Alexis Madrigal: Hello, everyone. How are you? I am Alexis Madrigal. I’m a staff writer at the Atlantic magazine. Thank you. And I am extremely happy to be here today introducing one of the best storytellers in all of media. He won a MacArthur genius award and he is the creator and co-host of Radiolab. Please welcome Jad Abumrad.
So what do we have here? Do we have some Radiolab fans here? Do we have any? Just checking. So we’re gonna do a little chitchat here.
Jad Abumrad: Okay.
Alexis Madrigal: And I’ve been wondering, you know when you and Krulwich, Robert Krulwich.
Jad Abumrad: Bobby K.
Alexis Madrigal: You do the chitchat at the beginning.
Jad Abumrad: Yes.
Alexis Madrigal: Is there a name for that? Like do you guys say like, oh, can you move that, can you shorten the little chitchat? Or is it…
Jad Abumrad: The sort of banter in the studio?
Alexis Madrigal: Yeah the banter in the studio before you get into it.
Jad Abumrad: Yeah. No, that’s a–I’ve actually outlawed that in current Radiolab because it’s become such a thing that we’ve done it for like 10 years. But no we don’t have a name for it. But we started that because…Like, you know in a news story, if you think back to sort of the classic PBS news story, where it’s like a talking head interview and then they cut to like a cut of the person and the anchor walking down the hall. And then they cut–
Alexis Madrigal: The walk and talk I think it’s called.
Jad Abumrad: The walk and talk, right. And it’s such a like cliche of the artifice of that form that you kind of just want to pull the camera back and realize like oh there is lights there, and somehow like the only way to really be authentic in that moment is just to say to people, like, “we all know what’s going on here. Like I’m not really walking down the hall, someone’s telling me when to walk and I’m walking by the camera.”
And so if you pull back a little bit you see all that and it just gets way more real at that point. So the idea with that like chitter-chatter at the beginning was just to be like, let’s be real about what we’re doing, which is like, we’re in the most artificial environment possible. We’re in an airless booth and like Robert and I aren’t even in the same room. Like we’re about this distance away from each other. There’s a big plexiglass wall between us.
Alexis Madrigal: Can you see each other though?
Jad Abumrad: Yeah, but it’s like your glare is obscuring the line of sight a little bit and so it just feels like you kind of have to acknowledge the weirdness of that before you actually kind of get into it.
Alexis Madrigal: But do you guys–I mean I read an essay that you wrote describing the process, where it was basically, you were saying you compose and you improvise at the same time. So like when you hear those as a Radiolab listener, is that just like you guys really went in the studio and you were really describing the story to him for the first time?
Jad Abumrad: Yeah. I mean often what will happen is…I mean, this is true much more in the old days, which was when it was way more dominated by him and I. But now we’re like a big group of people. But really I think whoever’s doing the story, like there is a step that we always call the brain dump, which is basically just like a reporter goes out and does a thing, talks to a bunch of people, and then they come back and you keep someone in the dark deliberately.
So like if I’m doing a story we won’t tell Robert what I’m up to. And then we come and we sit down and I’ll just, I’ll tell him just like what happened. I went there and I stuck a mic at this guy and he said this thing and it made me think this and then I went and talked to this other person. You’re just sort of moving through the chronology of your discovery process and you capture his real reactions. And sometimes it’s like not the reaction you thought, like he’s just like, “I’m confused, that doesn’t make any sense,” and that’s useful too, right.
And so yeah what we end up doing is we do the brain dump. You take that and you put it into the computer. You select the bits that you like and you pull those down. And then you begin to sort of reorganize those so they start to form a bit of a story arc. And then you have these gaps where you’ve got piece 1 and piece 2 but you need like a sentence or two right there to make it make sense. And then you improvise some more. So we’ll do it a second time and then you stick that there and then you do it a third time and you kind of like start to fill it out a bit.
And inevitably there’ll be these moments where like what we call in storytelling “sign posting” or something, where these artificial phrases that no one actually says, but that are really important like, “and that was the moment things got interesting.” Right, we say that all the time. No one actually says that when they tell a story.
Alexis Madrigal: No I say that all the time.
Jad Abumrad: Yeah, but so you need those moments. So you will write those moments and then pretend you’re actually chatting those moments.
Alexis Madrigal: One of the things that I love about it is that oftentimes those chats–whether they’re with Robert or somebody else–somebody comes to the room and they say “I have this seemingly irrelevant totally meaningless thing and I am now going to describe it to you in such a way that you want to continue moving forward in the story,” and that’s kind of my modus operandi when it comes to storytelling.
So if we were to start with Jad, and we were to find, you know, the seemingly meaningless trivial thing in your, you know, childhood or you know, pre-college life when you were growing up in Tennessee, like what would that little thing be?
Jad Abumrad: Oh my God, that’s such a hard question. The seemingly meaningless thing in my…
Alexis Madrigal: Yeah, just like the little thing where you’re kind of, you know Krulwich is like, why are you telling me about this Jad?
Jad Abumrad: Wow. That is–you’re forcing me to answer the question on two levels at once. Okay. Well, okay. So the seemingly meaningless thing, the thing that’s felt seemingly, I mean, maybe it was, this is not meaningless. But I feel like this is where my mind goes.
Alexis Madrigal: Yeah sure.
Jad Abumrad: I was the kid in Tennessee who, I was growing up in Tennessee. Gulf war number one.
Alexis Madrigal: Nashville.
Jad Abumrad: Nashville. So like Tennessee now is a super cool place because it has a TV show about it and it’s all like Brooklyn-y. Was not that when I was growing up. So I was growing up in the old Tennessee, old Nashville, and I came from the place that invented terrorism. Like 1980 I think was the first suicide bombing that happened in Lebanon, where I grew up. And so I was that kid. So I was a bizarre alien to the folks there. And so I was the kid that spent a lot of his time, a lot of time in his room staring at a four-track cassette recorder. And like making imaginary film scores for movies that didn’t exist. Cause that was my only friend.
Alexis Madrigal: And what was your equipment? Like what was your room? Like take us into your room.
Jad Abumrad: My room was, it was a small room. I would say it would fit maybe on this carpet with an extra 20% and it was just this beautiful tape recorder. And what you would do is you would you know, you would record something outside, or you would, it had a little Yamaha Keyboard.
And you would fill up all four tracks and then you would bounce those three tracks down to the fourth and then fill up the existing 3 and then keep bouncing it down. And you would, because it’s tape, because it’s cassette, all the tracks would bleed into each other and you get this like soupy mess. So it was kind of like proto Radiolab.
Alexis Madrigal: The soupy mess.
Jad Abumrad: The soupy mess.
Alexis Madrigal: And were you already like recording ambient sound? Were you like, you know going down the street with headphones and a recorder, or was it more at that point like music?
Jad Abumrad: It was mostly music, but I do remember, if you drive a little bit outside of Nashville there are these train tracks that go through and I became for a while obsessed with the sound of trains. Which I think is like, every public radio reporter has that moment where they just get obsessed with trains. It’s like a cliche, it’s a public radio cliche. And so I got really obsessed with trains before I had any thought of doing radio. And so I began to put the sound of trains in my little compositions.
Alexis Madrigal: Wow. And then, you know, a lot has been made of your time like going to Oberlin, like studying music. Do you think that that is, like that you are a composer is why Radiolab sounds like it sounds?
Jad Abumrad: I think, I mean it’s partially, you know, I mean, I think that here’s how I’d put it. Let me see if–I’ll talk to, I’ll give you two strands and then pull them together.
Alexis Madrigal: Sure.
Jad Abumrad: So on one level yes. So like when I started Radiolab I had gone to music school and I went to Oberlin which is a very, at that time it was a bunch of, as I like to think of it, leftover lefties from the 60s who were doing this very avant-garde stuff I was not prepared for. Because I applied to a bunch of music schools, they were the only ones that let me in.
