Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Discovery FM: science programming on the radio

Considering the large amount of trash on satellite TV documentary channels (yes you, Discovery Channel and National Geographic, with your constant stream of gullible, gibbering 'experts' hunting down Bigfoot, UFOs and megalodon), I thought I'd do a bit of research into science programming on that long side-lined medium, radio.

Having grown up with BBC Radio in the UK I've always listened to a variety of documentaries, particularly on Radio Four. Although I now live in New Zealand one of the joys of the internet is the ability to listen to a large number of BBC science and natural history documentaries whenever I want. The BBC Radio website has a Science and Nature section with dozens of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programmes from latest news shows such as Inside Science and Material World to series with specific subject matter such as the environmental-themed Costing the Earth.

A long-running live broadcast BBC series that covers an eclectic variety of both scientific and humanities subjects is novelist and history writer Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time. Over the past sixteen years distinguished scientific guests have explored numerous STEM topics in almost two hundred episodes. Although much of the science-themed material leans towards historical and biographical aspects, there has also been some interesting examination of contemporary scientific thought. The programme is always worth listening to, not least for Bragg's attempt to understand - or in the case of spectroscopy, pronounce - the complexities under discussion.

One of my other favourites is the humorous and wide-ranging The Infinite Monkey Cage, hosted by comedian Robin Ince and physicist/media star Brian Cox. Each episode features a non-scientist as well as several professionals, the former serving as a touchstone to ensure any technicalities are broken down into public-friendly phrasing. Many of the show's topics are already popular outside of science, such as SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) and comparisons of science fiction to fact. The programme is well worth a listen just for the incidental humour: you can almost hear steam coming out of Brian Cox's ears whenever a guest mentions the likes of astrology. Despite having a former career as a professional pop keyboard player, the good professor is well known for his disparaging marks about philosophy and other non-scientific disciplines, cheekily referring to the humanities in one episode as 'colouring in'.

I confess that there are still many episodes I have yet to listen to, although I notice that a fair few of the programme descriptions are similar to topics I would like to discuss in this blog. In fact, an episode from December 2013 entitled "Should We Pander to Pandas?" bares a startling similarity to my post on wildlife conservation from three months earlier! Coincidence, zeitgeist or are the BBC cribbing my ideas? (It wouldn't be the first time, either...)

A final example of an excellent series is the hour-long live talk show The Naked Scientists, covering both topical stories and more general themes. In addition to the programme itself, the related website includes DIY experiments using materials from around the home and an all-embracing forum.

Although consisting of far fewer series, Radio New Zealand also broadcasts a respectable variety of science programming. There are currently thirty or so titles available in the science and factual section on line, including some interesting cross-overs. For instance, back in 2006 the late children's author Margaret Mahy discussed her interest in science and the boundaries between fact and fiction in The Catalogue of the Universe. Thanks to the internet, it isn't just radio stations that supply audio programming either: the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, releases ad-hoc Science Express podcasts. So far I've been very impressed with the range on offer and it's always good to find in-depth discussion on local science stories.

The United States has a decent range of science programmes on various internet streams and the non-profit NPR network, with the related NPR website dividing the material into obvious themes such as the environment, space, energy and health. Most the programmes are very short - as little as three minutes - and often consist of news items, usually accompanied by a good written prĂ©cis. NPR also distributes Public Radio International's weekly call-in talk show Science Friday, which is extremely popular as a podcast.  The associated website contains videos as well as individual articles from the radio show, although interestingly, the archive search by discipline combines physics and chemistry into one topic but separates nature, biology, and human brain and body, into three separate topics.

Planetary Radio is the Planetary Society's thirty-minute weekly programme related to the organisation's interests, namely astronomy, space exploration and SETI. For any fan of Carl Sagan's - and now Neil deGrasse Tyson's - Cosmos, it's pretty much unmissable.

Talking of which, various scientists now take advantage of podcasting for their own, personal audio channels. A well-known example is deGrasse Tyson's StarTalk, which as the name suggests, frequently concentrates on space-related themes. In addition to the serious stuff, there are interviews with performing artists and their opinion on science and once in a while some brilliant comedy too: the episode earlier this month in which Tyson speaks to God (who admits that amongst other divine frivolities, monkeys and apes were created as something to laugh at and that the universe really is just six thousand or so years old) is absolutely priceless.

Physicist Michio Kaku has gone one further by hosting two weekly shows: the live, three-hour Science Fantastic talk show and the hour-long Exploration. The former's website incorporates an archive of videos, some as might be expected concentrating on futurology, whilst the talk show itself often covers fruity topics verging on pseudoscience. The latter series is generally more serious but the programme is slightly spoilt by the frequent book-plugging and over-use of baroque background music.

The good news is that far from reducing radio the internet has developed a new multi-media approach to traditional broadcasting, with comprehensive archives of material available from a multitude of sources. One thing the US, UK and New Zealand programming has in common is the inclusion of celebrities, especially actors, both to enhance series profile and to keep content within the realm of comprehension by a general audience.

All in all, I'm pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of audio programming emerging from various nations, as opposed to the pandering to new age, pseudoscientific and plain woolly thinking that frequently passes for science television broadcasting. Even book shops aren't immune: I was recently disappointed to notice that a major New Zealand chain book store had an 'Inspiration' section twice the size of its STEM material. So the next time you see a team of researchers in on a quest for a species of shark that has been extinct for over a million years, why not relax with good old-fashioned, steam-powered radio instead?