Science on the Radio

The Need

You live somewhere in North America and are addicted to science. However, you have already perused the latest science books on Borders' bookshelves, read Edward E.O. Wilson's On Human Nature five times, and you have already watched all the re-runs of the science programs on television. Now where are you going turn to satiate your scientific interests?

Don't panic, or feel that you need to quit your job and go work in a lab. Another solution does exist . How about tuning in to the radio?

Despite some people's misperceptions, the radio airs more than just music, political talk shows, and free prize giveaways. Radio stations broadcast a number of award-winning science programs -- nationally, daily and weekly, lasting hours or minutes -- which are bound to provide you with your much-needed science fix.

Below are a few of the more well known science radio programs, but many more exist. With a little incentive and radio surfing, it is no longer difficult to find science-related stories and programs on the radio. Today, both directly and indirectly, science permeates most aspects of our lives.

More importantly, however, is that science radio programs, more than other forms of media, force you to use and expand your imagination. Unlike other media, such as television, the Internet, or magazines, science broadcast over the radio demands that you use your non-visual skills to decipher the latest scientific discoveries or processes.

Although some people worry that the lack of visual aids and diagrams found in other sources of science media may inhibit certain complex and difficult topics from being broadcast, often this limitation only makes radio science programs that much better. Producers and scriptwriters are forced to find creative ways, such as making use of auditory sounds and parodies, to make difficult scientific material "listenable."

In addition, Richard Harris, a science correspondent for National Public Radio, says science radio shows demand that the program hosts present the material as if they were having a conversation with another individual, rather than starting to write up a dissertation.

Consequently, you are bound to find that the science presented on the radio is entertaining and easy to follow, but is by no means inferior to other sources of scientific information.

General Science Fix

Quirks and Quarks Quirks and Quarks, the oldest radio science program in North America, has the potential to satisfy the science aficionado, as well as anyone interested in learning about science. According to the Quirks and Quarks Web site, the show brings its half a million listeners to "the cutting edge of science inquiry, presents the people behind the latest discoveries in the physical and natural sciences," and even examines the "political, social, environmental, and ethic [sic] implications of new developments in science and technology."

A program of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Quirks and Quarks, which has won more than 40 national and international awards for science journalism in the last 25 years, is hosted by Bob McDonald every Saturday.

McDonald, Canada's best-known science journalist, dissects the most technical scientific processes so that both he and his audience can understand the issues and processes being communicated. As Jim Handman, senior producer of Quirks and Quarks, says, McDonald is known around the studio for the phrase, "let me see if I got that right." If McDonald understands what is being discussed, he hopes that his audience will too, Handman says.

Bob McDonald, host of CBC Radio Quirks and Quarks
Photo by Renée I.A. Mercuri

Bob McDonald, host of CBC Radio Quirks and Quarks Photo by Renée I.A. Mercuri

Whether a topic is difficult or simply of human interest, Quirks and Quarks typically brings a three-part show to its listeners. The first part of the hour is usually devoted to the lead documentary - a highly-researched and produced feature often involving four weeks of preparation. The topic and scope of these documentaries alternate between down-to-earth, practical stories and fanciful ones, Handman says. Recent shows have included topics such as "The Bionic Man Revisited," "Cheating Chickadees," and the "Evolution of Modern Behavior."

If a lead documentary is not broadcast, a feature interview with or about a distinguished scientist usually marks the beginning of the show. In May 2002 alone, the show featured a tribute to Steven Jay Gould and an interview with world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall.

After the lead documentary or feature interview, McDonald picks the minds of three to four scientists. These scientists, who have recently authored papers of the most important and interesting advances in science, are interviewed live at studios around North America and the world. McDonald chooses only topics that have been peer-reviewed and published in prestigious journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association, Nature, and Science.

Quirks and Quarks not only makes science fun, accessible, and understandable to the lay audience, but it also does not "dumb down" science. "Some of the stuff that we present can be difficult to grasp and often needs concentration, but that does not make us shy away from the difficult aspects of science," Handman says.

