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SCIENCE IN RADIO BROADCASTING

Final Report Summary - SCIRAB (Science in radio broadcasting)

Radio uniquely brings together science and society. Radio is enjoying a renaissance, also due to the take up of digital radio, and most broadcasters include science in their programmes and general news. Public debate and perceptions of science have also shifted, and the public is increasingly aware and critical of the scope and limitations of science. More instantaneous than print, more ubiquitous than the web and more intimate and interactive than TV, radio is where much of the discourse between scientists and the public is played out. However, the radio practitioners around Europe, who mediate the debate are linked, at best, through informal, occasional and ad-hoc contacts.

SCIRAB was created on the basis of two very simple assumptions: first, the people who work in scientific radio programmes, journalists, producers, presenters and scientists, know nothing about their counterparts in other European countries; second, no in-depth studies on science communication on radio are available (an exhaustive, but inevitably meagre bibliography can be found at http://www.scienceonair.org/biblio.htm online). There is a major gap, both practical and theoretical.

The project SCIRAB relied on what is called 'action research', otherwise known as the 'reflective practitioner's approach'. It meant letting analyses, and their political consequences, emerge directly from the very practice of running a science radio programme. The international symposium 'Science on air' was organised to enable European professionals to share their experiences and needs, with the precise aim of finding practical ways of improving scientific radio journalism and, at the same time, gathering useful suggestions for researchers in this field. 23 journalists from 16 different countries took part in the symposium, all producers or presenters of radio programmes on science. In addition, several radio experts were present, bringing the media studies' view into the discussion. The public included journalists, scientists and students, who all made positive contributions to the debate.

According to what has emerged from the discussions, all radio journalists share many characteristics, but there are differences, concerning both the use of scientific information and the use of radio. These issues will be dealt with in a special report to be written after the end of the project; the papers in this article concentrate on specific elements of science communication through radio. However, some general trends deserving brief description have emerged.

First of all, everybody seems to be trying to understand what being a scientific journalist means in a medium combining information with entertainment and education. Are we champions of science? Are we here to entertain or to inform? Are we allowed to educate? Considering the complex interactions between science and society, are radio programmes to be considered observation points, "drive belts", interfaces or discussion arenas?

Another central issue is what type of radio broadcasts science programmes. A preliminary survey has shown that most science programmes are broadcast on 'cultural' radios (Radio3 in Italy, France Culture in France, BBC4 in the United Kingdom), as was later confirmed during the symposium. Stations with missions other than culture do not have in their listings programmes specifically dedicated to science and do not have on their staff a 'science journalist' in the strict sense. But this does not mean that they never talk about science: scientific information often fits into programmes of other kinds, without necessarily being labelled as science. This is a fundamental problem for surveys which have a very wide range, such as the one carried out for the SCIRAB project, which makes it impossible to identify and assess this type of programmes. A specific study regarding this issue would be interesting, though difficult to carry out at a European level.

Another point that emerged from the discussion is that those who work for a news radio have to face problems of a different kind than those working for a radio with science programmes, which strongly affects relations with senior members of the staff, so that a journalist working on a piece of news usually has to convince his chief editor and director that the news is worth being broadcast. Science is not perceived as sexy, interesting or charming, and important news has to struggle for space. The situation is different in dedicated scientific programmes, in which the 'fight' is about getting a decent position in the programme listings. Once this is obtained, however, journalists are usually free to decide on the contents and follow their own editorial line without being accountable to the director. A different opinion, though, was given by Martin Redfern, of the BBC, who complained about having to be 'commissioned', that is having to sell every single programme to the radio he works for. He claims that, thus, a complex and competitive procedure is set off whereby BBC journalists have to decide the contents of a programme many months before it is broadcast.

Different opinions have also emerged on other issues related to science on European radios: coverage of science conferences, new ways of using the web to make audio material available and to interact with the audience, the use of phone-ins, the use of games and quiz to increase the public’s participation, etc. One of the objectives of 'Science on air' was that of promoting a more international approach to science programmes, since in most of them only national scientists are interviewed. The language barrier is the main reason, but a lack of human and economic resources also makes it difficult to reach foreign scientists. This is seen as limitating by all participants, who point out that for the most common European languages, finding a scientist who can speak it decently is not hard. In other cases, a translation wouldn't necessarily be perceived as disturbing by listeners, provided there is a concrete reason for having the voice of that person in the final version of the interview (for example, because he is the main author of an important discovery or experiment). Finding ways and incentives to convince journalists to make that extra effort would be very useful.

Many programmes, in particular documentaries and detailed reportages, often need the sounds of science to give colour and impact to what they are communicating. An archive of these sounds would be an interesting and useful tool and could be a part of the AthenaWeb portal. Research institutes should be encouraged to provide radio journalists with audio files, in the same way as photographic material, which press offices or researchers regularly provide for the media.

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