When University of Washington researcher David Rhoades discovered that plants could communicate with each other, he was laughed out of science. But now, decades later, science is reconsidering.
In our very first STEM Story Project 2.0 piece this year, producers Peter Frick-Wright and Robbie Carver chronicle Rhoades’ controversial work and its legacy:
“Our fascination with this story has a lot to do with language and its difficulty in bridging the gap between what plants actually do and what our psyches impose on them,” says Carver. The producers set out to investigate what it means to say that plants decide, hear, or talk. “We’d love our listeners to wrestle with what it means that plants have a form of communication all their own.”
David Rhoades’ discovery about plant communication came on the heels of the release of a book called The Secret Life of Plants (1973) by Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins. The book claimed plants were sentient, emotional creatures with the ability to communicate telepathically with humans. Unfortunately, although the book was a huge bestseller, Rhoades’ academic work was criticized, grant funding disappeared, and he eventually left science.
Today, however, Rhoades’ experiments have been replicated, and his theories confirmed. Scientists have found evidence that plants not only communicate with each other but can also acknowledge kin, respond to sound waves, and share resources through networks of underground fungi.
For example, researchers at Ben-Gurion University found that pea plants exposed to drought emitted chemicals from their roots that caused nearby, non-exposed plants to defend themselves against the same conditions. In another fascinating experiment, Ted Farmer of the University of Lausanne set out to prove that electrical signals also come into play when it comes to plant communication. His research team place microelectrodes on plant leaves of the Arabidopsis thaliana plant and allowed Egyptian cotton leafworms to chow down on them. They noticed that voltage changes in the tissue occurred within seconds, radiating from the damaged sites outward.
Carver notes, “We had no idea, when starting this story, that plants could do some of the things they do, and it completely changed the way we look at this part of the ecological world.”
Open your ears and your mind to a radio story about the “father of the field” of plant communications.
We love The Moth and we know you do too, seeing as all of the StorySLAMS here in Boston have been sold out since they started up two years ago.
As a media sponsor of the StorySLAMs, PRX is excited to giveaway a pair of tickets to the 9/16/14 slam at Oberon in Harvard Square. The theme for the night is DO-OVER.
Enter the giveaway to win a pair of premium tickets to the StorySLAM. You can earn extra chances to win by sharing your special link, sharing on Facebook, etc., so make sure to pass along to your friends once you signup.
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.
PRX is looking for a creative and effective fundraiser to research and cultivate new philanthropic sources, steward existing relationships, manage fundraising data, documents, and calendar, and help build PRX’s donation program.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.]
We’re very excited to unveil our new Status Page for technical updates.
You can now subscribe and receive notifications about outages or other major issues with PRX.org and our Subscription Automation system (SubAuto). Our page also connects to our PRX Status Twitter account, which you can follow for updates.
This page will be especially helpful for the engineers at your stations, so we encourage you to pass this info along to them if they haven’t yet seen it.
Status Updates From PRX Tech Staff (status.prx.org) * Problems with FTP servers (delays, availability issues)
* Problems with all or many deliveries
* Website availability
* Other technical issues impacting audio delivery or website use
Managing Status Page Messages
To manage updates, head to status.prx.org and click Subscribe to Updates in the top right.
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!
I know, writing headlines and story titles is tough. In fact, I spent 10 minutes brainstorming this headline. It wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had, but I did it because I wanted to make sure people read this.
Same goes for audio story titles. The good news is, if you spend ~10 minutes brainstorming a story title, I can guarantee that you will come up with a better, more engaging title for your story that will draw in more listeners or even purchasers to your piece.
First, let’s talk about BAD titles and why they might not be helping us.
Example: Joe Bob and Marty Frank – musicians – in Conversation: Talk about their favorite music – newshole version
Simply put, very long titles look bad and often times they are hard to read on mobile devices. Keep your titles short and catchy.
I know the urge to name your title something sort of vague and artsy. I am a poet, that’s basically what I was put on this earth to do, but having a title that you think is cool (like for example, a cool quote from your story) doesn’t always do your story justice. It doesn’t help us understand what we’re about to listen to or why we should take the time to listen to it. Give your listeners a reason to give your story a shot.
Part of a series/no title
Some of you may have a weekly series and may not feel the need to even come up with a title. I see a lot of titles on PRX that look something like this…”Episode 202.” If one of your goals is that people listen to your story on the web then a title like that will give someone zero reasons to click on your story and listen.
Let’s move on to GOOD titles and what makes them good.
You probably read this a dozen or so times a day, but I’ll reiterate: Facebook and Twitter have changed the way people are consuming media. You have just a few characters to get people to click on something you’ve shared. Make them count.
I’ve started up a listener newsletter where I share audio stories that I love and the first thing I do is give each story a better headline/title. When you’re brainstorming your titles, put yourself in the shoes of someone like me. Or an editor at a blog that writes about podcasts. Or an editor at a major public radio station who might air your story and share it on the web to their huge list of Facebook followers. Rather than quickly coming up with something on the spot, think about what will make people want to share your story. What makes it compelling to lots of people?
Now get to work!
I highly recommend trying this exercise which we gleaned from the folks at Upworthy, a site for viral content. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Now, try to write as many headlines as you can. Shoot for 25. At first, you’re going to write a lot of really crap headlines, but don’t let that discourage you. Keep writing until 10 minutes have passed or you’ve reached 25 titles. I swear it will feel like running through mud and then miraculously you’ll realize you reached the heart of your story and you’ve come up with a pretty awesome title.
More headline writing resources for you to check out:
- Upworthy’s Secret Sauce to virality. This is pure gold. Flip through these slides (like the images above) to see why people share things and what you can do to make your work more likely to be shared by lots of people.
Some quick introductory words for my first day as an intern at PRX. How did I get here?
I was born in Brighton, UK to an artist and teacher and grew up in Southern Maine in a town called Yarmouth. I went to school at Boston University, where I studied cultural history and wrote a final paper about composers John Cage and Erik Satie, two exceptional dudes.
About the same time as the paper, I began work on Stylus, a documentary program about sound, music, and listening. My co-producer Zack and I made a pilot episode about silence and pitched the series to WBUR, Boston’s NPR News Station. They eventually picked it up and, along with a bunch of wonderful people in and around the station, we produced four themed programs. We’re finishing up that first series now.
I’ve arrived at PRX to continue work as a producer of public media.
I love radio. Partly because it is a creative medium, but mostly because it is an essential institution.
The question often asked of radio people, these days, is “How do we make audio go viral?” It seems, to me, that the far more basic question facing our moment is: How do we save ourselves from Total Noise? How do we maintain the best public space for listeners, producers, and communities to work together and stay connected in a meaningful way?
PRX continues to carve out that space, and I’m very excited to help do a part.