November 28, 2011

Everybody’s favorite astrophysicist leads science into new territory: popular culture

I’m not the target audience, and neither are you. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s weekly radio show and podcast, StarTalk Radio, is aimed at people with a high-school education who listen to commercial talk radio call-in shows — the “blue collar intellectual” segment, according to a grant summary from the National Science Foundation, which supports the show. But there are big lessons here for us white-collar intellectuals who work in museums and the arts.

I didn’t know anything about StarTalk when I stumbled on it a few days ago on iTunes. But I’ve been watching Tyson’s public science persona evolve for years and have read several of his books, so I downloaded a few episodes and played them in the car during a family Thanksgiving drive. I was immediately struck by the commercial sound of the show. Fast pace. Voices bantering and interrupting and laughing. Comedians and celebrities mixing it up with Tyson and his scientific guests. Rock and Motown hits pumping us in and out of the segments. And Tyson’s voice, more animated and...well, slicker than I’d ever heard it.

So I was excited but not surprised to read that StarTalk was created to “bridge the intersection between pop culture and pop science” and that it bills itself as the “first and only popular commercial radio program devoted to all things space.” In other words, it’s content you might expect from public radio or public television (and Tyson has put in plenty of time on those media), but repackaged in a commercial format for people who’ve never heard of Radiolab or Story Collider and don’t watch NOVA.

Which proves that innovation in public science — and by extension other social and cultural domains that are too important to leave to the experts — doesn’t have to be geared to the educated, urban, young creatives who stream Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! and the Slate Political Gabfest on their smartphones, nor to the older, affluent generation that’s still watching PBS and attending lunchtime lectures at their local university. It can meet a different (larger?) demographic on its own turf. And that, for anyone who cares about reaching underserved audiences and getting the arts and sciences out of their 20th-century temples, is good news. ...

Does it work? I haven’t seen the evaluation reports yet, but judging from a study my team and I conducted a few years ago for our local NPR affiliate, StarTalk takes down many of the hurdles that commercial radio listeners encounter when they hear (traditional) public radio for the first time: that it’s scripted, slow, formal, and lacking personalities and passion.

You can hear the departure immediately. Whereas science communication in nonprofit media and museums is typically serious, StarTalk sounds like goofing around. There’s almost always a comedian co-hosting with Tyson (who is no slouch in the stand-up department himself). Traditional science shows are written and declarative, whereas StarTalk is spontaneous and conversational. And so on (see table).

But hang on. Those words on the right also describe the Radiolab approach and other recent attempts to bring science, or history, or classical music, to a wider, younger, and hipper audience. Maybe the difference is less about a new direction and more about how far you take it down that path — and whom you’re trying to bring with you.

Does it lose something along the way? Of course. You can feel Tyson, in his eagerness to connect with those less-educated listeners, trying to prevent the scientific ideas from getting too dense or murky, which sometimes means skimming the surface. And the themes and guests of some episodes — one about the CBS sitcom “Big Bang Theory,” for example (that's Tyson with the cast, at left), or another about the 9/11 anniversary — don’t promise much science to begin with. 

Is this dumbing down? Give it a listen and let me know what you think. And if it does strike you as “content lite,” is that an inherent danger of working on the right side of that table? I don’t think so. Tyson’s meet-’em-where-they-live pragmatism is necessary to the mission he and his colleagues set for themselves. The broader goal of bridging the gap between scientific and popular culture doesn’t entail superficiality. It entails an idealistic faith that science is everybody’s business, part of the everyday world and society we inhabit rather than a separate, sacred realm reserved for specialists (and their reverent, curious guests).

It’s too easy to leave science or art or history in their boxes. It’s harder and more rewarding to bring them out into the marketplace of ideas, of personalities, of competing stories, and let them elbow their way toward relevance.

Hanan Cohen — November 29, 2011

Incidently, I have stumbled upon this video of Stephen Colbert Interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Very amusing and interesting

Cheryl Slover-Linett — November 30, 2011

It seems that many people in the arts or museums are worried about "dumbing down." I vote for banning that phrase and shifting the paradigm to be about meeting people where they are at....bringing the right content in the right way in the right place to engage each audience on its own terms. For bricks and mortar museums this can be tough, but deGrasse Tyson's approach should make any director consider how they can best reach their audiences.

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