In the 1920 the partnership between the National Research Council and Science service signaled the start that radio could be a dignified way to popularize science and for achieving positive publicity for all science. Science Service continued to be involved in radio production for the next forty years, essentially functioning as the scientific establishment’s sanctioned surrogate on the airwaves. To understand Science Service’s commitment to broadcasting requires first understanding the organization’s founders and essential mission and the important role it played in sculpting American scientists’ attitudes toward popularization during the 1920s and 1930s.
The organization’s creation was rooted in a noble idea: “to reach the widest possible audience with the largest amount of scientific information” and to do so with accuracy and diligent attention to the audience’s needs and interests(). For the scientific establishment, the notion of an entity devoted exclusively to popularization was neither repellent nor automatically welcome. During the first decades of the twentieth century, the scientific community’s indifference to popularization had begun to evolve into a begrudging acceptance grounded in practicality. Scientists recognized the potential political and economic benefits of cooperating in public dissemination of their ideas; with active involvement, they might be better able to monitor accuracy, certify authenticity, and claim credit, and such attention would surely encourage increased political investment in science. There was also an expanding potential audience for news and information about science. Consumer technologies, relativity, advances in chemistry, and archeological expeditions all were contributing to a sense of intellectual excitement at the same time that a voracious media market Science had emerged from the Great War with an enhanced but somewhat ambiguous image, primarily because of the publicity that attended the development of chemical weapons.
Science’s benefits were undeniable. Chemists and physicists had contributed to military and defense preparedness; public health and medicine were extending human life; genetics, entomology, and soil chemistry were improving agriculture, killing pests, and increasing crop yields; and the technological products of physics and engineering like wireless sets and phonographs As the economic depression continued, attempts to use radio for adult education took on new significance, yet most of the major campaigns to accomplish that objective failed miserably. These projects also paid little attention to science. At a moment when science and engineering had special relevance to national recovery and were receiving increased attention in newspapers and popular magazines, the number of broadcasts aimed at educating and informing Americans about such topics remained small. Only a few individuals and organizations, acting independently of most educational reform groups, exploited radio for science popularization. This failure seems all the more paradoxical because well-funded, well connected national advocacy groups led by academics, including many scientists, and focusing on “radio in education” existed in the United States during the 1 930s.
The inability of these organizations to cooperate with each other, their intellectual snobbery and undisguised disdain for the very medium they were supposedly trying to utilize, and their unwillingness to invest significant resources in production of quality programs all hobbled their effectiveness. Moreover, these reformers seemed unconcerned with promoting science education for adults, choosing to concentrate on literature, music, economics, and public affairs (politics) rather than the ABC’s of astronomy, biology, and chemistry. In radio age relatively few American researchers received government funding, unless their work had immediate application to public health, agriculture, or weaponry. However, things changed after World War 2 and Vietnam War, when science was backed by government grants. The perception of science as the recipient of government money and not as a contributor to society was damaging. Being equated with politics, political parties, and favoritism painted science not as the “hero” of the space program but as an arm of the Establishment.In addition to these issues of public perception and the prevailing reputation of science, the American educational system was not having success with its science curriculum.
As a result, adults did not have a level of science literacy that allowed them to understand the complexities of science or space exploration. It can be argued that television viewers watch television programming that was relevant to them, to their time, to their politics, they would have been primed for a mature, elegant educational program that sought to connect with them. At the same time, they hungered for adventure and fantasy presented with great spectacle. Cosmos’ leading goal was not necessarily “education:” Sagan wanted to change the public perspective on science, to accept it and therefore to fund it. This change in perspective is typical to the “evolution” of science as a field: “Science grows not by mere accumulation of data as does natural history but by changes in perspectives” (). Sagan felt that public understanding of science was critical to its progress. So when PBS and Carl Sagan wanted to create a show , they decided they want to attract the “average” viewer, Sagan should appear like the “everyman,” and not as one of the “scientific elite” who had been associated with government spending.
The show should look like look like Star Wars and sound like ‘Sixty Minutes. Through the show Sagan illuminates that the direction scientific discoveries is in the hands of the common people. While they may not have embraced science nor fully understood what it could do for them before this program, after Cosmos, Sagan hoped, they would adopt a new appreciation for and understanding of the ways in which science benefits humanity as a whole. The show was so effective that Cosmos did not need time to “build” an audience. It enjoyed immediate popularization. The avenues of distribution available for popularized science almost always involve some marketing component. While any message must first have an small scientific audience before it can persuade an public audience, in popular science, concern about audience attraction and retention is shaped by its need to cater to a secondary audience, the public, of “financial supporters.” Usually, financial support comes in the shape of advertising dollars and the attached concerns stem wholly from outside the rhetor’s primary persuasive argument. Capitalist concerns are at the core for this secondary audience: moral or ethical or intellectual interests are not the deciding factor.
The rhetorical message must be shaped to attract not only the audience which the rhetor intends primarily to address, but also to attract and persuade an audience of financiers who need to fund the program’s production, distribution and/or publication. Being unable to attract not just the primary audience but the necessary secondary audience could result in the effective erasure of the message. The secondary audience has controlling financial power and determines whether a message exists. Without good cause to believe an advertising message will be delivered as desired to an audience attracted by the program, financial support will not be secured. These concerns about secondary audiences exist even if a program airs on PBS because it receives significant amounts of its funding from the corporate sponsors and from individual contributors. PBS cannot risk being seen as promoting partisan views for fear it may risk losing federal funding. Controversy may also put at risk pledged donations from “members” who voluntarily contribute to the cost of running PBS.