And so I went there, I was like, okay. And I remember the first first like month I was there the seniors were doing like a kind of a welcome concert and one of the pieces I kid you not was a guy with a chainsaw carving a piano in half. Like that was his song, was destroying a piano.
And so I remember just being like where the F am I? I’m really glad for that because it just like, all of a sudden all the rules just go pfft. I don’t understand what music is anymore.
But in any case, so I came out of that experience, you know, we had just been studying all this like musique concrète stuff, which is just a fancy word for like the moment in music post World War II when composers stopped being interested in violins and they started being interested in like car horns and things like that. And so they would record like these like World sounds on tape and then they would cut the tape up and like use that as instruments. So I was really into that. I was like this is kind of interesting and you know, you get the old Buchlas and the old Putney synthesizers and all those weird bleeps and bloops and I loved that stuff.
So anyhow, that’s where my brain is. I somehow, through a series of lucky accidents, tumble into radio.
Alexis Madrigal: And that starts at Oberlin or afterward?
Jad Abumrad: No this–well, I did do some radio at Oberlin, but really it was coming out of Oberlin, failing at composition, having that post-college flail and being like what do I do with my life? And my then girlfriend, now wife, was like why don’t you do radio? It’s kind of like music but not.
Alexis Madrigal: More talking.
Jad Abumrad: More talking. And so suddenly I’m volunteering at a radio station and then, you know, to make a long story short I end up starting a show called Radiolab. And I was like, “oh, I could play with voices the way Stockhausen played with, you know car horns.” So that was where it…
So partially it was this idea that you can use voices and speech as musical objects in the way that the composers were doing, you know, 40, 50 years ago. But then–sorry this is longwinded. That was strand number one.
Strand number two is I meet a guy–a couple years into Radiolab, I meet a guy named Robert Krulwich. And I remember…
Alexis Madrigal: I think that was the same guy who actually shouted out Krulwich last time.
Jad Abumrad: I think it’s one of…
Alexis Madrigal: He’s a fan.
Jad Abumrad: So Krulwich–I remember this vividly. So we met randomly, like I was doing…I’m going to spare you that story, that’s going to take me down a 50-minute rabbit hole. We met not on the radio or related to the radio, but the station asked me do a thing and he was related to the station.
Anyhow, we ended up meeting at CBS, having a conversation. He was such an interesting guy immediately that I convinced him to have breakfast with me and we started having breakfast together. And I remember…
Alexis Madrigal: And you’re like 28.
Jad Abumrad: Yeah. I’m like…
Alexis Madrigal: And he’s like an established NPR journalist.
Jad Abumrad: I mean, it’s one of the beautiful things about Robert. He’s so open to, like he mentors so many people. Like it’s almost like pathological. He like, he will mentor anyone who walks in front of him. Like “come. Sit down. I will tell teach you everything I know.” And like they’re just like, “oh my God, I’m like working with one of the greats in journalism.” And I was one of those guys for a second.
And anyhow, long story short. To your question about music. When he tells a story, his voice is going up and down and it’s just his voice is an instrument. And I remember like the first time I actually edited his voice I had that same feeling, that same Stockhausen feeling, where I was like, oh my God, this guy has got like a three octave range, he’s just going up and down and it’s just, it gets real quiet and then he goes up and it’s just like, he is music. You know, he’s not musically trained, but just somehow his storytelling is deeply musical. And so those two things for me became the sound of Radiolab.
Alexis Madrigal: So the radio landscape I think is worth revisiting just because it has changed so so so much over the last, you know in the time that Radiolab has existed. What did it look like to you as you’re coming out, you’re finding your way in your career? Like what were the possible things not called Radiolab that you could do in radio?
Jad Abumrad: Oh my God, it’s almost impossible to explain how different it was then. And I’m not even that old but I feel like a dinosaur like just thinking back to my beginning. So I guess I’ll put it to you this way.
Like I mean the thing about podcasting which is amazing to me right now is that–it’s also sort of, the flip side of that is a bit overwhelming–but you can with a laptop and a mic record a thing, go home, put it on Soundcloud, upload it to iTunes and have it in front of people in 48 hours.
Back when I was starting, the only game in town was public radio. There was way too many people who wanted to work in public radio than were jobs available. And so the only move was to basically volunteer without pay for years until they noticed you. And they’re like “wow you’re still here? Okay, maybe you should go out and record this thing and we might pay you, not sure.” And so that was like, there was, you just hung around.
And the only ways, the only sort of templates in terms of how you could sound on the radio, if they even let you on the radio, was Carl Kasell, Linda Wertheimer, that sort of classic public radio up down, that pitch pattern, that very metronomic kind of way of speaking on the radio. And then there was Ira, right. Those were your models. That was it.
And so I remember very vividly like suddenly I’m hosting a show called Radiolab which I…
Alexis Madrigal: Which, yeah, tell me how you pitched that because given that that was…
Jad Abumrad: I didn’t. It was just a weird thing. So like I did not deserve the show when I got it at all. I think how it happened is WNYC, which, you know the station where I work, they were for the longest time classical music with a smattering of news. It’s like one of those formats.
And then 9/11 happened right down the street from the station. And then suddenly everything changed, the world changed. And certainly people’s appetite for what they wanted on the radio changed. And suddenly it was like, we want news all the time. So they took all the music away. They put news on the station morning to night.
And we had this AM station, which was previously some talk, like weird sounds, like I remember there was a show called Heart Space or something, which was kind of like new age ambient stuff. It was like weird, weird public radio backwater stuff. And they cleared all of that out and they put news, but then they had some gaps.
Alexis Madrigal: They’re like, we got rid of Heart Space. We have a great slot for you on AM.
Jad Abumrad: I feel bad denigrating that show. I don’t even think that’s the name of it. But it just for me was indicative of the kind of thing that was there. And so there was a three-hour block from 8:00 p.m. to 11 p.m, which was open.
And so one of the guys who worked there was like “hey, why don’t we”–because it’s this moment where we’re suddenly realizing that we are part of this larger world–“why don’t we like have this place where we can play documentaries from around the world? And we need like a DJ of documentaries.” And so I was literally in the hall at that point when someone was like…
Alexis Madrigal: Sitting there like, can I get my paycheck?
Jad Abumrad: Yeah, and I was like…
Alexis Madrigal: I’m actually owed…
Jad Abumrad: I was like, “I made the promo”… And they were like, Michael [UI] is his name, he was like, “you with the curly hair. Come over here and we’re going to start a show. It’s going to be called Radiolab, because it’s on the radio and it’s going to be a lab.”
And it’s kind of a brilliant name actually. I feel like we’ve really tried to stay true to the spirit of the name. But you know initially it was just an anthology of documentaries from everywhere, and I had never, I had done maybe three or four news stories at that point.
I was really green. Really really green. And so I suddenly I was in the studio staring at the mic, the AKG 414, still the mic I use, and like you have two options. You sound like Carl Kasell or you sound like Ira. And like you have to find your place somewhere between those.
Alexis Madrigal: And you just put an effects pedal in there.
Jad Abumrad: You know, and it was like I did realize at a certain point that my voice included the weird noises. Like that was actually part of my voice. But it took me a while, I mean there was like a good 18 months of making this three hour show, where like one day I would sound like Carl Kasell, and the next day I would sound like Ira, like a really bad imitation.
And then the next day I would sound like Joe Frank, you know, because Joe Frank was another guy that, I was listening to a ton of Joe Frank at that time. So I would try and sound like Joe Frank sometimes. No one would buy it. And you know, so I had to go through all of that to just like get them out of me until I could actually speak like I speak.
Alexis Madrigal: And then it was, the next stage in evolution is basically Krulwich coming in.
Jad Abumrad: Yeah.
Alexis Madrigal: And what, at that point it’s no longer three-hour show, right?