Consequently, the tone of many shows may be "a bit cheeky and ironic," Handman says, "but the science journalism behind the fun is very serious." In a complicated story about how wasps use caterpillars to trick ant colonies, Quirks and Quarks used a soap opera theme - "As the Invertebrate World Turns" - to describe the science behind the relationship of the three invertebrates.

After the breaking news portion of Quirks and Quarks, Handman says the most important part of the show takes place: The Question of the Week. Even though the Question of the Week is only three minutes long, it is important because it connects Quirks and Quarks to its millions of listeners. Recent questions have included: "Why do you black out if you are hit hard enough?" and "Why is it that AIDS is apparently not spread by mosquitoes, as some other viruses are?"

If listeners are not satisfied with the answers to their questions, or if they just want to increase their knowledge of a subject presented on Quirks and Quarks, they can visit the show's Web site to listen to programs archived back to 1988 on Realaudio, or go to Quirks and Quarks' "hot list" of science sources on the Internet.

With these opportunities for listeners to engage in the science presented on Quirks and Quarks, no doubt exists that the show cares about its audience. "People like smart, intelligent radio without it being elitist in any way," Handman says. "We want to get across to people that they should not be intimidated by science, and it is OK if they don't understand the tough stuff."

As the Quirks and Quarks Web site states, "Quirks and Quarks is a program for people fascinated by the world above, below, and around them. And you don't need a Ph.D. to enjoy it."

Talk of the Nation: Science Friday

According to Handman, Quirks and Quarks may be the only show left in North America that reports in-depth science documentaries, but National Public Radio (NPR) still does its fair share of science reporting.

In addition to NPR's science desk, which is responsible for interspersing the latest science news within the context of NPR's larger news programs, NPR broadcasts a weekly two-hour science talk show called Science Friday.

According to the Science Friday Web site, the show focuses on "science topics that are in the news and tries to bring an educated, balanced discussion to bear on the scientific issues at hand." To call in during the show, listeners phone 1-800-989-TALK, and if they are lucky enough to get through, a panel of experts will be able to answer their questions.

Ira Flatow, the show's host and executive producer, is responsible for facilitating Science Friday's discussions between experts and listeners. Flatow, a former NPR science correspondent and award-winning radio and TV journalist, involves his listeners in "hot" discussions about the latest news in science and technology, says NPR's current science correspondent Richard Harris.

Recently, Flatow, listeners, and experts discussed AIDS and malaria, questioned Stephen Wofram about "A New Kind of Science" and heard the latest on shark attacks.

To find out the subjects of past programs, visit Science Friday's web page, but if shows are missed, visit Audible.com, an online vendor of electronic audio books, to buy the full transcripts of previous Science Friday programs.

Many listeners find it hard not to become enthusiastic and engaged in Science Friday's intellectual, yet entertaining, debates. According to the Science Friday Web page, Flatow is a "bit of a ham." He describes himself as "an educated layman with a tremendous desire to communicate enthusiasm for science and discovery."

Anyone searching for a radio program that does not just give the latest news, but relies on listener participation to make the show, should not miss tuning into Science Friday with Ira Flatow.

Scienceupdate

If you don't have time to listen to an hour (or two-hour) show, try Scienceupdate. Bob Hirshon, a science reporter for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, executively produces, edits, and hosts this 90-second program that airs on at least 120 commercial radio stations around the United States.

According to Scienceupdate's Web site, this 13-year-old program, which airs three times a week, brings its listeners "fascinating news from the world of cutting-edge science, new breakthroughs in technology and medicine, and updates on environmental destruction and emerging diseases."

Relying on reliable scientific news sources such as peer-reviewed journals, conferences, and certain press releases, each show is prepared two weeks in advance, Hirshon says. Consequently, this advance preparation, combined with the show's brevity, limits the topics that Scienceupdate can cover. Although each show discusses relevant and timely science issues, it does not usually present breaking news. "Often the topics we choose to cover are side bars on big topics," Hirshon says.

