A quick perusal of Audrey Quinn’s website will expose you to such terms as “fecal sludge,” “hypnic jerk,” and “glutamate-gated ion channel.” You see, Audrey is a science journalist and for her terms like this are all in a day’s work. Audrey got bitten by the radio bug after being bitten one too many times by lab mice when she was a neuroscience researcher. She’s since worked with Radiolab, PRI’s The World, and a number of NPR affiliate stations. She produces a podcast for The Mind Science Foundation, blogs about health news for CBS Interactive and even writes science stories for Dr. Oz’s website.
We talked with Audrey about how she broke into this unique corner of the news world and learned more about her inspirations and future goals.
The Recollective: How did you get into radio?
Audrey: When I was just out of college and living in Seattle, I worked for a few different neuroscience research labs. I’m a total sucker for the notion that our thoughts and behaviors come from biological mechanisms. People are so fascinating and mysterious, and the fact that scientists can track down the physiological manifestations of our psyches thrills me. But, it turns out, I wasn’t meant to be one of those scientists. As much as I liked the ideas addressed by science research, lab work and me just didn’t gel.
I was starting to consider science journalism when a friend introduced me to Martha Baskin, the producer of the environmental radio show Green Acre Radio. She told me about a free reporter training class at Seattle’s community radio station KBCS. I signed up, and as soon as I finished training the news director Joaquin (“Wakx”) Uy began assigning me science stories. It was the perfect incubator situation for a beginning producer, Wakx gave me a lot of free reign to figure out my own reporting style, but he also really pushed me as an editor.
Producing science radio stories felt more fulfilling than any other pursuit I’d known. I loved everything about it, going out and recording interesting scientists, obsessing over my scripts, voicing my stories, and sitting at the computer so transfixed by editing I’d barely break for trips to the bathroom. To get a better idea of radio career options I did a series of internships at Seattle’s NPR affiliate KUOW. Once again I feel like I lucked out with how much hands-on training I got there. I learned how to quickly turn around news reports, create NPR-style features, and produce a daily news magazine. After that I moved to New York and started freelancing.
The Recollective: What made you want to work in radio?
Audrey: This is a little embarrassing to admit, but I didn’t start listening to public radio until a few years after college. And even then it was just the “gateway drugs” of This American Life and Radiolab. So making radio and wanting to make radio came pretty much at the same time for me. Once I tried it, I was immediately hooked on the combination of journalism, technical abilities, artistic creation, and performance that it affords.
That said, while radio was my first love I’ve found branching out into other mediums essential to my career. Video production, podcasts, blogging, and print work have recently paid the better part of my bills, and also help me feel more marketable as a journalist.
The Recollective: What is most challenging about being a freelance reporter?
Audrey: The lack of direction, on so many levels. There’s no one to tell you when you should work, there’s no one (usually) to care how much you get done, and there’s no one to let you know what you should do next. Which in some ways is totally exhilarating, but the lack of stability makes me a little crazy at times. I’ll go for weeks with more work than I can handle, then within a few hours of finishing up those projects I’m already panicking about whether I’ll ever work again.
The Recollective: You cover a lot of different fields of science in your work. Is there a specific field in which you are consistently most interested or does that change from time-to-time?
Audrey: I started out very broad, I figured science radio was specific enough of a pursuit in its own right, and I didn’t want to box myself in. But talking to other science journalists like Dan Grossman (who’s honed the environmental beat), I came to realize the importance of carving out your niche. Lately I’ve been returning to my love of neuroscience, and I’m putting down roots in the general health beat from my healthcare blog for CBS’s SmartPlanet. I’m also really excited about female-focused science stories — either stories about women scientists, science stories about women’s health, or science stories directed at a female audience.
The Recollective: Are there science reporters or producers in general whom you admire or who inspire you?
Audrey: When I was just starting out I stumbled upon Ari Daniel Shapiro’s website, and he’s been my scientist-turned-producer role model ever since. Over the last year and a half I’ve become ridiculously dependent on the inspiration I get from the other members of my radio club (recently named the Brooklyn Broadcast Cooperative). We’re a listening group/potluck that meets in different radio producers’ apartments each month.
When I get ready to produce a radio story, I find myself consistently guided by three different advisers: (1) Chana Joffe-Walt, who via her Transom manifesto outlines how to make engaging “Idea Stories” (pretty much every piece I make fits that category, so I probably re-read her guide at least once a month), (2) Robert Krulwich, who at my last Third Coast Audio Doctor session talked with me about how to break out of the traditional he-said-she-said feature mold and encouraged me to make my stories more conversational, and (3) Patrick Cox at PRI’s The World, who taught me to add energy to my features and pick up the pace with a back-and-forth style of shorter quicker actualities and tracks.
The Recollective: What do you think makes a good science story?
Audrey: Good science stories tell me something surprising that I feel excited to know, and great science stories also engage me on a personal level.
The Recollective: In a recent post on your blog you write about a realization that fascinating scientific discoveries do not necessarily make for great radio. Tell us about your process for balancing science and story.
Audrey: Honestly, story appeal always comes first for me. A scientist could have made some unparalleled breakthrough in say, theoretical quantum physics, but unless I can tell that story in a way that speaks to listeners’ lives it’s not my thing. That said, I think good writing can make almost any science story engaging.
The Recollective: Are there any events or topics in science about which you are excited and would like to produce more stories?
Audrey: I mentioned before that I’ve become more interested in science stories that involve women. I feel like a lot of traditional science journalism just doesn’t read in a way that engages me, and talking with other women I’ve gathered that I’m not alone in feeling that way. I think that too often women and girls assume they’re bad at science when really a lot of science media just isn’t communicated with them in mind. I’m still trying to reconcile how I want to work to make science more appealing to women without ghettoizing (or heaven forbid, dumbing down) “science for women,” but that aim has informed a lot of my recent work.