A New Era for Radio

Jad Abumrad, a Lebanese-American radio host and producer, was awarded the 2011 MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the Genius Award, for “showing exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.” He is the co-founder of the widely acclaimed Radiolab, a radio show and podcast that weaves stories and science into sound and music-rich documentaries. His 2004 Radiolab special, “The Ring & I”, explores the enduring power and influence of Wagner's Ring Cycle on the Eve of the Metropolitan Opera's Presentation. An insightful, funny, and lyrical presentation, it was aired nationally and internationally, and earned a total of ten awards, including the prestigious 2005 National Headliner Grand Award in Radio. From the local level to programs on National Public Radio, Abumrad has also reported and produced documentaries including On The Media, PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Democracy Now!, and WNYC's "24 Hours at the Edge of Ground Zero." CPR sat down with Abumrad to discuss the future of radio. 

CPR: You recently won the MacArthur grant. Can you say anything about your reaction to that?

JA: Well, I’m going through the Twilight Zone period right now where actually it’s sinking in a little bit, and I’m starting to be like, “Okay, this just happened, now what do I do?

The day it happened was a really strange few hours. I was just getting off the plane for something I had done in Michigan, and I got a strange call from a guy named Daniel. He, in a really roundabout way, basically, hilariously strung it out – I didn’t even know why he called me –maybe I was called on behalf of someone else, maybe it was a grant for something I didn’t know about?

At that point I kind of disassociated from it. It didn’t really hit me until I hung up with him, and I called my wife, and I heard her reaction. Even then, it didn’t really sink in. I just thought, this is a really good thing. I had no way of really assessing it until it was made public and I saw the response from the radio community and people I had worked with. Everybody I ever knew in my life emailed me within the first few hours. It was a very strange thing that just kind of opened up. It was at that point that, in some weird way, it became life changing.

CPR: Besides the pride from the public adulation ­– which sounds like it was incredibly hard to process – this was a monetary prize, too; how did do you react to that?

JA: I’ve been circling that question for about two weeks now. Like, what am I going to do with this money? I don’t really have any concrete plans. I’m mind, body and soul committed to making Radiolab and making it grow, so I definitely know I want to use some of that money to bring new energies and new ideas into the show.

Often, they make that award with the idea that it’ll give you some space to look outside your narrow worldview. I also think that. on the whole, the public radio system, I want to somehow bring new voices in and sort of taking my role seriously for the first time. You know, Radiolab is this new sound and in a place where there hasn’t been a lot of new sounds. Maybe that gives a special opportunity to recruit new folks or get new types of voices on the air, again no concrete plans.

I also have a second kid coming in February, so part of it is obviously going to be making that transition a little easier for my wife and I.

CPR: Radiolab makes a lot of really complex scientific and philosophic issues, kind of accessible to anyone that has an FM radio. Where do you see yourself on the continuum of making art, education and entertainment?

JA: In the middle of those three nouns you used. What I think we do is we get interested in [something]. What you hear on the air are these two guys who are really animated talking about big ideas and then going on a kind of surreal joyride through the landscape of this idea where you meet all kinds of interesting people: scientists, philosophers and just people who are engaged in some drama of one kind or another. But it’s a great structure with these two guys kind of talking and sometimes arguing. That’s how these shows come about. It’s a bunch of people – we all sit down, and we get interested in stuff, and we try and just figure out what’s the most interesting.

It’s maybe a little scary way to take a trip through this idea, and it is like a personal adventure in some sense, but it’s an adventure between people who really like each other, and so I don’t know that we’re teaching. I would sort of resist that idea because teaching implies a kind of distance, which I’m not comfortable with. It’s a distance that inevitably exists between a teacher and a student. But for us, it’s just more akin to that experience when you get a great record.

