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The Case of the Nutty Dish: A Science Radio Detective Story

This post is part of the STEM Story Project series.

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Image credit: Center for Disease Control

It all comes down to one question: chicken or peanut butter?

They’re called disease detectives – the nation’s medical eyes and ears on the lookout for disease outbreaks and bioterror attacks. The Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officers at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention go all over the world to handle outbreaks of measles, malaria, and even Ebola. Each July, 70 new trainees become EIS Officers.

In producer Philip Graitcer’s PRX STEM Story Project piece, you’re invited to step into the role of an EIS officer and join two rookies as they help solve a science mystery. This is the case of the nutty dish.

Don’t think this is purely a work of fiction, for truth may be far stranger. Philip Graitcer himself was an EIS officer from 1976 to 1978. He remained at the CDC for another 18 years after that: “The first day at CDC, I was sent, from work, to Philadelphia to find the cause of Legionnaires’ Disease. When I became an independent radio producer, one of the things I wanted to do was prepare a radio drama based on an outbreak investigation.”

Almost 40 years after his first introduction to epidemiology, he still says that he’s in awe of the process of solving an epidemic. The piece not only gives us insight on how an agency works to investigate an outbreak, but it also highlights deductive thinking, a core part of the scientific process.

Graitcer reminds us that field epidemiology and solving disease outbreaks is not an exact science in spite of the technology available to us today. Still: “There is still a lot of hypothesis testing and plain old detective work needed to solve an outbreak.”

Younger Ears and Different Dollars: Funding Public Radio in a Mobile Era

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Is public radio on the cusp of expansion or disruption? PRX CEO Jake Shapiro and Current.org‘s Mark Fuerst talked about listenership and public radio funding models on the PRX couch.

From crowdfunding trends to historical comparisons between public television and public radio—some of their observations might surprise you. Listen here, or read the transcript below.

Jake Shapiro: I’m really excited to be sitting down on our couch with Mark Fuerst, who is the director of the Public Media Futures Forum and former executive director of the Integrated Media Association, and a longstanding public media maven, researcher, occasional provocateur.

We’re talking about taking a fresh look at the public media/public radio audience opportunity for this moment we’re in, which still feels like a shift, in a way. We’ve been thinking a lot about that at PRX, around how to help producers navigate their way towards new audiences and their habits of consuming and supporting the media that they love.

I think you were saying that you see some historical comparisons in public television two decades ago.

Mark Fuerst: One of my jobs is to call people and ask them what they’re thinking about in terms of making investments at their stations or working with networks. I think it’s widely shared in the industry that we’ve lost a bit of track of what people are actually using. And some of that is podcasts, because asynchronous use of audio is very hard to track.

Mark Fuerst (left) and Jake Shapiro at PRX.
Mark Fuerst (left) and Jake Shapiro at PRX.

There’s also the problem of when people move across platforms, there’s no continuous way right now to look at a person who might in the morning listen to Morning Edition, during the day listen to downloaded audio, come back and listen for a few minutes in a car on the way home, but maybe listen to something totally different in the evening.

The reason why that’s so important is that the more people use public radio the more they are likely to support it, and individual contributions are the largest factor in the business model.

JS: And how big is that business model? Can you talk a little bit about just the sort of sizing of the public radio economy?

MF: I don’t remember what the total number, Jake, for the whole economy is; it’s more than a billion dollars right now. The individual giving sector is 350 million, 360 million dollars and has been growing fairly steadily.

JS: And I think you said there are about 3 million givers?

MF: Just slightly under 3 million I think. So there are about 3 million people contributing, it’s the highest it’s ever been.

What’s happened now is that across the system, there is a topping off, there’s another leveling we’re hitting where the number of people who are contributing, it’s not going down but it’s not growing very much, but the amount of people are contributing is going up because of sustainer programs—most people listening to this going to know what that means—and huge growth in major giving.

So the question really becomes, of the younger people entering the public radio, audio world—can we bring those people into the same relationship of appreciation support that so many people have developed over the last 30 years? And we don’t really know because we don’t actually even know what they’re doing.

