Access: Sharing difficult, personal, real-life stories on radio

April 14, 2013 - Leave a Response


Michelle Obama gave an emotional speech in Chicago this week about kids and gun deaths. Afterwards, she went on to visit a school called Harper High in Englewood – one of the city’s most dangerous neighbourhoods. Here, she reportedly spent two hours in private, speaking with and listening to students at the school.


The school also featured in a two recent episodes of This American Life. Three Harper students died in gang-related gun violence during the 2011-12 school year; 5 recent school leavers were also killed; and a further 21 kids were wounded by gunshots. In short, as the police officer assigned to Harper puts it, “…this ain’t no fairy tale”.


From the start of this academic year, three TAL reporters (Linda Lutton, Alex Kotlowitz, Ben Calhoun) spent a semester at the school to share what life is like for the kids and staff working there. Hearing the stories that this kind of access revealed is a privilege. As someone who’s worked with teenagers in schools, albeit in the UK not in the US, I know how important safeguarding is. But, done carefully, as TAL and Harper demonstrate, radio can share difficult, personal stories that have real impact on the listener.


Speech radio is by its nature a personal medium – the “friend in your ear”. And its creation is relatively personal too. This is especially the case if you are a reporter-producer on location, as it’s usually just you and the interviewee in a room. You’re also the one who’s approached that individual for interview and built a relationship with them. By contrast, the other broadcast medium – TV – is likely to require a bigger crew. This means more people in the room; more people to build trust between – entirely possible, as reels of great documentary television evidence, but something that often takes more time, which is not always available.


Radio recording is probably also less invasive in terms of kit. There will be microphone/s, and a recorder, often hand held, but that’s usually about it. Time-consuming establishing shots are not required; a hand-held recorder left on (of course with everyone’s awareness) as you walk & talk between interview locations will often do the job. Soundscapes and tone of voice reveal perhaps a surprising amount about a situation, despite the lack of visuals.


For example, several times in the programmes, we hear reporter Linda Lutton putting questions directly to the students at Harper. I think the language and she uses with the teenagers is closer to the kids’ natural use – the words are less formal; the tone more direct and less emphatic than the voice she uses in her recorded links in the same shows. She’s bridging the gap – relating to both the pupils and the audience to tell the story. The speedy and abstract nature of radio allows her to narrate these conversations with terminology interjections too, such as a ‘neutron’ meaning a person who is not affiliated with a gang (although, as explained, this status isn’t really possible now).


These kind of front-line stories aren’t easy to get. As presenter Ira Glass says, Harper High “gave us unusual access”. By trusting TAL, the school’s principal and her staff allowed their story to be heard at a time when the school is in particular need of financial help. Now, as well, it seems that perhaps listeners may have included individuals with political influence.


I don’t know whether the reason that Michelle Obama went to Chicago was because she or one of her advisors had heard the programme (TAL note the event here). But enabling anyone to hear Harper’s stories told in their own words is one reason why radio is such a powerful, important, and wonderful thing.



World Radio Day

February 13, 2013 - Leave a Response

If you’re reading this post on its date of publication, February 13th, happy #worldradioday! You might be interested to know that radio is the world’s most universal medium, used by 95% of the global population.

I’m not sure what percentage of people around the world listen to radio whilst they commute to work, but that’s the demographic I’ve become part of this week. Getting from home to the office now takes about 90 minutes. It’s not such a bad journey, and it provides a good opportunity to catch up on some listening.

There have been several pieces that I’ve enjoyed hearing in the past week or so.

First of all, The Radio Academy‘s RadioTalk podcast celebrated identifying sounds with a Jinglefest. It’s an audiogeek-friendly listen – radiophonic and a bit meta. Amongst other things, the panel discuss Radio 1’s move away from the jingle as the traditional bastion of station identity, towards what they call “imaging”. I think that this means sound effects such as those played at the top and tail of Newsbeat bulletins, but, if so, there are many more throughout the schedule. At £2-5K for a really good jingle, and with ever tightening budgets, the death of the jingle – spoken about on Radio 4 last August – seems like it might be a possibility. This context makes listening to some of the archived jingles that they play feel like quite a nostalgic experience. That, or it just reminded me of quite how old I’m getting.

