Academics who learn celebrity skill

Making science accessible: With television programmes such as Wonders of the Universe, physicist Brian Cox has ­managed to publicise and popularise scientific subjects previously the exclusive domain of academics. (Supplied)

Making science accessible: With television programmes such as Wonders of the Universe, physicist Brian Cox has ­managed to publicise and popularise scientific subjects previously the exclusive domain of academics. (Supplied)

Deep in the bowels of BBC White City, a group of 20-odd clever and personable academics are energetically debating whether life is a comedy or a tragedy. They have been at it for half an hour before their conclusions begin to sound less erudite and the room collapses into laughter.

These are postdoctoral researchers in the early stages of their academic careers and they are being auditioned to see whose broadcast personality shines the brightest. A panel of BBC Radio 3 Night Waves producers are listening closely: Who can hold their line when challenged? Who is mentally flexible enough to argue both for and against? It is not about who is the brainiest, but who is the most “listenable”.

Night Waves is BBC Radio 3’s arts and ideas programme and its content depends on the quality of the thinkers who arrive in the studio.
The 10 academics finally selected from 480 applicants will be the second cohort of “new-generation thinkers” to be unleashed on the airwaves in a collaboration between the BBC and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The funding body acted as a “portal” through which the BBC could engage with early-career academics in universities across the United Kingdom, said the council’s communications manager, Jake Gilmore. Broadcasters need sparkling academics and this is one way to find them.

“A female Brian Cox is the holy grail,” said Ian Peacock, a broadcaster who makes radio programmes on culture and science. And what is the mark of a successful TV or radio don? “The best will focus 100% on the audience and not fret about what their peers think,” said Peacock. “They also manage to be both enthusiastic teacher and fascinated student. Radio 4’s Laurie Taylor is perfect at playing that role. He clearly knows his stuff, but he never pontificates.”

“In a live studio scenario,” said Night Waves producer Kirsty Pope, who runs the BBC side of this -talent contest, “they have to let the discussion be a rigorous conversation that can take any number of turns without allowing this to distract them from firmly expressing their point and fighting for their argument to be heard.”

Dumbing down
Understandably, Peacock said, many academics were terrified of dumbing down. “I simply tell them there is no point in appearing on radio or TV if no one understands you. Once they are satisfied that they can use ‘brain cells’ to replace ‘neurons’ without compromising intellectually, they usually go for it.”

What cannot be taught, it seems, is that desire to communicate their subject to laymen. “It will not work if they only want to be famous,” Pope said.

Elizabeth Burke, a programme producer, said academics might be surprised to know that when a producer rings them up for a chat they are already being auditioned.

“My heart sinks when they say ‘well, you cannot really generalise’,” she said. “I only have 27-and-a-half minutes and some kind of generalisation will have to be made.”

Another problem, said Peacock, was “when they go too far and turn into ‘rent a gobs’”.

“I once interviewed a theologian about female bishops and he took me aside beforehand and asked: 
‘Do you want me to be for, or against?’” he said.

Appearance fees
Burke cautions that academics who try broadcasting are unlikely to get rich; appearance fees are mostly “embarrassingly low”. At the top end, however, there is money to be made as a “celebrity” academic even if not over the airwaves: one agent quotes up to £3 000 for a 15-minute speaking engagement by a prominent academic.

Back in the BBC’s cellar, the contenders must pitch their programme idea to the assembled panel of producers and editors in no more than two minutes.

Dr Adrian Curtin starts off in Esperanto, prompting a ripple of laughter that cuts the tension. Thankfully, after a few baffling sentences he switches to English. We hear from Dr Helen McCarthy on the influence of female diplomats, Dr Emma Griffin proposes that the industrial revolution was not necessarily an unmitigated disaster for the workers and Dr James Stark invites us to reconsider the nature of ownership by examining the patent number embossed on a takeaway coffee cup.

It quickly becomes clear that certain people simply have “better” radio voices than others. A few find themselves entangled in jargon. Wannabe media stars should take note of Burke’s top tip: people want to feel they are listening “to someone it would be fun to have at their party”.

As historian and broadcaster Dr Bettany Hughes points out: “Broadcasting and academia are not necessarily comfortable bedfellows. In academia you will have maybe 15 000 words to make one point, whereas in a one hour-long programme you might get 4 000 words to put across a huge sweep of history.”

Going on the telly or radio is not just a fun sideline these days. There is growing controversy around the new “impact” measure in the research excellence framework by which university departments must demonstrate their effectiveness at communicating their research to the public — funding depends on it.

Universities urging their star researchers to do media work must take note, however. “When you are teaching it is very difficult to find time,” said Dr Alexandra Harris. “I have been tremendously lucky at Liverpool, but it takes planning.”— © Guardian  News & Media 2012

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