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Radio Lab. Making science fun and geeks sexy

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I hate to say it, but in my career in the media one disappointing fact I have become aware of is that while science is important the science world's terrible at selling itself and the achievements of its members.

From day one, be it at university, or on the job, reporters learn that at its essence when you tell a story, you answer six questions; who, what, why, when, where and how. Depending on the story one of those will be more important than the rest, but none are ignored.

But scientists seem to work hard at ignoring this when called on to communicate with the wider world. Iím sure when theyíre in a room talking to each other what they say makes perfect sense. But when you try and take what they doing, and turn it into a digestible news story your head can feel like itís about to explode.

Then when youíve got your story out, often having to guess and use deduction to make sense of the gobbledygook, the scientist has shared with you, youíre, inevitably, in trouble for getting it wrong. Mostly the end result of this is that you as a journalist start going out of your way to avoid science stories, unless itís something you cant ignore, or it's easy enough to understand, and the tragedy is that more often than not that story's one about a miracle cure or the latest fad diet yarn, the staple of commercial TV news, infomercials, breakfast television and glossy women's mags.

Meanwhile I'm sure the scientist is talking to other scientists, bitching about the state of the media and the caliber of journalists, no doubt agreeing they should only talk to those Specialist science reporters who are part of their world, working for publications and news services which speak the same unintelligible language its target audience does. It's something science reporters have in common with those who dedicate their lives to reporting on cricket, and take my word for it, they're just as eccentric as each other.

There are some notable exceptions. For many years Robin Williams has dedicated himself to sharing whatís happening in that world on Radio National's Science Show, and Iím sure that around the world there are other examples. But none matches the global phenomenon that is Radiolab.

Once again itís a program which comes courtesy of National Public Radio in the USA, produced from its member station WNYC, with its driving force the hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich.

What they've achieved is to make science sexy. It uses language you don't need a Phd to understand, it identifies the link between why a scientific achievement is something you should be interested in, how something works, when it was discovered, who discovered it, where it happened and what's next. Every one of the questions you're expected to answer done so in a way that makes you want to hear more, not scratch your head in bewilderment, or even worse, turn your podcast off and tune in to footy talkback on Boofhead FM.

If you want an example download the latest episode Juicervose, which tells the story of how a family learnt how to communicate with a son diagnosed with autism. Not only do we learn about the condition, and how that a family deals and lives with it, but we get to know about them as people. It's the same for the scientists and doctors. They have expertise in this area, but after listening you learn the close and personal reason why they've taken their career down this path.

Radiolab's brief is broad. A few years ago it devoted a complete episode to the War of Worlds. Not the book, but the 1930's radio broadcast by Orson Welles, which was realistic enough to send large parts of America into a dizzy panic over the threat of an invasion from Mars. And here's a hint. If you've heard about the Welles' broadcast you most likely think the idea was an original one? Think again. And if you also believe you could only get away with it once, listen to this episode and learn something new.

It's fair to say most Radiolab episodes have a human angle, the affect of science on people and communities. It's understandable though. It's a program produced for a wide and varied audience, and when you want to keep people coming back or downloading, it has to ensure its presenting something people can relate to hear.

That in itself's led to criticism from media outlets like the BBC, that the show's of negligent value. In the view of some it focus is "sexy" science, stories that are easy to tell, while ignoring more "difficult" concepts. Also that it continually turns to the same members of the science community for opinion, views and stories.

My personal view is that's a crap argument. If you want the media, to take notice of you and your story, then think about how you tell it. Don't blame media for ignoring you, if you aren't prepared to make an effort. As for returning to the same talent. It's not an unfair claim, but as I've pointed out, clear, lucid, entertaining and engaging speakers, and the science world, can at times be mutually exclusive. Also, if you can attract regular science talent as good as Oliver Sacks MD, why wouldn't you?

The annual episode run of Radiolab's relatively short, some year's it's just seven or eight episodes per season. But throughout the year a number of short programs, 10 to 15 minutes in duration, are also aired. Short or long though it's worth checking out.

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