A Moment of Science Turns 30

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Co-hosts Don Glass and Yaël Ksander are just getting started

 

What were you doing at 4:58 pm on February 28th, 1988? Think real hard. Listening to WFIU – that’s the correct answer. And if you were listening to WFIU, you would have heard the very first episode of A Moment of Science, titled  “Benjamin Franklin’s Swatches on the Snow.” Is there snow on the ground as you are reading this? If so, and if you listened to that first episode, and if you retained just a little bit of what you heard 30 years ago, then chances are you are dressed properly. If not, well, maybe it’s warm out.

A Moment of Science is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Over the years, the program  has become an integral part of the cultural landscape of Bloomington. How did it begin? Where is it going? We sat down at a local café with co-hosts Don Glass and Yaël Ksander to talk about the past, the future, and all things in between.

Interview by Peter LoPilato

Ryder:  So, 7,000 episodes?

Yaël Ksander:  Is that right!? I know that Don and I have done about 4,000 together.

Don Glass:  I’ve lost count. I think it’s between 7,400 and 7,500.

[RYDER]:  Which was the best one?

[DG]:  The one we just did.

[RYDER]:  What’s the coolest part of doing the show?

[DG]:  I think there are two cool parts. The first one is learning cool stuff.  And the other (gesturing towards Yaël) is working with her.

[YK]:  Awwww!

[RYDER]:  So in other words, this show wasn’t really that good before she joined?

[YK]:  (laughter) Yeah, that’s pretty much what he’s saying….

[DG]:  Actually, it wasn’t.

[YK]:  There’s a funny story about how we segued into my tenure, but I don’t want to accelerate things…

[DG]:  The long answer to your question is, the shows are better. They’re certainly better for us to perform, so to speak.  I think they’re better to listen to when there are two people doing it, especially when there’s a man and a woman, which is something I insisted on–

[RYDER]:  There’s that sexual tension.

[YK]:  (laughing) When we have sex on the show, which we often do, it usually has to do with the hermaphroditic qualities of worms or something like that.  Usually when we have a little of that piquant touch there, it’s Don saying something like “I wish my mom would stop signing me up for these online dating services.”  We’ll have things like that, but we don’t usually explore the, you know, sexual tension between us, because that’s just obvious.

[DG]:  Sometimes there is a sort of tension, not in a sexual sense, but in a gender sense

[RYDER]:   Has the show evolved since Yaël has been part of it? Was there a defining moment where something clicked?

[DG]:  It’s been an evolution.

[RYDER]:   But if I were to listen to an early episode, say the fourth episode with Yaël–

[YK]:  So much has changed. The bottom line is our relationship, which is real.  We aren’t just hired guns showing up and doing voiceover….We were joking earlier that it really is like The Sonny and Cher Show (laughing)….Don and I have just gotten to be better and better friends over the years and so a lot of that comes through. And so when he first hired me to do this show, I didn’t know him very well and I was on my best behavior (more laughter). Now, I’m extremely disobedient and he puts up with me. And he lets me make fun of him all the time.

[DG]:  And the writers have sensed that.

[YK]:  Yeah, right, they’ve responded.

[DG]:   A lot of credit has to be given them, because when they write the scripts, we ‘just’ read them, but the creativity’s behind them.

[RYDER]:  How involved are you? Do you sometimes revise the scripts?

[YK]:  Yeah, he does a lot on the front end.

[DG]:   I’m the producer’s last editor.  So the writers send the scripts to me after I approve what they’re doing in the first place.  Then, if it needs some tweaking, I ask them to do it.  I mean, I could do it, but they’re paid to do it. They’re also very good at it.

[RYDER]:   How many writers are there?

[DG]:  Let’s see.  Oh, this numbers thing. I’ll have to go through…(mentions several names under his breath while counting) Is that five? Oh, six.

[RYDER]:  Are they also researchers, or are they just writers? They’re researchers as well, right?  You’re not just pulling the Encyclopedia Britannica off the shelf and reading from that?

[YK]:  No. There’s a lot of vetting that goes on.

[DG]:  They come with the ideas and I say ok, this’ll work.  Then they research it, which means probably browsing the web to look up stuff.  They see an article in a magazine and pattern the script after the information in that article.  Several articles for that matter.  It might not just be one.  Then, once we get the tweaking done, all the programs are sent to a scientist.  So we’re not just going to rely on what somebody reads in the New York Times. 