Yet the lack of breaking science news does not hinder the scope of the show or weaken Scienceupdate's credibility as a reliable source of science news and information. Rather, the two-week delay in presenting information actually strengths the show, by forcing producers to either take an alternative angle to an already old story, or present infromation nobody would see anyway, Hirshon says.

Who listens? "Our audience is not usually science hostile, but they are not necessarily science savvy," Hirshon says. Unlike public radio shows where listeners have an assumed interest in scientific information, commercial radio audiences are random people who may have happened upon Scienceupdate while driving in their cars to work, he says.

Accordingly, for a litmus test, Hirshon uses a hypothetical 7-11 convenience store cashier. "If he or she would think the topic is 'really cool,' then it could very well be a potential topic for one of our shows," he said. Some recent topics have included "Ant Civil War," "Headache Prevention," and "Anthrax Antibodies."

According to Scienceupdate's Web site, no prior knowledge of the presented subject is required. But because of time constraints, Scienceupdate is biologically oriented. "Unfortunately, having only 90 seconds per show, which translates into a 12-sentence script, we often have to leave out some of the more important and exciting topics out there," says Hirshon, "In a perfect world, we would include more physics and math."

While Scienceupdate avoids technical jargon and sticks to straight facts, the program still provides a mechanism that allows its listeners to interact. In addition to visiting the website, where e-mailed comments and suggestions are welcome, Scienceupdate's "Why is it?" airs two times a week to answer previously recorded questions. The number to call to ask a question is 1-800-WHY-IS-IT.

Based upon the number of calls and e-mails Scienceupdate receives, Hirshon recognizes that a lot of people out there are interested in both the program and science in general. Unfortunately, unlike Quirks and Quarks, Scienceupdate must rely on advertising for funding because it is a commercial radio program. "This limits the size of our staff and the audience that we can reach," Hirshon says.

Astronomical Fix

Star Date

Don't have a date with a famous scientist, or an invitation to a science conference? How about a date with the stars? At least they can't break your heart or leave you unexpectedly. Or can they? To find out, you may want to tune into Star Date, previously known as Have you seen the stars tonight?

Broadcast over 300 stations nationwide, Star Date covers any topic relating to, referring to, or concerning the astronomical sciences. Executive producer Damond Benningfield says listeners can tune in to find out anything about stars, planets, comets, or meteors, and learn about their history, location, physics, or anniversaries.

In addition, Star Date, which is funded by the McDonald Observatory of the University of Texas and the National Science Foundation, often attempts to put big astronomical discoveries and events into a present-day context, Benningfield says. "Over the years, Star Date has expanded its scope from just addressing issues involving sky watching to all science relevant to astronomy," he said.

Like many other radio science programs, people do not need a strong background in science to enjoy Star Date's programs. They do not have to be budding scientists or professionals. Listeners just need a "general interest in the things around them," Benningfield said. "Most of Star Date's success stems from people's inherent interest in astronomy-related subject matter." Recent topics have included "Sun Power," "Black Hole Accelerators," and "Summer Triangle."

Benningfield says the radio is a powerful medium for conveying astronomical information and related concepts. The radio forces people to use their imaginations. "You can ask your audience to imagine the formation of a new planet or describe the middle of a star, but you cannot physically show them this," he says.

In order to send your imagination on a space odyssey, visit Star Date's Web site. You'll find out which radio stations broadcast the show and at what time. Soon you, too, may know the answer to why certain stars have the color that they do or how to find Venus in the summer night's sky.

Earth and Sky

For Deborah Byrd, writing only about astronomical topics did not seem to satisfy her scientific interests. Consequently, she left Star Date in 1991 after writing and producing more than 5,000 programs there and partnered with Joel Block to create what would become their own award-winning show, Earth and Sky.

Millions of listeners of science daily radio series tune into this radio program, which is broadcast over 950 commercial and public radio stations throughout the United States, Canada, the South Pacific, and international networks.

According to the Earth and Sky Web site, Byrd, who writes, hosts, and produces the show, has hoped for "each individual radio show to present an accurate, entertaining, and thought-provoking look at the natural world."

