Bill Nye, “Science Friday,” “Nova,” the Discovery Channel. These are some of the people, programs, and channels communicating science to contemporary radio and television audiences. But these purveyors of science might never have found a niche if not for the pioneers of early radio and television.
In her book “Science on the Air: Popularizers and Personalities on Radio and Early Television,” Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette tells the story of broadcast science coverage from 1923 to the mid-1950s. She draws lessons from those early days for modern scientists and science communicators.
Foremost among those lessons is that science has always needed to compete for airtime. Modern science communicators may think that they’ve got it tough with so many options vying for the public’s attention, but such competition is not new.
LaFollette starts with Austin Hobart Clark, an ambitious curator at what is now called the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. In October 1923, a Washington, D.C., radio station invited Charles D. Walcott, the head of the Smithsonian, to speak; Walcott, uncomfortable with public speaking, sent Clark instead. Clark jumped at the chance and, after the success of his first presentation, helped arrange subsequent “Smithsonian Radio Talks” by other scientists at the Smithsonian and nearby institutions. The series lasted until June 1927.
For Clark, delivering a radio address was a formal affair that required formal attire. He “asserted that the speaker who was formally dressed would make a more dignified presentation at the microphone,” LaFollette writes. Like many scientists, Clark saw these public forums as an opportunity to teach about science and to enhance its reputation.
Watson Davis, on the other hand, was the prototype of the modern science journalist. He trained as a civil engineer but became a journalist early in his career. Davis was the managing editor of Science Service. In its early days, Science Service was a syndication service that provided material, often scripts from radio programs, to other publications. Now called the Society for Science & the Public, the organization is best known as the publisher of the magazine Science News.
If LaFollette’s book has a weakness, it is that it rapidly devolves into a history of Science Service. One might wonder whether the organization commissioned the book. Science Service undoubtedly played a major role in science communication in the early days of radio, but I for one would have appreciated a warning about how much the book focused on this single organization.
Even in the early days, scientists and science journalists had divergent opinions about whether the goal of science popularization was education, publicity, or public accountability, LaFollette writes. Some popularizers, like Davis, tried to choose topics of interest to their audience. Others, like Clark, took more of a spinach approach, choosing topics they thought would be good for their audiences.
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As radio, and later television, became increasingly viewed as entertainment, broadcasters encouraged the first approach and pushed science programs to focus more on people and personalities than on the dry delivery of facts, LaFollette continues. The popularity of music, comedy, and drama on the radio pushed science programs—often viewed as a public service—to less prominent time slots where they attracted a smaller audience.
World War II brought limits on science communication, LaFollette writes, some voluntary, some imposed. The amount of science coverage did not decline. Instead, the tone changed. Scientists grew reluctant to speak on topics that might have military value, such as atomic physics, and science became increasingly politicized. Censorship became the norm even before it was government policy.
After the war, the purview of science coverage expanded to include aspects that were not strictly scientific. “Popular science content began to seem incomplete without attention to the social, political, economic, and ethical aspects of science—and to the impacts that society, politics, economics, and moral values were having on science,” LaFollette writes. “A broadcast or magazine article that offered only simple summaries of research results or descriptive talks about current knowledge now seemed sterile and inadequate.”
LaFollette spends the majority of the book focusing on radio and relegates television to the last chapter. The early science shows pretended to portray scientific “reality” by showing images directly from microscopes and telescopes, LaFollette says, and by re-creating laboratories in the studio. The technical difficulty of early television broadcasting pushed scientists to the sidelines in favor of broadcasting professionals who interposed themselves between scientists and the public. “Once again, broadcast science became ‘brokered’ science,” LaFollette writes.
Anybody concerned about public scientific literacy knows that these issues have not disappeared. If anything, they have worsened. The advent of satellite radio and digital television creates more space for science programming, but it also subdivides the audience into increasingly thin slices of viewers who seek out only those things that interest them. The likelihood of using radio and television as a way to educate a broad audience about science is vanishingly small.
The best lesson that today’s science communicators can take away from this book is the knowledge that the challenges they face are not new. We are once again in the early days of a changing communication landscape, with podcasts in the role of radio and “YouTube” in place of television. The ease of production made possible by modern technology gives today’s popularizers more of a voice than ever but makes it less likely that they will be heard.
Celia Henry Arnaud is a senior editor at C&EN.