Breaking Rad: The story behind “Rad Scientist”
A year and change ago, I decided to start making podcasts – those on demand audio files that our parents and grandparents have trouble finding. I wanted to produce audio stories that capture the amazing science happening in the San Diego area. And I wanted these stories to focus on the scientists themselves and humanize the elusive laboratory dwelling creatures. There was only one small problem, I’d never made a podcast before. So here is how I went from a grad student with an idea, to a grad student with a KPBS podcast.
From listening to podcasts, I know two things: First, there aren’t many podcasts about scientists that break from the formula of interviewer, interviewee; Second, podcasts that are sonically rich and highly produced are the most engaging. So, I set out to make sonically rich vignettes of scientists that didn’t conform to the usual format. Idea: check. Wait, now I have to actually make something?
There can be a lot of self-doubt that comes with trying something new. In my case, the tiny monster in my head was telling me that whatever I made was likely to be a total failure. And I felt a bit of dread about all of the unknowns. Equipment, editing software, style, music, etc. To tackle these inner demons, I turned to good ‘ole interpersonal accountability. I told my boyfriend my intention, then close friends, family, and finally the Salk Communications department. They offered to lend me equipment and to give it a listen after I had made something. Now I was on the hook and I had to find my first subject.
In the Southwest basement of the Salk, I met a postdoc studying astrocytes with funky hair and lots of spunk. She would be my first guinea pig. It helped that I had met her before. It made my request, “Can I interview you at your apartment, where it is quiet?” much less awkward and creepy. She obliged and we met in her living room where I asked her questions about her hobbies and about her research. After an hour of back and forth, I had some “good tape” as the radio folks like to call it. An hour of tape.
So the next big hurdle presented itself. What do with all of this tape? I had to edit that hour into a much shorter, tighter, audio hors d’oeuvre. This next step took about three months. I listened to the interview, then listened again. I cut and pasted. I added music. I took out music. I left out my voice. Then I added it in. I inserted myself asking questions, then I decided that narration would better suit the piece. Move that clip .5 seconds to the left, pull the levels down on that part. At the end of month three, I felt ready for someone to listen. I knew that it wasn’t up to my standards yet, but I wasn’t sure that it would get there anytime soon. It was time to give the Salk communications employees a listen. They leant me their equipment after all.
They liked it! They did, I think? I mean, that’s what they told me. Were they just being nice? After they gave me a page on their website and made a logo, I knew it was happening. I started a podcast! I called it “Salk Talk” and I got to interview four amazing postdocs at the institute. I was slowing down production while I was writing an NRSA graduate fellowship and I heard about a KPBS contest looking for local content for radio or TV. In the groove of writing applications, I went ahead and applied.
A few months went by, NRSA submitted, when an email pops up in my inbox. “You are a finalist for the KPBS explore program.” I was asked to pitch my idea to a team of KPBS staff. I donned my favorite blouse, designed a pitch sheet, and made my case for why San Diego needs a podcast about scientists and why I am uniquely suited to make such a podcast. I pulled out all of the stops including mentioning my short career as a child actress. Long story short, after a couple rounds of the competition, I won (along with two other great projects). It was unexpected, exciting and scary. I felt like I had just started. Of course, it was the kind of opportunity that you don’t just turn down. Producing audio for KPBS turned out to be very similar to making “Salk Talk”. The main differences were that I was interviewing scientists outside of the Salk community and that I was likely to have a broader listener base. Also, I had to make a new name. “Rad Scientist” felt right. It rhymes with mad scientist, and it seems like “rad” is a pretty common modifier on the West Coast.
Finding scientists to profile wasn’t so difficult. As my pitch began, “San Diego is one of the largest research hubs in the country!” There are oodles of interesting researchers and I got to meet six of them while making the first season of Rad Scientist: A former member of the ska band Reel Big Fish, a McArthur Genius recipient who likens chemistry to space exploration, a plant biologist that talks to her plants.
Apart from meeting fabulous people, I’ve learned about subjects that I would not normally be exposed to like the science of nuclear fusion! Perhaps the most enjoyable part for me is exploring how best to communicate science with only sound. For instance, check out the journey of a sperm through the female reproductive tract.
After months of interviewing and editing, Rad Scientist was ready to go. The first episode aired on October 25th and the first season comprises six episodes, released every other Wednesday. You can catch it on Midday Edition, or you can subscribe to it wherever you get your podcasts. This started as an “experiment”, and it has turned into a hobby that I see myself continuing indefinitely. I hope to make more seasons of Rad Scientist and introduce more scientists to the KPBS audience and podcast subscribers. And, I hope to continue creating content that takes the voices of scientists outside the lab and transmits them through the radio waves or the internet waves (is that a thing?).
If there is a lesson or some meaning to be gleaned from this experience, it would be to shove past feelings of self-doubt and create the media that you want to consume. There’s space for your spin on science communication. I’ll leave you with the following imperative: “Stay Rad!”