We know when they listen to radio station, because Nielsen or Arbitron is going to measure that in some way. But when they move to other use forms—going to website, or listening to downloaded audio—we don’t know what they, we don’t know what they really value. That’s a hugely important piece of information.

I found information in the spring that showed that the peak of donations to public television occurs in 1993 at 5 million members. It had been growing in the previous decades. And then it begins to decline, so that from 1993 until now its been reduced from from 5 million members to 3 million members, almost the same now in public television and radio. And what I was asking myself when I saw that was, what happened in 1993? Why does that occur?

And my hypothesis is that this is related to the explosion of delivery capacity. Because that year literally is the beginning of digital cable. We go from analog cable systems that would deliver 70 radio channels to digital cable systems that delivered 500 channels.

We seem to be in the same moment. The advent of the phone as an audio device as opposed to something that you use to talk to people, that seems to me to be somewhat similar to the expansion of analog to digital cable.

And what I’ve been asking my colleagues is are we seeing something like that happen now with membership? Because what happens is you don’t originally begin to see your membership money go down, your individual giving, because you’ll figure ways to get people to give more and more. But the group of donors begins to contract.

Well, I don’t think we’ve seen contraction yet. There’s a flattening. So the question really now becomes how to take the people who appreciate public media and serve them in new ways and keep them appreciative enough to donate as they make their own transition to new usage patterns.

JS: It’s a fascinating hypothesis which I hope is born out by further research.

It illuminates all kinds of other ways to think about that lost opportunity in 1993—how public television managed that transition—and then what that might say for the opportunity have now.

In the last 10 years, which is the arc of PRX’s own evolution, there were a  bunch of false starts sensing that that moment had come. Whether it was XM satellite radio being this kind of “is that the cable television of radio that’ll change the game?” No it didn’t really, partly because adoption didn’t happen fast enough.

Podcasting, when it first emerged, seemed like that was going to be this huge democratization of distribution, of expression, and that actually really flattened out and never took off for a good six, seven, eight years—until the mobile platform has transformed because of its huge penetration, because of its ability to a consumption, distribution and production device.

That has some interesting parallels, but also huge differences in that it’s not sort of top-down controlled, major players who only are the ones through cable channels that you have to lobby to get programming approval or massive investment in order to even mount the kind of content creation that you’d think for that.

So where PRX is sitting, we see this as part of our challenge with public radio. Within that universe, where do you see PRX’s opportunity to help navigate this?

MF: First of all I think you’ve already established yourself as a center of independence, meaning independent thinking but also independent producers. Attracting a lot of talent. We were discussing this over lunch. PRX has a character that is different than the built-in system of public broadcasting.

The built system of public broadcasting is a geographically based system. PRX is not. The digital world is not a geographically based system. So that there’s universal reach to almost every single producer.

So for PRX, I think you’re positioned to begin to look at how do you take talent and give them the support—some of it’s going to be coaching around making great programs, but some of it’s also going to be technical support, marketing, delivery capacity—to reach people.

And 99% Invisible is a great example you’re using. The audience for people who are really interested in how design affects life is large enough to be an audience for a podcast but might not be large enough to be an audience for a radio station.

If you look back now to the digital cable thing, no commercial network ever had a cooking show. After 1994, there were cooking channels. Because the audience size needed to support a cooking channel was a fraction of the audience size needed to support a million-dollar-per-episode sitcom.

So there’s a shift in the fundamental production dynamics. There’s a release of a certain amount of creative energy. You need structures through which people can accomplish things. You know not everybody’s a genius to do everything. So I think PRX represents this structure that can attract capital.

And the reason why we’ve been talking is there is is also a level of understanding of what the market looks like. Who are the audience members? What do they think? How do they use this stuff? What would they prefer? You need people to collect that information. Most producers are not going to do that. They are just going to produce programs. So PRX has to play some kind of role there, some galvanizing role to pull these pieces together.

JS: You did last year talk about the effect or non-effect of the sort of Kickstarter economy on the larger public radio giving economy, and that there’s a potential misperception of how influential that is. So you took a look at that and said, despite what seems like a potentially very disruptive piece of how giving is happening as it migrates to some direct-to-producer support, this is actually not, when you talk to stations or talk to listeners, threatening the edifice of that cornerstone of the economy.

