UW Sea Grant Outreach
Earthwatch Radio Ends 35-Year Run 6/7/2007
By Brian Sweeney
UW Sea Grant recently bid farewell to one of its oldest institutions. On May 22, Earthwatch Radio aired its final story after 35 years of producing five programs every week.
A group of UW–Madison students and staff at the Sea Grant Institute and the Institute for Environmental Studies launched the project with faculty support in 1972. Inspired by Earth Day Founder Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earthwatch was the first radio program in the nation to concentrate on environmental news, and it became the longest-running program of its kind.
The weekly series of two-minute programs had a special focus on aquatic and atmospheric issues, and it was well known for concise and accurate reporting. Every script was reviewed and approved by its source before airing on as many as 150 outlets across the world. In later years, program scripts were also posted to the Internet and sent to a listserv of 300 readers.
Earthwatch was also one of the first science and environmental programs to embrace podcasting, a technology allowing Internet users to download the program’s audio on their own schedules. For the past two and a half years, Earthwatch Radio’s podcasts have tallied between 3,000 and 4,000 visits per day.
In surveys over the years, listeners frequently commented that being able to hear scientists talk about their research added to a story’s credibility and trustworthiness. They also enjoyed the range of topics, which sometimes ventured beyond traditional scientific journal fare. Story subjects included a clever octopus holding a grudge against the scientist studying it (“Octopus Brainpower”), a flock of overboard plastic ducks tracked to monitor ocean currents (“Rubber Ducks at Sea”), and a prominent plumbing manufacturer probed about water-efficient toilet designs (“Flush Factor”). Listeners can still hear these and other past stories at ewradio.org.
Earthwatch received eight notable awards during its run, including being named to the “Global 500 Roll of Honor” by the United Nations Environment Programme in 1992. Its first award was a “Commendation for Objectivity and Quality Programming” from the Wisconsin Natural Resources Foundation in 1974.
Although pleased with such recognition, former Earthwatch Producer Richard Hoops said he is most proud of the students who received valuable experience working for the program. Over the years, Earthwatch employed a total of 86 halftime undergraduate and graduate students to interview scientists and write scripts. Nick Houtman, one of those former students and now director of research communications at Oregon State University, said his time with the program helped prepare him for his career as a science writer.
“I learned how to spot a good science story, identify knowledgeable sources for it and get to the heart of the message quickly,” he said. “I also learned about the difficulties of telling stories about research and how to summarize complex issues and develop useful metaphors that convey scientific concepts to the public.” Peyton Smith was a cofounder of Earthwatch back in 1972 when he was still a student at UW–Madison. Now an assistant vice chancellor at his alma mater, he said the program embodied “a cherished, core value” of the university — the Wisconsin Idea.
“Programs like Earthwatch help translate what’s happening at the university into the public consciousness,” Smith said. “They increase public understanding of important issues, and that leads to greater science literacy.” While Earthwatch was the first of its kind in 1972, today other radio programs carry on where Earthwatch is leaving off. Programs like Earth & Sky and the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Environment Report both cover similar topics and use concise formats.
Earthwatch Radio’s future became uncertain last September after a major reorganization and budget cuts led administrators at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies to conclude that it could no longer support its half of the program. Stephen Wittman, communications manager at the Aquatic Sciences Center, understands that institutional needs and priorities change.
“IES was a steadfast partner for 34 years. We’re very grateful to them for providing three decades of support for Earthwatch Radio,” he said.
Limited programming of one story a week continued until recently, when Richard Hoops accepted a job as a communications director at the University of Southern California (USC).
“After 20 years of doing Earthwatch, the USC Wrigley Institute of Environmental Studies offered Rich a professional development and career advancement opportunity that was simply too good to pass up,” said Wittman.
Plans are underway at the Aquatic Sciences Center to develop a new communication outreach program that will carry on the spirit and mission of Earthwatch Radio. Stay tuned.