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Science on the Air

Popularizers and Personalities on Radio and Early Television

Mr. Wizard’s World. Bill Nye the Science Guy. NPR’s Science Friday. These popular television and radio programs broadcast science into the homes of millions of viewers and listeners. But these modern series owe much of their success to the pioneering efforts of early-twentieth-century science shows like Adventures in Science and “Our Friend the Atom.” Science on the Air is the fascinating history of the evolution of popular science in the first decades of the broadcasting era.

Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette transports readers to the early days of radio, when the new medium allowed innovative and optimistic scientists the opportunity to broadcast serious and dignified presentations over the airwaves. But the exponential growth of listenership in the 1920s, from thousands to millions, and the networks’ recognition that each listener represented a potential consumer, turned science on the radio into an opportunity to entertain, not just educate.

Science on the Air chronicles the efforts of science popularizers, from 1923 until the mid-1950s, as they negotiated topic, content, and tone in order to gain precious time on the air. Offering a new perspective on the collision between science’s idealistic and elitist view of public communication and the unbending economics of broadcasting, LaFollette rewrites the history of the public reception of science in the twentieth century and the role that scientists and their institutions have played in both encouraging and inhibiting popularization. By looking at the broadcasting of the past, Science on the Air raises issues of concern to all those who seek to cultivate a scientifically literate society today.

Read an excerpt.

324 pages | 22 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2008

Biological Sciences: Natural History

Earth Sciences: General Earth Sciences

History: American History, History of Technology

History of Science


"This thoroughly researched work traces science programming broadcasts in the US, from radio in the 1920s through television programming in the 1950s....The material presented in this volume has much relevance to comtemporary broadcasting trends....Highly recommended."


"The continuing presence of science in the 1schecules, evidently vulnerable to broadcasting fashion, demands investigation. This book shows it acn be done>"

Tim Boon | Nature

"Science on the Air makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the relationship between the radio industry and the scientific community."

Steven Phipps | American Journalism

"As an entertaining aand informative history of early science broadcasting in America, [the book] is undoubtedly a success."

Peter Hurrell | BUFVC Newsletter

Table of Contents

List of Figures

Chapter 1         Tuxedos and Microphones
Chapter 2         The Radio Nature League
Chapter 3         Syndicating Science
Chapter 4         Cooperative Ventures
Chapter 5         Shifting Ground
Chapter 6         A Twist of the Dial
Chapter 7         Facts and Fictionalizations
Chapter 8         Adventuring with Scientists
Chapter 9         Broadcasting the Voice of the Atom
Chapter 10       Illusions of Actuality

Epilogue          Entertaining Lessons

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