[RYDER]:  No fake news.

[DG]:   Did you see my letter-to-the-editor the other day?

[YK]:  Did they put it in?

[RYDER]:  You had a letter in the New York Times?

[DG]:  No, I wish it was. It was in the H-T….So each script is checked by a scientist. Which is not foolproof, but it certainly gives it a certain amount of authority by having them check it because sometimes they disagree. They might say that article in the Times left out this or it left out that.  So they’ll help us correct that.

[YK]:  And originally, for the scientists, we drew upon on the resources that we had here at IU. In fact, as the show came together, that was the idea, that we would take the name of Indiana University and our significant scientific resources to the world… Don, why don’t you explain the origin story.

[DG]:  Paul Singh was a professor in physics, and he was coming home from a fishing trip with one of his sons and they were listening to StarDate on the radio. And either he or his son said “If they can do that with astronomy at the University of Texas, why can’t we do something with general science?” I was concerned that it might be a little esoteric. But Paul convinced me. His point was to bring science to the people.

We were joking earlier that A Moment of Science really is like The Sonny and Cher Show. —  Yaël Ksander 

[RYDER]:  Each episode is two minutes on the air.  How much time goes into preparing each episode?

[YK]:  Yeah, good question.  Like all radio, oh my goodness.

[DG]:  It takes hours.

[YK]:  You know, film production, TV production, radio production….

[RYDER]:  Speaking of film production, when are you going to pitch Moment of Science  to a Hollywood studio?

[YK]:  Yeah!  Who’s going to play you, Don?

[RYDER]:   George Clooney.

[YK]:  George Clooney!  Who do I want?  Scarlett Johansson.  (laughter)

[DG]:  Stephen Colbert can play me. Stephen Colbert or Chevy Chase.

[YK]:  Chevy Chase?  He’s too goofy.

[DG]:  That’s what I like about him.

 

[RYDER]:  Has there ever been a question or a topic that you would not discuss? Maybe something that might be politically sensitive?

[YK]:  We think about the political ramifications all the time, and we’re not interested in putting people off. So a lot of times, we’ll have to tweak the language in order not to make untoward suggestions.  For example, the other day we had a script about how drones were being used to measure and collect and photograph the stuff that whales blow out of their spouts. They’re using drones to do that.  And the first line was just a real casual:  “You know, Don, drones are pretty cool!”  I think we had to tamp that down a little bit. Because obviously, drones are used for warfare.

[DG]:  I wasn’t thinking about the military part of it.  Drones can be just a disaster if people aren’t careful how they use them.  They can wreck airlines.

[YK]:  In radio you get only one chance.  People can turn you off real quick.

[RYDER]:   Do you ever tackle subjects like climate change or evolution?

[YK]:  Oh yeah.  We don’t stray away from provocative subjects.

[DG]:   They’re provocative to some people and not others.  We deal with the science.

[RYDER]:  So how do you feel about the current administration dismissing scientific research?

[YK]:  That’s why we think now the program’s more important than ever, because, like on that bumper sticker, “science is true whether you believe it or not.” So just getting people to think about how things work and the fact that there are these laws that determine …

[DG]:  But at the same time, we’re going to look at the science, not the political aspects…

[YK]:  So we refrain from moralizing or putting the stamp of approval on things.

[RYDER]:  How many takes does the average episode require?

[DG]:  Two point something.

[YK]:  99% of them have no overdubbing.  We record it like old radio theater.  We do it in one take, whether or not that take takes 17 takes to get.  We don’t splice things together, so the interaction you’re hearing is real life interaction. And we have to get all the way through a two minute thing with the music underneath us without screwing it up.

[RYDER]:  Do you record back to back episodes? Do you record five or six at a time?

[DG]:  Six a week.  It takes about an hour and a quarter, which isn’t too bad.

[YK]:  It has been an incredible school for me in terms of voice work because I remember looking at these scripts that were two minutes long, and thinking how in the heck am I going to get through all of this without screwing up.  And it used to scare me so much.  It’s so unforgiving.  If I’m reading a newscast live and I stumble, no biggie, right?  But for this, we don’t do stumbles, so it’s been a way of trial by fire.  It’s been a great way to learn actually, like boot camp.

[RYDER]:   Where do you see Moment of Science in ten years?