MF: Well, I never talk to any listeners except for my wife and a few other friends. I talk mostly to PDs, program directors.

The people who make decisions as to what to put on the air view the relationship between distributors and the audience as basically a wholesale retail thing. “We buy programs, we put them on air, and we retail them—we give them to people in exchange, and people give us the money that we pay you in fees.” And the direct relationship between some of the best producers and their audiences—and there are a few, not a lot—that do bring back some substantial dollars—that seems a violation of that model.

But when I would ask people, “Do you see any deterioration in your membership revenues or your membership relationships based upon that violation?” The answer was universally “no.”

But remember, Jake, you just were referring to something: There’s almost always a very big lag between the emergence of a disruption and when it really starts to happen. So, while Kickstarter or other forms of financial relationships that could support new production models may be small now, you have to draw the trend line up. And then where does the trend line become strong enough that it begins to undermine the other business model? I don’t know that we would see that for years, but it’s certainly nothing to ignore, and every subsequent discussion I have with people, I’ve included questions about whether you, for example at a station, would want to start doing Kickstarters. And I’d say half the people say we’ve at least thought about it.

Most producers, even station people, don’t realize the size of the public radio economy. The program economy’s $500 million. So if there are producers taking $5 million in Kickstarter and direct contributions, it’s just not really rockin’ the boat. Is there within ten years a possibility of that changing? It’s not inconceivable.

(Radio image via Shutterstock)

James Donaldson closer

When Quotation Marks Just Don’t Cut It

“It’s Not About The Fish” juxtaposes trauma, rage, and violence with the surreal order of a gurgling river.

It’s been years since I’ve gone fishing. But hear a line plop in water, the rapid click of a reel, and I feel like I’m there. That’s what sound does.

Yes, other things—the smell of the river, the view of dark trees lining open sky—make fishing tranquil. But to me, it’s the sound—what you hear while you silently wait for a bite—that centers and calms.

Jessica Murri sent us this story about military vets, and in our Second Ear edit session, we tried to make that sound sing. We trimmed narration and music, re-structured to clarify the narrative, added ambient sound and slimmed the character list down from four to three.

It’s Not About The Fish” juxtaposes trauma, rage, and violence with the surreal order of a gurgling river. I hope you take the time to listen.

BEFORE:

AFTER:

_________________________________

Producer Jessica Murri
“I have a bit of a love affair with radio,” says Boise Weekly reporter Jessica Murri.

Here’s Jessica:

I have a bit of a love affair with radio going. Even though my day job is staff writer at the Boise Weekly (in little known about but really amazing Boise, Idaho), I still miss radio.

It’s my favorite medium for telling stories because it’s one of the truest ways to put a person in a place. For this story about a few military vets going fly fishing, I couldn’t resist bringing along my recorder.

I wrote this story for print as well, but I couldn’t make the reader really hear how George Nickel told me about being in an armed standoff with the Boise Police Department. I couldn’t capture the way James Donaldson’s voice dropped when he said, “It’s still hard to accept the fact that I don’t have my legs.” Sometimes quotation marks just don’t cut it.

In print, I couldn’t capture the way James Donaldson’s voice dropped when he said, “It’s still hard to accept the fact that I don’t have my legs.” Sometimes quotation marks just don’t cut it.

Jake Thacker
Jake Thacker (photo by Jessica Murri)

Turning on my recorder for four hours really takes the listener to the Boise River, I hope. You can say “the birds chirping” all you want, but sometimes it’s just better to be there.

I don’t get to do much radio working in print, so I end up doing these little side projects for myself, just for fun, and then they sit on my desktop and no one ever hears them. Well, Erika and Genevieve wanted to! And after, like, 50,000 emails back and forth, they made my little radio project something more than a, well, little radio project.

I’m really glad I got such professional help on this story. I hope it makes it to a wider audience so I can share a piece of Idaho life.

Explore Jessica Murri’s other work here. You can submit a story to Second Ear during the first five days of every month. Follow #SecondEar on Twitter to hear the latest and share your thoughts.

