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Vocalizing Science

This past summer, Ari Daniel Shapiro, 30, was part of a research team that tracked killer whales off the coast of northwestern Canada. Every morning, the crew set out to affix sensors to the elusive mammals in order to capture their vocalizations and movement. At the end of each day, the sensors detached and floated to the surface, where they were recovered. Shapiro, whose training is in biological oceanography, downloaded the day's data and prepped the sensors for the next deployment. He is assisting with the data analysis. He'll be a co-author on any scientific articles that result.

One challenge remained: He knew hardly anything about radio production.

Yet, technically, Shapiro isn't an oceanographer, or not anymore. The invitation to participate in the summer tagging trip came from a scientist featured in Shapiro's National Public Radio piece, "Killer Whales: The Allure Of The Search." Shapiro studied killer whales--Orcinus orca--for his doctoral dissertation, so he knew his way around the boat. But since January 2009, Ari Daniel Shapiro--he uses his middle name to avoid confusion with the Ari Shapiro who reports for NPR on the Department of Justice and legal affairs--has earned his living as an independent radio and multimedia producer, recording sounds, editing audio, and doing all the things necessary to create science-related radio shows for public radio and podcasts and audio slide shows for the Web sites of research institutions.

Doing science

(Matt Villano)

Ari Shapiro prepares a measurement tag during his Norway expedition.

Shapiro first tasted broadcast journalism years earlier when he spent a semester as an intern with NOVA during his junior year at Boston College. He liked the work well enough then to pursue it as a career, but he could find no suitable, long-term opportunities. That was okay; he was still young. And with biology as a major, a passion for the outdoors, and the scientific metropolis of Boston as his base, he had other options.

Shapiro comes from a family of teachers and was drawn to academia. The summer after his junior year at Boston College, he interned at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts. There, he heard the call of the killer whale for the first time. "Ari showed a strong interest in getting out in the field to study marine mammals, and he also wanted to understand the cognitive processes underlying their behavior," recalls Peter Tyack, his adviser.

After graduation, Shapiro deferred admission to the Joint Program in Oceanography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and WHOI, spending a year at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom as a Fulbright scholar, researching vocalization in grey seals (Halichoerus grypus). He then spent a year as a legal advocate for the homeless in New York City, cementing his conviction to make a difference in the world--somehow. But in the immediate present, academics beckoned.

As a graduate student at MIT/WHOI, Shapiro researched acoustic communication by marine mammals. He also took part in amateur theater, and "his flair for drama enlivened his scientific presentations," Tyack recalls. In 2007, 4 years into his research, Shapiro had enough data to start writing his thesis, "Orchestration: The movement and vocal behavior of free-ranging Norwegian killer whales."

At about that time, he participated in a 257-kilometer bike ride to raise money for environmental causes. On long, lonely stretches, he pondered his future. Post-Ph.D., should he pursue academic science, media, or policy? "In graduate school," he says, "there are times [when] you get meditative."

Telling science stories

(Matt Villano)

Ari Shapiro (right, facing camera) shares a meal with other team members during his Norway expedition.

Every year, WHOI offers select journalists a chance to learn about oceanography at a weeklong, on-site workshop. At one such forum, Shapiro gave a 3-minute talk about his research, mentioning his interest in media. A journalist in the audience pointed him to Transom, a local organization whose goal was to bring new voices to radio. This was in the fall of 2007, his last (academic) year as a Ph.D. student.

Coincidentally, Atlantic Public Media (APM), Transom's parent organization, is right next door to where Shapiro attended weekly meetings with a member of his thesis committee. He arranged an informational interview with Samantha Broun, an APM project manager. Broun says she was struck by Shapiro's ability to ask good questions and, most importantly, to sit and listen. She gave him plenty of suggestions: Web sites to check, conferences to attend, and radio stations to listen to. He followed through. "When I heard from Ari a couple of months later, it was because he had explored all those things, had more questions, and was looking for what was next," Broun says.