[DG]:  Oh, man.  Who would have thought we’d be here for 30 years?  I don’t know. Probably the way it is now, in terms of radio.

[RYDER]:  What about podcasts?

[YK]:  Yeah Don, talk about how much action they get.

[DG]:  I was getting to that because in some people’s minds, radio is dead. Traditional broadcasts, that is.    And the fact is, there may be some truth to that.  Some people still listen to the radio, but they’re older people.  Other people listen to their own music on their phone.  They listen to what they want, when they want.

[YK]:  We only listen to podcasts. I say we, but I mean 30-year-olds do that.

[DG]:   The whole media environment is changing so rapidly, and I’m not keeping up with it.  I’m doing radio.  As long as people want radio programs, that’s’ what I’ll do.  If they want something else, somebody else can do that.  I’m not criticizing it.  It’s just the way i approach it.

[YK]:  Luckily, the station has had the foresight to adapt and make the program available.

[DG]:  They just branched out to the web and its’ been very successful.  In 2017, A Moment of Science got over two million site visits. Two million! That’s 45% of WFIU’s website activity. I can’t act like a total idiot and pretend it’s not happening.

[YK]:  He doesn’t like it.

[DG]:  I don’t dislike it.  I think it’s fine.  Obviously, more people are hearing it, just in a different way.  I’ll have to ask the people who analyze the website, but I wonder if more people are using the podcast than just going to the website and listening to it.  My guess is they probably are.  It’s a bit more cumbersome to go the website and click on the script and click on the audio.

 

[RYDER]:  So Yaël, tell us the story of how you became co-host.

[YK]:  I had just joined the station in the Fall of 2000. At the same time Angela Mariani was leaving for Texas–she had been the co-host with Don.  So [turning to Don] you were thinking maybe you were going to record her an ISDM line, but that was going to be pretty expensive.

[DG]:  Or just have her record scripts and send them back. But it was too cumbersome to work.  Really complicated.

[YK]:  Yeah, you were kind of flummoxed about how to proceed. Then, in comes unsuspecting me.  I don’t know how you just thought to “give the new girl a try.”

[DG]:  I can’t remember that part either.  I must have heard you.  I would never just take somebody off the streets.

[YK]:  I’ll tell you, I was pretty thrilled because I had enjoyed the program for a couple of years before joining the station.  I was very excited and Don said, “Well, come over on Thursday and you can audition. You’re an unknown quantity and Angela and I had this rapport going, but it’s getting kind of difficult, so why don’t you just come in and give it a try.”  And so I came in on a Thursday and we recorded some scripts.  I was thinking I was auditioning, right?  I was waiting for the other shoe to drop; then he said “come in next Thursday and we’ll do some more.”  Then he didn’t have to remind me to come in on Thursdays and then about five years later, I said “Don, did I pass the audition?  Or are you going to give it back to Angela?” He never told me.

[DG]:  I never even thought of it.  I don’t know if it’s a male/female thing or not, but I kind of assumed that you’d already been doing it for five years that maybe you’d assume you had it.

 

[RYDER]:  I’d like to end with a quote and ask you to respond: “All of our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike.”

[YK]:  Who said that?

[RYDER]:   Nobody important. I’ll tell you who said it after you respond.  [which we forgot to do; the quote is from Albert Einstein.] [YK]:  I feel somewhat agnostic about everything – that there’s so much more to discover than we can even begin to grapple with

[RYDER]:  Every three years we learn that a healthy diet is different than we thought it was three years earlier.

[YK]:  Right . . .my father as a child had leeches put on him as a way of bringing down a fever – I mean, it was in another country and 70 or 80 years ago but still –

[DG]:   They use maggots to clean wounds. Maggots only eat dead tissue so they use them to heal really bad wounds that have dead tissue around them – we covered that on a show about ten years ago.

[YK]:  We like to do gross-out scripts on the program. Scripts about maggots and roadkill? – they’re memorable!  Like naked mole rats. One time I asked Don, “What does a naked mole rat look like? Is it like a possum?” This was completely unscripted. Don said — this is a direct quote: “A naked mole rat makes a possum look like Raquel Welch!” (loud laughter; people in the café are staring)

[RYDER]:   Not too many people reference Raquel Welch anymore. She might be appreciative.

[DG]:  If she ever saw a naked mole rat, I don’t think she’d be flattered.

Photo: Hannah Sturm