Hello, I am Eve

Hi everyone, I’m Eve, the new software engineer at PRX. I started learning to program about a year ago after finishing up my English degree at Kenyon College. I was obsessed with public radio, and I thought to myself, “Maybe if I learn to program, I can work somewhere cool, like PRX.” So, I decided to go to Launch Academy here in Boston, and now, here I am. I’m excited to learn from the awesome tech team here at PRX!

Now’s the part where I list my radio nerd credentials. As a child I looked forward to Car Talk and Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! all week. In junior high I streamed BBC Radio 4 while writing HTML for my various websites. (I was very popular.) Then I discovered podcasts, and loaded up my iPod with The Sound of Young America and This American Life to make it through gym class. When I got to Kenyon, I tried to replicate shows like You Look Nice Today and Jordan, Jesse GO! with my own silly show on WKCO. I was lucky enough to intern at Studio 360 after my junior year. For my final project at Launch Academy, I made a social network for podcast listeners called Pod People. (Good name, right?)

But there’s more to my life than just listening to podcasts. I also make podcasts! I have a show about Disney Channel Original Movies where my friend and I use our liberal arts degrees to overanalyze them. It’s called The DCOM Podcast. (Good name, right?) The next episode will be about Johnny Tsunami. Check us out on iTunes.

A Golden Age: How to Join the Podcast Revolution

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They call this the golden age of audio. How did it happen? What’s in store for podcasts—and how can producers and public radio stations be part of the movement? PRX CEO Jake Shapiro and Erik Diehn, Midroll Media‘s VP of Business Development, sit down on the PRX couch and talk radio (listen right here or read the transcript below).

___________________________________________________________

Jake Shapiro: Hi. It’s Jake here at PRX, and we’re very excited to have a guest in our offices, Erik Diehn, who most recently was at WNYC and, as of I think three or so weeks ago, has taken the plunge to join Midroll. So we’re gonna riff for a couple minutes on podcasting.

Erik Diehn: Sounds Good. Yes, it’s Midroll Media technically speaking, which is the parent company of the Midroll business which is the ad sales business, and Earwolf, which is the consumer-facing comedy podcast network and brand. We brought you shows like Comedy Bang Bang, How Did This Get Made, Who Charted?, Analyze Phish, The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project, and we have probably another dozen, half-dozen shows in the pipeline.

Jake Shapiro and Erik Diehn
PRX CEO Jake Shapiro and Midroll Media’s Erik Diehn

JS: Earwolf has a couple dozen shows, and then Midroll represents something like over a hundred different podcasts?

ED: Yeah, I think the total number of podcasts at this point is probably 120, 130.

JS: Part of what I wanted to just have a quick conversation about is podcasting itself, because we’re in this ripe moment.

In the minutes before walking in here to chat, we had American Public Media just launching its new podcast network, which I gather Midroll is representing on the sponsorship sales side. We were just excited here in the office because Bill McKibben at The Dish just wrote a rave review of Radiotopia—he’s talking about the golden age of audio, and of course Radiotopia being PRX’s podcast network we launched earlier this year.

So it seems like this convergent moment, a revival, in a way, because podcasting kind of leapt out of the blogging world right around the time PRX was getting started, but it feels like there was this arc where podcasting emerged, there was all this hype and hope, and then it kind of stalled out for a long time.

ED: It was always about to blow up. Next year, it was gonna be big, for a long time.

JS: I feel like you would probably agree with me, but I’d like to hear what you think about it. What do you think of podcasting, and why are we in this moment?

ED: Yeah, I think the reason it didn’t ever get larger than it was back then is for a couple reasons. First is on the commercial side, when Apple just decided podcasting was going to be free. That doomed it, in a way, to being an advertiser-driven business, at least in the initial run. Doom is probably the wrong word, because I think there’s been a lot of good to come out of that decision. It’s become something people can find now much more easily than things that are tucked away behind some monolithic paywall.

But the other reason for its late-blooming success was, I think, just the technology. As everyone knows it’s much easier on a smartphone to get to a podcast. The interface has shifted form this complicated one, where you have to download onto your iTunes and then sync it up. Well, you’ve already lost 97% of the American consumer when you have to do those steps.

