Tag Archives: outreach

Taking a walk on the Wild Side: My adventures in radio

I have found myself doing a lot of unexpected things over the years–singing in an a capella group, for example, and moving to England–but one thing I certainly never anticipated was having my own radio show.

My father is a radio journalist, so perhaps I should have seen this coming. When I was younger, I used to spend quite a lot of time at his office, where I would sit in the recording studio and pretend to be on air. I remember being particularly enthralled with the act of erasing old broadcasts from previously used tape cartridges. I also recall learning how to sort through old press releases and decide which ones should be broadcasted for a second day, and which should be tossed. I was even on air a couple of times–once because I won some sort of writing contest and was recorded reading my piece aloud, and another time because my dad had recorded me playing piano so that he could use the clip as “natural sound” in the background of a piece. With that kind of history, I was practically destined to grow up and become a radio personality.

The thing is, pretty much everything about radio broadcasting goes against my natural inclinations. I dislike speaking extemporaneously because, when I do, I say unbelievably stupid things. I’m not funny. I am not very good at interviewing or chatting with people. I can’t juggle too many things at once, so I don’t feel comfortable switching between CDs and microphones or doing fancy things with the sound. Really, the only thing I’ve got going for me is the fact that I can’t stand the idea of avoiding something because it scares me–well, that and the skill of being able to speak at length about things even when I don’t precisely know what I’m talking about.

So how in the world did I end up hosting my own radio show? It was suggested by a colleague at the University of Exeter who knew about my interest in science outreach. He had done some guest spots on some previous science-themed broadcasts at our local station, The Source 96.1 FM, so he knew the people in charge and had an inkling that they might want to host a show devoted to science. Before I could think twice and say no, he’d sent an e-mail to the Powers That Be, and I found myself signed up for a training day.

This is what I found when I arrived at The Source for my introduction to the studio (although this particular photo was taken later–station manager Matthew Rogers wasn’t picnicking outside on that first day). The mobile office units were donated to the station by construction companies at the University of Exeter; they allowed Source to move out of their quarters at the University College Falmouth and exist independently. While they may not look too exciting from the outside, they were a pretty big step up for the radio station; besides, the magic results from what happens within.

This is the main studio, from which the majority of shows are broadcasted; there is also a smaller second studio that is mostly used for pre-recording (on the rare occasions when it is necessary). On the training day, I was one of 4 people who showed up to the station to find out about possibly getting a show. We heard a little bit about Source’s origins and scope, then were quickly ushered into the studio to get our first lesson on how to work the equipment. That was when I realized that thinking about having a radio show is a very different thing from actually having a radio show; staring down a microphone and resting your hands on the soundboard very much help turn a mere concept into a reality.

I tried to drag my feet as much as possible, but after a couple of follow-up training sessions, there was not much more I could learn about operating the soundboard–basically, you play a song by pushing up one switch and pulling down another, then do the reverse in order to go back to talking. Once I had that mastered, I really had no excuses to put off my first show any longer.

To make things easy on myself, I decided that the theme of my first broadcast would be the topic on which I am (theoretically) most expert: birdsong. Conveniently, I was also in the midst of writing a magazine article on that very same idea, so I was able to use the written piece as a framework for the oral version of the presentation. The one last hurdle I had to clear prior to the first episode was coming up with a name for my show. I toyed with the idea of calling it “Anthrophysis” in honor of my science blog of the same name, but I didn’t want to restrict my scope; “anthrophysis” loosely means “humans” and “nature,” and I anticipated plenty of times when I’d want to talk about the latter without trying to connect it to the former. I’m not sure where my inspiration came from, but I realized that at some point I had started thinking of my show as the “Wild Side,” and that is the name that ultimately stuck.

