A Guide to Translating Science to Audio

Becca Bressler

Dylan Keefe, director of sound design, mixing audio for Radiolab.

 

Confusing jargon, complicated methodologies, and nuances of statistical interpretation aren’t the typical ingredients for a gripping story. But they are for science journalists, who often need to bring dense or esoteric topics to life for nonspecialist audiences. These challenges can be even greater for audio journalists, who can’t rely on visuals to make difficult concepts clearer and who have to be sure listeners will understand their stories on a first pass, since rewinding is impossible (for radio) and unlikely (for podcasts). If things get too complex or boring, most listeners will simply turn off the show.

There’s no single way to explain the impact of a scientific discovery or convey the awe of a scientific phenomenon through audio. Radio talk show Science Friday has done it by comparing the disintegration of space orbiter Cassini to the death of an old friend. Gimlet podcast Science Vs has done it by debunking myths about the G-spot. Radiolab has done it by having a choir illustrate the differences in how humans and other creatures perceive colors.

Each of these shows has a unique origin and a distinct style, which has allowed them to bring science to life through audio in different ways. Here are the most important lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Science Friday’s Key to Live Science Radio: Find Guests Who Bring Research to Life

Science Friday was conceived as a show that presented scientists in their own words, says senior producer Christopher Intagliata. It was a way of bringing research from the lab into people’s homes through radio. In fact, host Ira Flatow originally pitched the show, nearly 30 years ago, as Science Thursday to coincide with the embargoes of prominent science journals. But NPR executives said Friday worked better, so Science Friday made its debut.

Since then, the show has been a pioneer in bringing hard science coverage to live broadcasting. It’s not about flashy discoveries or real-world applications. Rather, it dives deep into research, explaining the heart of scientific findings and uncovering the processes that led to them. That means researchers and academics are at the center of every show.

 

“You can’t just pull a soundbite from that one part of a 20-minute conversation,” Intagliata says. “The whole thing needs to be interesting.”

 

It’s a difficult premise, given the stereotype of scientists being dull communicators. After all, the show is done live in the studio and relies on engaging, organic conversations between Flatow (or guest hosts) and guests.

But Science Friday has always embraced this challenge, Intagliata says. “Forty minutes of live radio on quantum physics—we’re not scared of that,” he says. It simply depends on finding the right guest. The team knows that is the key to making the live show successful.

That’s why producers spend all week searching for guests who can speak engagingly for extended periods of time.

“You can’t just pull a soundbite from that one part of a 20-minute conversation,” Intagliata says. “The whole thing needs to be interesting. So guest selection is really important.”

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Science Friday producers find guests by looking for a series of qualities during a preinterview. At the top of the list is the ability to put aside jargon and explain dense subjects clearly. It’s particularly useful to find a researcher who’s comfortable with analogies, Intagliata says. For instance, in discussing how a drug could elude a cancer cell’s defenses, nanoscientist Mauro Ferrari compared barriers around a tumor to walls in a medieval city (time code: 2:50). And he described the nucleus of the cell as a Death Star (time code: 7:38)—the mother ship that the drug is ultimately trying to reach.

Another important quality to look for in a guest is theatricality. Christian Skotte, codirector and head of digital for Science Friday, says one of his favorite parts of radio is hearing people come to life when they go on air. He remembers being surprised when physicist Max Tegmark used a series of different voices to explain the challenges of human interactions with artificial intelligence.

“That’s the plus side of live radio,” Skotte says. “There’s a theatricality that sometimes people embrace and then we get these amazing moments from scientists.”

Even if someone isn’t a natural performer, if they’re passionate about their work, that can resonate with listeners and help give a niche story broader appeal.

That was certainly the case for a segment Intagliata produced on dung beetles and carrion beetles. “These things feed on poop and dead bodies,” Intagliata says. “It’s not something a lot of people want to click on.” But the team found two passionate graduate students who cared so deeply about the work that they forced others to care too. “They just take you along with them into the world of the beetles, crawling around inside roadkill,” Intagliata says, “and it’s fascinating.”

That’s really the goal of Science Friday, he adds: to get listeners to go down the rabbit hole with the team and with the researchers.

“Our job is to find those people who can make your eyes open wide and your jaw drop,” Intagliata says. “If that’s happening when we’re doing a preinterview, then we know our listeners would be delighted by that too.”

 

Courtesy of Science Friday

The Science Friday team on stage in Davis, California.

 

Science Vs’s Key to Producing a Youthful Science Podcast: Make Interviews Fun and Irreverent

The idea behind Science Vs is simple: to debunk common myths, using science. Is the G-spot a real thing? Do artificial sweeteners cause cancer? The podcast aims to find the scientific consensus around such questions.

But what sets it apart from other science shows is the production team’s sensibility. They take the science—but not themselves—seriously. “I really try to entertain myself,” says Kaitlyn Sawrey, senior producer. “If you’re not amused or interested, then why should anyone else be?”

That means scripts contain dumb jokes and swearing. Host Wendy Zukerman asks silly questions and laughs at herself throughout the show. It’s all about maintaining a fun, irreverent, youthful feel, says Sawrey.

But getting interviews with scientists to match that tone can be more of a challenge. So the team has developed a series of tricks.

