Science Friday is a live science talk show on National Public Radio. Every week the show presents the latest science news by bringing the scientists themselves on the air. Listeners call in to talk with the scientists and with the host, Ira Flatow, produces 1 hour of the 2-hour program every week.
What goes into producing a science talk show? In a nutshell, researching and selecting program topics, booking and pre-interviewing guests, writing the script, questions, and promotional copy, and directing the live broadcast.
Choosing a topic for Science Friday is a collaborative process between the producer and the host, and it requires staying on top of the latest advances in all fields of science. That means reading almost everything in sight, from the standard science publications such as Nature and Science to press releases, science magazines, and newspapers. Because the show is almost entirely live, there's not a lot of writing, at least compared to print journalism. Scripted parts of Science Friday include the "billboard" that's heard at the beginning of the show, the introduction, and the questions (which are, of course, subject to change as soon as the guests and the host come together and the show begins).
Directing a live call-in talk show has its own challenges, from making sure that the guests are where they're supposed to be at show time (usually in some remote studio) to making sure that the host and the engineer hit their cues at precise times throughout the show.
Any job has its downside, and the downside of being a producer for a live show is that you don't have final control over your product. After spending a week putting together an hour of Science Friday, a producer's work ends before the show, and it's up to the guests and the host to finish it off. In the end, the final product might bear little resemblance to what the producer had in mind. Of course, says former producer Karen Hopkin, nothing really compares to the rush of working on a live broadcast, shutting off the microphone and knowing that you made it through another show and that it all worked.
TV production is not a lot different, except that it is complicated by the need for images and the occasional prop. A lot of the video used in a typical news story is kept on file with the organization that made it. For example, NASA will provide images free of charge to news organizations. Other video needs to be made on location for the story that is being produced, which requires a camera and a sound crew. Obtaining permission to use video and locations for TV broadcast requires a resourceful producer. A TV producer organizes all the people, obtains images, books experts and locations, and writes the story.
How do you end up in a producer's role? Karen Hopkin, former producer and senior producer with National Public Radio says her first exposure to radio was as a science reporter and an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) mass media fellow, where she wound up at WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, in one of two radio slots. Despite an intensive 2-day orientation to science journalism, all she could remember during those first tense interviews was not to say "uh-huh" and "mm-hmm" during the taping.
In a typical newsroom, editors either assign stories to reporters or approve story ideas suggested by reporters or producers. They work with reporters to decide what approach should be taken, how the story should be written, and whether, in the end, the story will make it on the air, or be bumped for more newsworthy stories.
Richard Hudson serves as the science editor for a public TV station's many projects. In this role, he's involved in brainstorming activities for program segments, looking for clever hands-on science to offer viewers, and wrestling with the best way to present a complex scientific idea.
John Keefe, science editor at Discovery Channel Online, talks about how he got into the business:
Back in seventh grade, a civics teacher told my class that the jobs most of us would have as adults didn't yet exist. Boy! Was he right? Today, as science editor for Discovery Channel Online, I'm working in an entire medium that emerged just a few years ago. I was always interested in science, journalism and technology, but I never could have imagined taking the path I took to get here. My career path is an example of what can happen when you let your interests and curiosity guide you through uncharted territory.
At the student paper, I tried everything imaginable, including taking pictures, writing, managing the production team, and editing. At the citywide paper, I was a part-time general assignment reporter who weaseled his way into covering cops on the weekends, too.
I also fulfilled my science appetite by taking introductory classes in a variety of different fields including astronomy, genetics, and biology. Basically, I learned just enough to get the basics, but not enough to really know anything, something that turns out to be valuable in the world of journalism.
My co-reporting experience helped me nab a job at the Racine Journal Times, located in a city just south of Milwaukee with one of the highest crime rates in Wisconsin. Eventually, life on the death-and-destruction beat wore thin, so I started attending science-writing conferences with the hope of covering more science. When, at one of these events, I saw a poster for a science-writing radio internship in Washington, D.C., I jumped at the chance. I headed for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where I wrote 90-second radio features that aired on the Mutual Broadcasting System.
Over time, my boss and I heard that a children's radio station in Minneapolis was planning to take its format nationwide. We thought, hey, we should make a kids' science show for that network. A few years, a few grant proposals and a few million dollars from the National Science Foundation later, Kinetic City Super Crew was being heard across the country each week and I was in charge of all of the production aspects as senior producer. (One of the perks of co-writing your own grant is that you get to nominate yourself for a top job). The KCSC science adventures, performed mostly by child actors, still entertain and educate each week nationwide, and this year the show won a George Foster Peabody Award, one of broadcasting's highest honors.
My work on Kinetic City helped me land a couple of freelance radio gigs, including two half-hour documentaries for the Sound-print program on National Public Radio. For one piece, Sound-print asked that I prepare some Internet resources for them. I did, and sent it to them in HTML, the programming language of the net, because I had been tinkering with web stuff on the side. Later, Sound-print landed a deal with Discovery Channel Online (www.discovery.com) to produce a live Internet talk show each week on the Internet. They remembered my web experience, needed a producer, and asked if I'd be interested. I did it as a freelancer, keeping my day job at Kinetic City.
About 6 months into the project, Discovery said they were creating a new science editor position and asked if I would be interested. I moved there full-time. Since then, I've produced/edited dozens of science stories and several major events, all tailored for the Internet and its interactive-ability. These include sending reporters to chase tornadoes across the nation's heartland, follow the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope from inside mission control, and dig for dinosaurs in Mongolia's Gobi Desert (aka "The Middle of Nowhere"), using a satellite telephone to file stories and pictures each day for a month What happens next is anybody's guess. I hope my next job is exciting fun, enlightening (for me and others), and contributes to society in a positive way. But for all I know, it doesn't even exist yet.