Ira Flatow of ‘Science Friday’ discusses show’s future after TOTN

Segments from Friday’s show:When NPR announced that it would close down its daily call-in show “Talk of the Nation” in July, science fans across the country wondered about the fate of “Science Friday,” the program that takes the TOTN time slot once a week. They will be happy to know that their two-hour dose of science news and discussion will remain on the air.

“Science Friday will continue as an independent program, and will retain its Friday 2-4 Eastern Time broadcast spot,” read a statement posted on the Science Friday Initiative website. “While our sympathies are with our colleagues on the Talk of the Nation staff, we’re excited about the future and look forward to continuing what we do best: reporting on the latest developments in science and technology.”


We caught up with longtime science journalist and “Science Friday” host Ira Flatow after he wrapped up this week’s broadcast to talk about the future of the show he launched 22 years ago. Flatow called from Phoenix, where he had just finished a live broadcast that focused, in part, on the Sonoran Desert. (Other topics from this week’s episode include ways to learn about space by studying rocks on Earth and how cosmic collisions helped shape the solar system.)

How did “Science Friday” come about in 1991?


I had taken some time off from NPR, and I wanted to get back into radio. In commercial radio, talk shows were on the rise. I went to NPR and said, “I’d like to do a talk show about science.” They said, “Would that be every day?” And I said, “Once a week would be good.” I went to the National Science Foundation and got a start-up grant to do the program.

In a way, Saddam Hussein gave us the impetus to do this. When the Gulf War broke out in 1990, NPR created a talk show. But that war didn’t last very long. When it was over, the stations said, “Give us a talk show.” And I said, “Remember my idea?” And they said, “OK, we’ll give you Fridays.”

What do you like best about hosting this show?

That it’s live. I love the idea of doing live radio and having a live audience. There’s a sort of tension to it. I know it’s live, the audience knows it’s live. We’re like a community listening and participating together.


You hear movie people say that they used to be stage actors and they loved being in front of an audience because it adds another dimension. When we do something live, it’s like a whole different program.

The guests say things you’d never expect them to say. Like Jane Goodall saying right off the top of her head that she believed in Sasquatch and Yeti. No one ever expected that to happen. That happened live right at the end of our program.

When did you first hear rumblings that NPR might cancel “Talk of the Nation”?

We didn’t hear rumblings. NPR discussed it with us and what options we had and what options we wanted. The discussions went on for a matter of weeks, until it happened today.


We’re committed to keeping “Science Friday” going. “Science Friday” is thriving. Between our podcasts and our live audience, we have about 2 million listeners a week. And they’re really devoted. They love the program. They help stations raise money, which is key for the stations. We help stations raise money to keep them on the air.

We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to be here as long as we can and as long as people want to listen to us. The dirty little secret is that everybody loves science. Everybody loves to talk about science.  Being a geek myself, I say, “Hey, I’m not surprised.”

Why do you think “Science Friday” will go on while “TOTN” folds?

Stations that are used to carrying us realize how popular we are with their audience. We are tried and true, and we have a track record of popularity. Why mess with a good thing?

What is it about science that makes people keep tuning in?

It answers basically the same questions that theologians and philosophers have been asking, which is, “Where did we come from, and where are we going?” Science has its way of finding that truth out.

Why is “The Big Bang Theory” -- which I was on, “Science Friday” made a guest appearance by interviewing Sheldon -- why is that such a popular show? Because people like to talk about that stuff. It’s like “Friends,” but they’re geeky friends. It’s the most popular entertainment show on CBS.

Do you have an all-time highlight among your many years hosting the show?

[Columbia University neurologist and author] Oliver Sachs comes on a lot to talk about his books. One time, we had scheduled him for 40 minutes and told him we’d like to have him on for an hour, but for the last 20 minutes we have a special live talk with a guy in the South Pacific who is looking for the giant squid. Oliver’s manager says, “You’re kidding! The giant squid is Oliver’s favorite topic!” So Oliver shows up with a squid T-shirt on. He’s got two rubber squids in his hands, and he’s squeezing them. He’s like a kid in the candy store. When we did the segment [with the squid hunter], I said, “Go ahead Oliver, ask him a question.” He lit up. It was just a thing of beauty.

What do you see for the show’s future?

We’re very happy with our future. It may mean we have to go out and raise more money, because independence costs money, but we’re very confident that our stations that take “Science Friday” will continue to do so.

We’ve had 22 years of making great radio, and we’re just getting started.

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