Q&A: Jad Abumrad of WNYC's Radiolab | Blogh

Monday, April 2, 2018

Q&A: Jad Abumrad of WNYC's Radiolab

Posted By on Mon, Apr 2, 2018 at 2:21 PM

click to enlarge Jad Abumrad
Jad Abumrad
"Horrible" is how Ira Glass described the first story created by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. It was an experimental radio piece produced on spec by the two future Radiolab hosts, in hopes of getting it aired on This American Life's "Flag Day" episode. 

"There are stories which people turn in, and they need a little buffing up here and there. There are stories that are bad," Glass told Radiolab in 2008. "And then there's a special category where we really don't know what to say in response." 

"It was horrible," he repeated.

Julie Snyder, a producer for This American Life and co-creator of its offshoot Serial, was a little nicer about it, saying the piece left her "confused."

"I was not confused," Glass clarifies. Abumrad laughs.

Almost two decades later, Radiolab is one of the most popular podcasts of all time. Abumrad and Krulwich have produced more than 100 episodes for WNYC (plus a steady stream of short supplementary episodes). They've won two Peabody Awards, and Abumrad was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2011. And yet, it's not all that surprising that their first collaboration was a dud.

The unlikely duo of Abumrad and Krulwich — separated by a generation and disparate personalities, united by their degrees from Oberlin and appetites for obscure, peculiar topics — have succeeded with Radiolab by taking risks. They produce stories that don't really sound like anything else on the radio. The editing is fidgety, threading unpredictably between scenes and using production tricks more often found in experimental music. Abumrad is a reliable, empathetic narrator; Krulwich, an NPR veteran, is avuncular, charmingly dorky and serves well as a grumpy cynic when the subject calls for it. The dynamic works well now, but it's not hard to imagine that a show so idiosyncratic and bold might have come off as a little self-indulgent in its early days. That's not the case anymore.

As Abumrad told CP last week, the show hit a groove in its first few years and grew in popularity, but the production style doesn't sit still or rest on its laurels for too long. It's always still recognizably Radiolab. But, in its current iteration which Abumrad describes as the show's third phase, they're relying less on stories about neuroscience or "gee whiz" science, and focusing more on general history. The stories are still obscure and surprising, but the editing is a little less frantic and the storytelling is more surefooted.

Last year, Abumrad started a new podcast about the U. S. Supreme Court called More Perfect. He's still involved in Radiolab, but most of his time these days is on the new show, as well as returning to his film-composing roots and lecturing around the country when the opportunity arises. This Friday, one such opportunity lands him in Pittsburgh for a talk on migration at the Carnegie Lecture Hall, as part of Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures' 2018 series.

Here's CP's interview with Abumrad, lightly edited for clarity.


Is there anything you are 100 percent uninterested in?
Hmm, that's a good question. Radiolab has been through many phases these days, but we still air a lot of our old episodes on the radio. So someone will hear an older episode that’s maybe more neuroscience-based. Not to say we don’t do that type of reporting anymore — we do — but we’ll get a lot suggestions like, “Hey you guys should do a show about synesthesia. That’s where people see numbers and they’re colors and it’s crazy!” I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gotten that pitch.

A lot of people these days will approach us with ideas they think we should do, which really end up being stories that remind them of the kind of stories we would do. But actually we didn’t do those stories because they’re not interesting. That will happen a lot, especially with like "gee-whiz" science. I love covering science, but the science has to lead you to some meaning, some new way of seeing the world, and if it doesn’t do that, it’s just neat. It’s just not something we’re gonna do. 

These days we’re going in so many different directions that I think our audience is a little confused, but it’s a good confusion. So we don’t get as many of those out-of-the-blue pitches, because I think people are just waiting to see what we’ll do, and we’re sort of waiting to see what we’ll do, too.

One of my favorite Radiolab episodes is "Bliss." To me, that show marks the transition you were discussing. Is that the time you'd point to as a shift away from purely neuroscience-based stories to the stuff you're doing now?
That’s interesting, now you’ve got me curious. I’m gonna look at when that was … that would have broadcast, when did we put that out? It doesn’t have a date on it. Season 11. When would that have been? Season’s a word that doesn’t really mean much anymore ... 

I’d guess 2011.
That sounds about right. I’ve never actually thought of the "Bliss" episode as a point of inflection, though I love that episode.

I was actually just thinking about this this morning for the first time. We’ve been on the air for almost 18 years at this point. We began really as a show whose primary mission was to lead people to moments of wonder, so it was a lot of science stuff, a lot of neuroscience. So you get to that point in the story where you get to the edge of what you know, then cue the music and we say something profound and philosophical, and we all stare dewey-eyed at what’s beyond. ... That became the moment of wonder that we were all searching for in early Radiolab. I think you’re right, around "Bliss," 2011-2012 particularly, I think we started to shift in what we wanted to accomplish. It wasn’t as much about moments of wonder, as it was about examining those complex areas where you find two separate truths which seem to be simultaneously true, but also mutually exclusive. It became about competing truths.