 

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The first is to prepare sources ahead of time. “I always start by saying we’re not public media. We’re not a traditional science show,” Sawrey says. “So just chill out.”

Then, when the interview begins, be relentless. Sawrey says Zukerman will often circle around the same question or topic multiple times in different ways to get an answer in a fun, accessible way. She’ll probe for stories rather than straightforward answers, like in an episode about acne, where she asked researchers to pretend they were inside the pimple and describe what they saw.

“That just makes researchers have to tell a story,” Sawrey says. “It’s visual and entertaining and you can see it.”

It’s also okay to play dumb, she adds. Asking the same question a few times can get people to explain more clearly. Sawrey and Zukerman often take turns asking the so-called dumb questions so the guest doesn’t get too frustrated with either of them.

 

Above all, though, Sawrey says what makes a good interview is being yourself with the source.

 

It’s also crucial to get most sources to slow down. Scientists have often described their work hundreds of times at conferences, presentations, and meetings. So in an interview, they’ll likely fly through it on autopilot. “Don’t be afraid to interrupt,” Sawrey advises. “You’re in charge.”

Ask them to take you back to that day when they made an important discovery. Prompt them with phrases like, “You woke up and then …” That way you can get a bunch of small stories from their experience, which can be useful to sprinkle throughout the podcast.

Above all, though, Sawrey says what makes a good interview is being yourself with the source. Zukerman makes jokes throughout the process because she’s naturally funny. Sawrey says she adds levity to every topic. “You can’t expect the audience to enjoy work that you’re not enjoying yourself,” she says. “It always comes through.”

 

Kaitlyn Sawrey

(From left to right) Science Vs editor Blythe Terrell, producer Heather Rogers, and host Wendy Zukerman debate the structure of an episode on nuclear war.

 

Radiolab’s Key to Taking Listeners on a Journey: Collaboration

Radiolab doesn’t brand itself as a pure science show. Instead, it’s a show about curiosity. It takes listeners along on the journey of discovery. The goal is never to simply explain a concept, says managing editor Soren Wheeler. It’s to make people wonder.

To do that, episodes tackle broad multifaceted topics like the science of blame and the ethics of human development research. New questions arise throughout the episode, and music and eclectic sound effects combine to immerse listeners in the experience. But with so many elements in each episode, one of the most important tasks is making sure listeners don’t get lost along the way. Radiolab, more than other science shows, relies on story to carry readers through larger science questions.

“We want this to be for people who don’t give a shit about science,” Wheeler says.

The key to making that strategy successful, Wheeler says, is writing the show as a team. They discuss approaches and structure—and even word choice—together to ensure that what finally goes into the episode makes sense to people coming from many different backgrounds. It builds a more compelling story than one person writing alone, Wheeler says.

“The best lines we write, even the best technical lines, come from us sitting around talking to each other,” Wheeler says. “It’s really hard to get to that space when you’re by yourself looking at a piece of paper. You need to look at someone and see their reaction.”

The process begins with what the team calls a brain dump. A reporter and host will go into a studio and simply talk about everything the reporter has learned. There’s no script; it’s an exploratory conversation. The idea is to get the reporter to tell parts of the story the way they would to a friend.

 

Becca Bressler

Dylan Keefer, director of sound design, mixing audio for Radiolab.

 

“It sounds more conversational and relaxed,” Wheeler says.

That helps the team determine the broad strokes of the story. Then comes the hard part: writing out the details, explaining theories, and pulling together the big discoveries.

The team of hosts, producers, and editors will sit together and trade phrases, concepts, and explanations back and forth, Wheeler says. Someone will offer, say, a metaphor, and someone else will disagree about it or build off of it. That’s done repeatedly until something sounds right.

So what airs as a 30-second explanation of epigenetics may actually come from hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich having riffed for several minutes, and Wheeler adding in his two cents from the back of the studio.

 

“We put you inside the experience of the characters,” Wheeler says. “We want the listener to feel like they’re going through it and have close, intimate access.”

 

This type of writing out loud helps the team hear how certain lines “move and jive,” Wheeler says—a crucial element of audio stories. Building a script is a process of constant seduction, he explains, where you’re convincing the listener every step of the way to keep the radio on and continue on the journey with you.

An important aspect of that means keeping things conversational. The writing can’t sound like a professor at a lectern. As soon as the script reminds people of school, they’ll tune out. Instead, the team tries to share information throughout the listening experience so it feels like reading a book or watching a movie. “We put you inside the experience of the characters,” Wheeler says. “We want the listener to feel like they’re going through it and have close, intimate access.”

It’s showing them that science is inherently entertaining. And Wheeler believes it is, “if it’s done right.”

 

 

Aneri PattaniConner Jay/AAJA

Aneri Pattani

Aneri Pattani is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is a health reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she covers health issues in young people. In the past, she has worked as an assistant producer on the health team at WNYC, a James Reston reporting fellow on the health/science desk at The New York Times, and a reporting companion to columnist Nicholas Kristof in Liberia. She has also written for The Boston GlobeThe Texas Tribune, CNBC, and The Hartford Courant. Originally from Connecticut, she graduated from Northeastern University in Boston in May 2017. Outside of reporting, Pattani loves to travel, cook, and practice Indian classical dance. Follow her on Twitter @aneripattani.

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