For some reason what I imagine in my head is like a final record. You want to share that record with your friend, and you’re like, “Dude, you’ve got to hear this record.” And maybe your friend loves it, or they hate it, and then you kind build on it from there. I feel like we’re doing that more than we’re doing education, and it’s more about just having an adventure with a friend, and the friendship is a noise that I think attracts people on the other side of the radio. They want to know about this adventure we’re having, but they also want to be part of the sort of chemistry of that friendship. So some stuff that we’re doing is just moving through the world and just encountering things. If that ends up making scientific concepts understandable or if that ends up making philosophical concepts visceral, that’s great, but I wouldn’t say that’s our primary objective, ever. It’s just to somehow communicate the animal spirit of an adventure, kind of a friendship.

CPR: You said it’s kind of a theatrical conceit or an on-air banter between you and [your co-host] Robert; how much of the original organic conversations between you and Robert or between you and a room full of people end up in the final produced product?

JA: It kind of varies. I would say 50-50? That’s just a guess. There are times when more of it ends up on the air, and there are times when it has to be reconstructed. But it’s always sometimes real because if we’re there, we’re, like, pretending.

What we’re trying to pretend to be is an earlier version of ourselves, when we’re sitting down at an editorial meeting and we’re fighting it out. Maybe he’s got something he’s interested in, and I’m skeptical, so he’s trying to sell me on it. Or maybe I’m the person that thinks I’ve got the amazing story, and he’s the skeptic. We sort of flip-flop roles, and then we argue it out, and then we’ll recognize that we should just have the conversation we had off the air air. So then we do, and so on some level we’re pretending and reconstructing the conversation we had off the air. And then we get into it and ten seconds go in, and you’re actually back in the conversation and it ends up being completely improvised. So there are moments of every story that are completely unknown to us.

Anytime you’re trying to tell a story, you’re trying to find the right shape so we’ll have these improvising moments, and maybe they’re a little flabby so we’ll start to edit them, and maybe you’ve got these two edited bits that need to be connected, and so you will write a sentence that you’ll stick in the middle but then connects it to the conversation. So then you end up with some weird hybrid where it’s kind of like a written story, but it’s also totally improvised, and that only exists in the editing. I feel like you need that tension between the anarchy of improvisation and the architecture of editing. When they tug at each other really hard, that’s our sound.

CPR: Occupy Wall Street is getting louder and you’ve done work on democracy in the past. Have you been down to Zuccotti Park? Any thoughts?

JA: I’ve been following the story pretty closely, but I actually have not been down there. I’ve been wanting to just go just as a New Yorker to see what’s happening down there. Politically, I don’t have a stake in it in the way that I might have had, back in my WBAI days. But, as a movement that’s just starting to get underway, I find it really interesting. There’s been a lot of coverage asking that question: is it a movement, or is it just a bunch of people getting together expressing a kind of inchoate anxiety that’s just going to dissolve once it gets cold? I find that question really interesting with the political context of our country right now.

I don’t have a direct personal interest in what’s going on there. I’m just really interested to know where this country is going to go next. As a New Yorker, I haven’t seen this kind of homegrown movement in a long time. It’s also an interesting question: how does a movement get born? We saw the Tea Party and how that happened. I’m curious to see the parallels.

CPR: Looking at the specific aesthetic of the show that’s kind of born out of the editing, what we get somehow seems unedited. Is that an incorrect perception?

JA: No, that’s great. I’m really glad to hear to hear you describe it that way. I don’t know how we get to that place. It’s the kind of thing that we kick it and kick it, and it finally gets to some shape. It’s kind of anarchic; it’s a little bit nuts. In that sense, it doesn’t feel like somebody sat there and sweated every stupid edit, because what you hear when someone sweats every dumb edit is you hear a kind of over-manicured, over-produced deadness. It’s the kind of thing where when you’re in the studio, you’re improvising and weird unanticipated stuff will always happen, and normally, I think in every other show, they cut it out, and we cut it in.

