An interview with Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad

BY Robert Lamb / POSTED March 4, 2011
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Radiolab's Jad Abumrad (left) and Robert Krulwich. (WNYC) Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad (left) and Robert Krulwich. (WNYC)

I like to think that anyone who follows this blog or listens to the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast probably listens to WNYC’s Radiolab as well. The show tackles an array of cranium-expanding topics, so I thought it fitting to interview one of the show’s hosts, Jad Abumrad.

Oh, and if you happen to live in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle, you can catch Jad and co-host Robert Krulwich on their live tour. You’ll find more info on tickets availability here.

Anyway, Here’s how the interview went down:

ROBERT LAMB:  Do you ever worry that the topics you cover will one day cease to blow your way? That familiarity will dampen your amazement?

JAD ABUMRAD: I’ve actually never been asked that, but I do worry about it. I mean, [that kind of familiarity] happens in the ordinary business of reporting about stuff. But I do sometimes find myself getting fatigued with certain whole categories of ideas. Like, I find it difficult to go to physics these days.  Even though I’m working on a piece right now about particle physics, there’s still a part of me that’s just — I hate saying this, because it shouldn’t be the case — but there’s a part of me that’s very bored by physics. Deeply bored. By the intangibility of it.  You have to kind of catch yourself when that happens.

In general, I like science but I want this show to extend its reach past science. I’ve never thought we were a science show. We’re a show that wrestles with mysteries, so our job is to actually reach past science. To walk right to the edge of where science can take you and then look past into the big ocean that’s beyond. I still feel that that’s our mission. But in the deep dark moments when it’s late at night and I’m stuck on a piece, you will find me saying things like, “Damn it, I wish we were just a sports show.”

What if we did an hour on pure politics?  Or the rodeo? I mean these are just “what ifs?”  But in the next year, we’re going to start to conduct some real experiments.  I can’t tell you what they are yet because I honestly don’t know.

Have you been surprised by just how much interest there is out there for what’s often a really heavy science podcast?

Yeah, I have been surprised.  I mean honestly it’s hard for me to know how interested people are.  My vague, vague sense is that people like this show.  But I don’t really trust that feeling to be honest. You can measure the number of downloads you get, you can anecdotally gauge the reaction. But my team and I still make this show largely in isolation.  Like right now I’m talking to you in studio that’s basically an airless booth, and there’s no one in here but me.  And I’m going to be diving into some production so I won’t see another soul for like 10 hours.

I have no idea how the stuff lands half the time, I really don’t.  But to the extent that we’ve heard good things about it, I’m surprised. Because if I were to go to the office of somebody in NPR or BBC and try to pitch this show to them, they’d say no. If I were them, I’d say no. This is not a show that makes easy sense. Like, “Yeah, let’s go make a series of radio stories about really hard topics in science, but it’s not really going to be that sciencey. And it’s also going to cover philosophy, and it’s going to involve theater and interviews and these two guys talking and you’ll never quite know what you are listening to and it’ll have really insane sound design… and oh, we’re only going to make ten episodes a year.  Are you in?”  No!

I just don’t think it’s a very good pitch. So, yes, I’m surprised by all of this.

But I also know that when I move through the world, I want to understand how the world around me is working.  So if we’re able to do that for others, I suppose it does make sense.  People want to know about their world.

You do a terrific job handing some huge questions while keeping the science accessible. How do you see your responsibility toward the original research?

I think we have a responsibility when we’re dealing with scientific research. Usually that research is not easily summarized.  And here we are, using that research to create little short stories that hopefully stick in your head. And so we have to be very clear with our listeners and with ourselves about what we’re doing. About what we know and what we don’t know. Our usual solution is to enlist the scientist themselves…meaning: before things air, we usually check back with them just to make sure they’re okay with our take on their work.

But it’s a balancing act.  On the one hand, you want that experience you had when you were in college…you know, when you were in your dorm room, totally high, in front of the mirror and thinking “Woah, is that me? Is that really me in the mirror? And what does it mean to be me?” Those half-brained thoughts about the universe… there’s something beautiful about those moments. But when you “grow” up you realize those moments were accessed by shortcut. The real way to get back to those moments as an adult is to take a very-rigorous, step-by-step walk through what we know right to the edge of what we don’t know.

I think that feeling of wonder is undeserved unless you actually do the work. My job is to lead people to moments of wonder, but it’s not a cheap wonder.  It’s not a sitting-in-your-dorm-room-getting-high kind of wonder.  It’s a “Let’s really understand what the science can tell us and then let’s move beyond it!” sense of wonder. For me, the whole point is to reach a place where we can stand in awe.

You’ve spoken about your musical background before and how it translates into Radiolab’s sound design.  Do you have a particular philosophy on the sound design for the show?

The music of the show is the soundtrack to the path I was just describing. You’re moving through a world that is far stranger than you can even imagine. So Radiolab’s sound design tries to evoke that strangeness…a sense of things a little bit off kilter.  There is a surreal edge to the sound choices we make, which is simply saying, “This is a little bit weirder than you imagined, so you have to follow me.” The sounds should be seductive, because there’s something seductive, intoxicating about the questions we’re asking. But the sounds should also be scary at times. Because the places we’re going are new. And anything new is scary. That’s how I think about it at least.

Beyond that, I want there to be surprise far below the level of the story. The sounds should create a sense subterranean movement. You know, like you’re hearing this surface narrative, but there’s some kind of turbulence in the depths deep below. That’s something that music can create, so I work really hard to create a bed of music that feels bottomless, but at the same time isn’t intrusive and manipulative.

Has becoming a father changed your views on the topics or your approach to them?

Yeah, my god totally. I’d be hard pressed to put it into words exactly, but it’s changed everything.  I work really, really hard on this job.  And sometimes it doesn’t make sense to me how hard I work on this show… and I expected having a kid to somehow change how I felt about the importance that this show would have in my life. But it really hasn’t.

The topics have more of an emotional resonance for me now. I’ve always thought that one of our primary jobs is take abstractions and make them visceral, root them in the breast of some human being. That ideas must flow through people.

And I’ve never felt that more strongly than now. I was just listening to a story about a photographer who takes pictures of still-births. The mothers know their baby won’t survive, and they want a picture before they say goodbye.

Last year I would have listened that story and thought that’s a very powerful story. And then I would have forgotten it. But this year those kinds of stories resonate inside me in a very deep way. And so for me it just reinforces this intuition I’ve always had that people have to experience ideas or those ideas just won’t land.

I feel like I know now that if you don’t emotionally experience something, in some real sense, it didn’t happen.

About the author: Robert Lamb is a senior writer and podcaster at HowStuffWorks, where he co-hosts Stuff to Blow Your Mind with Julie Douglas. He has a love for monsters, an aversion to slugs and a hankering for electronic music.

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