Shapiro's approach to APM came at an auspicious time. They were producing The Sonic IDs, minute-long audio vignettes featuring residents of Cape Cod and the nearby islands. The goal was to put the "public" back in public radio; locals tuning in to listen to national and international news stories might even hear a neighbor. Shapiro's brief was to produce short segments about the area's scientists: how they think and work, what inspires them, and how their work impacts the world. Already, the local radio station had aired some pilot episodes of this new program, which was called Science Minutes.

Right away, Shapiro assembled a list of candidates to interview, which was easy because many of his friends were scientists at WHOI, which is based in Cape Cod. One challenge remained: He knew hardly anything about radio production. "His lack of knowledge about gear and editing, et cetera, was eclipsed by his desire to tell stories, science stories in particular," Broun says.

Shapiro borrowed equipment from the studio and began to experiment during his last 8 months as a Ph.D. student. He was familiar with audio editing tools, a legacy of his thesis work. His editors at APM offered pointers and feedback. "He was producing professional-sounding pieces for us by late spring of 2008," Broun says. By the time he defended his thesis in May 2008, he had produced more than half a dozen episodes of Science Minutes and one long piece.

Over the course of that summer, those episodes aired on the local radio station, WCAI. Shapiro was earning money in radio journalism.

Shapiro stayed on as a part-time postdoc in Tyack's lab, studying the effect of sonar on whales and working to publish his earlier research. He spent the rest of his time producing audio segments, including longer pieces for the local radio station.

He had discovered his passion. "Sometimes I kept going past midnight because the work was exhilarating," he says. APM's editors knew a radio-making zealot when they saw one. They introduced him to the hosts of Radio Lab, which offers hour-long episodes on themes of science and philosophy. Shapiro, who was a fan of the show, was hired to do a story. Since then, the meaty assignments haven't stopped.

Making a living in radio

Jay Allison, an independent radio producer known for the public radio series This I Believe, is a founder of the Association of Independents In Radio. He has been in broadcast journalism for more than 30 years. Science Careers spoke with him about making a living as an independent radio producer.

It isn't easy, Allison says, especially when you're just getting started. Those at the very top of the profession, such as the hosts of national radio shows, earn $200,000 or more per year. But "for the first few years, don't quit your day job," he says. Even after they're full-time, early-career radio producers may have to stitch together a living however they can.

Radio producers can be employed, or they may work independently. Both approaches have advantages. Independent radio producers have more flexible schedules--they get to decide which 80 hours they want to work--and greater creative latitude than their salaried counterparts. When they're done, they usually own their work, unlike their salaried colleagues.

Being an independent radio producer requires an entrepreneurial outlook. "With all this media convergence, it could also be a matter of creating your own opportunities," Allison says. For bigger projects, independent producers sometimes raise funds from philanthropic foundations, government agencies, or corporations. In this respect, independent producers are similar to science principal investigators: They think up new projects, then write grants to pay for them--including their own remuneration.

In recent years, the equipment needed to create professional quality audio pieces has become much more affordable. If you already own a good computer, an investment of less than $1000 in field-recording gear and editing software will allow you to start producing quality work, Allison says.

Painting with sound

"The human voice is the oldest tool for storytelling," Shapiro says. Audio recording allows him to add music, sounds from nature, even well-chosen ambient noise. "This makes radio a very sophisticated medium for telling rich, layered stories."

Shapiro's transition from scientist to radio producer is nearly complete. He has produced some 40 episodes of Science Minutes. In one episode, he interviews a biology professor who matches the stages of cell division to memorable theme songs; converting this into a multimedia piece, Shapiro made a minute-long movie called Pink Floyd and the dancing embryos, splicing together video segments with a musical soundtrack.

He has produced several environment-related pieces for Public Radio International's The World. Many of his pieces are about how people are served by scientific discoveries. His new career allows him to interact with a wide audience and remain steeped in science--which, though he might not have recognized it when he started down this path--is exactly what he was seeking in his professional life.

"As a scientist, I am sad he is no longer a researcher," says Tyack, his WHOI mentor. "But communicating science is extremely important, and I'm happy to see his passion and skill for this work as well."

Photo (top); Miemo Penttinen

Vijaysree Venkatraman is a Boston-based science journalist. This is her first article for Science Careers.

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