Accordingly, Earth and Sky covers a variety of diversified topics that fall into six different program categories. Of the six, four are unique to the show: Established Ideas in Science; Sky, Astronomy, and Earth Science Anniversaries; Insights into the Process of Science; and Background on Environmental Issues.

"Topics for Established Ideas in Science" may discuss the earth's dynamic processes, such as the movement of tectonic plates; the earth's, air's, and ocean's chemical processes; and astronomical processes such as the evolution of stars.

"Topics for Insights into the Process of Science" may discuss the skepticism surrounding scientific evidence. "Topics for Background on Environmental Issues" provides listeners with the "tools to aid in understanding today's complex environmental issues," as described on the Web site.

To determine which topics Earth and Sky will cover on a particular day, a visit to Earth and Sky's award-winning website is a must. On one recent show Byrd and Block discussed the historic battle between scientists and the smallpox bacterium, and gave advice on how to find the North Star.

After reading the biographies of Byrd and Block on the Web site, listeners can easily decipher the passion and devotion both have for broadcasting information about the Earth and Sky. Since the pre-planning stages of the show to this present day, Earth and Sky has continued to produce high-quality, interesting science stories.

Such success stems in part from the relationship Byrd and Block have formed with each other. "Deborah and I are really comfortable with each other and with presenting science enrichment features on the radio," Block said. One only has to listen to a few shows to realize the truth behind his statement.

Social Science Fix

Pulse of the Planet

Looking to expand your interests of science even further, Pulse of the Planet provides its more than one million listeners with information about the environment, anthropology, astronomy, and a variety of social science issues.

A radio program funded mainly by the Dupont Co., as well as by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Pulse of the Planet is not a program for listeners who want to absorb information passively. It is an experience that engages all aspects of people's auditory systems. The sounds of animal calls, breaking branches, and howling wind all hold, on edge, the audience's attention.

According to the Pulse of the Planet Web site, the show produces "two-minute sound portraits of the planet Earth, tracking the rhythms of nature, culture, and science worldwide, and blending interviews and extraordinary natural sound."

Recently, Pulse of the Planet has aired pieces on wild jaguars, dung beetles, and a piece on the Rarumari people of Mexico. Broadcast over 320 public and commercial stations around the world, including Voice of America and The Armed Forces Radio network, Pulse of the Planet brings its listeners to all corners of the globe. The sound is so clear, the script's images so vivid, that listeners often feel as though they are actors within the story, not merely passive listeners.

One of the people responsible for these virtual journeys is Jim Metzner, executive producer and host of the show. According to the show's Web site, Metzner has produced more than 2,000 short-format radio programs since 1979, and in 1995 won the Grand Award at the International Radio Festival of New York.

To hear Metzner's and his colleagues' work, visit the show's Web site, which provides a listing of radio stations that broadcast the show. The website also provides devoted listeners with MP3 recordings of archived shows.

Pulse of the Planet does not end its shows with the phrase "Bringing you the miracles of science for 200 years" for nothing. Some of the show's topics will have listeners saying "wow;" others will leave them shocked. Many listeners may even gain a new appreciation for the sounds produced by the wildest creatures of nature.

Withdrawal Escaped

Once you realize the radio's potential for disseminating scientific information, the science withdrawal you previously felt will be mitigated, and most likely prevented from reoccurring.

Millions of listeners remain devoted to science radio shows day in and day out, and some producers even say the competition for listeners is fierce. I am not surprised. I have listened to each one and am always astonished at their quality. Each has found a unique way to present science in an entertaining but informative way.

In our visually dominated culture certain parts of our brain's cortex remain constantly in use while other parts receive little, if no stimulation. The radio challenges its listeners to step away from a world filled with external photographs, diagrams, and charts, and instead step into the world of the mind where they can conjure up their own images to match the radio show's scripts.

At one point in time, scientific discovery invented the radio, and paradoxically, today, the tables have turned. The radio has now become a successful means to convey scientific innovations, and if you decide to tune into one of the above programs, you might just find yourself not only nodding your head in agreement, but intellectually challenged and scientifically satiated as well.

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