“Science Friday”‘s Ira Flatow: Selling Science by Weekly Radio

Growing up on Long Island, New York, Ira Flatow enjoyed dabbling with television sets and playing with electronics like ham radios.

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Flatow: Finding a job you love sure beats having to work.

“I just wanted to know how things worked,” he says. He thought a career in engineering would satisfy his desire to learn more about the basic mechanics of everyday life. But after graduating in 1971 at age 22 with an engineering degree from the State University of New York in Buffalo, he found that he wanted more. Though accepted to graduate school for city planning and intrigued by the idea of engineering a city, he also applied for a job at a public radio station. “I thought I would give it a year and see what happens,” returning to school if it wasn’t appealing, he says now. “I stayed there forever.”

Flatow, age 61, has been a public radio reporter ever since, and for the past 20 years has been the host and executive producer of “Science Friday,” a public radio show covering science. The same qualities that initially attracted him to engineering keep him excited about his job: probing basic questions of how nature works.

“Science Friday” was his brainchild. After several years covering a variety of beats at NPR in Washington, D.C., he pitched to news directors the idea of a one-hour, weekly call-in show. As he witnessed the growth of talk radio on the commercial side, bringing the same concept to public radio seemed a logical step, he said in a recent interview with The Yale Forum.

NPR management, which Flatow says has traditionally supported science coverage, jumped on board, and the National Science Foundation funded the new effort with seed money. Since then, other supporters have joined NSF to fund the program.

On-Air Science Minus the ‘Gotcha!’ Moments

Flatow says the longer “Science Friday” format allows him to spend more time on one topic and provides a chance for listeners to interact with researchers. “It allows the audience to see what these people are made of without being screened through print,” he said.

After the first program featured two scientists who disagreed on the cause of dinosaurs’ extinction, Flatow recalls how one listener said she hadn’t realized that scientists disagree with each other. The comment was particularly gratifying to him, as he wants his audience to understand that science frequently involves disagreement among peers. And scientists, he said, are eager to come on the show, since they know they’ll have the chance to provide detailed explanations of their perspective without the near certainty of cable and talk radio programs’ “gotcha” moments.

Flatow said he’s always surprised that many media “gatekeepers” seem to think the public is not interested in science stories. His experience suggests just the opposite. “They want to know how the world works and they love to talk about it.” With global warming, or when there’s an oil spill, Flatow thinks the public radio audience wants to understand the underlying science and judge for themselves the truth about what they’re hearing. His show provides the layers behind the reasoning — background logic and insights often not included in news reports, he says. He says the show, while airing, generally manages to keep eight listener call-in lines consistently ringing.

Flatow and his team of six producers are constantly looking for new science story ideas, dictating them as they occur during routine moments, like while driving or just relaxing.

Flatow: Climate Change ‘Defining Issue’ of Our Time

Over the years, “Science Friday” has delved extensively into climate change. “It’s the defining issue of our time,” says Flatow, who sees it affecting everything from the economy to health, business, and economics. Though he believes the scientific evidence is clear that climate change is occurring, his goal is not to change minds. Instead, he wants to provide information to “fence sitters” seeking solid information.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Flatow says, so highlighting these issues is what’s most important. His coverage is intended to further information available on climate change’s effects, mitigation possibilities, and what can be done to reduce or manage impacts.

Listeners, he said, crave solutions, and he thinks many have been motivated to take actions as a result of his broadcasts. Their interest has fueled “Science Friday”‘s success, Flatow adds, saying the weekly program now is heard on 300 public stations nationwide.

Flatow said he and his colleagues are always looking for ways to improve the program, and they now point to 24-million downloads of program podcasts a year. The show has 60,000 Twitter members, a number that grows by the week, and he says the progam routinely ranks among the top 15 podcasts on iTunes. “That’s how popular science is,” he says.

Don’t Work … Find a Job You Love

All of these outreach efforts — and initiatives to ensure the program is well received — are especially important during a time when foundation funding overall is dwindling, Flatow says.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t have to worry about where my funding is coming from,” he says, adding that NSF core funding, plus support from other nonprofits, for now at least make for a stable environment. Flatow said he spends at least a day a week on administrative tasks and fund raising.

“Find a job you love and you’ll never work,” says Flatow, who points to his role hosting “Science Friday” as a constant learning experience. He enjoys spending spare time in nature at his Connecticut home, watching orchids bloom and exploring the night sky from his telescope. He doesn’t even mind the twice-weekly commute into New York, where he tapes his show, and hopes he’ll have many more years hosting the program.

“I haven’t got a drop dead date unless I drop dead. I could see doing this for another 10 years.”

Julie Halpert

Julie Halpert, who has covered the environment for more than two decades for national publications, is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mi.
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