Radio Lab is a radio show that delves into big questions of science and philosophy, with a desire to make sense of the nonsensical, and an impulse to play around. The themes are striking—past episodes have delved into everything from what makes "time" a phenomenon to what it means to laugh—and the sound of the show represents an unusual experimental approach for National Public Radio. Producer and co-host Jad Abumrad handles post-production that comprises playful trails of echo, intercut dialogue, and influxes of electronic sound; by his side, science reporter Robert Krulwich talks with professors and academics with a strange performative wonder. The A.V. Club spoke with both in the midst of their latest season.
The A.V. Club: Your show has a very distinctive sound. What sort of antecedents do you draw from?
Jad Abumrad: We often do very theatrical things that make me think of the golden age of radio—Orson Welles kind of stuff. There's something very old-school about what we're doing, almost vaudeville. In terms of the sound, it's as much about avoiding certain rhythms and meters that you hear a lot in public radio. Sonically, I'm drawing from influences that aren't even close to radio: weird avant-garde music from the '50s. Like Karlheinz Stockhausen, those guys who were the granddaddies of electronic music. They came out of an acoustic tradition, but they were taking stuff and processing it. I want the show to be electro-acoustic in the way they were thinking about. And Stockhausen in particular had an idea about using sounds in editorial ways. When we're scoring, we're constantly asking, "What does this sound say?"
Robert Krulwich: I think that we're mostly trying to avoid sounding like This American Life, which has a very clear sound that seems like people are on script. I used to think, "Yes, this is thunderingly vaudevillian!" But I think we're just exploring the sound of our friendship. And the musicality is very intricate. There are tugs and pulls and washes of sound and punctuation, a lot of musical commas, periods, parentheses. Jad seems to be inventing this grammar as we go along. It's something I've never heard anywhere else before.
AVC: The tone is credulous but skeptical. How do you describe the balance?
JA: We're not trying to be experts. If we don't know something, we don't know it openly.
RK: We decided early on that the people we were going to be talking to would usually be smarter than us, certainly more pedigreed, and not used to being yanked on. We wanted to say to listeners, "When topics like this come up and you are curious, you are allowed to cross-examine and interrogate." Science is as important as anything else that goes on in the culture, if not more so. And it should be explored with energy.
JA: We're playing against the usual expectation we have for scientists, like, at a podium. But there's something useful in knocking them off the podium, because it creates a different kind of conversation. We take the science seriously. We're not trying to dumb it down. We're trying to somehow re-situate the science in the world.
RK: Also, we have been in public radio for a long time, and we wanted to say to the other public-radio people, "You can be sassy and have a really good time in front of people and take yourself not too seriously—and that will have an audience." We wanted to open the windows a little bit to the vocabulary of public radio.
JA: There's the template of [adopts reportorial voice] "I'm Linda Wertheimer," and then Ira Glass of This American Life came along, and suddenly there was another way to sound, which was introspective and kind of quirky. I'm hoping—though I don't want to overstate—I'm hoping this might be part of a third way of being on the radio.
AVC: Do you find that scientists enjoy talking in terms outside of their field?
RK: They like it! And they're wicked, so they come right back at you. We had a fight with George Church [a Harvard genetics professor] the other day. I was trying to kill him and make him stay dead. I said, "Okay, I've shot you in the head. You're on the floor. You've been bleeding for three days. You have no heartbeat, you have no brain activity—are you dead?" And he says, "Well, it depends." "What does it depend on?! Maggots have eaten your flesh. Your atoms have now fallen apart into tens of trillions of loose configurations. Part of you is blowing in the air, the other half of you has now become a tulip. Are you dead?" "Well…" He wouldn't give me dead, because he had a very sophisticated idea of what dead and alive mean.
JA: It got really weird when you said, "If I'm a Buick and I'm made of parts, am I alive?" And he said, "Well, some people would say a Buick is alive."
AVC: What was the weirdest scenario you found yourself in while doing the stories for this season?
RK: We were talking to these kids who work with this bacteria called E. coli that smells like poop. It's uncomfortable. So as a matter-of-fact solution to their practical problem, they designed a different E. coli. A friend of theirs at Purdue sent them a wintergreen gene, plucked from some other creature, and they plopped in the wintergreen to mask the poop smell, thereby solving the yuck factor of being in the lab by simply creating an E. coli that had never existed in the 70- to 100-million-year history of E. coli. Suddenly, their lab is smelling wintergreeny as opposed to poopy. Then they have another problem: How long do they have to wait to work with it? So they put a trigger onto the E. coli, which when it actually slows down its multiplication rate, it smells like a big, rich, creamy banana. If they smell banana, then they go in and do their work. I sat them down and said, "Did any of you consider the sheer awesomeness of what you just did? You created essentially a creature new to nature." And this 19-year-old goes, "Uh, yeah?"
AVC: Radio Lab has spread in part by podcast. How much do you continue to think about it as a "radio show," as opposed to something else?
JA: That question is fluid right now. There has always been an assumption that when you make radio, it just goes out and disappears, and whoever happens to be stuck in front of the box at that very moment gets it, or not. But something is happening now, and there's a real question: What will happen to radio in five or six years, or 10 years?
RK: It's become radio without a radio. A lot of people who listen to this show don't have a radio. They have other gadgets. They'll listen on a computer, or a device they put on their ear, or who knows how. They mail it to each other, so it's radio by letter. This is a whole new world, really, and it affects The New York Times, ABC, other companies I work for, and certainly National Public Radio, which is a collection of stations that have money they get from their listeners, and charge to stations for service. The money flows from the people up to the station, but what if people stop running the station? As in many areas of communication, the business model is no longer functioning, or is beginning to unravel. But from what I can tell from what is happening to us, if you make something that people discover, the pathways for saying "Check this out" have grown enormously. If you have a "check this out" product, you have a distribution system that is being invented by the listeners. It's a very odd experience.
JA: Yeah, it's an atypical crowd [for public radio]. I've always been a freak in insisting we make every moment as good as we can, and putting all this work into the sounds and the textures and the edits. People inside this building would be like, "You're crazy. Why are you doing this?" It might still be crazy, but it's validated a bit, because people do listen to it a couple of different times. We can play for the third listen now. People say they keep it on their iPod, which is a great compliment. I want it to feel like music—as keepable as music, not as disposable as radio.
Free podcasts of past Radio Lab episodes are available at radiolab.org.