Jad Abumrad: Yeah.
Alexis Madrigal: It’s going back, it’s becoming the one-hour show that it was for a long time. And what is the sort of like raison d’etre of the show at that point?
Jad Abumrad: Well, I mean initially when Robert joined it was very much like let’s take a bunch of these stories, some of which I will create, some of which I will borrow from the BBC or whatever, we’ll organize them around a theme and we’ll sort of connect the dots. Sound familiar? It was basically like an Ira knock off, right? So…
Alexis Madrigal: Three stories about…
Jad Abumrad: Three stories, but without that, without that thing. So I was making that show and there was a moment, I remember this very vividly. There was a moment when I was starting to do science reporting. I’d also met Robert who was like one of the most accomplished science reporters ever. And I remember I had tape of a memory scientist talking about the science of memory, but doing it in that way that scientists often do, where there’s like jargon happening and they’re talking so fast and you can’t really slow them down.
So I had this tape which I knew was interesting, but it was impenetrable, right. And then I played it for Robert. And Robert sort of heard it and then did what Robert does, which is like “oh, yeah, I know exactly what she says.”
And he started telling me a story, like just a made-up anecdote about a rabbit in a garden trying to remember the last time it was in that garden. And he had taken the science and instantly concretized it into a little vignette about a rabbit in a garden. And we happen to be on mic at this point.
So I was playing him the tape, he was reacting to it, telling a story. I went back and I had the scientist, I had Robert doing his thing, and I remember like kind of listening to it, and I was like, “oh it would actually be cool to actually make the garden sound and feel like a garden, but not a real garden, kind of a surrealistic kind of memory thought bubble garden, like it’s a psychological interior garden.”
So I kind of made that in sound and then I was like, I’ve got the scientists, so I wonder what it would sound like to have like Robert doing his thing, and to every so often have this interjection from the scientist coinciding with his storytelling.
Alexis Madrigal: Using those impenetrable phrases, like him saying, like, “hippocampus.”
Jad Abumrad: Yeah, exactly. And so I remember like putting it in and mishmashing these three elements together and it ended up being a five-minute thing. And we threw it onto the show. And I think the topic at that point was memory or something.
And I remember hearing that five minutes later and being like, “oh, that’s so weird. It’s so interesting. It’s like theater but it’s like an interview. It’s like two guys chatting but you never know who’s talking to who, because at one point Robert and Jad are talking, but then one of us will turn our attention to the scientists and then back. And then there’s weird noises coming out of nowhere.” It had all the elements in a kind of proto version.
And we both kind of heard it and we were like that’s interesting. Let’s try that again. And then we made a second show that was entirely that, and awful. It’s just like gratuitous sound design for no reason.
But it was interesting to me looking back on it, it was like, we hit it right the first time for no, like just got lucky, and then we spent I would say a year trying to reverse engineer why it worked. And then, you know, eventually Radiolab goes to the FM and it starts to sound a lot like how it sounds now.
Alexis Madrigal: Wow. And how important was it to you that it kind of had the topics of kind of science and technology? Like was that something you were going for? Or was it just your curiosity was sort of leading you into that way of seeing the world?
Jad Abumrad: I mean, I at that point, again, this is sort of like projecting your mind backwards. It was this interesting moment in science where you had psychologists suddenly discovered this thing called the fMRI. And so you had these like psychologists, you know, thinking about behavior, thinking about the sort of, the eternalities of human behavior, suddenly had this tool where they could look in the brain.
And so Neuroscience was having its kind of renaissance moment. And I was never interested in science per se. I mean, I actually am the product of two scientists. So I consequently ran to music and everything that wasn’t science. So I never actually had that much of an interest in science, but the ability to sort of marry the sort of the poetry and the messiness of human behavior with the objectivity and the inquiry of science–that was happening all around us at that point.
And so I really wanted to tell stories where you would hear a story and then you’d have that moment where you could extract meaning from it. And it seemed to me like all the action was happening in neuroscience at that point. So we did a lot of early stories which was about like, “what’s happening in the brain?”
Right, you know, I remember we even did that, like the classic story that I wouldn’t, I just, makes me cringe to think about now, about like “where is God in the brain?” Like we never actually put that on the air, but I mean we would do stuff like that. You know those big religious, philosophical, almost like questions that feel like the domain of priests, were suddenly being asked by scientists.
So I was interested in that intersection. And you know the first four, five, six years of the show, I’d say it was mostly science, but it was also science where, you know, the juxtaposition of actual science and lived experience. And so you’d have a scientist doing a thing and then you’d then pivot to a story of somebody getting their coat on, walking out the door, and colliding with that very same thing. And then you’d watch the two put them together and they sort of vibrated. And that became the kind of DNA of the show.
Alexis Madrigal: When did you decide that you were going to include one of the signatures of Radiolab, which is like when someone goes to talk to someone they’re like, [knocking]. And you like “oh, hey, hi.” You know, or like the stuff on the phone?
Jad Abumrad: Yeah.
Alexis Madrigal: Where it’s like, “okay I can hear you. Yeah, I, can you hear me? Yeah. Okay good.” And then like you start the interview.
Jad Abumrad: Uh-huh.
Alexis Madrigal: Like most people would edit that out.
Jad Abumrad: Well, you know, it’s again, it’s that, it’s like, I remember actually the first moment we did that it was, I think it’s, I’m going to say it was the second. I mean Radiolab has many like beginning points, but in terms of the Radiolab that I think we would all identify as Radiolab, the second show in that kind of phase was a show called Stress and it was a show that was almost entirely based on an interview with Robert Sapolsky, who is a neurobiologist, I believe.
And he tells a series of stories about about sort of like anecdotes about stress and all this kind of stuff that look into the brain, look into the heart, and it’s a beautiful lecture that he gives. And the whole pitch of the show is like he does this lecture for his students. Let’s go record it and then we’ll make a show about it.
He was so familiar with the content that he was doing it lecture style. And I remember having this thing which was like, as I was editing it, I was like, I don’t want it to be a lecture. That feels somehow like the wrong position for the audience to be in. I kind of want the audience to be sort of like, if you and I are talking, to be like right here, like all part of the same thing.
And so I at that point, I remember there was this moment at the beginning of the interview. It’s a classic moment that you have in an interview, where he, Robert Sapolsky, asks Robert Krulwich, “so like do you want me to take your question and work it into my answer?” And Robert was like “no, no just talk.” You know, and it was like a very, like a just nothing aside, but I was like, “oh let me put that in as a signal to the audience that this is not a lecture, it’s actually a chat.”
And we began to use those little artifacts as signals, like this is born of the messy inner anarchic interaction of two humans in a room talking. And the more anarchic you can make it, the more the editing is interesting. Because then you have a tension in the form between two people kind of talking over each other and then these weird sounds kind of coming in and out.
And so it was a way to remind ourselves as editors and to remind the audience that this is not like a–we’re not people who know things, we’re not people who sit behind podiums, and we’re people who go out into the world and like discover stuff and if we’re walking down the hall knocking on a door getting lost… I can’t tell you how many times like Robert’s phone goes off during interviews because he’s never figured out how to turn his phone off.
So like we just put that in because that’s real, that’s what happens. And you know, just reminding you that we’re just dummies like that, like everybody, you know.
Alexis Madrigal: One of the other signature craft things that I’ve always loved is, you’ve actually used the word here already, concretize.
And one of the great examples of this, is you’re talking about sleep, and you’re talking about how dolphins sleep with half of their brain. And instead of just like talking about it, you like literally go to Six Flags and like meet a couple dolphins.
Jad Abumrad: Yeah.
Alexis Madrigal: And do you, like how do you make sure that you’re doing that concretizing? And do you, like you’re reading a script and you go like, “need more dolphin.” You know, like physical dolphin.
