Wireless Communication

By James Piercy

CC-BY science made simple

James two years after his accident CC-BY science made simple

This year I had the opportunity to take my science communication to a new media. After a series of successful talks about the traumatic brain injury I suffered in 2011, I worked with a freelance producer to develop a related piece suitable for broadcast.

We put together an idea based on 3 interwoven strands: my personal story and thoughts about what happened, the perceptions and actions of some of those involved in my case and a wider perspective from researchers working in the field of brain injury and rehabilitation. The idea was pitched to the BBC and a half hour programme was commissioned. Well 28 minutes and 45 seconds including introduction, and as I was to find, those extra seconds really count!

Making the show

To put the piece together we sourced people to interview. I met and spoke with the police officer who saved my life, a crew from the air ambulance who flew me to hospital, my neurological consultant, a researcher in brain imaging and plasticity, a neuro-psychologist and a rehabilitation consultant.

CC-BY science made simple

CC-BY science made simple


A wonder of audio is that these three ‘voices’ can be made to sound slightly different. The listener knowing and recognising a change of perspective without having to be told.

Interviewing was a new experience for me, starting with people I had already met made it easier and some good advice from Toby Murcott my producer helped me develop a strategy. “Don’t write a list of questions, just think about what you want to talk about”

Each interview was really a discussion, with me asking often long questions and describing situations in the understanding that my part would probably be cut out. With only a short time to fill it was clear from the start that we would record much more material than we could use- in fact we had over 6 hours of audio to pick from.

Fitting 6 hours into 30 minutes!

Toby worked to draw out a narrative, broadly chronological which picked out the main themes we had agreed were important to feature, he cut sections from the interviews and I wrote links to join them into a coherent piece. The rough edit was stitched together in a studio in Brighton. With the mixer-49351_640help of a very talented sound engineer, wonderfully called Mike, we began to reduce around 35 minutes of interviews and links to the required length. Once you have seen this work done you will never trust the recorded speech of anyone ever again! Seamless edits join different parts of an interview, changing the order, missing words and getting the best sense from the material which has been gathered. Interestingly if you want to cut someone’s speech together it is best to make the edit In the middle of a word- a psychological trick, you are less likely to notice a cut as you have already guessed how the word ends and probably not actually listened to it carefully.

With the addition of some atmospheric music and the reluctant removal of some powerful words, which time couldn’t allow, the piece was finished. Except it had to be cut even further to create a slightly shorter version for broadcast on the World Service. Probably the hardest part of this whole process was that a lot of very interesting and informative material had to be lost. Probably an hour or so of ‘um’ and ‘er’ a bit of ‘let’s do that again’ but also a huge amount of insight ended up in the cutting room recycle bin.

The finished product

Listening to the interviews and then hearing the finished programme I thought that we had made a powerful, informative and importantly, scientifically accurate piece. But unlike most of my work in science communication there was no feedback. No audience to clap or laugh or cry or boo. As a presenter I have always relied on the audience to help direct delivery, watching them, listening to them and changing the tone and pace of my speech in response. Having a good idea at the end of the session just how it had gone, good or not so good has been important. This time there was some delight in having finished but mostly uncertainty and nerves about how it would be received when broadcast. Not knowing even how many people would hear it but certainly more than I could have spoken to directly in a very long time.

Listen to James on Wednesday 27th May at 9pm on BBC Radio 4.

Posted in Biology, Exploring Science, News, Technology