I was pretty terrified on the day of my first broadcast, to the point where I was physically ill the night before and the entire day of the show. Ditto the next week and the week after that…in fact, things didn’t start getting any easier until my 5th or 6th episode. You would think that after all these years of performing in front of people, it wouldn’t bother me any more, but it still does. It doesn’t matter whether I’m playing an instrument, singing, acting, running a race, giving a lecture, or, now, hosting a radio show; I still feel absolutely miserable. It’s an especially weird reaction to broadcasting because, as far as I can see from my position in the studio, I am completely alone; I’m basically sitting in a room just talking to myself. My mind, however, is aware that there is (potentially) an audience out there, so I still get the nervous adrenaline rush and all the fun side effects that come with it.

One of the things I do to minimize the stress is make my shows as simple as possible. Eventually I may do “fancy” things such as taking calls and interviewing guests, but for now I essentially do a lecture not unlike one I might give to students at the university–only in this case I take occasional breaks to play music. I started off discussing topics for which I already had presentations prepared and/or research compiled, including animal communication, deception in the animal kingdom, and the ecology of urban environments. After that, I had to step out into the great unknown and talk about things that I’d only just researched during the week prior to my show. That was a nerve-wracking transition to make, because I hate saying anything that I am not 100% sure of, and for me, being 100% sure requires doing months and months of reading. Each week, I type out notes that I can use as an intellectual crutch to get me through the broadcast. I don’t read them out like a manuscript, because I’m pretty sure that would bore listeners stiff. I do, however, use them to make sure I discuss things in the right order, say the correct names and dates, and know when to break for songs.

The songs themselves are probably the most fun thing about doing the broadcasts. I have a truly massive music collection, including lots of stuff that I acquired simply because I found it odd or amusing. I now finally have a reason to own all of this music. I prefer to choose songs that refer to the overall theme of each week’s broadcast–for the birdsong week, for instance, I chose songs with “bird” in the title or, where necessary, the name of a particular bird (“dove,” “eagle,” etc.). Occasionally that is difficult to do, and I have to choose songs that express the different topics or themes I discuss throughout the broadcast. That is what I had to do for my show on science history, because, as it turns out, there aren’t lots of songs with “history” in the title.

If there is anything that could be considered my broadcasting kryptonite, it is distracting bird activity outside the studio window. I have had to train myself to ignore all the little house sparrows, dunnocks, wrens, and blackbirds that come and go while I am on air. There was one early episode during which I realized that I’d completely zoned out for about 5 minutes–while talking–because I was watching the birds outside. Another thing I find totally distracting is the sound of my own voice. Frankly, I’m not really sure why I even wear headphones while I’m in the studio, since I have the volume turned down so low that the speakers are basically not transmitting any sound into my ears.

Listeners (again, assuming there are any other than my family) may not be aware of too many obvious differences between my first and most recent shows, but I certainly feel different. Since I first went on air, I have become much more comfortable with the whole broadcasting process, from the rushed turnover between shows to adjusting volume levels while talking to shrugging off the errors I make while speaking. Much of this is thanks to studio manager Jerry Padfield, who has coached me from Day 1. I still have a long way to go, but I am no longer feeling as much pressure to be perfect all the time (if only I could apply this same attitude to the rest of my life!). I have even relaxed enough to start taking a video camera in to record my episodes for later uploading to YouTube.

Of course, the purpose of the show is not to expand my horizons or make me popular or get me a job with the BBC (all of which, however, are fine by me!), but to teach people about science. While I have absolutely no idea whether it is succeeding at that goal, I have my fingers crossed; if only one person learns one thing each week, I have succeeded. I’d also be happy to learn that someone discovered a new musician thanks to the songs I play. (That possibility, incidentally, is one of the things that first attracted my father to radio.) If nothing else, though, I’ve had the chance to meet new people, learn new skills, conquer old fears, and gain a tiny bit of perspective on what my dad has been doing every weekday for the past 30 years. I may not get paid the big bucks for hosting “Wild Side” (or, in fact, any bucks at all), but those achievements are reward enough.

If you want to hear “Wild Side,” tune in to Cornwall’s The Source 96.1 FM from 1-2 PM GMT every Wednesday (over the airwaves or online). Podcasting is coming soon, either via The Source or my own website. You can also visit the latter to access YouTube links to episodes 8 (“A Brief History of Science”) and 9 (“The Science of Bird Migration”).