This is maybe the best interview I’ve read with Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich about Radiolab. I love the show, its innovation, the way they’re using it to experiment with public radio, and the state of thoughtfulness and wonder it always leaves me in. These interviews (cut together, very much like an episode of the show) reveal a lot about how Jad and Robert create the magic that is Radiolab.
Jad says: In every piece, we start by mystifying something. You want to have this gunshot of amazement at the top of every story. Then you proceed to demystify it. Then you remystify it at the end in a new way. If I could distill every story I tell to those three moves, I’d be happy. You begin with sort of simple, cheap wonder, you go to science—to someone who can analyze the underlying assumptions—then you put it back together in a new way, but where you can still stand in amazement.”
There’s a lot that goes into the production, though. I’ve always wondered how much of the discussion was acting and how much of it was genuine conversation. Jad says it’s a little bit of both:
Most of the time, it’s genuine that one of us does know more than the other about a particular topic we’re covering. Oftentimes, I’ll intentionally keep Robert in the dark. It’s often the case that we’ll just start rolling tape and I’ll explain a concept to him.
He also explains that he and Robert have different approaches to the material. I think in this case, I tend to be a more Krulwich-style storyteller, but I like that they each have an approach that complements the other:
It’s an easier place to start, for me, when you have a great story that seems pregnant with something. Then I can invite a smarty to talk about neuroscience or whatever. That’s easier for me to conceptualize, but that’s not always how we start. I know Robert often works the other way. He’ll have a broad concept or a new bit of research that will lead him to go look for the story. The show really evolved in that juxtaposition.
It’s the juxtapositions that really make Radiolab for me. The philosophical butting up against science, the way they weave stories of people and experiments together into one narrative. Jad says that can be the hardest part (I’m not surprised):
Those transitions are the things we’ll do thirty takes of over the course of a production cycle, just to make sure we get them right. We’re always trying to figure out the most plainspoken but genuine way of making a connection. It’s really hard sometimes, figuring out what the apple has to say to the orange.
But ultimately it’s the apples and oranges of Robert and Jad that make it entertaining. I love it when they’re coming at something from completely different angles, but they end up in a similar place, something like a truce based in amazement at whatever they’re exploring. Robert, I think, says it best when he talk about what it is in their chemistry that is so inviting:
The whisper of affection and curiosity and play—mostly play—will get a lot of people into the tent.
I know it seems like I must have quoted the whole piece, but there’s so much more. If you’re interested in science or radio or reading about two of the most creative journalists out there, go have a look.