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Looking at the Radio Program Called Radiolab

Aired April 29, 2012 - 14:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Radio's this weird medium that people are constantly predicting is going to die.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: Before there was the internet, movies, TV, there was radio.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's near radio. I'm not sure it still is radio.


GUPTA: And while to some radio may seem dead today --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just on paper, it seems like it should die.


GUPTA: It's finding this whole new life among a new generation on the web. In fact, this is Jad.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Jad has found a way to find what stories sound like and recreate that for the listener.


GUPTA: He is part journalist, sound composer, designer, some have even said genius.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He invented a new way to think about the oldest broadcast medium.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If they want to call that genius, I think they should.

(END VIDEO CLIP) GUPTA: While you may not know his face, for millions for fans all over the world, they do know his voice. They host this popular radio show called "Radiolab."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's like the Gershwin of journalism.


GUPTA: They discuss the abstract concepts like time, words, darkness, using a cinematic approach that really needs to be conveyed and appreciated through experiencing.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They make science extremely accessible.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There are not too many programs out there that are like "Radiolab."


GUPTA: Why this may be a little unconventional for television, I want you to sit back and listen, even more than watch. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. You're watching THE NEXT LIST.


JAD ABUMRAD, RADIO HOST, RADIOLAB: My name is Jad Abumrad. I host and produce a show called "Radiolab," which airs on WNYC, distributed to a bunch of public radio stations. So "Radiolab" is kind of crazy, slightly psychedelic adventure through a big idea.

We're talking about escape. Stories about people being trapped and then getting out, getting free. They're kind of like these big, usually one-word titles.

It's like the stuff that everybody's been thinking about back to Aristotle that really has no answer. Like, what is time? What is space? What is consciousness? Like, how do I know I'm conscious?

ROBERT KRULWICH, RADIO HOST, RADIOLAD: It's big problems that make us curious. This has always been a duet, pretty much from the beginning at least from my part.

ABUMRAD: More of our listeners are getting to listen to the podcast than they get to us over the airwaves.

IRA GLASS, RADIO HOST, THIS AMERICAN LIFE: Being on the internet has only increased our reach, and the number of people who consume public radio. And our radio audience continues to grow. Like all of public radio.

ABUMRAD: Increasingly, the broadcast becomes a kind of billboard for the podcast. KRULWICH: So we're in a sort of a little bit out ahead.

ABUMRAD: You go to the podcast and you've got this, it's almost an object. It's almost permanent.

KRULWICH: That's no radio. Radio is tight. It belongs in a particular place, it's your hometown.

ABUMRAD: You can listen to it and you can kind of rewind. You can go back a little bit.

KRULWICH: We're a little bit (inaudible) I think so we're now all over.

GLASS: Because they were so perfectly beautifully crafted, you know, people would download these things and listen to them and share them with their friends and look for the next one.

ABUMRAD: I don't want this stuff to be disposable, you know? And radio is, I think, from its inception, was built to be disposable. You can turn it on and then it just vanishes.

But it's not really that anymore. It sticks around. So I want every sound, every second to stick in a person's head, otherwise, otherwise we're just making noises.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a beautiful day, you know? The sun was low in the sky, so there was, you know, long shadows. Six hours later, he's working in the studio, doing some sculpture. And he gets a call, from a cop.

And he just said, with Emily Gossio, she had an accident. She's at Bellevue. This is the address. And I said, I mean, do you have any more information? And he just told me that it was bad. I was, like, carrying a bunch of stuff and I just dropped everything and started running.

ABUMRAD: So most of what we do is pretty traditional. You know, you go out, you report the story, you bring it back, you cut it into bits, you script between the bits, and then you have a story.

Where we differ is that in two, I think, crucial places. The scripting part, we don't do. It's a lot of improvisation. So Robert and I are there, bantering back and forth, burning hours of tape, which we then cut into the best bits to connect those other bits.