Thankfully, taking me right back into the present day, The Guardian Media Talk podcast (February 1st edition) led with the latest RAJAR stats. The headlines from the quarterly UK radio audience figures’ include the news that over 15 million listeners are tuning in to Radio 2 each week. Media Talk contributor Sam Steele briefly suggests that this could partly be attributed to Chris Moyles’ former audience – whose average age was older than Radio 1’s 14 – 24 target market – moving across from Radio 1. Her point about these listeners’ profiles got me thinking, because, as one of Moyles’ ex-listeners, I supposedly fit in to this group.

Actually, thinking about it, I’m a bad example, as I listen to a fair variety of radio, and grew up on Radio 4, which is still my default station. Most friends of a similar age and stage think that this makes me old before my time. So I asked a handful of them: What do they listen to on the radio, and how do they feel about what’s on offer?*

They told me that they generally find Radio 4 irritating or dull. Radio 1 is often on in their cars and houses, but the music makes them feel old. Radio 2 is apparently OK in the mornings but the music isn’t from quite the right era (I think they need to catch Jo Whiley’s show). They like occasionally listening to Radio 3 because it makes them feel clever. 6 Music didn’t get a mention; nor did 5 Live. I know that a couple listen to Absolute and to Xfm as well, although they didn’t specify these (probably due to my conversational context before asking the question leading their answers). Some of them said that radio wasn’t their choice of media, it requires too much concentration to be an information source, and they can choose music from Spotify. Of those who are speech radio fans, podcasts were often cited as being their favourite listen – especially Radiolab.

And, speaking of podcasts, my final listen might well become one of my favourite subscriptions – Story Collider. Having seen various tweets fly through my stream raving about this show during the Science Online conference, I got as far as subscribing, but only listened for the first time this week. The podcast title, as with all great titles, does what it says on the tin – it’s story telling about science. If you’re interested in science education, gender in science, scientific method, popularity, or – perhaps most importantly – how to have great hair, Confessions of a fourth grade science fraud is well worth a listen.

With this last one, I remembered the multi-function capacity of my smart phone (I’m not good in the mornings) and started sharing my favourites via Twitter under #commutelisten. If you have any great listens that you hear on the way to work, feel free to join in. Even better, if you would like a source of the best science audio and multimedia that is kept for posterity, check down the back of your speakers ASAP for whatever you can spare towards the #sciencestudio project. A store of a year’s worth of science stories from around the globe, that will hopefully be with us for the next World Radio Day, and beyond.

*Of course, it should be noted that this was an entirely unscientific set of chats that couldn’t even charitably be described as ‘qualitative’ information, from a group with relatively diverse interests. The main shared feature is their age.

Resuscitation: Bringing pre-recorded speech audio to life

February 3, 2013 - Leave a Response

CAUTION: Do NOT literally apply this device to radio or blog. I’m staying safely in the realm of metaphor.
(Photo credit: Olaf Gradin/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

Spurred on by attending a recent BBC Get In event, completing one job and starting another, I’ve had a mass social media sort out. This is one of those weekend jobs, like doing laundry or cleaning the fridge, that needs doing, but isn’t particularly exciting for anyone concerned. However, hopefully my next task will be a bit more entertaining, as I’m going to start making this blog what it should be – a chronicle of regular writing, sharing an interesting piece of audio each week.

My first choice is a podcast by Radiolab. Plenty has been written about the wonders that are produced by Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich and the WNYC team before, but suffice to say, if you haven’t heard an episode, make the time to listen. Normally, whatever appears from the pre-recorded, unusually edited, US-based NPR show shoots straight to the top of my “To Listen To” list, but I have to confess that I’ve been a bit slow with this one.