Jad Abumrad: Yeah. No, I mean kind of. Kind of yeah. It’s never quite so prescriptive. It’s like this. So we, so much of our storytelling in the behind-the-scenes part is spent telling the story to one another. If it’s Robert or I, we’re in the studio telling the story back and forth and I’ll say to him “tell me the story as it comes out of your mouth.”
So he’ll do it and we’ll listen really carefully, and be like “that was cool. That was cool. But that part in the middle. It’s kind of too abstract. Like I don’t, I don’t really know. I have no way of imagining it. Like I can’t formulate a picture in my mind.” And so you begin to like very quickly in just the ordinary speech, the ordinary storytelling process, identify the moments that are very clear in concrete and then there are the moments that aren’t.
Like you’re watching someone’s eyes as you tell the story and there are places where their eyes get wide, and there are places where their eyes died a little bit. And you take a sort of mental, emotional notes, like “okay. I lost him right there. Why? Oh because it’s too floaty. It’s too vague. It needs to be embodied.”
You know, I always think about like, the death of storytelling is explaining. You know, where they know you’re explaining something to somebody. Because like–I think Bertrand Russell the mathematician described, like there is a unbridgeable canyon between explanation and experience. Like you will never be able to explain something to someone until on some level they experienced it themselves. It’s just two entirely different ways of knowing.
And so I feel like we’re always in those moments trying to cross the canyon. And so yeah, “more dolphins” is a way of saying “let’s not make this a just a floaty thought that you can just pass you by. Let’s actually make it real and visceral and physical. And so let’s go and hear the splash of the dolphins.”
And for me, it’s interesting. Like I mean you talk to science people who do this kind of work and they will often refer to it as like human interest or something, which kind of makes it feel almost like prostitution. Like you’re taking these beautiful science ideas and your prostituting and into the… But for me it’s actually much deeper than that.
It’s like, I feel like ideas on their own are dangerous. You know, like I feel like you have to have them embedded in human forms and human shapes. It’s almost an ethical imperative. It’s a way of keeping the ideas rooted to the truth of human lives as they’re lived, which is very different than the objective pursuit of truth in science or anything. So yeah, so I don’t know I guess…
Alexis Madrigal: No and I think you know, one of the big lessons in science and technology studies, which is like a whole field, is basically, yeah, scientists are real people. They respond to like real people things. As much as they do kind of, you know, the truth that lies somewhere out there in the universe.
Jad Abumrad: Totally.
Alexis Madrigal: Why don’t you play us? We have, we’re not gonna listen to too much radio, but why don’t you play us like one of the episodes in which you thought like, yes, we have locked in the sound. This is what Radiolab sounds like.
Jad Abumrad: Okay.
Alexis Madrigal: Maybe Fireflies? I don’t know.
Jad Abumrad: Fireflies. Yeah. That’s a good one. So, just to set it up…
Alexis Madrigal: Yeah set it up.
Jad Abumrad: So Radiolab has gone through many phases, phase shifts over the years. And I think that sort of the original kind of conception of the show, it got crystallized in certain moments. Certain very sort of seemingly simple storytelling moments. And I think one of them that came to mind as we were talking was a story we did about fireflies. And I’ll play you a bit and we’ll sort of see, I’ll stop it wherever it feels right.
Let’s begin today with something deceptively familiar.
Steve Strogatz: Fireflies are something that we have all loved as kids, right, catching them in the backyard putting them in a jar and watching them glow. So we don’t tend to think of them as anything all that mysterious. Well, they do one thing very nicely, which is flash on and off.
Jad Abumrad: That’s all fireflies do, flash. But what interests Steve Strogatz, a mathematician at Cornell University, is that there are places in the world.
Steve Strogatz: Not here, but in Southeast Asia in Malaysia or Thailand.
Jad Abumrad: Where fireflies don’t just flash randomly, like we’re used to they somehow flash together.
Steve Strogatz: There are enormous congregations of fireflies along riverbanks.
Robert Krulwich: How many?
Steve Strogatz: It could be tens of thousands. Tree after tree extending for literally miles along the rivers all flashing in sync like a Christmas tree. Rows and rows of Christmas trees all wired together going off. And it’s one of the most hypnotic and spellbinding spectacles in nature. Because you have to keep in mind, it is absolutely silent.
I mean, picture it. There’s a riverbank in Thailand in the remote part of the jungle, you’re in a canoe slipping down the river. There’s no sound of anything. Maybe the occasional, you know, exotic jungle bird or something. And you’re looking and you just see, voop, voop, voop, with thousands of lights on and then off all in sync.
Robert Krulwich: Imagine all the trees as far as you can see are all brilliantly lit, and then totally dark. Brilliantly lit, total darkness.
Jad Abumrad: All of them in sync.
Robert Krulwich: Yeah and no westerner had ever seen this sight. There was folklore. There was the stories about it, but nobody had gone in and photographed and captured samples.
Jad Abumrad: Well, not until 1965.
Steve Strogatz: This was done by John Bark.
Unknown: John Bark.
Jad Abumrad: Oh man. I’ll just stop right there. So it goes on and on and. Thank you. But the reason I thought of that is, I mean, it’s so funny. I hear that now and it’s like, we were telling you what’s going to happen before it actually happens. I’m like, why did we do that?
We said they all blink in sync and then we…it’s to say that we’d have done that totally differently now. But it was that thing, it’s when the music comes in, right?
Alexis Madrigal: I was about to say, when you first put the music in, do you like jump out of your editing chair and you’re like “God it sounds so good!”?
Jad Abumrad: Yeah, so it’s… I began to… So it’s that moment that I felt like became the quintessential Radiolab moment. It’s the thing where you try and hit three times in every episode. Which is you’re understanding something. Usually, often it’s a scientist describing how they believe the world works, and then you get to that moment where you’re at the edge of what you know, and you’re looking out at everything you don’t know. And then cue music, right.
And someone often says something cosmic at that point. And I started to feel like that that moment of wonder right? That was my job. It was my job was to lead people to moments of wonder, right? And it happens in those, sometimes in those scenes where you just suddenly experience the wonder of the synchrony, and that was like–for me that was the first six, seven years of Radiolab was just trying to engineer that moment again and again.
Alexis Madrigal: And then a change happened. That’s when things got interesting.
Jad Abumrad: Well done.
Alexis Madrigal: In 2012 a couple things happen, right? I mean we had Jonah Lehrer who was a regular contributor, a popular science writer, kind of had a fall from grace for various plagiarism and other kind of journalistic ethics infractions. And then the Yellow Rain episode occurred about the Hmong people and prospective chemical weapons use, or bee poop as it were, in that area during the 70’s.
And I guess want to go through Jonah and then Yellow Rain. First with Jonah, I mean he was kind of the purveyor of the certain kind of brain science that you talked about.
Jad Abumrad: Yeah.
Alexis Madrigal: Where like the brain–the brain, I’m air quoting–and fMRI imaging and these other ways of kind of knowing the brain became kind of the universal skeleton key for all human existence. And you know, did his troubles like teach you anything? Like what did it do to the show to watch someone who was so–a friend of the show, friend of the podcast, as they would say now, have that happen?
Jad Abumrad: That a really painful moment for us, you know. I mean not just as a show like, I felt like I grew up with Jonah. Like he was a young, young kid when he started coming on the show. And I was a young kid when I started making the show. And he was the first person that we would just have on regularly. And to see from the inside someone fall like that was like, I mean, and he and Robert are dear friends, you know, and he was one of those people that Robert mentored.
And so just like on a human personal level, that was really really hard to watch. And then on the level of the show, we were really disappointed. And disappointed not just in Jonah, but in ourselves, like we didn’t catch a lot of the stuff and there were some errors that we turned up that we had to fix. And I don’t want to lay too much of this on Jonah, but it really was a turning point for me personally. Not just I mean, you know, that was the moment when we started immediately employing fact-checkers, two fact checkers for every show.