So you shove that in the middle, but you still have gaps on either side of it, so you improvise some more. Calling it --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lost and found. ABUMRAD: So you burn more, get the little microbits, and eventually you get an arc that's scripted and planned, but it's also got the energy of improv.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I go in, and she was just lying in bed. Her face was so swollen -- covered in blood.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- weighed probably at the time of the accident about 120 pounds and she then weighed about 128. She had swollen 28 pounds.

ABUMRAD: And for me, you've got to pull each other, the improv and the tightness of the cut after somehow being a balanced tension. The other place we differ is that somewhere towards the end of the process, I'll close a door and I'll make weird noises that become the kind of sonic landscape for that story. So it's in those two places. It's in the hosts and it's in the sounds, where I feel like we do things a little bit differently.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So I was sitting there with Emily, and talking to her, and telling her that I would love her eternally. And Emily raised her left hand. It was chaos!

ABUMRAD: I'm -- we're in my studio here in Brooklyn. This is actually the third floor of my house. It's a small little like closet-sized space where I do a lot of the sound design for the show.

So I could show you some really like simple ways that I kind of create noises, that are interesting to me, and that give the show that weird kind of like off-kilter sound. Hold on a second. Get the spray, so we can just narrow in, here. See, now what you're hearing is like a tiny piece of the -- not the, but just the little tail on that sound, which is very short. You can create these little --

Let's bring this down. The story is the jewel and all this stuff is the pillow the jewel sits on, to just a make the jewel look more pretty. And here you can kind of see like more of a progression, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 tracks, that are just music. Just little textures.

ABUMRAD: It's that kind of thing when you realize your lifelong dream -- this is the part where this kid, who's learned how to game the phone system, but he comes from an abusive household, where he was sexually abused, physically abused. This is the part where he kind of like transcends his situation. He escapes. All of this music comes in, right here. So it's about to happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At this point, he had such an intimate knowledge of all the little clicks and pops of the phone system, that he could tell from those noises, what was going on the network, how your call was being routed, if there was a problem somewhere along the line, what the problem was.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And even where it was.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Strictly from listening. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Strictly from listening.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was listening to the dial tone times nirvana.

ABUMRAD: And there's a transformation, there's a change that happens. And suddenly at the end, you're in a completely different landscape. So I love this idea of taking something simple like -- and making entitle the weirdest sound you've ever heard. I feel like that's the voice of this show.

GLASS: Radiolab is reinventing what you can do on the radio in a bunch of interesting ways.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So Emily couldn't see, couldn't hear --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because remember she wore hearing aids. Why couldn't she just put those in?


GLASS: And the most basic one is that it sees of itself as an entertainment and that automatically separates it from a generation, from every generation of public broadcasting, public radio shows before it.

ABUMRAD: You go to a movie and it's like, there are crazy radical things that are happening underneath the story.

KRULWICH: He pays exquisite attention to what's going on.

ABUMRAD: In terms of how it's cut, in terms of where the music is happening, in terms of the way the points of view are constantly shifting.

GLASS: And as they're chatting from up around them, floats the sound of where they're chatting about and the voices of the other people and the music.

KRULWICH: He's essentially taking the mood that's pregnant in the situation and he's making it -- you actually hear it.

GLASS: The music is composed often for that particular spot and that thing.

KRULWICH: He's underscoring and he's telling you all kinds of new things about what you're listening to, that somehow belong there.

GLASS: No other show on public radio, or probably on radio in America, has somebody -- has one of the principles like come posing the music that's going music that's going to be performed around them, like the score to a movie.

KRULWICH: It's what a great composer does, you listen to the mood and the rhythm of life and you find --

GLASS: They did a story about a woman in a coma. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She kept saying --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please pull me out of here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's dark in here.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know you can do it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Pull me out of the wall.

GLASS: That has a series of surprise moves in it, and it has been recorded on tape because one of the people in the story actually recorded some of the key moments on his own iPhone.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Asks her about his hearing aids -- so he finger spelled hearing aid.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She agreed to put the hearing aid in for the first time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So we put it on and switched it on.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And he said, Emily --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Emily, can you hear me? It's me, Allen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everything came back to me. I was there, I remembered everything.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just found myself like sitting in the car with like tears pouring down my face, and thinking like, my gosh, this is so amazing. I'm so glad that I sat here and listened to this.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: and I heard her say what I had been waiting for her to say all those weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I said, mommy, mommy.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I couldn't believe they were there the whole time.

