Careers in Science Broadcasting: Biblical Origins and Superstrings on the Radio


A very real reason that someone would choose to study science may be traced to the thrill of watching science programmes on television or listening to scientific stories on the radio. Watching the television narrator telling stories about volcanoes or furry animals in exotic locations may make you wonder how he got the job, and with your Ph.D. degree you may even think "I can do better than that!"

When I was 10 years old, I was an addicted listener to a weekly science programme on the radio presented by a charismatic and inspiring science journalist. Later on, I never had any doubts that I would study science at university. But after I finished my studies, at the University of Copenhagen and in Rio de Janeiro, I discovered that my thesis, on the Brazilian sleeping sickness, Chagas disease, did not present very many opportunities for continuing my scientific career. No one worked in that area in Denmark, and I discovered to my surprise that it is not possible to create a new independent research area if you are a very young scientist at the start of your career. The only offers I could get involved working on someone else's project, and this simply did not appeal to me. For about six months I worked in a professor's laboratory, but I ran out of money, and soon I had to look for a job--any job!

Someone asked if I could help out with writing an evaluation report, and soon after this I got a job at the Danish Research Councils as coordinator of the Danish biotech research programme. Later they needed someone with a scientific background to represent Denmark on the EU Committee on human genome research, a position I filled, and soon I became member of a number of other EU advisory committees.

This gave me an insight into some very interesting research, which I really wanted to share with a wider public. First I wrote some articles in the Research Councils' own newsletters, but after a while I felt that I had an item good enough for one of the public papers. I talked to the science editor of Ingeniøren , a weekly newspaper in Denmark. I remember her telling me that I probably couldn't read or write, but that she would give me a chance to learn if I could at least give them some interesting stories.

I must admit she was not far wrong. The deal was that I would write articles for a relatively low fee and the editor would provide a written critique of all the stories I submitted--not as easy as it sounded. Soon I was on the editorial board of the freelance wing of the newspaper. I still had my job in the Research Councils, but it did not take long before my articles were discovered by people at Novo Nordisk, a Danish biotech company. Though I still had to compete with 138 other applicants, and the process took some time, I finally got a job in its Environmental Services division.

Working full time in communications at Novo gave me a great deal of experience in both writing and oral presentation. I continued as the Danish representative on a number of EU research committees, and I continued writing about science for the newspaper. This established my role as a science spokesperson in the media, and I began to get invitations to comment on science items in radio news bulletins.

One day, a journalist called me and asked if I could participate in a new 1-hour science program on national radio. This was the very same person I used to listen to when I was 10 years old and the reason I became interested in science in the first place! I was very nervous, but we ended up with a good show. He asked me if I could come back the following week, and my boss gave me free time in the afternoon so I could go to the studio again. This time, things went even better and so we continued, week after week, 52 times a year, for the next 2 years. Then my colleague had to retire on his 70th birthday, and before I knew it I was offered his job and a tenured position at the Danish Broadcasting Company. I had to compete with about 40 other journalists for the post, but my experience on the show gave me an obvious advantage.

My weekly radio programme was a great success. After 5 years, it became the most listened-to talk show on Danish radio, with an average of 6% of the population listening in every week. On two occasions, the station's switchboard broke down under pressure from angry listeners. The first time was when I presented a scientific program on the origin of the Bible--don't try this at home! The second time was when I made the most difficult program ever on astronomy, superstrings, and quantum physics. When the repeat broadcast had to be cancelled due to the opening of the Danish Parliament, hundreds of angry listeners called in. We discovered that they had all listened to the original broadcast, but they wanted to hear it again, as there were things they needed to understand better. It just shows that even very complex science can make good radio.

When I ended my weekly radio program after 5 years, I had the freedom to do what must be the dream of any science journalist. I started to make television programs, interviewing Nobel Laureates and travelling to exotic places such as Africa or Hawaii, and I made reports about the latest Mars missions from Florida and California.

I still have my tenured position at the Danish Broadcasting Company, but as I am seeking more international experience I have taken 3 years' leave to work as Head of Communications for the European Science Foundation in France.

The key lesson is that you need to have some good stories to tell. I got insider information from my different jobs, and I developed an extremely good network of personal contacts with a large number of scientists from my research council work. But that is not enough: you have to be visible! Other journalists saw my newspaper articles and that was the reason I got the job in the communications business. Later on, I was invited to speak on news bulletins and to take part in the radio program because I continued to write. Training is also important. You become a successful writer and radio presenter only if you practice. Don't ever think it is an easy job. You must have a humble approach to any training and to any advice that you can get. It really is true that you don't learn to read and write at university, and very few academics are good at it. But if you follow this advice, with any luck you may end up as the one-eyed in the kingdom of the blind.

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