For me, I’d point the shift at "Yellow Rain." That’s an episode that really got us in trouble. That was an attempt — not the best attempt frankly — but it was an attempt to struggle with two different ways of seeing the world, both of which seemed completely valid. You had a scientific way of seeing, and then you had something that was more about lived experience. That for me became the calling, even though that first time blew up in our face. That for me became the mission.

ow I think we’re moving into a new space. Now the leading edge of the work is much more about history, taking the past and making it “not the foreign country,” as they say. We’re translating the past and making it a lived presence. So I feel like that’s our latest version of ourself.

Do you listen to old Radiolab episodes? Or is the old stuff completely behind you?
It’s usually behind me. We're updating [older] episodes now, so I’m listening to our old stuff more than I ever have, and I have that experience of being utterly horrified, and sometimes going, “Oh, that was a good day, we made some good decisions that day.” But generally speaking, I do spend my time running away from the things we made.

What's the biggest challenge specific to putting together a new episode of More Perfect?
I think it’s that "bring the past to life" thing. It's always the biggest challenge. But there are challenges on a lot of levels. We’re legal idiots, we don't really know anything. The More Perfect team, we’re not lawyers by training, we didn’t even know much about the law or the Constitution. Which is part of why we started the show, we wanted to teach ourselves, so we could communicate it to others. There’s that challenge of understanding how to talk about the law in a way that's precise but also colloquial. Threading that needle can be really hard. Because if you start to use words that feel right, but don’t have the proper legal definition, you could end up saying things that are just wrong. A lot of the challenge is just talking with our advisers, a group of constitutional lawyer and historian types: “Did we say this right?” That’s kind of a challenge, though it doesn’t seem like the biggest challenge.

The biggest challenge for me is two-pronged. … let me work my way up. So there’s that challenge, just getting the shit right.

There’s also in every More Perfect episode that moment where you go into the court. Making those [scenes] make emotional sense is so stupidly, annoyingly hard. Because you listen to these arguments and it’s like, they really fighting about something. But as best as I can tell, it’s about jurisdiction, and I don’t really care about jurisdiction. I don’t care which court gets to see this thing. That’s the least interesting thing — they’re spending 40 minutes arguing about it, but I feel like there’s something else going on, but I can’t really figure out what it is. … So you’ll call a bunch of people, and it’s like, "Oh, they’re arguing about this thing that Jefferson and Hamilton were arguing about back in 1783." … Then you try to write your way through that, you fuck it up 12 times. You just have to beat those passages until you get them into a shape and a language that makes sense to you. Then you can spit them out as if you’ve known it all along.

The gap between legalese and colloquial language is deliberately huge, right? It's supposed to be inaccessible. It's all about subtext, so I imagine the challenge is in eliminating the subtext for the audience.
You’re just trying to make it matter, and it does matter. It feels like archeology in a way, archeology might be the best metaphor. You’re just trying to dig until you get to some small piece, like a tooth, and you have to reconstruct an entire human — an entire climate — from this one tooth. You’re trying to somehow get to those essential tiny little fragments that then allow you to have an actual conversation. And to reconstruct [that] world [for the audience]. That’s, for me, the ultimate challenge, at the end of the day, is reconstructing lost worlds.

Your talk in Pittsburgh this week is on the subject of migration. Why migration?
This was an unusual invitation for me. It was a case where folks saw a pattern in our work that I didn't notice. One of the quiet through-lines [of Radiolab] seems to be this idea of migration. If you look at three or four different stories we've done, they all deal with migration, migrating birds, migrating peoples, migrating ideas. So someone approached us and said, "I see this thing you guys are doing, do you wanna talk about it?" And I was like, "I guess I kinda do!" I never noticed. It’s always fun to discover something in your own thinking that you didn’t even know was there.

You've recently returned to composing music, and I read an interview where you name-dropped Stars of the Lid as a big influence. I love ambient music, but especially when I was trying to write about it professionally, I had trouble articulating what exactly made one album or artist or song good, and others not good. Can you articulate what you like about the ambient music that you like?
That's a good question. It is really hard to talk about. Ambient music comes in all shapes and sizes and all kinds of flavors. There's that kind of new-age ambient that wants you to feel good, it wants you to feel relaxed and happy in the state of your life. And that's the kind of ambient music I have zero tolerance for, and zero interest in.

Then there’s another side to ambient music, like Stars of the Lid. It really wants you to feel suspended in an uncertain moment. Those kinds of ambient groups where somehow the affect is melancholic and sad and nostalgic, and those speak to me.

Kinda like "Disintegration Loops." The two chords are nice and consonant and comforting, but you're still trapped there.
Totally. We tend to use that kind of stuff on [Radiolab], it’s somewhere between … It’s like the intoxicating dream laced with a sort of existential angst. I couldn’t describe it beyond that. It’s really hard to talk about ambient music.

OK, that’s all I got, but I wanted to tell you that someone in the past week has been editing your Wikipedia page so your name reads “Album Rod.”

[Laughs] Really?

Not in the title, but in the body.
Let me see … “Album Rod.” [Laughs] Wow. That’s really funny. Can I edit this?

Yup, pretty sure.
Oh my god, I can edit, I’m editing it right now! I didn’t know I had this power. "Jad Album Rod." [Laughs]  That’s so funny. Thanks for the heads up!

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