From J-School’s basement, curious earfuls of iTunes adventures in science

Imagine a trio of UC Berkeley-trained journalists hunkered down in a cramped studio, mixing it up with campus experts and spinning real-world scientific-adventure tales brimming with wide-eyed wonder. Imagine the Bobbsey Twins as media-savvy science nerds, virtually joined at the hips to a radio pro, all of them bearing bachelor’s degrees from Yale, Scripps or UC Santa Barbara and a master’s from Berkeley.

Platoni, Simons, Marcy

For an episode on telescopes, Platoni and Simons interview Berkeley "planet hunter" Geoff Marcy. (Peg Skorpinski photos)

Better yet, tune in and see with your own ears.

Early adopters know the scenario above as the “Field Trip Podcast” — “science without the lab, radio without the airwaves” — a campus-centric collaboration of author/reporters Kara Platoni and Eric Simons, their listeners’ guides and proxies, and Casey Miner, a producer with NPR affiliate KALW in San Francisco. In case you missed them, the intrepid group’s first outings, to destinations spanning the oceans and outer space, are archived on the “Field Trip” website and downloadable free via iTunes.

Now nearing the launch of its second season, what’s become a labor of love — and, to be clear, the rewards are purely intangible — began as a gleam in the eye of Platoni, a space and technology buff who once covered the science front for the East Bay Express.

 

A new season of “Field Trip Podcast” launches May 14. Meanwhile, here’s a taste.

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“I was supposed to be brainstorming a book to write,” she recalls. “I had this notebook, and the idea was to fill up 10 pages with some kind of drawing or freewrite of what the book could be about.”

As befits an adventure tale, though, Platoni’s mind took a fateful turn. “Instead of a book, I ended up drawing this little stick figure of me and Eric sitting behind a table, wearing headphones, doing a podcast,” she says. Still, something was missing: “So I drew in one more stick figure of another person wearing headphones, and I put in ‘Casey.’ And that was it. It was done. It was ready to go.”

“Kara emailed me, ‘Hey, I have this idea, we should be nerdy on the radio,’ ” adds Simons. “And I was like, ‘That sounds fantastic,’ because I have always wanted to be nerdy on the radio, and never had the right outlet.”

The project has no formal ties to Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, but brims with its DNA. Platoni graduated in 1999, Simons in 2008; both returned in 2009 to teach and help run the school’s hyperlocal-news program. Miner, who graduated in 2010, was their student.

The podcasts themselves — eight in all, the second four slated to air in May and June — are recorded in the J-School’s basement studio, where, on a given morning, investigative reporter Lowell Bergman might be tweaking a Frontline episode. Students provide engineering help.

Besides the J-School, the three have worked together in sundry combinations and capacities at the alt-weekly Express, the now-defunct Terrain magazine and a handful of other venues. And while their interests may vary — Simons’ thing for fish, for example, is his thing alone — they share an easy personal chemistry and insatiable curiosity about science, a category that, for them, embraces multitudes.

And, like curious kids of any age, they’re crazy for field trips.

Fire! Fish! Pickles!

“We all basically sit in a coffee shop and go, ‘What would be really fun? What do you really want to know about?’ ” Platoni says, describing a typical story conference. “Which is how we ended up with things like” — and here she invokes her inner Bobbsey Twin — “fire! fish! pickles! taxidermy! coffee!”

Whatever the topic, the trio arrange an outing to see, as Platoni puts it, “how scientific concepts work in the real world, with regular people whose lives happen to encapsulate science.” A dash of intellectual rigor is added via a studio interview with an expert — often a Berkeley faculty member — “but most of the rest of our adventures happen out there, in a basement, a garage, a burn trailer, a factory or a salmon boat.”

To explore the nature of fire, they braved a portable trailer where the Oakland Fire Department practices putting out 500-degree blazes triggered via remote control.

“When they said, basically, ‘Get inside this small box, and we’re going to close the door and set it on fire’ — you know, that was a little intense,” Platoni admits.

Casey Miner

Miner, at the controls

“It was so immediate,” Miner says. “It felt as close to following these men into a burning building as you were ever going to get. And to have the opportunity to do that in a way where you could actually bring the experience to other people — I loved it.”

“Plus,” adds Simons, on cue, “I got to use the firehose.”

Post-adventure, in the cozier confines of the J-School, the episode takes its shape. For an upcoming episode on telescopes, Platoni and Simons spoke with Berkeley astronomer and “planet hunter” Geoff Marcy. (They found the interview “hilarious”; Marcy, hunting for an adjective, pronounced it “gripping.”) Together the team writes a script, which Platoni and Simons revise as they record, and Miner turns it all into Internet-era radio.

The first season had the team exploring Mars, oceans, fire and fermentation. Scheduled for May are looks at coffee, telescopes, taxidermy and inventors.

“We want it to be public-radio quality,” Platoni says. “We don’t want it to sound like two guys in a basement, even though we do often tape in a basement. We want it to be a really highly produced experience, where you actually feel like you go on a field trip.”

Their ability to merge serious science reporting with childlike wonder may have something to do with the fact that the project itself is, like any given episode, an adventure. There are no paychecks, no contracts, no editors or program directors. Nor are episodes constrained by a specified length, though most run from 25 to 30 minutes.

“We own this project, and there’s nobody we have to please but ourselves,” Platoni says. “And that’s such an incredible relief, and it makes you feel so much more creative and inspired to work on it.”

Also, she notes, “It helps to be supernerds. We are generally interested in just about everything, right? And sometimes we go in and we’re like, ‘I understand that you do this thing — but how? What exactly are you doing? Why are you connecting thing A to thing B, and why are we in your basement?’ Those are the kinds of questions nobody really gets asked.”

“They’re the things everybody wants to know,” adds Casey. “When you go in with that curiosity you’re a proxy for the listener, and you’re engaging on a level that a lot of people can relate to. With Kara and Eric, you could be standing right there with them, looking at these things and asking these questions.”

“The curiosity’s the thing,” agrees Simons. For the episode on the sea, he recalls, a fisherman invited the group into his ship’s cabin. “So we’re sitting there in this very small space, and I’m like, ‘Tell me about fish, let’s talk about salmon, because I know all this stuff about salmon and I want to hear what you know.’ And Kara’s like, ‘Wait a minute, you mean you sleep here? ‘

“We put a lot of work into preparation,” he says. “But then, when we go out, we’re really just trying to ask the questions that interest us.”

And, they hope, fellow science nerds and adventurers of all ages.

The second season of the “Field Trip Podcast” is set to begin May 14, with new episodes every Monday through June 4. For updates and further information, visit the program’s website or Facebook page.