Friction is the enemy of all products these days, and I think podcasts had a lot of friction for a long time. The plus side of that is the people who did come to it were really devoted fans. The intimacy of the medium, the fact that it was a really opt-in experience—versus the lean-back radio it’s just on in the car means the people who listen to podcast—those are your biggest fans.

And that’s part of what’s made Earwolf successful. A comedian can find a fan base there. They can engage them in a way they’re not necessarily gonna engage them on a Comedy Central stand-up special, and that drives all the other parts of their business. And obviously for public radio, it’s been a natural transition, because the audience is already so engaged. So I think that’s a  reason public radio was early to the game and continues to be such a huge part of it.

JS: So what would be your advice for producers who are now feeling like, “Well, maybe this actually is a viable path for me, no longer waiting to get on public radio.” What’s your advice for them?

ED: That’s a good question. Scarcity is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, having scarce air time means it’s really hard to get through the gatekeepers. It’s hard to get on air. Same thing with television. When there’s scarce number of channels, it’s hard to get in there—but once you do, the money starts to come in. Podcasting absolutely gets rid of all that. The barrier to entry is super, super low. You have to know how to record audio. So there’s this huge long tail of 99,000, 100,000 podcasts.

So if you’re a producer, one of the things you have to do is make something that’s good. That doesn’t guarantee it will find an audience. So actually what you really have to do is make something that 50,000-100,000 people find good.

If you put out a piece of audio content and within two to three weeks, 50,000 people download and/or stream that content, you have found an audience that can lead to some level of sustainability. That does not mean that you’re going to be a millionaire, and if you have a ten person staff, you’re not going to break even with 50,000 people listening.

But given where podcasting is today, and the growth that I personally expect over the next five years, today’s 50,000 threshold may be 250,000 a few years from now. A small show may be two to three times larger. And suddenly I think the cutoff between sustainable and not sustainable will go a little bit farther down the distribution curve.

So, you have to make something good. It helps if it’s not your only thing. If you’re a comedian and you’ve got a stand-up business and a movie business and all these other things going on, then podcasting is another angle. If you’re an audio producer, thinking about live events, thinking about ways to engage the audience in digital fora, or through other revenue streams, is super important from day one.

When I was at WNYC, what we were looking for as we looked to bring in producers for new shows—shows we sort of quasi-acquired—was real entrepreneurial, self-starter people who were just gonna do everything they could to make a show grow. And people who were also writing books on the side, and having video projects on the side. And people who have multiple streams for both their audience to consume and also to generate revenue are going to be healthier than people relying on just trying to get something on terrestrial radio.

So, first rule of podcasting, make sure it’s not your only job until probably a few years from now, when it can be. But the good news is today, it’s not a zero-dollar medium either. I don’t want to call it real money but there’s dollars coming in. Advertisers are interested, and the audience continues to show willingness to pay in some form or fashion.

JS: Anything else about frequency and length of podcasts, or other insights to gain from seeing this whole network you’re helping manage?

ED: Be consistent, and try and be regular, so the audience knows when to listen. If you put something out, and six months later, you put something else out, it’s going to be hard to build an audience. But if you do something every other week, that’s OK, as long as you do it every other week.

And then consistency in format. If the audience expects a ten-minute show, don’t suddenly go to two hours. But beyond that, I think there’s huge flexibility.

I was talking to somebody a couple weeks ago who had heard about this podcast called the 12 Hour Podcast, that is two guys who just mic themselves up and record their day, for twelve hours. And you would think, well, no one would possibly listen to that. But they know somebody’s listening because in hour nine of one of the episodes, the guys is transacting with a store clerk—because by hour two they actually forget that they’re recording—and he gives the store clerk his phone number. And he starts getting text messages, because people are listening in hour nine of this thing.

So there’s a whole lot of freedom. You’re not fitting into a broadcast clock, but you’ve gotta figure out what the audience wants, and then keep it consistent.

Now, given all that, you have to think about when people are listening. Commutes are 30-40 minutes. If you’re gonna do a produced, packaged show that people are engaging in, maybe keep it that length. On the other hand, there are people who like to have talk on at work for two hours in the background. Even some of our comedy shows can do quite well even though they’re multiple hours.

JS: Given your vantage point on the whole ecosystem that seems to be growing around podcasting, what are things that you’re excited about that you see on the horizon, and what are some things that you think remain a big challenges?

