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Talking Up Science With The Naked Scientists

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Posted on behalf of Alan Boyd. This post is adapted from Alan’s writing at the Medical Research Council’s Insight.

In the world of science podcasting, few shows can boast the longevity, volume and quality of content of the University of Cambridge’s Naked Scientists. Running for over 10 years, broadcasting on three continents and counting their total podcast downloads in the tens of millions, their influence can be heard in most of the current science-based podcasts, including my own work at the EUSci and GIST magazines. Recently, I was given the chance to work as an intern at the Naked Scientists, to learn about what goes into making a show.

In common with science writing, a story for a podcast or radio broadcast can start with a press release, a paper publication, a grant award or simply the seed of an idea. Some parts of the Naked Scientists audio output does not diverge too much from a short news article, though, in this case, the article is spoken aloud. The co-host format used on the show allows one host to ask questions a listener may want to ask, while the other host plays the part of “Knower of All.” If done properly, this can make for a more engaging listening experience than simply listening to an article being read aloud. It essentially is the same content but the delivery is subtly different.

Another audio format often employed by the Naked Scientists is the illustrated package, which is closest in style to a written feature. It combines scripted sections from the host, built around short segments taken from an interview with an expert contributor, often interviewed over the phone or in the field (sometimes actually in a field).

These pre-recorded audio pieces have a number of uses. Firstly, they can be used to convey a large amount of information quickly, while still retaining input directly from someone connected to the story. A 20-minute interview can often be condensed into a short script based upon it and a 30 second quote from the contributor. This conveys the main points of the story and offers a human angle to it in little more than a minute. This is taken to its natural extreme with the Naked Scientists NewsFLASH, which aims to cover four news stories in less than four and a half minutes!

At its most complex, the illustrated package can include multiple contributors, several related themes, sound effects and audio techniques.  The hearing-aid piece used in my show on the science of hearing was an example of this. During the piece, in addition to an interview with an expert contributor, a hearing-aid user also briefly described what it was like to use a hearing aid and audio examples were used to illustrate key ideas. Due to its complexity, the work for those 5 minutes 46 seconds of audio took a total of 10 days.

The previous formats can be combined with live interviews to form a live radio broadcast. The planning and effort that goes into an hour of radio is comparable to producing a magazine, with the unknown additions of contributor nerves, listeners’ questions, technical glitches and of course, your mistakes being instantly broadcast to thousands of listeners. The final script and running order for a show are often written just hours before going on-air and segment timings can be measured in seconds. For someone like myself, who is more accustomed to the relaxed atmosphere of a podcast recording, it was an extremely taxing experience, more enjoyable upon reflection than during the actual broadcast.

Finally, the Naked Scientists has the live interview, a format with no analog in written media, for obvious reasons (though live blogging comes close). Preparation for a live interview always involves a discussion prior to broadcast, covering what the interviewee would and more importantly, would not be comfortable talking about. The major challenges come with the spontaneity and time constraints of the format. The interviewer must rapidly build a rapport and successfully guide the interviewee through the main points without a script, without asking too many leading questions and without interrupting. All this usually needs to happen within seven minutes. Wrap it up in less than seven minutes and you’re left with the dreaded “dead air.”

This may all seem more stressful than it’s worth, but when it is done well, a live interview produces brilliant moments that help to break down the barriers between the interviewee and her subject-matter, and the listener.

Podcasting is a lot of work but in many ways, it allows listeners to directly connect with scientists and researchers, something which is perhaps more difficult to achieve in print. Listening to scientists and researchers talk about their research adds credibility which makes listeners more accepting of the science presented. And with the Naked Scientists different packages, listeners are also having a blast.

UPDATE (November 2, 08:51 EDT): Added various links.

Khalil A. Cassimally About the Author: Khalil A. Cassimally is the Community Coordinator of The Conversation UK. He's also a science blogger. He hails from a tropical island and is a happy geek. Subscribe to his updates on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @notscientific.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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