So it was a turning point journalistically. We realized we had to get serious. But it was also for me a moment where I began to question that formula that I sort of kind of outlined a second ago. Very often it parsed as a kind of like, I don’t know what you would call this form, but scientist does an experiment, then we extrapolate and draw a lesson from it. And it became almost–like the very early TED Talks always had this sort of formula of like, personal experience, scientist, and then lesson.
Alexis Madrigal: Take away.
Jad Abumrad: Take away. Yeah, exactly. And there was something in me that became extremely distrustful of that. And even to the extent that I began to feel like it was dishonest. I don’t feel like the world is that simple. I didn’t feel like truth was that simple, that you could always draw lessons. And somehow it was, it coincided with what happened to Jonah, but I began to feel very just antsy, grumpy about this notion that we had to do science, that we had to do neuroscience in particular.
You know, and at that point the show had gained an audience and the audience expected that, and so we had like–I mean, this is still an ongoing thing now, 12 years in, like there’s the number one comment on our website is “where’s the science?”
We do a lot of science. We do a lot of science reporting still, even as we’ve broadened out. But I think what people want when they say “where’s the science” is they want, I’m guessing, they want that old idea of “tell me something and then give me a lesson.” And I just somehow I refuse to give that lesson anymore.
And around 2012, as you said, I began to see that moment of wonder, that classic moment of wonder, as something different than the cosmic thought with a soundtrack of music. Like there’s something else, and for me the wonder became not looking out at a question or a mystery but looking at an unresolvable difference between two competing truths, you know.
And the show became the place I think where you held a space where you could hear the struggle between competing truths. And initially for me that competing truth was ways of looking. Like there is the science way of looking at the world and then there is the much more human lived experience way of looking at the world, and often they’re in conflict.
And I think, you know, I mean just to advance to Yellow Rain, that for me was the first moment, as painful as that was for us as a show, that was the first moment where I felt like we began to sort of embrace, almost like, just to use an annoyingly jargon term, but the epistemology of truth, that there are different ways of knowing, there are different kinds of knowledge. Science is one way of knowing, but it’s certainly not the only way.
And we began to sort of I think really explore like what happens in a human mind when you’re forced to hold ideas that don’t seem to want to go together. I think that was there in the show all along, you know, but it became the sort of the dominant thing we were really going for.
Alexis Madrigal: Why don’t we really briefly set up Yellow Rain and then let’s hear it, because I think that that really comes across. The different ways of knowing, with Krulwich playing kind of the scientific interlocutor with an older Hmong man.
Jad Abumrad: Yeah. So this was a story that began as a scientific search for truth, right. We were looking at a question. We were thinking about a Reagan-era decision which was to re-make chemical weapons. This is around the time when the show was getting more political. And so we wanted to know like, what was the justification for creating these horrible weapons?
And the justification was that in the mountains of Laos post-Vietnam there were chemical weapons used against the Hmong people. And since they were using chemical weapons, the communist government there, we needed to reply in kind. So we were looking at a scientific question, a very narrow question, which was, “was that chemical weapons?” And the reports were that there was yellow rain falling, which were chemical weapons from above.
It turns out that the scientists went over and did an investigation and found that actually what that was was bee mating. Bees will do a swirl and go up into the clouds and then they will mate and then there’s some kind of pollen that falls and that can look like yellow rain. So that was the scientific explanation.
And we decided in the course of this that we had to talk to somebody who was there. And it just went very very wrong. And that clash of truths that I think I was referring to, I think you hear it in this clip.
Speaker: And there is no inkling in my mind that those deaths were not caused by starvation, dysentery. It was chemicals that were that were killing my people.
Jad Abumrad: So we wanted to know, and this was an honest question, did he see something that would contradict the scientist’s story?
Robert Krulwich: Did the source of the rain–was there always a plane and then rain? A plane and then rain? Or did sometimes the rain happened without a plane?
Speaker: We never saw–what they said was that it was always just being dropped on them. And it was always being dropped where there were heavy concentrations of Hmong people. But that’s what we knew.
Robert Krulwich: We don’t know whether there was a plane causing. It was just, you just see the dust or see the–.
Speaker: You have to understand that the planes were shooting bullets and bombs every day all the time. And so whether it was a bombing plane or a yellow plane was incredibly hard to distinguish. Everybody runs when you hear the plane so Hmong people don’t watch bombs coming down. You came out, you sneak your head out, and you watch what happened in the aftermath.
You saw broken trees. You saw yellow in the aftermath of what had been bombed. I saw with my own eyes the bee pollen on the leaves eating two holes. With my own eyes I saw pollen that could kill the grass, could kill leaves, could kill trees.
Robert Krulwich: But he himself is not clear whether it’s the bee stuff or whether it’s other stuff, because there was so much stuff coming down from the sky?
Speaker: You know that there were chemicals being used against the Hmong in the mountains of Laos, whether this is the chemicals from the bomb or yellow rain, chemicals were being used.
It feels to him like this is a semantic debate. And it feels like there’s a sad lack of justice. That the word of a man who survived this thing must be pitted against a professor from Harvard who’s read these accounts.
Robert Krulwich: But as far as I can tell, your uncle didn’t see the bee pollen fall, your uncle didn’t see a plane, all of this is hearsay.
Speaker: My uncle says for the last 20 years he didn’t know that anybody was interested in the death of the Hmong people. He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. You know, what happened to the Hmong happened and the world has been uninterested for the last 20 years. He agreed because you were interested. That the story would be heard and that the Hmong deaths would be documented and recognized.
That’s why he agreed to the interview. That the Hmong heart is broken, that our leaders have been silenced and what we know has been questioned again, and again, is not a surprise to him or to me. I agreed to the interview for the same reason. That Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story. That they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened. There was so much that was not told.
Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game, we can, but I’m not interested and my uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart and too many people in the process. I think the interview is done.
Jad Abumrad: I mean, it’s really painful to actually hear, it’s something that that’s yeah. I mean we… I mean what happened in the course of that story was we I think all realized at that point that we had somehow made a mistake. Like we had focused on a narrow question and then somehow missed so much about…
It was a little bit like fussing over like, in a concentration camp, what was the gas that they used? Was it this or was it that? It’s somehow like missing the point right? And so we decided we sort of ethically had to put that interview on the air. It felt important somehow to juxtapose our own myopia against that and to… It didn’t go well for us. We put that out and it was a…It was a difficult time for the show. I mean, we got a lot, a lot of criticism and I think deservedly.
But it was, as difficult as it was, as painful as it was, it was the moment I think, where we actually began to really, I mean it didn’t make me personally want to shy away from that kind of Journalism. Certainly I think it taught me a lot about, how do you approach those interviews? You don’t, I think you have to begin in empathy. And that’s certainly what was not happening in that interview.
But I think that was a moment where the show really began to sort of, I don’t want to say move away from science, but move away from the notion that science has a monopoly on truth. And to move into a space where the show itself is a holding space for the multiplicity of ways of defining truth, to try and hold them all together and manage them and do in a way that isn’t that classic like relativistic, you know, it’s all equal. It’s not.
It requires struggle to figure out how you compose the relationship between all these different truths. But that we are the people where you hear us struggle and we will interview people where we can hear them struggle.
So yeah, I mean it’s strange to play this in a room, but it actually feels like a really important moment for for me personally.
Alexis Madrigal: Do you feel like that there are multiple truths about Radiolab and your work that you’re trying to resolve?
Jad Abumrad: Yeah, I do. I mean it’s…I mean it’s a good question. I do. I feel like one of the questions that we’re always asking is like, “what is the nature of choice? Are we small humans on this planet controlling our own destiny or subject to the whims of fate?” I feel like that’s a question we’re always asking, and I on any given day, I can feel both ways. I feel like there are constantly those similar open questions between the power of the individual versus the responsibility towards the collective that are playing out in every single story.