ED: I’m super excited about cars, in general. That has been such a huge place of listening for so long. I think Volvo’s releasing its first model with Carplay, which is the Apple iPod integration, where you’ve got the indash experience. Podcasts is among the seven apps you see there. And all of the sudden it becomes easier for people to listen. That’s gonna take several years to really take hold. I think the move away from cached downloaded listening to just it’s something to just I’m gonna hit play and listen—that helps all of us because it helps with content availability. It’s going to take a while for broadband to be widely penetrated for us for that to be universally true, but I think over time more and more listening will be that way.

I think general consumer awareness continues to increase. I’m excited because I keep talking to people who I wouldn’t expect to be listening to podcasts, and they say, “Oh, no, I listen to this and this and this and this.”

I really wish we had a better name. Unfortunately, we can’t just say audio, like people who make web video can. You know Netflix is, yeah, it’s movies and TV shows. “Podcast” still has that connotation. I guess we just have to embrace it, and eventually it kind of takes on a new meaning.

JS: Having now crossed the bridge from public radio out into the wide world of podcasting what’s your sense of what public radio’s opportunity or advantage or challenge is?

ED: Public radio has one of the most engaged audiences. That audience is increasingly going to shift from lean-back, linear, terrestrial streaming to on demand and digital streaming. And I think public radio needs to keep moving with the audience. The membership model’s gonna be a challenge, no question. The economics of the system are built for that terrestrial world. It’s gonna be really hard to navigate, and that’s part of what I enjoyed doing while I was there.

But I think creating that bridge between producer and audience is the critical task of public radio. And remembering that you can be a local station that produces great content for not necessarily a national audience. You can still be a producer without being a distributor. The more that stations understand their role in that ecosystem and understand that they need to start investing in content, that they need to start filling in gaps that newspapers, for example, are now creating in their disappearance—the more that happens,  the healthier the system will be in the long run.

It’s not about the transmitter. It’s about the good content, the audience, and having funding models that do not depend upon content that is purely commercially viable.

JS: Thanks so much, Erik. You are our debut guest on the couch in Jake’s office. And it was awesome.

ED: Thanks for having me. I love you guys, too. And I listen.

 

(Radio image via Shutterstock)

Meet this year’s STEM Story Project productions

The Public Radio Exchange and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation are proud to present our second annual STEM Story Project! This year, we’re bringing you 14 more brand new public radio stories that span a range of topics across science, technology, engineering, and math.

Open your minds and ears and listen to the pieces below, or navigate to the full playlist here.

Share your favorites via #PRXSTEM on Twitter!

Early Bloom, Peter Frick-Wright & Robbie Carver – Scientists are learning the language of plants. Hear about them and the controversies surrounding the research and the father of the field.

700 Fathoms Under the Sea, David Schulman – Something unusual happens about 1,000 meters under the sea. Ocean physics — pressure, temperature, and saltiness — create a zone called the “sound channel.”

The Indiana Jones of Mathematics, Ben Harden — The Indiana Jones of mathematics joins the dots between stealth shields, voter theory and osteoporosis as he studies the melting polar ice.

A Rainbow of Noise, Marnie Chesterson – Red and yellow and pink and green. Can you build a rainbow out of sound, not colour? We try, and tell the stories of the noise colors.

That Crime of the Month, Lauren Spohrer from the Criminal Show podcast – Can PMS be so debilitating for some women that it relieves them of criminal liability?

The Making of a Medical Detective or the Case of a Nutty Affair, Philip Graitcer – They’re called medical detectives. They hunt down the causes of outbreaks. Follow along as trainees learn and solve mock epidemics.

Fire on the Mountain: Climate Change, Fire, and the Ecological Future of the American West, Aengus Anderson – In the wake of a catastrophic fire, researchers use Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains to look centuries into the future of climate change.

Visual Stylometry: Where Math Forays into Art, Jenny Chen – Where math and art collide: mathematicians use stylometry in the battle to determine who created what art.

Asteroid Miners Prepare to Harvest Outer Space, Audrey Quinn – Life in space has one very practical roadblock: supply costs. We visit aspiring asteroid miners with plans to grab materials already out there.