GLASS: It's one of the best things I've ever heard.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was just inspired by some person's story that lives thousands of miles away and it's still relevant to me in my every day. GLASS: At some point in the story, someone talked about what it's like to be in a coma, in the way that I think like some day when I'm in a coma, I'm going to remember, damitt, it's just like in that story, you know!

ABUMRAD: I do feel like we're movie makers at the end of the day. I'm not just saying that. I actually feel that that's true, even without the pictures.

In fact, maybe because we don't have pictures in some sense, it demands of you to be the best movie maker you can be. I love the idea that, like, because we don't have pictures, we have to play to the pictures in your head.

And if we do our jobs right, we're in some sense co-authoring this. We're doing it together and there's something warm about that for me. Radio, never listened to the radio, but maybe I'll work in radio.




ABUMRAD: I like drones and washes and weird, almost anti-musical things. I love the sound of the refrigerator. You know, I love the sound of lights when they buzz. I love the sound of machines as they break down.

You know, as far as I can remember, I would like, I would mow the lawn for four times longer than I actually had to, because I loved the sound of the lawn mower. You know, that weird ditchery drewish drone, kind of, rwar, rwar.

I grew up in Tennessee. Both of my parents are scientists, this Lebanese kid in Tennessee. So I spent my whole time in the practice rooms, just playing piano. That was the thing that made sense to me as a kid. I had pretty much figured out I was going to be a film scorer.

I didn't even know what that meant, exactly, but that was the thing that I had decided. I often think about overland as this grenade that took like 12 years to go off. You pull the pin and wait 12 years, kind of thing.

Like going to composition concerts and hearing the stuff people were playing, like squeaky, squawky, atonal weirdness, really strange stuff. I was like, where am I? What reality have I landed in?

And I remember leaving overland and being like, I don't know anything. I felt kind of just unprepared. Four or five years out of school, I was kind of in midflail and I was having that conversation with my then-girlfriend, now-wife.

And she was like, well, radio's kind of like writing, but kind of like sound, kind of like the two are together. I was kind of like, wow, radio. Never listen to the radio, but maybe I'll work in radio.

I freelanced a piece for NPR. It took me months. It was insane. I remember that feeling of like making a piece of radio that was four minutes, and it was like, this is kind of like composing.

Like, this is the same thing, but there are words and there's narrative and all that. Kind of started to figure out what it meant to be a journalist. That whole part of it was slowly turning on. Somewhere along the way I ended up getting my first full-time job in public radio.

The program director at WYNC here, he had this slot, and he said, you -- I happened to be in the hall at that point, and he said, you, just do something in this spot, just make something up.

For the next three years, I basically just worked around the clock to fill these three hours. I spent a long, long time thinking I was great, having good ears, but the things I was producing, I knew they weren't -- I knew it wasn't good, you know?

You know, hourglass has talked a lot about the gap. The idea that your taste is killer initially, but your skills are not. So you have this recognition of like, I'm just not very good right now. And most people fall into that gap and they never make it out.

GLASS: Really, the only thing you can do is just make work. Like, you have to just like make a lot of work. And just basically fight your way out of it, like a soldier.

ABUMRAD: Get through that gap, and understand that maybe you suck, and that's OK, because sucking actually is the path you have to walk to be great.

GLASS: And also, nobody tells you like, where do ideas come from for stuff? You think, like, they'll be sprinkled on me like fairy dust. But actually finding an idea to make your work about is a job.

ABUMRAD: Somewhere along the way, Robert Krulwich, he heard what was happening, he was like, let me come and play.

KRULWICH: When he first showed this stuff to me, I thought, wow, that's way thought, whoa.