Yeah. I mean, I think every story begins with that same kind of tension. That you feel it personally and you look to this particular story in front of you. And I think to stories in general, as a way to give order to these conflicting truths, these conflicting impulses. The story itself becomes this container for those paradoxical things and it’s your place where you can try to order it and understand.
Alexis Madrigal: I think one of the things I’m hearing from you that I think is really interesting is that lots of journalists want to be able to say, why do we ask these uncomfortable questions? Why do we do the things we’re doing, which many people, powerful and not powerful, that we’re reporting on don’t like? And the easy journalist answer is to say “well, I’m after the truth.”
And I think one of the things that I have really–particularly doing reporting like, say, environmental injustice, is you oftentimes find like the truth is, it’s like kind of slippery. And it’s become particularly in this moment–and I want to talk about sort of Radiolab in the time of Trump–I think it’s become easy to kind of retreat as a journalist to the position of like “no we go after truth. This is what we do.”
Jad Abumrad: Yeah.
Alexis Madrigal: When everybody who we’ve ever reported on knows well, yeah you do that, but you also want a great story.
You also want people to read your story. You want clicks, you want ratings, you want all these other things. And we have a hard time, I think holding those two things together ourselves like within the profession.
Jad Abumrad: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s like, I honestly think that to define journalism as “we go for the truth, we’re just the facts…” Yeah that hasn’t worked. You know what I mean? It’s like I mean, so many of my colleagues after the 2016 election were just like “okay time for a new profession. That didn’t work.” And I think we’ve known for a while. I mean, you know, it’s like, what’s the famous phrase, facts are already a theory? You know, it’s like I think to believe in the idea that there are objective facts I think is already a bridge too far for certain people.
So I don’t know. It’s like, I think of it as like, these waves of journalism. There was the “just the facts ma’am,” and we’ve seen the fault of that. And then there was this sort of like, “let’s make it entertaining,” and there’s that phase, which feels like it can be cheap. And then like, what’s the third wave? What’s the next wave that we’re going to sort of occupy as journalists and as storytellers?
I resist the idea that you want to like, even as I was talking a minute ago, I resist the idea that we’re just going to like say “well this guy they had a truth and that guy’s got a truth, and I don’t know!” Like that feels like a cop-out too. At the same time, I think you do have to acknowledge that behind the quote objectivity of certain things are power dynamics that you just have to take into account.
So, I don’t know. I mean, I think that it does have to do with… All right. Let me get fruity for a second. There’s this–on the plane I was reading this psychology text about this new theory in psychology called recognition theory. And it has, the idea behind this is that there is what is in your head Alexis, and there’s what’s in my head. These are two sort of like unique realities. That I can’t know what’s in your head. I don’t even know that you’re not a robot. You know what I mean? There’s no way to get into another human’s mind and then vice versa.
But there is the thing that we make together, right? There is the relationship that we have, the conversation that we have. And this psychologist calls that the third. Right, and I think that’s really interesting. I’ve begun to ask myself–I mean I just articulated it for the first time today, but I’ve begun to ask myself, really what is the third in these stories that we do?
What is it that’s going to be revealed? Like if you have a story where you have two competing truths, two competing realities. You know, I’ve been doing a lot of reporting about Evangelical Christianity recently, going into the places and having conversations with people whose realities and whose beliefs are so different than mine.
It’s not enough to simply leave it as a polarity. Right? What is the third thing that you make together? What is that thing that can emerge between you, that is in an entirely separate reality? That feels to me like the kind of journalism that I want to practice. I don’t really know the rules of it yet. But it’s–I feel like that’s what I feel called to do right now. Is to create these third spaces.
Alexis Madrigal: Do you think that’s one reason why you’ve become so interested in kind of these multiple interpretations of our founding documents, as expressed through More Perfect?
Jad Abumrad: Yeah. Yeah for sure. I mean, it’s amazing to me like what happens. Like I mean I got into More Perfect for a really mundane reason, which is that I you know, you hear Nina Totenberg on the radio. God love her, I love Nina Totenberg. She’s one of the giants. But like I hear her doing the like “Justice Sotomayor said this, and then Justice so and so said this,” and I’m like, I have no idea what you’re saying. I don’t understand that at all.
And so it started for me out of just like frustration. Like I don’t, I feel like I missed that day in school or something. Like I don’t know. I don’t know…
Alexis Madrigal: It’s actually a separate degree.
Jad Abumrad: Oh is it?
Alexis Madrigal: I think yeah. It’s a different degree program.
Jad Abumrad: But I mean just more–I mean I had zero civics education as a child. I mean I grew up in Tennessee and I assume most places are like this. Like no Civics education. I couldn’t tell you how government worked.
Like it’s amazing to me, people talk about government and I’m like, what is government? Is that government? Is that government? Is this? There’s like these ways in which we use terminology and we don’t know what it refers to. I was feeling that way and was feeling it acutely when I’d hear the Supreme Court reports.
So in one of those moments at Radiolab, and there have been many, where I like kind of have an editorial tantrum, and I remember this very clearly. It was, I was sound designing the sound of a neuron. For the six hundredth time. And I remember having this feeling…
Alexis Madrigal: I mean copy paste right? I mean at a certain point.
Jad Abumrad: Well, I know, but you’re like I kind of need to do it again. But I was like, if I do this again, I’m gonna throw myself out the window. And so I was like, I need another playing field. Some other place.
So we got the entire staff together and we’re like, “okay look, here’s the thing. We’re going to try something. We’re going to deliberately go to a place where we have zero expertise in.” The Supreme Court had just released their docket. “Everybody pick a case, make a call.”
And one of the reporters reported back with a story about this little two-year-old girl who had become the center of a custody battle that bizarrely was going to determine the fate of five hundred some-odd Sovereign nations in our country. Native American nations.
And it was just, it was fascinating to me that like you have a little girl and somehow these existential massive questions are attached to her. It’s almost like everything you want in a story. You want that universe in a blade of grass kind of thing. Like that one tiny thing that you can focus on that contains everything.
And we just started doing more of those stories. I was like, “my God, they just, they put the docket on the Internet.” It’s like all of these stories.
Alexis Madrigal: They just tweeted that!
Jad Abumrad: They just put these stories there. I don’t even have to go looking. They’re right there.
And then later on as we started More Perfect you realize that there is this place oyez oyez dot com, which has–or I think it might be dot org– that has like oral arguments going back to like, I mean you can listen to freakin Roe v Wade. You can listen to them argue that. I mean that’s amazing to me, like these epically consequential moments, you can hear the arguments. And so, what was your question again?
Alexis Madrigal: I think you answered it. Yeah.
Jad Abumrad: I spun myself into a cul-de-sac there. But anyhow, you were talking about multiple truths.
Alexis Madrigal: That’s right.
Jad Abumrad: Well built into the architecture of a court case is like you have a person who has experienced something in the world that is of epic importance, but then there are different sides to it. There, you know, and it’s fascinating to hear both sides play out and to really try and identify with both sides.
But the amazing thing to me, this is I think actually the answer I should have given you like 12 minutes ago. The amazing thing to me is if you go back and read the freaking Constitution, which I had never done, I would guess that most of you have never done it either. But you should do it, because what’s interesting about it is that you read it and it makes no sense.
Okay. But it’s interesting, like you realize there are passages which deliberately contradict other passages. And I remember early on being perplexed by this. And I started doing some reading and James Madison. There’s a moment where James Madison was at the Constitutional Convention and he was trying to make it work and he had the small slaveholding states were yelling about this and he had the northern states who were yelling about that and he couldn’t make it work. And so there was at a certain point where he’s just like “fuck it.”
Alexis Madrigal: “Put it all in!”
Jad Abumrad: “Put it all in.” Literally that, like he was just like, “you know what?” And he writes this beautiful letter to Thomas Jefferson where he’s like, “you know what, it makes me think that America is not a thing. America is the argument between things.”
