StarDate is radio’s longest-running nationally aired science program. It began in 1977 as a daily telephone message service by McDonald Observatory. It was picked up by Austin radio station KLBJ-FM, and aired as “Have You Seen the Stars Tonight” beginning in June 1977. With a grant from the National Science Foundation the program became “Star Date,” and began airing nationally, seven days per week, on October 1, 1978. It quickly reached more than 1,000 radio stations across the country.
The program was written and produced by Deborah Byrd and narrated by Joel Block, an Austin voice talent. When the NSF grant neared its end, McDonald Observatory hired Sandra Preston to market the program to radio stations. She later became an assistant director of the Observatory, overseeing all public outreach programs.
Byrd and Block left the show in 1991 to found the “Earth and Sky” radio series. Damond Benningfield, a science journalist, became the writer/producer, with Sandy Wood, a voice talent and radio personality, taking over narration duties. Benningfield maintains those duties today, while Sandy Wood retired from the program in 2019. Dr. Tom Barnes, a McDonald Observatory research scientist, has been technical editor since 1991 as well, with Shayna Brown, owner of ChezBoom Audio in Austin, serving as audio engineer since 2002.
StarDate has aired more than 14,600 daily episodes. It spawned a sister program, the Spanish-language Universo, which aired from 1995 to 2010. The program also was translated into German for several years under the name Sternzeit.
StarDate is designed to appeal to an audience interested in astronomy, space exploration, and related topics, but with little or no formal education or training in these areas. The program uses skywatching to help listeners connect to the universe, describing the science, history, and even art of the objects in the sky they can see, or by trying to use words to create a mental picture of some of the more interesting astronomical objects and phenomena. It also tries to connect people to the cosmos by pointing out direct interactions between Earth and the Sun, Moon, asteroids, comets, cosmic rays, and other objects.