BBC Radio has a very long tradition of airing a weekly round-up of the world’s science news via the BBC World Service. Science in Action, as the programme is now called, has been running in one guise or another since the 1950s and with the advent of digital radio and the internet it now reaches millions of radio and podcast listeners around the globe. Since the start of February I have been presenting Science in Action and I thought I’d share a typical week with you.
The programme first airs on Thursday evenings at 2030GMT and is available to download after the first transmission. The week starts on Friday when the producer and I begin to look through lists of papers being released in the upcoming week. These papers are embargoed until a specific date, which means we can’t transmit anything about them before that date. At this stage we’re looking for anything really “big” – a story that is, ideally, embargoed until the following Wednesday or Thursday and has a chance of being our lead story. On a good week we’ll have one or even two of these by the end of Friday, but it doesn’t always work out like that. I’ve already learnt that my producer Fi has a brilliant eye for a good story!
We’ll keep looking over the weekend, but it’s not until Monday morning when things really start to happen in earnest. More journals will have published embargoed papers by then so we have more to choose from. By lunchtime, and via various emails, we should have identified two or three stories that will form the spine of the programme and then it’s a case of lining up interviews for the Wednesday. Contributors will usually have to go to a studio where they are based unless they live in or near London. We will then conduct the interview “down the line”, meaning that I’ll ask the questions from a studio in London and they’ll answer from their studio (wherever in the world that might be), with broadcast quality recording to capture what we say. Sometimes we have to do what is called a simulrec, where I’m being recorded in a studio but the contributor is hearing me over a phone line and recording their answers, typically on a phone. They can then email us the MP3; needless to say this is something of a last resort option. Because our contributors come from all over the world it can be a serious juggling act for the producer and the team to get studios at both ends booked for the right time – a contributor in LA doesn’t want to be talking to us at 4am but likewise we don’t want to be recording the interview at 8pm!
Tuesday is a chance for us to map out a few interviews via email to get a rough idea of questions and the general direction we’ll take, although we still won’t have a clear idea of the order in which we’ll cover them. At the end of Tuesday, I download all the papers and interview sheets in preparation for Wednesday.
Wednesday morning starts at 7am with a trip to New Broadcasting House in London from my house in rural Gloucestershire…so it’s a bus, train and tube ride. The upside of the journey though is that there’s plenty of time to read and research the items we are covering and to make notes for the forthcoming interviews. I’m fielding University emails, doing some marking and a bit of admin too so it does mean having to juggle a few different things. Coffee is definitely required!
Science in Action covers any and every type of science so I could find myself reading papers on chemistry, physics, astronomy, biology, medicine, in fact pretty much anything scientific. In the week I am writing this we covered the high pressure chemistry of helium, the climate and history of liquid water on Mars, the use of bacteria to convert carbon dioxide to ethanol and the science of treating phobias with subliminal images. For any interview it is always sensible to be as well informed as you can be about the topic, so I’ll try to read all the papers and background information I can – it really helps to have an organised producer!
By the time I get to the BBC, I’m feeling reasonably well prepared but at this stage, even with a lot of phone calls and emails from the production team, we still only really have a few contributors lined up for some pretty tight studio slots. There is nothing concrete yet and plenty of things can go wrong! Given that, it’s a big relief when we get the first interview recorded. We’ll be doing three or four interviews plus a “chatty bit” where we have studio guests, so it’s a pretty much non-stop from 11am until around 530pm, or later if we have some contributors from the west coast of the USA. I’ll try to keep my questions in as a sensible order as possible to avoid too much editing and the producer can put together a rough cut of each interview as we go along. By the end of the day, if all has gone well, we could have all, or all but one, of the “slots” in the programme recorded.
By the end of Wednesday we should have a plan for the running order and most of the audio is in either a “rough cut” form or has been tidied up by technicians and is ready to broadcast. But, at this stage, we still don’t have a script for me! On Thursday, I’ll have to write the script that will introduce the programme, link the material together and end the programme, as well introduce the podcast and write the trailers that go out before the programme airs. All in, that’s about 1000 or so words to write in a couple of hours that will broadcast across the world, so a fair bit of deadline pressure! As I walk back to my (very small) hotel room in Paddington I will be thinking of how I can link the items together and perhaps developing a theme for the programme. Of course, a beer or two on the walk back helps the process along…
Thursday is another reasonably early start. I like to walk in London when I can, rather than use the tube, so as long as it’s not raining too hard I’ll walk the 2 miles to the studio and be pondering the script as I go. By the time I arrive I have enough of an idea that I can sit down and write most of the script in one hit, with a good first draft appearing by 11am. We may also have to record another interview in that time. I’ll bounce the script around a bit with producer Fi, trim it for length, or pad it out if it looks a bit short, and I’ll run through and make sure my trails (“coming up next”) and billboard (a longer trail with a clip) are spot-on for length (17 seconds and 29 seconds, exactly!). I am tinkering with the script right up until 2pm, at which point we’ll print it and head to the studio to record it. The programme itself is put together by a studio engineer as we go along so that by the time I leave the studio it is more-or-less ready to air. Sometimes this can mean re-recording parts of the script to make them a little longer or shorter and that can be quite a fiddly process – trying to change a 30 second segment of script to 32 seconds or 28 seconds is not just a case of talking at a different pace! Adding in or taking out words can change the meaning and have knock-on effects so it’s better to get it right first time…
Once I’m done it’s literally a run to the tube at Oxford Circus to try to get the 1536 from Paddington back to Gloucester. Getting that train means I get to see my daughters before they go to bed, otherwise it can turn into a bit of a late one. Thanks to the joys of laptops and internet I can use the 2 hours heading home to catch up on Uni work from the day, or, as is the case here, do a little writing. Oh, and of course I’m always keeping an eye out for stories for the next week’s programme!
Adam Hart, Professor of Science Communication. Adam’s first stint presenting Science in Action runs until the end of April.