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Radio Conversations: The Art of Radio Communication of Science

Our guest writer for this piece is Mark Kesling. Mark is the founder and CEO of The daVinci Pursuit, an Indianapolis-based non-profit organization dedicated to engaging the community in meaningful science educational experiences through the integration with the arts. He writes about a radio program he runs with public radio journalist Jill Ditmire (WFYI) called “She Says Art/ He Says Science. Each episode features an artist and a scientist who discuss their collaborations that approach the same problem from seemingly different points of view. We are thrilled to feature this piece because we’ve seen first-hand the impact the daVinci Pursuit has had in our local community. –JMO

What motivates a physician or scientist to pursue an idea, notion, or theory? What language can we develop to more accurately describe our findings and suggestions? Conversations with patients, funders, and the community are challenging for working professionals. Rarely are we trained in ways to communicate directly about new ideas or solutions to problems in ways that lead to greater understanding and improved health.

Our research (4-year NSF Grant) as to how scientists communicate with the public has revealed the following key revelations:

  1. Language creates a barrier. Scientists use jargon and technical words to communicate relatively simple ideas, creating a disconnect between the professionals and members of the community.
  2. Culture creates distance. Scientists come from a different philosophical grounding, where being skeptical, curious, and oftentimes logical lie at the center of conversations with non-scientists.
  3. There is a notion that scientists are on the fringe of society and as such somehow seem removed from the normal part of society. While the reality is quite different, the public still perceives science as distant from their daily lives.
  4. The intersection between science and community can be looked at in psychological terms. The word cathexismeans attracting psychic energy. When you identify a problem and get obsessed with it, you become passionate. It is this passion for the “quest” that drives scientists much more than “getting” the answer.
  5. Learners approach learning something new like a child with a simple naiveté. Once information is learned and dissected, the initial wonder passes. At that point, it is possible to resubmit oneself to that wonder; that’s the second naiveté. It uses complexity. It is simplicity on the other side of complexity.
  6. As science advances, a divide is created between the research and the average person who wants to learn about science. We are at a point where science is becoming so specialized that it is nearly impossible to get non-scientists engaged in science — and we will reach only those people who really do have that drive to want to know something.
  7. There is a new realism about science in terms of the benefit to society and it’s no longer assumed that science can solve the problems. There was once optimism that science was moving in one direction and it was positive. A growing number of people now seem to doubt the utility of experts and science in our society.

Improving communication between professionals and the community is where the art of radio comes into play. Radio has the unique ability to help people listen to new ideas and to speak more freely than if they were sitting in a room and hearing a lecture. When done well, radio can create an intimate space where scientists and the listener can engage in a conversation. For the scientist, it removes the barriers posed by other media formats, including print and television. The anxiety level is lower, and when there is a good facilitator (host), understanding can occur.

Again, our research and experience have shown that a good radio host paired with a couple of scientists in a live format creates an experience for the public that helps both parties deal with complex concepts and ideas, by allowing the host to act as an “interpreter” who can bridge the gap.

In order for conversations to be effective the following things need to happen:

  1. Listen more than talk. Your goal here is to find out about as much as you can from the caller and host so that you can engage at their level of understanding and language. Suspend preconceived judgements and remove yourself from the role of “expert.”
  1. Talk about things of interest to the listener. As you listen to the caller, jot down some notes about what they are asking and saying. Try to discover ways in which to make a personal connection as you answer questions. It is also fine to ask questions as well.
  1. Think of your audience as one person. Even though a show has many listeners and guests, try to focus on one individual. The individual may be an actual caller or just someone you can imagine being “out there.”
  1. Keep energy in your voice. Enthusiastic people are more interesting to listen to. So, leave your clinical side in the car on the way to the studio. Try to be aware of your posture and your emotions. Emotions are key to creating a bond with your listener. Try to avoid portraying ideas and concepts as having no answers. The audience needs to have a sense of hope and that you are a part of helping find a solution one day to even the most complex problems.
  1. The mic is your friend. Be aware of the microphone but don’t make it the focus of your conversation. Speak clearly and try to keep your head movements directed toward the mic when talking. Keep some distance from the mic and allow the studio technician or host to control the volume to match your normal speaking voice. If you turn your head away from the mic or use large gestures like hitting the table or hitting the mic, you create a larger than normal sound on radio due to the amplification used.
  1. Be yourself. People can detect when someone is not being themselves. This may come from a perceived role from years being “the expert”, from clinical settings, or just from discomfort in speaking publicly. You are having a conversation with someone who wants to hear what you have to say, otherwise they wouldn’t be listening.

Interviewing or presenting information to a person and having a conversation with them are two different things. Finding a common thread, being genuinely curious, and wanting to hear what the other person is telling you will help form the basis for the broadcast audience. They will pick up on the empathy and respect you show the caller and be more willing to call in to the show as well.

Edited by Jason Organ, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine.

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About the Author
  • Mark Kesling

    Mark Kesling is a pioneering artist and science educator in the field of museum education and design for more than 30 years. He has designed, created and managed major exhibits and installations in museums including The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, The Carnegie Museum, The Exploratorium, the Children’s Museum of Wilmington, and currently serves as the founder & CEO. He is currently the Founder and CEO of the daVinci Pursuit. Mark continues to provide leadership in art and science through the design of a “museum without walls”. He possesses a unique set of skills, combining art with science in ways that engage learners of all ages. He works with neighborhood, city, institutional, artist and educational partners to create science installations in some of the most neglected neighborhoods in Indianapolis.

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