Finding Science in Speculation with Bayes Theorem, Sydney Beveridge – From controversy and rejection to mystery-solving and everyday use.

COMING SOON: This is Crohn’s Disease, Jack Rodolico – A patient with Crohn’s disease visits the best doctor in the world. That patient is Jack’s wife.

COMING SOON: Células Madres: The Mother of All Cells, Anayansi Diaz-Cortes – What is a stem cell? What’s a stem cell transplant? To a scientist? A doctor? A husband? A mother?

COMING SOON: That Raving Animal, Britt Wray — A music industry for animals exists, but different species hear different sounds. One woman throws concerts for animals to test their ears.

COMING SOON: No Vaccination Without Information, Luke Quinton — In 1776 John Adams and his family weren’t just fighting a revolution, they were fighting smallpox. You’ll be surprised to hear just how.

Questions/comments? Contact us at stem@prx.org.

*For more information on how the stories were chosen, see this page.

A Snapshot of Homelessness: Finding the Richer, Truer Story

Don
Don Schonenbeck (photo by Clay Scott)

If I met Don Schonenbeck on the street, I’d probably step right past him. I’d walk by never understanding why he’s chosen to wander west coast highways — how a series of painful deaths thrust him toward alcohol and into depression. That’s why I appreciate stories like the one producer Clay Scott made about Don. (You should take five minutes right now and listen to it.)

When we workshopped it in our Second Ear program, I pushed Clay to go back to Don and dig up some tape we could use to restructure the piece. What Clay found when he went looking for Don wasn’t what we’d hoped, but it completely changed the nature of the story. It’s a lesson in how powerful revisiting a story can be. If you follow a person or a topic over time, the story will be richer — and truer.

Clay will explain in a moment. But first, a taste of what we talked about.

  • Narrative structure. Hooking the listener, clarifying chronology, and pacing emotional peaks.
  • Asking why, and then asking it again. People respond to death differently. That’s what makes death so interesting. Get to the bottom of what’s really going on.
  • Leading with sound. Start with the ambi, and don’t identify it right away.
  • Give emotion to the acts, use narration for the facts. Hey, it rhymes. But what I mean is that you can summarize a sequence of events, but only your subject’s voice can lend real emotion. So don’t overextend acts to explain boring info. Just keep the gems.
  • Recognizing the weird. When Don said he wanted to put himself in situations he could neither predict nor control, he was subverting a lot of human instinct. That’s something I want to hear more about in a raw, honest way.

Your turn. Take a listen to the “Before” and “After.” What differences do you hear?

BEFORE:

AFTER:

___________________________________________________
Here’s Clay:

Producer Clay Scott
Producer Clay Scott

I’m used to working alone, so it was an incredible treat to have Erika Lantz and Genevieve Sponsler lend their astute ears to “I Ain’t Leavin My Road Dog,” a profile of Don, a homeless Montana man.  

I thought the original story (which aired back in January in my series “Mountain West Voices”) was pretty good. Listeners found it powerful and moving. People told me they appreciated hearing the type of voice they don’t often get a chance to hear.

In particular, my audience seemed to like the symmetry of the story: A man endures unimaginable tragedy, falls into a depression, and wanders the back roads of America for 20 years before deciding to settle down. When we leave him, he is working on a grant to help him open a small business. It’s almost a Hollywood ending, and it was very satisfying. In fact, the other two profiles I’ve done of homeless people in recent months had similar happy endings.  

But when Erika and Genevieve asked me to follow up with Don to add more depth to the story, I found that he had fallen off the wagon, and that he’d been kicked out of the shelter where he was staying. So much for the happy ending! I spent a few days looking for him, before learning that he had been seen walking out of town along the highway.  

After consulting with the Second Ear team, we decided that I still had a story, and agreed that I should add a sort of post script or epilogue to the original piece.

In the end, I think the re-worked piece turned out to be much more powerful than the original. Instead of the happy ending (appealing though it was) we have a story that is much more reflective of the reality of homelessness: a story about how easy it is to lose your moorings, and, having lost them, how incredibly hard it can be to find your way again.

