask the same questions that they asked originally four years ago when my book came out. One of the first things that happens is a reporter calls and says they want to do a heat story, and I say, you realize that what's happening this summer is not novel and that, in fact, heat waves have killed more Americans than all the other natural disasters combined for some time now. And I think they'll say, yes, of course we know that, but they're almost always startled by that news. Then they'll ask particular questions about who's at risk, what cities can do to improve their heat emergency response. So it's not that the questions aren't substantive. It's more that the questions are the same.
BOB GARFIELD: Why don't you say, you know what? – enough already – I've had it! I'm sick of saying the same thing over and over and over. Read the clips!
ERIC KLINENBERG: [LAUGHS] Maybe I should, the next time a reporter calls. But, actually, I think that one virtue of the Heat Wave Research Project is that it wound up generating findings that truly can be implemented into local or national programs and save lives. And so although it can be pretty frustrating to answer the same questions summer after summer, if there's some possibility that there are public benefits, that's a pretty exceptional thing when you spend most of your time in the ivory tower.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I guess in a perfect world, one of these stories would stimulate policymakers to start to construct public policy solutions. Is there any evidence that this journalism is triggering any such behavior?
ERIC KLINENBERG: Well, I would have said no last week, but we're talking now with me in a studio in Sacramento, California, and just minutes ago I ended testimony for this California State Senate where they are holding day-long hearings on heat waves and how the state can be more responsible at preventing damage next time around. This, in all the time I spent during research on heat waves, is the first time that I've heard about a major political body holding hearings and really pushing hard to do something better.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you have any reason to think that the publicity, as repetitive as it's been, may have been behind your appearance there at the California state capital?
ERIC KLINENBERG: Well, I'm certain of that, because I got a call from a staff member who told me that a state senator had read some quotes from mine in some newspapers in California. I did interviews with The L.A. Times and the Sacramento Bee, and I guess that's funny. It's not so much the book that got me the invitation to the public policy debate, it's the short interview I did with the newspaper reporter. I still haven't received that invitation to come speak to the city council in Chicago, and I doubt Mayor Daley's going to have me over for tea any time soon. But it would be nice to make a difference there, too.
BOB GARFIELD: Come this fall, when you walk down the halls of the sociology department at NYU, do you think the other professors are going to make faces and say, you know, there goes the media darling?
ERIC KLINENBERG: Oh, I've certainly gotten my fair share of that. It's not just at NYU, but in other places I go. I mean, it's a funny way to become the hot sociologist. Now maybe the challenge for me is to find a way to be relevant during other seasons of the year. So perhaps deep freeze is in order.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Eric, thanks for joining us.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Good talking to you.
BOB GARFIELD: Eric Klinenberg is a sociology professor at New York University and much-quoted author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.