ABUMRAD: And so we would just experiment really early in the mornings, really late at night. And that's kind of how it went for a while, you know, he and I just kind of messing around, trying to fill these gaps.

Somewhere along the way, this station decided it was worth paying attention to it, but it existed for a long time in this state of like benign neglect.

KRULWICH: The program begins with a particular 30, maybe 15-second bit of noise.




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: From New York Public Radio. WNYC.

KRULWICH: Music has a strange noise and things like that, but I knew I liked it. It's porous.

ABUMRAD: Right now the story we're telling is that you're born pure and somehow you get populated slowly with bacteria.

There is an odd couple aspect to this. You know, like he's 25 years older than me. We have very different styles. The despairing mouse went globally, blah, blah, blah.

KRULWICH: He's insane. I'll say to Jad, you're an idiot. I say it all the time, or he to me. That's what friends do.

ABUMRAD: He's the kind of person that has to make you laugh every five minutes.

He's the most brilliant guy I've ever known. I start to get kind of crazy in the story telling, and he's like, do you really know that? I'm like, yes, you're right.

Let's go report that, but they're actually deeply you in that they determine who you are moment to moment, in some sense.

KRULWICH: That's, I think, his secret, that he's got an open heart.

ABUMRAD: The movie "Seven" comes to mind, Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt. I'm more the Brad Pitt and he's more like the wise guy.

GLASS: I think they feel like they come off like they're always sparring, but as a listener, I don't really hear that.

ABUMRAD: When you come over and hear us edit the show and you'll hear some crazy duels.

GLASS: They're crazy if they think that we have any idea like they're fighting or disagreeing or anything. They have no idea what they're talking about.

KRULWICH: You know, this is not a happy mouse.

ABUMRAD: Winning the Peabody was great, but the genius thing was totally trippy.



(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) GLASS: The genius award goes to people who invent something with a brand-new aesthetic, and I believe he thoroughly did that.

ABUMRAD: It seemed like one of those Nigerian scams. It didn't have a subject line. Like, who sends an e-mail without a subject line. I checked the "to" and it sounded like a legit thing. I finally connect with this guy, I'm at Laguardia.

And he tells me, have you heard of the fellowship so-called genius grant. I was like, yes, I have heard of those. I'm like, maybe 1 percent of me is thinking, maybe, maybe.

GLASS: He invented a new way to think about the oldest broadcast medium. You don't see a lot of people lining up to reinvent radio.

ABUMRAD: He then asks me, do you know anybody who has won this before?

KRULWICH: He can appreciate noise, silence, loud, with soft, melody, beat.

ABUMRAD: OK, think, think, think, think. No. I don't know anyone. His name starts with an "A."

KRULWICH: And he's turned words into his musical notes.

ABUMRAD: ABU -- and that was, I was like, get the "f" out! Are you serious? I think I kind of shouted at that point.

KRULWICH: He's like the Gershwin of journalism. I don't know. It's just a very amazing thing. And if they want to call that genius, I think that they should.

ABUMRAD: Where do we go with this? That's the question we're all asking ourselves right now. I think we're just going to find as many cool people as we can to collaborate with.

Recently, we went on tour with a show with the dance theatre troupe. The comedian Demitry Robin with this unbelievable singer/song writer Tao Nguyen.

That's where I feel like we need to be going. How can we broaden this? This is the kind of stuff you don't get in a regular Radiolab episode.

I don't feel like we're making art. We're trying to communicate something. I can futz around with sounds all I want to, but the goal is to communicate a story and have it be undeniable.

The artistry in all of that has to be quiet in some sense. It can't overpower the story. You've got these things, and for a long time in radio, they were in these little containers.

I want to blow up the containers. I really want to invite a whole new generation of people to come do this. And to mess it up in the way that we messed it up, and take it in new directions that we wouldn't ever think about. The movement between his generation mine is what I hope happens between my generation and the next.


GUPTA: Pitman and Radiolab's layered soundscape is this blueprint for a new generation of story tellers. And that blueprint is also redefining radio. That's what earns Jad a spot on THE NEXT LIST.

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