"Radiolab," the hugely popular podcast and public radio show about "science, wonder and discovery," is one of the most curious storytelling specimens on the media landscape. Co-hosted by musician/producer Jad Abumrad and veteran science reporter Robert Krulwich, "Radiolab" digs into knotty scientific and philosophical issues with a dense and highly stylized approach that's often radically different from the traditional public radio show format.
Each "Radiolab" episode is centered on a theme and uses a layered audio production style drawn from Abumrad's background in experimental music composition. It truly sounds like nothing else on the radio dial or podcast charts. "Radiolab" won a Peabody award for broadcast excellence in 2010, and the next year Abumrad was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. ("Radiolab" airs on Sundays at 2 p.m. on WUNC radio.)
Abumrad, appearing Sunday at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, estimates that the show now reaches about five million people through airwaves and podcast. Speaking from his home in New York City, Abumrad talked with the N&O about creativity, chemistry and chrysanthemums.
Q: You've toured a live version of "Radiolab" before, but this is a solo presentation, intriguingly called "Gut Churn." What can people expect coming out for this event?
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A: Basically, it's a one-hour show that combines multimedia, videos, original music and me jibber-jabbering - mostly on the topic of creativity. It's a little bit about "Radiolab" and how it happened; it's a little bit of a clinic on storytelling and the things I think about.
But mostly it's an attempt to reclaim the dark parts about creativity. I think we all have these moments of anxiety and gut-churn and acid eating your stomach lining. It's part of the process in a big way. I started thinking about all these angles, doing interviews with psychotherapists, cultural anthropologists and mathematicians about how we deal with uncertainty.
Q: "Radiolab" has such a distinctive production style. There's a density to it that makes it feel like three hours of information packed into one. Are there specific techniques you use to achieve that?
A: When I listen to "Radiolab" relative to other public radio, our clock rate is just somehow faster. In making the show, we're not intentionally trying to do that. But I feel like, somehow, the internal music of a person comes out when they make these editing choices. The music I grew up with was a combination of classical music, bad techno, greasy jazz, weird avant-garde - a lot of stuff that's really kinetic. So I think my internal BPM is just higher than most public radio.
But one technical thing we do, is we often edit out breaths. We never really compress, in terms of time compression, but we layer things so that maybe one person's finishing another person's sentence, if it gets the idea across more efficiently. I'll fully admit that it makes it sometimes annoying to listen to the show on the radio. That density works really well when you have earbuds in and you're walking around and can let your brain go into it. But when you're trying to do the dishes and it's coming at you so fast I've had people say: "Jad, I cannot listen to you right now, I've got to get things done."
Q: You and Robert have such an easy rapport and warmth. Is that just natural chemistry?
A: Yeah, there's something between him and I that feels inexplicable. I tend to be this really cerebral, brooding kind of dude, but then a different me comes out that's just more playful and wants to splash in puddles. He somehow unlocks some new personality within me. Just the force of his curiosity and playfulness and intellect.
And I think what I bring out in him is something that's more musical, rhythmic, thoughtful, contemplative and maybe not quite so manic. We have an interesting balancing effect on one another. He brings me up and I mellow him a little bit.
Q: There's a running thread in "Radiolab" around the idea of epistemology - how do we know what we think we know? Like, 100 years ago, very smart people were doing rigorous science, but we now see how far off they were. Do you think that will be the case in another 100 years?
A: No doubt, no doubt. That's already happened with the human genome project. There was this huge promise of unlocking disease and unlocking behavior, and it turns out we have the same number of genes as a chrysanthemum. It's not so much the genetic code as the things that are manipulating that code, which are infinitely more complex.
Every discovery that we're making right now, in 20 years or 50 years, will be re-evaluated with a level of nuance that is almost unfathomable. That's what science continually does. It's never the final word. I think that's why science can make some people uncomfortable. In some ways that's what this talk is about. It's about navigating your way though terrain when you know you can't know everything, and how do you make decisions?
Q: A lot of regular listeners get to your show via podcast, which is a format that is growing so fast yet seems weirdly under-the-radar in pop culture. Do you get that sense from your end of things?
A: I do. You can see the awareness kind of growing right now. I've always had the sense that you have - podcasts are like two or three layers below the mainstream. You've got a very passionate group of people, but individual podcasts are usually very small and homegrown. It's like a weird adjacent thing to maker culture, and I've always been attracted to podcasts for just that reason.
But yeah, there's something going right now, you see all these podcast networks sprouting up. The number of podcasts out there has hit some sort of exponential thing just in the last year or two. When we put stuff out now, it's like five and a half million people, I think - which is a decent audience in the world of broadcasting. It makes it into some weird places. There's a Swedish "Radiolab" fan club.