Released originally on 15th January 2013, The Bitter End is one of Radiolab’s Shorts – pieces released in between full hour-long episodes of the main show. After the presenters open with some characteristic reflexive banter, Krulwich introduces the topic by saying, ‘We’re going to have a conversation. Not an easy conversation, I would say.’. Producer Sean Cole goes on to examine some stats from The Precursors Study, a long-term study of doctors’ lives, by focussing on a particular question. The medical professionals were asked if they were in a scenario where they would perhaps be brain damaged, could not recognise loved ones, and unable to speak – something perhaps akin to severe dementia – whether they would want life saving interventions, including CPR.

I won’t “tell the story” of the piece here. Instead, I want to share something I really like about the piece, and Radiolab in general: the editing. A couple of examples.

Firstly: the use of music and sounds other than speech. One section of The Bitter End examines a 1996 study that compares survival rates of patients after emergency life saving interventions in real life with those of characters in popular TV medical dramas. Just before this research is introduced, before the name of the programme or the study itself is mentioned, the theme music to ER plays. This instantly and effectively told me what comparison was coming. When the chance of surviving after CPR in real life is revealed, the music and clips from those TV shows are cut with a sudden fade that enhances how surprising the reality is: around an 8% chance of survival, compared with the surveyed 75% at the hands of Carter et al. Later, when Jad Abumrad interviews his father, a doctor who has recently revealed to his family that he does not want similar interventions to save his life, we are told that the interview is taking place at his home. During the conversation, Abumrad suddenly says, ‘It sounds like the baby is crying.’ and then continues with questioning as before. Most obviously, leaving this statement in the final cut serves to explain the distant crying heard a few times slightly later in their discussion, but the recording could have been stopped, or the question re-taken. Leaving it in makes it seem as if this is a recorded chat rather than an audio-perfect interview; it feels more truthful to me. It also reinforces the location and context of the interview about a topic that is close to home that everyone will encounter in some way, someday.

The second thing that I like about the editing is how speech is dealt with. Digital editing has led to it being easier than ever before to make someone sound confident, polished and professional in pre-recorded speech audio. Errs, repetitions and revised explanations can all be snipped on computer with just a couple of clicks. The trick now, as my university lecturer once said, is not to make your contributor accidentally sound like a robot by removing all such human moments. One example of where I think Radiolab get the balance right is near the end of the piece, when Robert Krulwich describes an emotional interview from NPR’s Fresh Air programme with the late Maurice Sendak. Krulwich summarizes Sendak’s responses about life and death death as wanting to stay but being ready to go. Then – and I’ve tried to write this as the bits I’ve included of speech are heard – Krulwich says ‘…and that …. [swallows, slight pause] that compromise you make with yourself… that’s, that’s what a good death is.’.  The pause and repetition could easily have been removed, but their inclusion feels entirely appropriate.

So, if you haven’t already listened to Radiolab, or The Bitter End podcast in particular, I hope that you might give it a try. I would be interested to hear your thoughts about it. As for this blog, fingers crossed that this post kick-starts a fresh start to a long, happy life in cyberspace.

The Aspinall Foundation & BBC Radio Science

August 6, 2012 - Leave a Response

Faced with a house move and packing to sort out this week, I’ve decided that now is the perfect time to write an update. This post is, of course, nothing to do with procrastinating from the box-filling, but all to do with the reason for moving. Which is: I’ve accepted an exciting education job at conservation charity The Aspinall Foundation. They work in conjunction with Howletts and Port Lympne wild animal parks in Kent, and release threatened species back to the wild around the world.

On a different international theme, I’ve spent the past four weeks working for the BBC World Service programme, Science In Action.  The show is run from the brilliant BBC Radio Science Unit, and is produced by Fiona Roberts, who was great to work with. She generously gave me lots of opportunities throughout my placement, the most exciting of which was to make three packages about the STAGE science play competition. Two of these have already been broadcast and can be heard during the episodes here:

Science In Action, 26th July 2012

Science In Action, 2nd August 2012

The third package is scheduled to air during Science In Action this Thursday, 9th August. Making the items has definitely confirmed that I’ve got the science radio bug (as if Interacting Weakly already hadn’t) and I’m really looking forward to putting together more in future. But for now, it’s back to the boxes…

Lewis Dartnell: Interview

February 12, 2012 - Leave a Response

I interviewed Dr Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiology research fellow at UCL’s Institute of Origins, for the latest edition of Imperial College’s I, Science magazine, Unexplored Worlds. Read on for his views about extremophiles, life in the universe, and science communication.

