Not Preaching to the Converted: an Interview with Joe Palca
I’ve always thought it would be difficult to be a radio reporter who covers science. You have tight time restrictions to tell your story, but can’t use photos or infographics to help get the information across.
But when it is done well, radio journalism can captivate an audience. I’ve often spent a couple minutes sitting in my driveway, waiting to hear how a radio story ends before going into my home or office.
To learn more about the challenges and rewards of radio journalism, I contacted Joe Palca. Palca has been a science reporter for National Public Radio (NPR) for more than 20 years, and I asked him about his path to radio journalism, how the technology has changed and how the medium of radio influences his storytelling.
Communication Breakdown: You have a Ph.D. in psychology from UC Santa Cruz. What led you to pursue a career in journalism after putting in the time, effort and commitment to get a doctorate?
Joe Palca: After four years of graduate school I realized an academic career was not for me. I felt I didn’t like research enough to give it the single-minded devotion that would be needed to obtain grants and thrive academically. I liked teaching, but knew that although universities paid lip-service to wanting good teachers, they didn’t reward or promote them.
My decision to switch to journalism came after I spent the summer at the CBS-TV affiliate in Washington, DC as a AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow. Writing about science seemed much more interesting to me than doing it.
CB: You started your journalism career as a producer for a CBS affiliate, then left to become a print journalist, writing for both Nature and Science. Why leave TV?
Palca: When I first got into journalism, I wanted to work in TV. I felt TV was the most powerful medium for communicating science, since it allowed for what I thought were critical visual aids. I still believe that’s true, but I quickly learned that there was rarely, if ever, the time or money to do TV science well. Instead of informative graphics, we used shots of people walking down the hall, or close-ups of pipettes squirting pink liquid into test tubes, pictures of no informational value. What’s more, in local news at least, decisions about what science to cover was based largely on what was the “sexiest” science, not the most important.
CB: What were some of the differences you ran across in making the switch from TV reporting to print reporting? Were there advantages to reporting for TV? Advantages to reporting for print?
Palca: TV science reporting at the local station level tends to focus on health. It is also more news dissemination than journalism. I had to have a story on every night. It had to have a “real person,” i.e. a patient, and an expert. There was rarely time to get a third voice, a voice that might be critical or disagree with the central thesis of the story. Nature and Science were quite a bit different, as you can imagine.
CB: Many science reporters would give their left arm to write for Nature or Science. Why did you leave print reporting to work for NPR?
Palca: As much as I liked working for Science and Nature, there was a quality of “preaching to the converted.” I wanted to tell people about science who weren’t already aware of how interesting it is.
CB: You’ve been covering science for NPR since 1992. How has the technology you use to do radio reporting changed over the past 20 years? Has that changed the actual reporting, writing or editing process for you at all?
Palca: Digital editing makes it much easier to edit audio. As a result, I tend to use shorter sound bites in my story, and I use them more frequently. Most importantly, I no longer cut myself with razor blades when editing audio.
CB: Have changes in radio journalism made things easier, more difficult or a little of both? And I mean that both in terms of your ability to tell a story and the amount of work that goes in to it.
Palca: Digital editing makes editing tape faster, so I have more time to think and write. I do fewer long stories, 8-12 minutes, than I used to, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
CB: I’ve always thought that radio must be a difficult medium to work in for science reporters: you have a limited time to tell a story that conveys often complex information, but you don’t have the luxury of relying on images to help tell that story. Does radio, as a medium, also have particular advantages?
Palca: Some people say they prefer radio to TV because the pictures are better. We can create images for people with our writing, or with natural sound, that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to capture on video. Of course you lose some ability to provide details, but leaving out complex information makes storytelling easier, not harder.
CB: Given the challenges I asked about above, how do you go about organizing a story for broadcast? How is that process different from what you’d do for print or TV?
Palca: The stories have to be more linear than in print. No referring back to something you said earlier in the story, at least not without repeating the point.
CB: Your beat at NPR is extremely broad. You’ve covered astronomy, health, glaciers, oysters, physics and computer games being used for neuroscience research – all in the past few months. Given that it’s impossible to be an expert in everything, how do you start your reporting on each story? Let me put that another way: how do you figure out what the good questions to ask are, when you have to write about an unfamiliar subject?
Palca: It’s unlikely that a reporter will ever be an expert in anything besides reporting. Being an expert means more than following a particular research topic, it means studying that topic far more thoroughly than most journalists would ever do. So since I’m not an expert in any science topic, I can do whatever strikes my fancy. Does it matter to me whether the New York Times had already covered oyster glue or using computer games for neuroscience research? No, it doesn’t. I figure if it is news to me, and news to my editors, then it will be news to most of NPR’s audience. And the “good” questions I ask are the ones that any educated person would ask, if he was trying to learn more about a particular subject.
CB: Given the array of subjects you cover, how do you decide what will be a story in the first place?
Palca: The one that amuses me most.
CB: Is there one particular story that stands out as a “that was amazing” moment for you?
Palca: The first Mars rover Pathfinder landing. Flying into Hurricane Floyd wasn’t bad. Neither was standing at the South Pole.
CB: If you could send yourself a note on your first day as a reporter, what piece of advice would you give yourself?
Palca: Be patient…you can’t learn to be a good reporter overnight.
CB: Since you probably have their dream job, do you have any advice for aspiring radio science reporters out there?
Palca: Watch the obits. Someday I’ll be gone and my job will be open. In the meantime, broaden your skills. Very few places want someone who can only do radio reporting. Employers are looking for people who can work effectively in the on-line world. But keep working to perfect your audio craft….