Because that’s what’s in our constitution, like there is nothing resolved about it. And it’s fascinating to me to go back to our founding document and realize that oh, this argument was baked in. It was there from the beginning. And so what we argue about here now is in some sense just the flower of a very toxic beautiful seed blooming.
Alexis Madrigal: Let’s take some questions.
Jad Abumrad: Thank you.
Alexis Madrigal: There’s some mic runners around. I see one over there.
City Arts & Lectures: We’ll take this first question on your right.
Audience Member 1: Very interesting conversation. And thank you for all of the different points of view that you’re bringing in. I actually happen to be a psychologist. And so when you were talking about reading the article on the airplane. And what we create between us? I think you’re capturing something that is the core of the zeitgeist of what we need to do moving forward right now and it’s easy to get caught in the polarizations and say well this is where I am and this is where I am, but it’s hard work to do what you’re trying to do.
And so I just wanted to say I appreciate that you’re trying to make that happen. And Carl Jung said something about the tension of the opposites. And we have to stay in the tension of the opposites long enough for something new to grow out in the middle, and I think that’s what you’re trying to do. So, I just wanted to say thank you for that.
Jad Abumrad: Well thank you.
Alexis Madrigal: Thanks.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s in the orchestra all the way to your left.
Audience Member 2: Hi, so I view your show as a vehicle which enables your audience to gain new insight, information, to challenge their preconceived notions and to more deeply engage with the world through the content you’re giving us.
At the same time, you already touched on this tonight, there have been episodes in your, in like the history of Radiolab that has failed your audience. There’s been inaccuracies, poor reporting, and there’s been episodes that I’ve listened to where I kind of walked away being disappointed the caliber of it.
For example, Eye in the Sky, where you talk about technology that can take continuous pictures? The human sentiment that you said was, “this is powerful, we can catch criminals,” yet you didn’t touch on the idea that this can be invasion of privacy, this can be big brother.
There was an episode on sexual assault where you had two people from opposing sides talking, and I thought the women representing those accused of sexual assault was very pervasive in her arguments, yet the other side wasn’t challenging. I felt like there was a misbalance in the perspectives you were giving.
And so I want to know, how do you handle the fact that you’re responsible for this information you’re passing on to your audience? That when you’re short-sighted it’s inherited in your audience and that when you don’t have a thorough scope, we’re not getting a whole side.
So how do you weigh that when you’re deciding topics? When you’re reviewing your material and making sure that we’re not being short-sighted ourselves when we think about this and how we’re going to engage with this content?
Jad Abumrad: Yeah. It’s a good question. I mean, I think early on we sort of made a decision, and I think it was just the only decision we could make, which is that we can’t be comprehensive, you know, it’s never our job to be comprehensive. I mean the thing that we do is when we have controversial topics where there are–I mean sexual assault is a great example.
I mean that was one of the hardest things that we’ve ever done. And we vetted that through I would say 25 different listeners. Every single one of those 25 different listeners felt differently about it. Across the spectrum from thinking we were the most brilliant journalists in the world to thinking we were horrible. And it was really difficult to sort of find your way through that.
But increasingly I think what what we do is to trust in an ever wider circle of friends to the show, and I would say also of antagonists to the show. I mean, we have a sort of a listening roster of people who really don’t like us. Have a zero sort of like, you know, they’re not…
Alexis Madrigal: Warm feelings?
Jad Abumrad: Yeah. It’s like, I mean you have to search those people out too. And at times, you know, I mean at times also, I’ll just say, you know I’ve had the same experience that you referred to with our own work. I mean having done this for 17 years, that is the inevitability.
And what we’ve just started to do now–and actually one of our next episodes is going to be addressing a story that I feel like we got really wrong. What we’ve just started to do now is update our back catalogue and to bring back some things that we think are interesting and that we also think where we flubbed it and that we want to kind of re-examine that and speak about them and think about them through the lens of what we know now.
You know, I mean one of the things that’s–I mean, I, you know, I started making Radiolab before I really had any journalistic training and I’ve had to sort of learn that on the job. So there are definitely moments that we’re going to go back to where we’re like wow, we just like… Just basic mistakes we made. Like, “we should have called the other person, but we never called them.”
So, you know, so I guess all I would say to you is that as the audience has gotten bigger and the responsibility has gotten bigger, our process and our vetting and our sensitivity listening has gotten much bigger with it, but that we will still make mistakes and the only thing that we can do is to then go back and honestly assess those mistakes and try and correct them.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s upstairs towards your left.
Audience Member 3: Hey Jad. So Spotify recently purchased Anchor as well as Gimlet Media, two of the big commercialized makers of spoken word radio and podcast, for a pretty astounding amount. Do you think that this is an inflection point in podcasting and radio in terms of commercialization, or do you think this is just sort of insignificant blip of the radar?
Alexis Madrigal: And I’ll also add are you bummed you didn’t get really rich doing this?
Jad Abumrad: I was actually just talking to Alex from Gimlet in the hotel before I came over here and yes. But no, to your question, I do think it’s–I would be hard-pressed to give you a prediction as to what’s going to happen. It does feel big to me. It does feel like an important moment.
You have a really interesting thing happening right now in podcasting. It’s very confusing. I mean you have more interest than there ever has been. You just, I mean you have whole reporters at the New York Times whose whole beat is to cover podcasting.
At the same time, if you look at the data of podcast listening, I believe like one of the researchers at Edison, which is sort of the Nielsen of podcasting, or of all media really. He said that podcasting is the slowest growing medium they’ve ever measured.
So talk about competing truths, right. Like you look at the audience growth and podcasting and it’s kind of like, it’s doing this. It’s like doooooooo. Like really really slowly growing up. It is growing. But it’s going very very slowly and progressively.
Alexis Madrigal: Whereas like, everyone had a television in six years.
Jad Abumrad: Yes, everyone had television in six years and now everybody has a podcast. But the audience…
Alexis Madrigal: Yeah, the problem is the creator base…
Jad Abumrad: The creator base is like…
Alexis Madrigal: It’s the fastest growing creator base of all time.
Jad Abumrad: But the audience has not caught up to the creator base. And so I think about the Gimlet Spotify situation in terms of, you’ve got incredible hype for podcasting. You’ve got a disconnect between the hype and the actual audience. You have a gigantic creator community coming from all angles now, not just radio and public radio, but from Hollywood, people seeing that this is a place where you can develop IP and then turn it into a movie. So you’ve got that space happening.
You’ve also got the sort of reality that the economy of podcasting right now is really small. I mean, it’s I think 300 million total was its estimate. And you compare that to like the advertising revenue of digital ads, which is in the seven, eight billion. So I think, “oh okay, is this disconnect a sign of a bubble that’s about to burst, or is it a sign that we’re recognizing that there’s a huge ceiling and it’s just going to take us a while for the audience to get to that ceiling?”
That’s my way of avoiding answering because I just don’t know. I really don’t know what’s going to happen. But I think we will look back at this acquisition and say that that was the moment when the adults walked into the room or something. I don’t know.
Alexis Madrigal: I mean one of the most interesting things about it is that podcast pricing was not based on listenership for a while there. And it’s sort of, that’s changing.
But I mean one of the reasons that you heard so many good things is that people were like, that seems like a good idea, I’ll throw some money at it, and it wasn’t as tightly linked to the actual kind of eyeballs or ears involved, in the way that it is for the rest of digital media. So it’s kind of more like magazine-y in that way that it’s sort of a little slippery around the, you know the economics and the creative side of it.
Jad Abumrad: But see I love to live in the fuzziness.
Alexis Madrigal: Oh, yeah, I’m all about it. Yeah, no definitely.
Jad Abumrad: Cause it’s like that’s where the good stuff happens. Where you’re like, it’s not so driven by data and ads, you know.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s in the orchestra to your right.
