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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > The strength of sound
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image image image Date published: 16/10/02
  image The strength of sound
RTD info special "Talking Science"
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  Can the absence of pictures actually be strength? Radio journalists certainly think so. Scoop and sensation are not their priorities and time is a luxury they can still afford. 'I don't try and be too clever, but I do try to be distinctive,' explains Jacques Olivier, a journalist with Belgian French-speaking radio.
   
     
   

'I can't write an equation on the blackboard, but I can allow words to speak.' This is how Jacques Oliver, a journalist with the RTBF - the Belgian French-speaking public channel - sums up his radio work. The producer of a weekly science programme is convinced that radio offers scope for a daily programme of this kind. 'But science is initially rather off-putting. The station bosses often find it complex, boring, and incomprehensible – and so do the public. That is why it must be presented in clear terms, without hurrying to place it in context. It must be presented, in a sense, by taking things one step at a time.'

Freed from the screen
Radio's obvious limitation can be its main asset: by not having pictures you are freed from their control. It is not possible for radio to grab the attention with the dramatic or spectacular ('radio does not aim to turn the world on its head whereas television is forced to dramatise the world'), but what could seem to be a shortcoming is in fact the guarantee of freedom. It is also impossible for radio to focus on entertainment to the extent that television can. 'I am sometimes perplexed by the playful presentation of science. If you really want to improve public understanding of science, I doubt that it is possible to remain at the entertainment stage without ultimately trivialising it.'

Working alone or in small teams, radio or press journalists have their own advantages over television, such as in the quality of the relationship between the interviewer and interviewee. 'Relations can become deeper and more intimate. There is time to discuss, prepare the programme together, and the microphone is also less obtrusive than a camera and spotlights.' This does not mean it is easy to work with the researchers' words alone. Cutting and editing are essential. 'Scientists are generally used to speaking, but they tend to deliver a formal lesson. It sometimes takes a lot of work to achieve a certain fluency.'

Chance and the vacuum
Every week for two years, from 1998-2000, Jacques Olivier fronted Semences de curieux, presenting about 100 programmes in all. This magazine programme came about almost by chance. 'A radio slot became free and we realised that we didn't have any science programmes at all. It was this vacuum which brought the response and not the desire to have a science slot in the schedules.' Significant perhaps?

Speaking of vacuums… Jacques Olivier remembers a series on Planck's Constant and the vacuum. Although not at first sight particularly media-friendly subjects, they nevertheless won an audience. 'There is no miracle recipe, that is the basic rule of journalism. To make a subject interesting and ensure it gets an audience, you have to prepare it thoroughly, obtain documents, read a great deal, know what you aim to do and ask the right questions. That said, on more than one occasion I have listened to scientists without understanding a word they were saying when I thought I had a good grasp of the subject. But that is all part of the game.'

Since Semences de curieux Jacques Olivier has presented the weekly history programme Memo and now dreams of making a new, more specific programme on the history of science. 'Everybody knows Pythagoras' theorem, but Pythagoras also represents a very special view of the world which is not necessarily known. History enables us to put science into perspective, to see where we have come from, where we are and – why not? – where we are going.'


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Children first

During the week the recorder registers dozens of questions. On Sundays the researchers reply. The questions are asked by children, some of them as young as three or four, often alone and sometimes in class. Very sensible questions, seemingly simple but involving complex concepts. Why are clouds grey or white? How does the wind obtain its strength? Why do I want to be like others? What are eyes made of? How old is the moon? Did people brush their teeth at the time of Louis XIV?
Most of the children who ask the questions are aged between six and 14. Their questions have to be listened to, sorted, grouped and then half a dozen selected. 'When their question is not asked, some call back and complain,' says Noëlle Breham, producer of the programme Les p'tits bateaux.
At 7.30pm on Sunday evenings, scientists and specialists give their answers in simple terms. A paediatrician may describe how milk is produced in the mother's breast, a vet might explain why cats always land on their feet, or a mathematician says why minutes are divided into 60 seconds and not 100.

'As we want the answers to be precise, the guests must be recognised specialists. We simply ask them not to exceed four minutes and not to use complicated words, without being simplistic,' explains Noëlle Breham. 'But as they know they are addressing very young people, they naturally refrain from using jargon.'
Who are their listeners? Children, of course. But parents too. This kind of programme teaches adults a great deal, enabling them to understand things they would have never dared ask about.
(http://www.radiofrance.fr/home-inter.htm)

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The summer of science

Tout s'explique… Every morning at 11am throughout the summer, Denis Cheissoux asks questions about the seabed, termites, the sun, Leonardo de Vinci and thunder. The programme comprises 30 minutes of dialogue and two or three songs for a little light relief. The key task is to find the right interviewee. 'Our job is to find the right person for radio – whether it is a Nobel prizewinner or somebody much less well known. There are some people who know everything and say nothing which, of course, is no good.' For a programme aimed at the general public and seeking to be 'light and instructive', the most important requirement of a radio scientist is that he should be easily understood. 'Do not try and say everything, that is the rule. Popularisation can be frustrating, radio too.' Denis Cheissoux (with France Inter for the past 30 years and presenter of the famous L'as-tu lu mon p'tit loup devoted to children's books) is passionately interested in the environment (as illustrated by his long-running Chassez le naturel) and chooses his subjects according to his mood, completely subjectively. 'An idea can come to me when I am riding my bicycle. I then want people to explain it all to me, to make up for what I didn't learn at school.'

Next comes the audio casting. 'We select by telephone. The telephone is like the radio, and we know immediately if the voice is going to work or not – we don't need to meet the person first.' This morning it is Sylvie Vauclair. An astrophysicist at the Midi-Pyrénées Observatory and professor at the Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, she is talking about the sun. How big is it? How did it originate? When will it die? What is an eclipse? 'The reason we can exist is because there were stars before the sun.' Sylvie Vauclair also talks of solar storms and the sounds this burning star emits ('it acts like a huge musical instrument, it is a resonance chamber, the role of the bow is played by the movements, the explosions, everything which rotates around the sun…'). Denis Cheissoux makes no apology for hopping from subject to subject. One moment it's the Milky Way and the next the moon, before suddenly coming back down to earth and the subject of solar power. The pace is fast and it really does make you want to know more.
(http://www.radiofrance.fr/home-inter.htm)

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Jacques Olivier
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