Science on the Radio


(This column was first published in the May 7, 2001 Buffalo News.)


     Although much radio broadcasting has declined to reactionary ranting, endless top hits and sports wannabe commentary, the medium has also become an excellent source of science information. Here are some outstanding programs available locally.


    Talk of the Nation Science Friday at 2 p.m. Fridays on WBFO, FM 88.7 (audio archives). Host Ira Flatow enjoys a special connection with Buffalo. He is a University at Buffalo engineering graduate who worked at WBFO while he was here as a student.


    Like all of the hosts I will mention, Flatow is a top-notch interviewer, well informed, deeply interested and especially good at focusing on central themes. Recently, for example, he interviewed Rockefeller Institute industrial ecologist Jesse Ausubel about the world's forests. Ausubel brought good news -- despite the current loss of tropical forests, he projected a world-wide ten percent increase in forested land by 2050.


    Quirks & Quarks at 12:06 p.m. Saturdays on CBC Radio One, FM 99.1 (audio archives). Another advantage of living near Canada: we don't need short wave to receive these fine broadcasts. Host Bob McDonald's program title and introductory music prepare us for the "gee-whiz" quality that pervades this show. Despite this focus on the far out, however, the quality of the interviews is excellent and the depth of treatment is quite remarkable for such short segments.


    In one of McDonald's recent programs zoologist Steven Simpson of Oxford identified the strange stimulus that changes solitary grasshoppers into the swarming locusts that have wrecked havoc since the eighth Biblical plague. Forced together by hunger, the insects inadvertently jostle each other's hind legs and this sets off the remarkable physiological change. The transformation is so great that the newly charged-up insects were until recently misidentified as a separate species. Simpson also described his horrifying experience within a billion locust swarm.


    Living on Earth is first broadcast Fridays 6 p.m. on WBFO and is repeated Saturdays at 6 a.m. on WNED AM 970 (program transcripts). You may recognize host Steve Curwood as the narrator of the recent two-hour television special on genetics. His radio shows are also organized around topics rather than individuals and he moves rapidly but smoothly through brief, carefully edited conversations. A recent episode about bottled water, for example, featured comments by two Perrier quality control officers, a Northeastern University microbiologist, a Food and Drug Administration official, a Natural Resources Defense Council representative, and a Consumers Union scientist. This episode reinforced my belief that local tap water is so good that purchase of bottled water is misguided.


    Calling All Pets (website) is very different from the foregoing programs but zoologist Trisha McConnell and her strongly supportive co-host Larry Meiller richly deserve a place on this list. These shows are broadcast 3 p.m. Saturdays on WNED.  Dr. McConnell's responses to call-in questions display not only her strong grounding in animal behavior but also her broad experience, her genuine love of animals, her sense of humor, her warm personality and -- most important -- her common sense. I don't even own a pet but I gain a great deal from this show. Another good pet show is Talkin' Pets (Saturdays 5 p.m. and Sundays, 6 a.m. on WWKB AM 1520, website).


    Also on radio are several fine health programs: Zorba Paster on Your Health (Saturdays 1 p.m. and Sundays 10 a.m. WNED, website), Here's to Your Health (Saturdays 11 a.m. WECK AM 1230, website) and People's Pharmacy (Saturdays 2 p.m., repeated Sundays 6 a.m. on WNED, website).


    And don't forget Ken Brown's outstanding local HOME gardening show (Saturdays 11 a.m., WBEN AM 930).