From Radio to Podcast to Stage: Jad Abumrad - Creator of Radiolab

Apr 4, 2018

Radiolab is a popular show aired all across the nation on public radio stations out of WNYC in New York. The show focuses on various topics revolving around science and philosophy. Jad Abumrad, the show’s creator, started it in 2002, and it has since become a popular podcast and has also hosted live events. Our reporter Joey Lovato recently talked with Abumrad about his journey through radio and his style of storytelling.

My name is Jad Abumrad. I am the host and creator of Radiolab and More Perfect, and the reason I'm coming actually is to give a talk about, really sort of the creative process and the beginning of Radiolab. You know, a few years ago someone had asked me, "How did Radiolab come to be?" and I was very unprepared for the question, and so that uncertainty, the feeling you have when you don't know what you're doing, like, is that a good thing or a bad thing? So, I talked to a psychotherapist, musicians, a poker player, Cherokee shaman. I sort of was just doing interviews like, "How do different people think about the role that uncertainty plays in the creative process?"

I think that kind of leads really nicely into my next questions, which was maybe not necessarily how Radiolab got started, but how you got started in radio.

Yeah, my journey into radio was a series of stumbles in the dark. I mean, I from the age of five I thought I was going to be a musician, and I got out of college and tried to do that. [It] wasn't working out and I kind of hit this period of post-college flail, and my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, was was like, "Hey, you know, so okay being a musician didn't work out but maybe you wanna try radio? It's kinda like sound; it's kinda like music." And up to that point, I had never thought about the radio, I was not somebody who listened to the radio a whole lot, but it just seemed like, "Ah radio; radio is kind of interesting," and I just caught the bug.

You know, this a beautiful process that we go through where something is happening in the world and you run out into the street with your microphone and you point it at someone and they say something. Then you come back and you have to put that stuff into a computer and then you chop it into little blocks and you're racing against the clock and then you have to write sentences between block one and block two to make coherent, grammatically correct sentences. Then you put it on the air and people hear it and it's this amazing process of learning, processing, and then communicating. And I just loved it; I loved it. It contained all the elements of music within it, but it was also much more immediate because you're bound by the things people say into the mic and then you're bound by the need to communicate that effectively to your audience.

You mentioned in your last answer that you go your start in music and I think that comes across in your editing style a lot. You have a really unique editing style that you don't really hear anywhere else. How did you develop this and where do you draw inspiration from?

I don't know. I mean, I think it was because I didn't have a real background in radio. I didn't have like a radio education when I got into this. I was coming from a music background, and you know, the few years prior to my first radio experience I was sitting in a classroom in Oberlin College learning about Bach counterpoint and always loved that. I loved the idea of like a braid of different voices coming together. You know you should have four voices that are each independent but all telling the same musical story. And so, you know, I sort of approached editing in the same way. You know, like, "Oh, this is one story I want to tell here that I've got five different interviews that are all speaking to that same story but showing it from different angles. Can I weave them all together in a kind of counterpoint?" Initially, people hated it, because I probably wasn't good enough, frankly, people found it very jarring, some people still do. But then slowly, but surely, I think I found my footing around the same time people became interested. I think it had a lot to do with my background which was more about music than it was about journalism.

You guys also have really interesting stories that are kind of outside-the-box and not really typical of radio stories. Where do you find your stories? How do you guys come up with them?

We are looking for those stories that sort of just make you stop and take your perspective and give it a good shake and make you see the world a bit differently. I would say these days, sixty, seventy percent of the whole process can be just looking looking looking looking looking, calling calling calling, and trying to find, you know. Sometimes you find it in a book, sometimes you just are having a conversation with someone at breakfast. They sort of wander their way in, in a million different ways. You want something that spooks you, that sort of haunts you, that you can't stop thinking about because it's telling you something about the world that you just genuinely didn't know and reconnecting you to that feeling of wonder.

Joey Lovato is a senior at the Reynolds School of Journalism. Abumrad will be speaking and performing this Saturday at the Pioneer Center in Reno with cellist and composer Zoë Keating.