‘Radio Lab’: where Big Ideas become audio art

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Krulwich and Abumrad. (Photo: Christine Butler)

Fans of Robert Krulwich might not believe it, but the journalist says his teenaged kids would leave the room uninterested when his reports for ABC News came on TV.

And his wife? “Too often, she looks at me with pity,” he says.

Now a friend nearly half his age is helping Krulwich win over this tough audience with Radio Lab, an hourlong show from NPR and New York’s WNYC that explores big ideas in science in an accessible, even addictive style.

Krulwich, 59, says he called Jad Abumrad, his 33-year-old co-host and Radio Lab’s creator and producer, after his wife first heard the show. “She liked it!” he yelled. And his kids even wanted to hear more.

They can join a growing number of public radio listeners and programmers who are enjoying Krulwich’s knack for interviewing and telling stories in the new setting of Radio Lab. Abumrad, a composer and music buff, crafts each show as a miniature symphony of voices and sound effects in which mind-boggling concepts dance to surprising beats.

Voices interweave and overlap in rapid-fire edits, punctuated with subtle twinges, wobbles and whooshes of sound. A high-school choir imitates singing neurons. Abumrad and Krulwich keep the narrative on track despite momentary digressions that sound truly spontaneous.

The ear-catching techniques illuminate weighty topics: How does a person perceive “self”? How are music and language related? Where do ideas of right and wrong come from?

The show joins This American Lifeas one of the few in public radio with a distinct sound. At last month’s Public Radio Program Directors’ Conference, Ira Glass of TAL said that upon hearing Radio Lab, he thought, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

Playing a clip of the show for his audience at PRPD, Glass beamed with the admiration of a lovestruck schoolboy. “It’s happy,” he said. “You just feel good about life and this country when you hear it.”

Correcting the joy deficit

Like Glass’s show, Radio Lab is winning awards and a passionate fan base. Last year it received two Golden Reel awards from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. This week it takes an honor at the Third Coast International Audio Festival in Evanston, Ill.

“The program just moves forward — it almost hurtles forward — and really sweeps the listener away,” says Peter Maerz, programming and operations manager at Miami’s WLRN. “It is really great radio of a kind that has not been heard anywhere else.”

The Miami station will air Radio Lab every weekday afternoon for a week in November. Preempting The World for a week may put off some listeners, Maerz admits. But “my feeling in this case is that they’ll be pleased with what they find in its stead,” he says.

The show began at WNYC four years ago and has moved gradually to a consistent production schedule. It put out five episodes in 2005 and five this year.

Ninety-one stations are airing Radio Lab this season, scheduling it in a variety of ways — one episode a week, five a week, even all five in one day, and combinations of these approaches. Some are also airing its debut season, which WNYC first broadcast in February 2005. NPR began distributing the show last year and contributes Krulwich and other reporters from its Science Desk.

Next year NPR will offer ten episodes divided between spring and fall. Short-run seasons are uncommon in public radio, but they give the producers time to take chances, try out ideas and finesse the show’s trademark sound of layered voices, music and effects.

“The quality of what was being produced was so extraordinary that we wanted to protect it,” says Dean Cappello, WNYC’s chief creative officer and senior VP of programming. Stations have been open to carrying the show despite its unusual schedule, he says. “I think the content always trumps any other problem.”

Radio Lab’s producers have developed a set of “core values” for the show, à la PRPD’s wallet-sized card. Abumrad lists a few: Curiosity. Surprise. Joy.

“Public radio has a joy problem,” he says. “We try to have fun and play.”

Another key element, he says, is “finding a person or a character that encapsulates something universal. You learn about them and their story, but you’re also experiencing something big.”

One episode features a man who has lost what is called proprioception — the body’s sense of itself — and, along with it, the ability to control his movements. His description of how he has retrained himself for movement casts light on the connections between mind and body.

Friendship and deep fears

Abumrad created Radio Lab in 2002 after working as a producer for the station’s The Next Big Thing and freelancing for NPR, Studio 360 and On the Media. WNYC recruited him to host a three-hour documentary showcase on its AM station. The Saturday evening time slot, with its low listenership, allowed Abumrad to experiment.

“I needed that time to suck, frankly, in order to get better,” he says, and with time his segments between the documentaries began to outshine the docs themselves.

The show started to take its present form when Abumrad visited Krulwich, then working at ABC, at his office to record him for a WNYC fundraising spot. In conversation, the two discovered odd parallels between their lives — both had attended Oberlin College and had worked at WBAI, New York’s Pacifica station. And they shared an interest in the scientific discoveries and explorations that would become Radio Lab’s domain.

Their friendship grew over a series of breakfasts at diners near ABC’s headquarters. Curious about his friend’s work, Krulwich listened to Radio Lab episode about Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast.

“It wasn’t just good. It was spectacular,” Krulwich says. “What I particularly noticed was that it had a rhythm, a sense of music, that was different from what I expected or had ever heard.”

After that, “I kind of sat in his lap and wouldn’t leave,” Krulwich says.

In November 2003, the duo began experimenting in WNYC’s studios before- and after-hours. For an episode about memory, they created a 10-minute segment that crystallized the show’s mix of interviewing, editing style and partly improvised banter between the co-hosts.

“We reverse-engineered a style of making radio,” Abumrad says.

The chemistry between the co-hosts, an extension of their breakfast chats, remains at Radio Lab’s core. “The rapport between Jad and Robert is so warm and so genuine that I wish I were sitting down with them over a beer, listening, laughing and whiling away the hours,” wrote reviewer Lu Olkowski on the Public Radio Exchange.

“Getting back to that space in an airless booth is an act of theater,” Abumrad says. Their conversations are unscripted but planned and replanned many times, with coaching from the show’s senior producer, Ellen Horne.

Teaming up for Radio Lab has given Abumrad and Krulwich a chance to school each other in the art of radio. It has also pushed them to their limits. Krulwich says the risks he has taken in exploring the show’s prickly ideas have stirred up uncomfortable fears of failing and not being understood.

“I feel like someone is trying to push me naked into a cold pool, so my immediate instinct is to bite him as hard as I can somewhere where he’ll scream, so he’ll run away,” Krulwich says. “The one promise I’ve made to Jad, and I made it early, is that I would confess to him when I was scared and that he would confess to me.”

“Sometimes,” Abumrad says, “it’s nice to look at someone else and know that they’re panicking just like you are.”

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