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IEEE Spectrum Finds Its Voice

How and why we started a radio news operation

4 min read

IEEE Spectrum Finds Its Voice
Snow Men: IEEE Spectrum’s executive editor, Glenn Zorpette, interviews Brian Johnson, an Antarctic survival specialist, for a radio program produced in 2010. The location was the McMurdo Ice Shelf.
Photo: Josh Landis

Editor’s note: In this 50th anniversary year of IEEE Spectrum, we are using each month’s Spectral Lines column to describe some pivotal moments of the magazine’s history. Here we recount the establishment and evolution of Spectrum’s radio news operation.


In ancient times, before the Internet, the terms “print media” and “broadcast media” were pretty literal descriptions of the two main kinds of news organization. But journalism’s steady migration to the World Wide Web has blurred the lines considerably. Nowadays, traditional broadcasters are putting up text stories and blogs on their websites. And IEEE Spectrum and other historically print-centric media are producing videos, podcasts, slideshows, and radio shows. Each of Spectrum’s radio segments, in fact, is being broadcast to some 4 million listeners across the United States via stations syndicated through the country’s NPR network.

Our foray into public radio began exactly a decade ago. Spectrum’s editor in chief, Susan Hassler, hired Sharon Basco, an NPR veteran, to test the idea that some of our print stories could be turned into radio segments of interest to NPR shows. But that limited goal soon prompted a question: Could our journalists do radio reporting alongside their print reporting, so that timely stories in different media but on the same general topic could be released around the same time? Basco was confident that it could be done.

Basco was a seasoned journalist who had made a splash in her first job, interning for columnist Jack Anderson, by uncovering a big drug scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. After marrying and settling in the Boston area, she switched from print journalism to radio.

She first met the Spectrum staff in the spring of 2004. Addressing us at our annual retreat, she described how augmenting our coverage with radio would expand our reach and spread our journalism, and the IEEE’s name, to a large and high-demographic audience. She had no doubt that she could turn a bunch of ink-stained wretches into skilled radio reporters. “Radio is easy,” she assured the staff, who looked at her blankly.

Well, there have been times when it didn’t seem all that easy. I myself recorded an entire interview in Guadeloupe in an office that was all glass, stone, and metal; the resulting sound was so bad that no broadcast-quality segment could be salvaged from it. During an assignment in the Netherlands to record a segment about a state-of-the-art recumbent bicycle, Harry Goldstein instrumented himself with sound-recording gear before settling onto the US $10,000 bike—and then falling three times and bloodying his knees, as the bike’s designer looked on in dismay. Visiting Gordon Moore at his home for an interview recently, Rachel Courtland decided to record the sound of herself approaching and knocking on the door of Moore’s fabulous seaside estate in Hawaii, followed by Moore himself opening the door and greeting her. It all went off like a charm. Except Courtland forgot to push the “record” button before the approach.

Goldstein and Courtland still managed to get excellent segments out of their reporting adventures, with help from Basco and Dennis Foley of HomeWork Productions, in Austin, Texas. From the very beginning we were fortunate to have had as collaborators some of the most extraordinarily talented people in radio. Foley, for example, is an audio-mixing wizard whose artistry has brightened many of our segments over the past decade. We also found some gifted radio stringers, who still contribute to our operation. These include reporters Ari Daniel in Massachusetts, Giselle Weiss in Switzerland, Prachi Patel in Pittsburgh, and producer Mia Lobel in New York state. In New York City, the legendary recording engineer Paul Ruest has captured the sound for many of our most important segments.

Before long, as our print and online editors became increasingly comfortable with radio reporting, our pieces crossed the threshold into broadcast quality. We were soon placing pieces on “Living On Earth,” an ecology-themed program, and “Here & Now,” the midday news and public-affairs show, and even a few on “Weekend Edition.” Memorable segments from those early years include ones on the Keck telescope in Hawaii, the use of handheld devices to track wild animals in Africa, how electronics were giving new life to old musical performances, earthquake preparedness in Japan, and how sonar systems were affecting whales.

Meanwhile, another opportunity presented itself. Public Radio Exchange (PRX), a marketplace for content for public radio stations, was expanding and looking to add segments, programs, and shows. Basco began producing 1-hour shows on a single topic, based on ideas, reporting, and writing from our staffers and radio stringers. We did several of these shows each year, distributed by NPR’s ContentDepot and by PRX. A popular show would be picked up by several hundred stations, introducing millions of people to Spectrum’s reporting.

We did shows on robots, on the fastest-moving things on Earth, on efforts to adapt to climate change, on breakthroughs in human-genome sequencing, and on how technology is changing the culture of work. I myself visited Antarctica, where I did reporting for a show on the work and living conditions of scientists and engineers on the continent. Many of these radio specials were produced with funding from the Directorate for Engineering of the United States’ National Science Foundation. For these we had the great advantage of being able to use the outstanding talents of the NSF’s Laurie Howell.

Lately, we have returned to our roots. A year and a half ago, NPR announced that it was discontinuing “Talk of the Nation,” the midday public-affairs and current-events show, and replacing it with “Here & Now.” As “Here & Now” was set to increase its listening audience from hundreds of thousands into the millions, we were pleased to forge a closer relationship with the show’s producers. Earlier this year, we were named “Technology Partner” of the show, which is now broadcast to some 4 million listeners daily. We agreed to provide a segment on a technology-related topic every three weeks. Among our first segments were ones on Volkswagen’s ultrahigh-mileage car and on an experimental system that monitors hatchings of sea-turtle eggs.

We are delighted with this new opportunity to reach the influential and intellectually engaged people who listen to “Here & Now.” As technology continues to alter and reshape society in surprising ways, the IEEE should be at the forefront of interpreting and explaining those developments to a large and growing general-interest audience. Increasingly, the most effective channels for reaching such people and in such large numbers are going to be electronic ones. Technology gave us radio, video, and the Internet. Now they, and our powerful media partners, are giving us the means to expand our reach as we chronicle technology’s expanding dominion.

This article originally appeared in print as “Exploring the Radio Spectrum.”

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