Audience Member 4: Hello, Jad, thanks for being here. My question is kind of about how you’re approaching storytelling with climate change going forward. And that a lot of stories kind of follow a fast but preventable storyline, as opposed to slow and unstoppable. So like if you look at politics, you have Donald Trump’s id and impeachment. Fast and then preventable. But then you have like the federal courts, which is more slow but could become an unstoppable force.
And it’s kind of the same with climate change–we have it’s happening fast, but then we want all these preventable parts of it, which will push money to venture capitalists, which will try to make a lot of solutions to the problems. But how do you approach covering the slow unstoppable part that’s going to affect more developing nations and that’s going to affect people more on a level that can be unseen?
Jad Abumrad: I mean that is a really really good question. I will say that like that’s one of the handful of questions that we are really struggling with right now. Climate change from a storytelling perspective is brutal.
Like it’s this massive thing that no one feels like they can individually affect that was, at least until recently, very far away. So it’s very hard to figure out the right sort of storytelling wrapper to get you into that. And it’s also you know, there’s the problem of nihilism. Like slow and unstoppable is–it’s very easy to jump right to the despair at that point.
So I mean, we’ve tackled it in various ways, but I actually feel like it’s a failing of the show. I feel like we haven’t found the right way to deal with climate change. It’s something actually I’ve talked with other shows about, like let’s team up. Let’s do like a kind of a cross-platform, like many different shows tackling this at one time. But yeah, so the best I can tell you is that I acknowledge the problem. I mean I feel it very acutely in terms of what we’ve done, but it is something we’re very committed to trying to take part in.
Alexis Madrigal: Could you imagine doing a More Perfect style series like that?
Jad Abumrad: I could, yeah, I think so. I think so. I think there’s something in the– this isn’t really so much about solutions and about prevention, but it’s about… There’s a real misunderstanding in the actual true nature of science that you see exposed in the climate change and that the idea, like how do you handle the uncertainty that is sort of implicit in science, where you can never actually know when something is true, you can only know when something is false?
For me there’s a really interesting story to tell about how this is challenging the very nature of the scientific, like the public– I feel like I feel like as science journalists we have focused so much over the over the last 30, 40 years on discoveries and applications and we say, “we now know that this causes this” and then two days later we say “yeah, it turns out that wasn’t right. It’s really this. This causes that.” And then three days later we revise it again and the public starts to feel whiplash.
And they forget that actually that revision is the whole point of science. That’s what science is for. And I feel like somehow climate change has become the ultimate failure in our communicating or lack of communicating to the public how science actually works.
So I sometimes think there might be a story for us there. Looking at a series of stories about the actual true– like how much can you say as a scientist and still feel certain, you know?
Alexis Madrigal: So you’re like climate change is boring story. How about epistemology of climate change?
Jad Abumrad: There you go. I know it’s even…
Alexis Madrigal: Okay.
Jad Abumrad: I feel suddenly ashamed.
Alexis Madrigal: Maybe one more question, and then I have a quick lightning round for you.
City Arts & Lectures: This is from the front row of the balcony.
Audience Member 5: Hi, we kind of touched on this in the last question, but there was something that you said that made me think that you’re maybe a secret friend of our current president, which was talking about alternative truths, and it almost seemed to merge with alternative facts to me.
And I’m an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, and right now during this time of having someone in power that doesn’t always align with our interests and our objectives–we really have been holding on to science as a thing to lift up right now. And that we have to make science-based political decisions if we can.
So calling into question whether there is a reliable science or if that is something that’s intangible and ever-changing is a little bit scary to me, because it’s the one thing we’re holding onto right now, is that’s an objective-ish place to live when you have someone saying that we need more global warming right now when it’s freezing in Chicago.
So I just wonder how you distinguish that and help us hold on to science as something to lean on, even while recognizing that there is, you know developments always occurring and changes that are always happening, but not discounting science as unreliable, because I think that’s a scary place to be.
Jad Abumrad: Yeah. I hope I didn’t, I hope what I said earlier wasn’t Trump-y in any way, shape, or form. And I hope I’m not–I mean, to say that science is one way of knowing and not the only way is not to discount science or the scientific method. I think actually that is–to truly embrace the scientific method is to actually come to that same conclusion.
So yes while I do, while, I mean the totality of just bad faith dishonesty that’s coming from this president is a little bit hard to bear, I think we can all agree on that. But for me the question is how do you combat that?
And yes, I do believe that we need to sort of embrace science and cling to science and have that be the anchor of our of our inquiry, but to insist on science and ignore what’s happening, not so much with Trump himself. He’s actually ultimately boring. But the people who support him. To insist on that science somehow for me doesn’t help the situation. There is some other way to, there is some other conversation that we can have which…
I don’t even know how to finish that sentence to be honest… Which embraces science but acknowledges that there is a limitation to the lens of science, and then we have to somehow embrace the other lenses that are at play.
So I certainly am not saying that we have to treat science as–and this is what I was trying to say earlier. Like that idea of like all truth is relative, therefore there is no truth, isn’t really what I was saying. I do think we have to struggle, we have to fight and find as close to a truth as we can. I’m just not sure that science is always the only way to get there. I guess that’s all I’m saying.
Alexis Madrigal: We’re gonna let you go in one second. I just needed to ask you a couple of like just lightning round sound questions for people who love like sound and you are the sound person. What’s your favorite non-musical sound?
Jad Abumrad: Hmm. My favorite non-musical. Yeah, neurons. Yeah. Favorite. Favorite non-musical…
Alexis Madrigal: Someone hitting a pan, you know, I don’t know.
Jad Abumrad: I love the sound of a lawn mower, that kind of reeeaaaaaowww. It’s like a didgeridoo.
Alexis Madrigal: Kind of back to the train thing too, right?
Jad Abumrad: Yeah. I love hums and drones of any sort, like mechanical machine-like hums. I actually find that these machines that hum and create the background sounds of our lives, they’re incredibly benign things. They are these things we’ve made that want to help us and it’s the sound of their…
Alexis Madrigal: Keep you warm. Keep the lights on.
Jad Abumrad: Yeah, even as they’re, you know, warming the planet and killing us. So I like machine-like hums and drones.
Alexis Madrigal: And the last one, last question. What’s the sound that you’ve heard on tape or gotten on tape that’s then changed the way that you listen to the world outside of the tape?
Jad Abumrad: Sound I’ve heard on tape that’s changed the way I listened to the world.
Alexis Madrigal: You can tell I didn’t give these to him ahead of time.
Jad Abumrad: Wow. Yeah, that’s a good one. I really want to give you a thoughtful answer to that. Okay, I’ll give you an answer that’s… I’m trying to gather my thoughts here. So a sound, okay.
This is not like a recorded sound. That’s not like a journalistic, you get a sound. I mean certainly in that milieu there are a million times where you hear somebody say something and they say in a way that just changes you, deeply moves you. I mean, I think some of the tape that we heard later had that effect.
But for me, there are sounds, the simplest of sounds, that when you look at them in a computer or in a spectrogram, you realize the complexity of like a single note on a piano, like you think about the overtone series of the, you hit the middle C. And you look at it on a spectrogram and what you see are there’s a million notes in there. You know, there’s the dominant fundamental tone, within the overtone series goes I think an octave and then a fifth and then a fourth or something like that. All of those notes are present in that one single note.
And for me, I think that’s one of the most beautiful metaphors for the world of ideas, the world of stories. That the story is the dominant, but that there are all of these overtones, these harmonics, these resonances with the world of culture and the world of history and politics. These are the sort of harmonics that you want to have in a story. And so I feel like for me, I think about these kinds of simple notes as metaphors for how to see the world, you know.
Alexis Madrigal: That’s beautiful. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and your wisdom. Cheers.
Jad Abumrad: Thank you so much. Thank you guys.