A few additional notes: I didn’t mean to imply that we left the original story intact, and simply tacked on a postscript. Like the top notch radio brains they are, Erika and Genevieve were able improve the flow and pacing of the story significantly with a few deft and subtle changes: switching these two acts, bringing up the ambi a couple beats earlier here, tightening this track, lengthening this fade, etc. All in all, a wonderful experience to work with the Second Ear team.

[You can submit a story to Second Ear during the first five days of every month. Follow #SecondEar on Twitter to hear the latest and share your thoughts.]

Announcing the New STEM Story Project Productions

For the second time, PRX received a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to fund public radio stories about STEM topics: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. One of PRX’s strategic goals is to massively increase listening to public radio works of all kinds. This partnership with Sloan is an opportunity to add to the pool of stories about science. Our goals are to:

• Unleash highly creative, STEM-based original stories and productions
• Educate and excite listeners about STEM topics and issues
• Tell stories and explain STEM issues in new ways

Our editorial team – with help from our science advisory board, representing various academic institutions across the U.S. (and NASA!) – pored through the 100+ proposals we received this year. The topics spanned an impressive range of the STEM spectrum. As you can imagine, the final decisions were incredibly difficult to make!

Without further ado, here are the proposals that will receive funding for the STEM Story Project 2.0! We look forward to hearing the final products in late August as much as you do.

Stylometry, Math, and Art, Jenny Chen – Where math and art collide: mathematicians use stylometry in the battle to determine who created what art.

The Colour of Sound: An Audio Rainbow, Marnie Chesterson – Red and yellow and pink and green. Can you build a rainbow out of sound, not colour? We try, and tell the stories of the noise colors.

Fire on the Mountain: Climate Change, Fire, and the Ecological Future of the American West, Aengus Anderson – In the wake of a catastrophic fire, researchers use Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains to look centuries into the future of climate change.

The Indiana Jones of Mathematics, Ben Harden — The Indiana Jones of mathematics joins the dots between stealth shields, voter theory and osteoporosis as he studies the melting polar ice.

Space Rocks: Interstellar Dreamers Put Their Faith in Asteroids, Audrey Quinn – Life in space has one very practical roadblock: supply costs. We visit aspiring asteroid miners with plans to grab materials already out there.

The Making of a Medical Detective or the Case of a Nutty Affair, Philip Graitcer – They’re called medical detectives. They hunt down the causes of outbreaks. Follow along as trainees learn and solve mock epidemics.

Early Bloom, Peter Frick-Wright & Robbie Carver – Scientists are learning the language of plants. Hear about them and the controversies surrounding the research and the father of the field.

No Vaccination Without Information, Luke Quinton — In 1776 John Adams and his family weren’t just fighting a revolution, they were fighting smallpox. You’ll be surprised to hear just how.

That Raving Animal, Britt Wray — A music industry for animals exists, but different species hear different sounds. One woman throws concerts for animals to test their ears.

Bayes’ Theorem: Finding Truth in a Mathematical Hunch, Sydney Beveridge – From controversy and rejection to mystery-solving and everyday use.

Get into the Groove, Kirsty McQuire — US & UK scientists have found the brain’s rhythm factory. Hear about your internal iPod and new hope for those living with Parkinsons.

This is Crohn’s Disease, Jack Rodolico – A patient with Crohn’s disease visits the best doctor in the world. That patient is Jack’s wife.

That Crime of the Month, Lauren Spohrer from the Criminal Show podcast – Can PMS be so debilitating for some women that it relieves them of criminal liability?

1,000 Meters Under the Sea, David Schulman – Something unusual happens about 1,000 meters under the sea. Ocean physics — pressure, temperature, and saltiness — create a zone called the “sound channel.”

Células Madres: The Mother of All Cells, Anayansi Diaz-Cortes – What is a stem cell? What’s a stem cell transplant? To a scientist? A doctor? A husband? A mother?

Science and storytelling often stem from one common thing: a question about the world around us. In that spirit, we’re confident that these stories help ignite deeper curiosity about our world, as well as the meticulous processes that make the pursuit of that knowledge possible.

Follow #PRXSTEM on Twitter for updates and to get a first listen to projects as they’re uploaded!