And that’s the question of how much is too much? Weird artifacts and strange noises, that’s all the life of what we’re doing as well. We try to put all that stuff in. Unedited quality is when it kind of sounds like people’s sounds when they’re talking, but there is a sort of surrealness to it, which comes from all those different layers popping out. It’s like two people are standing there talking, but they’re also somehow in a crowd of other people. Imagine people like these scientists, researchers, who are in their thought bubble and then, all of a sudden, vanish. So it’s a musical surreal version of a conversation two people might actually have.

CPR: You’ve done features on the brain and neuroscience. Can you speak a little about what drew you to that?

JA: Back in the beginning, there were a lot of stories that were like, “And this part of your brain does this, and that part of your brain does this.” I’m a little bit skeptical of that earlier version of ourselves now. We don’t do as much brain science now. But psychology in the end is a question about behavior.

There’s something kind of interesting that happened in the psychological sciences when neuroscience came along. Suddenly you have all these psychology students. They’re working in an institution, like Princeton, where, in the basement, they had this giant brain scanner machine. So you can ask these, really, sort of large, in a sense, ordinary questions about how do humans behave? What makes us have morality? What makes human beings have a sense of right and wrong, and what happens to a person when they feel conflicted, they don’t know which way to go? You can actually see what happened in a brain, and it’s a wonderful thing that happens. It gives you a sense of empiricism, and it also gives you an access to that beautiful, probably unanswerable, question. And so, I think neuroscience is a really interesting thing for the behavioral sciences, maybe that’s overstating it a little bit.

For me, I don’t really think of myself as a science reporter. I am someone who’s just really interested in what makes us tick, what makes all of us tick, and generally, I make up stories to try and answer those questions, sort of a “This American Life”-y sort of way. But neuroscience is what kind of drew me into the notion that stories about people could be married with research about people, and you could get to a place where you both experienced something but also explained it.

And that juxtaposition between explanation and experience is very important to the show. It maybe grows out of that early interest in neuroscience that a lot of people have. I think in the next five years, we won’t be seeing as many science headlines that say, “Republicans have this part of their brain, Democrats have that.” I don’t think so. I think that research was sort of, pretty, I won’t say naïve, but it was preliminary, and the brain isn’t really divided into these departments in the way that we thought it was, so it’s going to make my journalist job a little bit harder, but the idea that we can kind of gain access to the locus of ourselves is such a cool thing. Who knows where it’s going to go.

CPR: As a composer, music arranger, and editor, how does that perspective change the storytelling dialogue process that you’re engaged in, in the show. Does that offer some kind of special perspective?

JA: I came to radio as a musician, not really as a journalist. I picked up all the journalism-news stuff along the way but the weird thing that happened to me in the last five to six years on the show is that I realized, it’s all the same in some weird way. The act of – not so much reporting – when you get into the studio, when you’re sort of working with the tape, it’s a deeply musical thing, and when you tell it, they’re using their voice, they’re pitching it up and down.

For me, there’s a wonderful thing that happens in the editing process, where if you go out and take your interviews and stick them into the computer, they exist in the computer as these little chunks, little sound bites, and they’re literally like these little rectangles. There are moments when I’ve got so many of these damn rectangles on my screen that I have to zoom all the way out and you start to see them as these little dots. I’m consistently amazed that, at that scale, it looks a little bit like a musical score and that you’re moving these bits of thoughts and grammar around almost like notes.

Now there are obvious differences. There is a part of the process where the editor-journalism parts of my brain go silent and the musician part wakes up and somewhere about three-quarters of the way through, when I’ve got the story and it’s sort of hammered into the right shape, I kind of close the door, and I become a musician again, and I think about things like rhythm and pacing and syncopation. Even when you’ve got like four different voices, and you’re trying to bring them in and out and get that right balance between them, I think about weird classes I sat through in music school. There’s not much translation but I think about what would Bach do in this moment, how would he achieve the right balance. Not to compare myself at all, but it’s those kinds of musical questions that come back to me at a certain point in the process. The fact that I get the space to indulge in that part of my brain is what I think makes the show a little bit different from other shows.