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One thing I learned today… the methods of Radio Lab

April 13, 2011

I’m away this week at a science literacy program for radio journalists.  So while I can’t tell you all about the latest Rhode Island news, I can give you a little window into what I’m doing over here.  Today’s highlight- Radio Lab.

If you don’t know about Radio Lab, you can read about it here.  Basically, it’s an incredibly sound rich radio show that explores interesting questions in the world of science.  That sentence doesn’t do it justice, so you should just listen to it.

Last night we had a session with Soren Wheeler, the senior producer at Radio Lab.  He gave us three lists.  The first one was related to his past life as a science educator.  He told us the main tips for teaching science to kids-

  1. Make it real- kids like to see science actually happening
  2. Make it clear- use analogies, models, representations and even “lie a little” to clarify the basics of the concepts
  3. Connect what you’ve taught to the wider world, things they already know about
  4. Model what you want them to learn in the way you act (question authority, be skeptical, curious…)
  5. Motivate- give them a reason to care.

It turns out this list has a lot in common with the goals of Radio Lab-

  1. think about your stance- be clear about the voice, approach, and attitude of your story. Let go of any sense of authority or a desire to prove how smart you are.
  2. Remember you’re talking to EVERYONE- the drunk at the end of the bar as well as the PhD student.
  3. Motivate- give people a reason to listen
  4. Give them experiences, not just sound bites.  Show something actually happening

Radio Lab does this in a few ways-

  1. Creating conversations-Radio Lab very rarely writes scripts.  Contributors usually just talk about their story on tape until it forms a narrative that works for the piece.  Of course though, there’s a lot of editing.
  2. Creating a sense of intimacy- make it feel like you’re sitting and talking with the interview subject, not just a voice that comes from nowhere.
  3. Learn in front of people- show yourself discovering how this science works.  Don’t be afraid to present yourself as not knowing much.  That way people who do “get it” feel smart and people who don’t “get it” yet can identify with you.
  4. Don’t just write a story.  Write a story “holding hands with an idea”- link it to something larger, a concept, a theory.

Ok, so that’s a lot of lists.  But the thing I came away with was Soren’s central idea- when we were kids science was an exciting discovery, very active, full of wonder.  As we age, science typically becomes more about memorizing terms and following directions and it loses that excitement.

But we still have the potential inside us to act like kids, to have a sense of wonder about the world.  And hidden inside science is the food for unlocking all of that wonder.  So there’s a lot of potential for tapping into that combination, if we do it right.

I’d argue that Radio Lab “does it right.”  But it’s not the only show that can.  Even health care reporters from Rhode Island can take a whack at tapping into that awe.  I’m looking forward to trying some new ways to do that when I get back.

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