Why We Love RadioLab
Or: The Ingredients for a Great SciComm Podcast
RadioLab is one of my favourite podcasts, and by far the SciComm podcast I love the most. It is among my sources of inspiration both for storytelling and use of sound. By listening to it, episode after episode, I have reverse-engineered the recipe for a great SciComm podcast. And in this post I will give you the ingredients.
It goes without saying, every episode of RadioLab is story-driven. They manage to build a good story about pretty much anything: the protagonist can be a scientist or some common people who crossed the path of science, a scientific discovery or a natural phenomenon, a historical event or even an abstract concept. If the subject of the episode does not make for a good story in and of itself, they will tell you the story of how they stumbled upon it, and got to know more about it.
(Highly Crafted) Colloquial Tone
The hosts and the reporters of RadioLab always use a laid-back and undidactic tone, both among themselves and with the scientists they interview. Listening to the show feels like having a chat with a bunch of friends. But mind you, this charming spontaneity does not gush naturally out of unscripted conversations: the narrative framework of each episode is skilfully built up, and the interviews are heavily edited. This does not mean that the tone is fake, but that the podcast is highly (and very well) produced.
Being on the listener’s side
Hand in hand with the informal tone comes the fact that the hosts and the producers always position themselves on the side of the listener, namely on the side of someone who knows little to nothing about the subject. They react the way we would react, they ask the same questions we would ask, they make the (sometimes silly) comments we would make. All this, though, without ever trivialising or dumbing down the subject.
Importance vs. Relevance
Science is important, sure. But in front of certain obscure topics we can’t but ask ourselves: “Why should I care?”. At the end of every RadioLab episode you are left with the feeling that the subject is not just interesting but relevant for you, directly or indirectly. And this not because they told you that, but because at some point the story landed somewhere in the vicinity of your everyday life.
Last but not Least: Sound!
RadioLab is a highly produced and highly sound-designed podcast. And it is possibly the most brilliant example of how sound design can be used on a conceptual level. Of how sound can make up for the absence of visual input in SciComm podcasts. I could go on and on waxing lyrical about their use of sound, but the best you can do is experiencing it for yourself. Just listen to Rippin’ the Rainbow, an episode about the colour-sight of animals.
My reverse-engineering was based on the “golden age” of RadioLab, back when it was hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. Alas, after the retirement of the latter, some of the magic ingredients have turned sour: lately, the charming spontaneity is becoming a bit cliché (too much pointless laughing, too my taste), and “being on the listener’s side” verges on “playing dumb”. Even so, RadioLab is still one of the best SciComm podcasts out there, for quality of reporting, storytelling, and use of sound. Every (aspiring) SciComm podcaster can learn something from listening to RadioLab, whatever their topic, format, language. And luckily, their whole back catalogue is available for you to binge listen on their website, so... enjoy!