How did you get into astrobiology – what attracted you to it?

Erm… the fundamental answer is that I was just a big geek. I read lots of sci-fi as a kid and was always thinking about aliens and Starfleet. The science has matured. It’s treated as a real science now, as a meaningful area of research. There’s been some big breakthroughs that have opened people’s eyes to this in terms of finding extreme forms of life on earth, called extremophiles, and discovering planets orbiting other stars in the galaxy – there’s clearly a lot of real estate in the galaxy now. So astrobiology has come in from the cold because we’ve made big discoveries that tell us about the possibilities of life beyond Earth.

You said that you’ve been looking at these creatures on Earth called ‘extremophiles’ – what’s the coolest organism you’ve examined so far?

I’ve directly been researching a bacterium called Deinococcus radiodurans, which is the most radiation-resistant organism on the planet. It’s sometimes referred to as “Conan the Bacterium” because it can survive a whole lot of different extremes – it’s a polyextremophile. It can survive being desiccated, and blasted with ultraviolet radiation, and zapped with ionising radiation like gamma rays. It’s an altogether superhero of survival. And it forms these cute little bright pink colonies on agar.

Deinococcus radiodurans, or "Conan the Bacterium". Credit: Dr L. Dartnell

So are you currently limited by the fact that we haven’t yet managed to get many probes to other planets?

Well, our nearest planet, Mars, we have explored in the past with probes. One of the other places in the solar system that we think has got a good shot of hosting life is Europa – one of the icy moons of Jupiter. What we really want to do is get a dedicated mission to Europa. Hopefully, in the not too distant future i.e. in my career we’ll go to the next step, which is to land on its surface and try to drill through its ice into the ocean that we think is there – the alien ocean. But that’s going to be a very difficult thing to do. It’s going to be expensive, and it’s going to take time before we can get there.

A false-colour image of Europa, with surface detail showing its crust divided into blocks that may float on an alien ocean. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

“Alien ocean” is the best phrase I think I’ve heard you use so far! Going beyond the solar system, I’ve heard you talk about skywhales before. Can you tell me a little bit more about them? 

One of the public outreach talks I do is called ‘What would an alien look like?’. It’s deliberately provocative in the title, but you can draw an awful lot of quite robust, firm conclusions about what alien life might look like. You can work from basic physical principles and engineering constraints. At the end of the day life is just evolving to solve a problem – it might find the same solution on different planets, as we found here. So the idea is that if you’ve got a more massive planet with a stronger gravity, paradoxically, it would actually be easier to fly, not more difficult, because although the weight would increase with the gravity, the density of the air around you would increase faster. So on a “super Earth” – an Earth-like rocky planet with more gravity, with more mass and a thicker atmosphere – you might find some very big things soaring in the clouds above your head, such as things the size of elephants, which would be skywhales.

At 2.4 times the radius of Earth, the recently discovered Kepler 22b is classed as a 'super earth', but scientists don't yet know if it is a rocky planet. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

You mention that you discuss skywhales when you do outreach. You’ve done lots of science communication. How do you find balancing doing your sci comm and your research?

Tricky. I mean, it’s a problem of time management. I think you’ve got to be careful because a lot of the sci comm can be more enjoyable on a short-term basis. But you need to keep up your science. If you don’t keep up your publication record, you don’t get your next post-doc, your next fellowship position. You need to be very good at juggling between them. Often I find myself working on a Saturday or a Sunday to catch up from work in the week when I do a talk in a school, or working in the evenings. But if it’s something you enjoy doing then it doesn’t feel like a chore.