Careers in Science Broadcasting: Working in New Media


What I Didn't Want to Be

I knew at the end of my first degree that I didn't want to become a professional scientist. After 3 years at Nottingham studying physics, I'd come to the conclusion that, though the general gist of my course amazed and fascinated me, the nitty gritty of the mathematics and the hours sitting in a lab twiddling dials were really not for me.

But already I could see the careers service measuring me up for my lab coat. Drastic action was required and I enrolled in the M.Sc. in science communication at Imperial College, London. At the time it was the only course of its kind, but more have sprung up since. Many of my colleagues at the BBC both in New Media and in the Television unit used the course as a similar turning point.

What Do I Do?

After that, I became a journalist. For a while I worked in science radio at the BBC World Service before joining a science and IT magazine. When the magazine set up its Web site, it was a natural move for me to take care of both the print and electronic sides. And that eventually led to my job at the BBC--editor of science at BBCi. We've recently started calling it "i" or "interactive" rather than "Online" because Web sites are only one of the platforms we deal with now. The recent BBC1 series Walking with Beasts used six interactive platforms, including interactive TV and mobile phones, so the area is much broader than it used to be.

For example, if you managed to watch Walking with Beasts on digital satellite, you could choose to cut away from the main narrative to watch up to an additional hour of short video clips. These described the scientific evidence behind each 30-minute episode, or the production techniques that went into creating each scene. You could choose from two different narrations, depending on how much scientific detail you wanted, or use your remote to bring up additional facts on screen at any time.

And if you subscribed to the mobile phone service, you had the chance to take part in the weekly quiz, and receive amazing facts by text, as well as having the Walking with Beasts ring tone.

The rule now is that you don't just think about Web sites and TV. Whatever the idea you're trying to get across to the user, you use whichever platform works best. That means that non-Web ideas are becoming increasingly important.

So--what's the day job? Well, for the science interactive team it's about researching and writing their own content, whether that be articles, games, or the interactive applications I mentioned earlier. They work with a team of designers and a team of coders who do the building of the site. My team focuses on the ideas and creative side of the job, although they all have a working knowledge of design and coding.

What they write about changes on a weekly basis. Some of them work on flagship television brands such as Walking with Beasts. Others keep an eye on the news and create background information on some of the hot topics that emerge. Recently, for example, we've looked at the implications of biological warfare and genetically modified food. Still others run ongoing categories such as space or genetics, which are run rather like magazines.

The vast majority of the 15-strong team has an academic background in science and most of them have had some sort of experience with one or more types of media, whether it's hospital radio or working in other areas of the BBC. There's a huge range of experience as you'd expect, and that adds up to a really strong team.

My job as the team leader is to set the editorial agenda and decide the priorities for the site. That means talking to the executives in Science television to understand their priorities and working across other areas of New Media to ensure that our work complements the bigger picture. For science, it's really important that we're seen as relevant, so our section on population genetics for example needs to work closely with the history site, and our section on the big bang theory is linked to from the religion category.

I also look into setting up relationships with large science organizations such as the European Space Agency, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, and the Science Museum, so that we can share content at the most basic level or work together on larger projects.

What's So Great About New Media?

The Web is no longer the home of geeks. It's now used by about half the UK population. It presents entirely different opportunities for journalists than either print or broadcast media do. For starters, you are inviting the users to engage with you. To interact with what they see, to offer their opinion, to talk with fellow users. New media is a real sit-forward experience, unlike the passive media of radio and television. That means you can expect a great deal more loyalty from your audience, who in turn expect you to listen to them.

Despite having worked in this kind of area for 4 years, we're still all learning. The rate of change in the technology and the uptake of new platforms by the public means that nothing stands still. We are now in the real growth phase of interactive TV (by next year more homes will have digital TV than Internet access), and we are experimenting with a technology for the first time. Walking with Beasts was the first interactive factual programme in the UK and there's a real excitement in doing something for the first time, in trying new ways to use the medium to its best potential. Sometimes the job is more like a laboratory than I think.

What Are the Qualifications?

I don't really think that I'm in a technical job. I use new media as a creative tool, rather the way someone in radio uses a microphone. I know how to use it, but I'm not an expert in how it works.

Like any other creative job, it's all about ideas. About being able to come up with them, communicate them to others, see them through, or discard them when they don't work. It's about knowing your audience as much as your subject and delivering exactly the type of content that you know will reach them over the millions of other Web pages out there.

It's a frantic lifestyle and the hours are long, but the rewards, in seeing your Web site getting millions of page impressions every week and watching people being inspired to interact and respond, are enormous.

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