Fall 2002

Radio’s Relentless Pace Dictates Different Coverage

‘The doing of science is rich territory for radio, since it’s full of sound, if not fury.’

By Christopher Joyce

“The universe is flat so that the total density of the universe throughout is equal to the critical density.” Hmmm. Maybe this needs some more explaining. Try reading the following paragraph, carefully, so that you understand it.

“If the composition of the universe consists only of matter and no other forms of energy, then there is a density known as the critical density which divides an open universe which is forever expanding from a closed universe which expands to a point, then eventually contracts due to the self-gravity of the matter contained within it, and the in-between position between open and closed is, as I say, a universe with a critical density, is what is called a flat universe.”

Get it now?

Did anyone read back over a sentence or two? Well, you cheated. In radio, you can’t do that. A radio story is a train that doesn’t stop. You get on at the beginning. If you get off, wave goodbye—you don’t get back on again.

The speaker above was a physicist explaining a hypothesis about the cyclical expansion and contraction of the universe. To be fair, I should note that after about 15 minutes of this, the physicist did manage to get the National Public Radio reporter interviewing him to understand what he was talking about. But the passage above got left on the cutting room floor (actually the digital recycle bin, but newsroom clichés die hard). In fact, most of the interview never made it to air. The reporter had to script the difficult concepts in language the listener could understand and use whatever intelligible tape he could salvage from the interview to a.) add insight or offer analogy and b.) show the listener that the reporter did actually interview the scientist whose work was becoming news.

Herein lies one of the difficulties of writing about science on the radio. Radio is the most ephemeral form of mass media. Once the story starts, it unrolls without pause. It waits for no person, cosmologists included.

In print (the domain where I learned journalism), the words stay put on the page. The reader can go back and reread, if confused. The rest of the article will wait. Although television shares radio’s linear inexorability, there are images to focus the mind and flesh out ideas. After the narrator’s words have fled, the associated image might remain on the screen, allowing the viewer to chew over the idea being presented at least for a few extra moments. In these venues, there is a more deliberate pace: The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.

Moreover, the newspaper or magazine reader has made a commitment. Often, money has been paid for the privilege of reading this page full of print, which fills the reader’s field of vision and does a fairly good job of blotting out distractions. Likewise, the television screen glues the eye and mind to that square box of moving images. If you don’t think it commands attention, try interrupting a 10-year-old watching a favorite Saturday morning cartoon.

Radio, however, is fraught with competition. Its strength—that one can do other things while listening—is also its greatest peril. The baby needs changing. The kettle is boiling. That garbage truck on the right is making a dangerously wide turn. Miss 10 seconds and you’ve lost the thread.

A radio journalist is Scheherazade, risking her head should the king yawn and change the station. This relentless forward motion is particularly hard on science stories, where complicated concepts and unfamiliar terminology abound. Science calls out for background information. A story about education reform or a coal mine rescue doesn’t require anyone to understand neurochemistry or plate tectonics. But science journalists do report on those subjects, and that often requires a “pocket tutorial”—the one- or two-sentence explanation of that basic principle of biology or physics that the consumer needs first to understand the news in this particular science story.

That’s fine for print. But radio eschews stops and starts, parentheticals, dependent clauses. The well-turned radio story is like the chassis of a sleek sports car: no gewgaws and curlicues. Simple declarative sentences. To the point. Punchy.

This is doable. But the price is paid in lost detail. I spoke at a seminar for biologists and environmental scientists who complained that the press in general and broadcast media in particular don’t report the nuances of their work. I played a tape of the interview with the physicist, and I think some of them understood why we sometimes gloss. And some did not, because scientists live in a world where every point and counterpoint must be discussed. When they write scientific papers, they are like chess players in mid-game: Each move is a potential mistake that could expose an error—and their egos—to competitors, who will gleefully pounce on them. So no detail of method, no citation of previous work goes unmen-tioned: “Picking the fly shit out of the pepper,” as one seasoned science journalist once described it.

No journalist can or should match that attention to scientific detail. Remember, we’re trying to get people to put down People magazine and pay attention to us, instead. And that goes double for the tumbling tumbleweeds that are radio stories.

Even with all of these difficulties, I would never go back to print. For every scientific detail I must leave by the wayside, there is a joy that’s unique to radio—the human voice, for example. Since Homo sapiens invented language, we have learned about life from listening to stories told by the human voice. Since we were babies, we have listened to stories: ontogeny recapitulates phy-logeny, story-wise. And in radio, we have the voices of the experts, the scientists themselves, to convince our listeners of the truth behind the stories we tell.

The medium is also wonderful in presenting the way science is done. The process of science can be fascinating, and it humanizes scientists, yet it’s often ignored by science writers intent on reporting only the results of research. The doing of science is rich territory for radio, since it’s full of sound, if not fury. Pick the scientist to match the sound: boot-sucking mud, wind tunnels, birdcalls, scuba tanks, telescope gears, even gene-sequencing machines. (If someone figures out what kind of sound mathematicians make, please call.)

So how does one adjust to write science for radio? Well, the first thing is to write short, declarative sentences with active verbs. When you interview scientists, realize that you don’t have to “dumb down” the concept. Complicated and abstract ideas are fine; just eliminate complicated and abstract language. Embrace analogy. Eschew jargon and long-winded explanations. Remember that if the listener pushes the “pause” button in her head to figure out what you or your source really meant, she’s stopped listening to the story.

Here’s an excerpt from a story by National Public Radio science reporter David Kestenbaum. He tackled a tough idea: why scientists say the universe is flat.

Kestenbaum: “Now for those of us reared in three dimensions, curved space is impossible to visualize. So pretend the universe is two-dimensional, like a piece of paper. If the paper is curved into a ball, like the surface of the Earth, then two people walking north and parallel would meet at the North Pole. Alternately, the universe could be bent like a Pringles potato chip. Then parallel lines would move away from each other. But the universe appears to be flat, like a table-top, so parallel lines go on and on and on. Such geometrical perfection is odd, says Caltech physicist Andrew Lang.”

Lang: “The flat geometry is unstable, and so for it to be still flat after over 10 billion years of evolution tells us that in the very, very early universe, something must have driven it—must have driven the geometry of space to be precisely flat.”

Kestenbaum: “Fortunately, science has an answer, an idea called inflation, the invention not of Alan Greenspan, but of Alan Guth, a physicist at MIT.”

Guth: “Inflation really gives us a description of the driving force behind the big bang itself. And the key feature that’s responsible for the flatness is simply the fact that inflation does what the name suggests. It causes the universe to expand by an unbelievably large factor. And when you take something that’s curved, say a tennis ball, and you imagine expanding it to something, say, the size of the Earth, it looks flat, the surface of the Earth looks flat to us.”

Kestenbaum: “Guth’s basic theory is gospel these days, so most physicists are more relieved than surprised when they see data suggesting a flat universe.”

A creditable job, made far more accessible than it might have been by the clever use of analogy and, most important, visual images. Remember, radio is actually a visual medium. If the reporter can create a little movie in the listener’s head, then the two of them have formed a willing—and hopefully happy—collaboration.

Christopher Joyce reports on science for National Public Radio. He spent 10 years as the U.S. correspondent and then U.S. editor of the British weekly magazine, New Scientist.


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