Robert Krulwich retired as co-host of Radiolab Friday, signing off from a marquee public radio program that redefined explanatory journalism with sound-rich, smart storytelling.
For the 72-year-old broadcast news legend, retirement means moving on to a slew of eclectic and ambitious projects that will apply his talents to complex topics in new mediums.
Krulwich’s future collaborators include science photographer Anand Varma, a friend who is raising jellyfish in his backyard; Barnaby Dixon, a British puppeteer with close to a million YouTube subscribers; documentary filmmaker Ric Burns; and Harvard researcher Kevin Burke. The venues for these and other upcoming Krulwich media productions range from CBS Newsto a podcast administered by a museum.
“At Radiolab there was a constant experimenting in form and content and style,” Krulwich told Current. “Before I drop into the ground, I’d like to do a couple more of those if I could.”
Krulwich joined Radiolab as co-host in 2005, three years after Jad Abumrad created the show at WNYC in New York City. Its explorations of strange phenomena in the natural world have won legions of young listeners, making it one of public radio’s most popular podcasts. Paired with Abumrad’s hyper sound design, Krulwich’s great curiosity sculpted what Ira Glass of This American Life called a new aesthetic for the medium of radio. The co-hosts had a natural chemistry that exuded both skepticism and delight in probing scientific mysteries.
Throughout his 45-year journalism career, Krulwich has wowed colleagues, friends and audiences by his arguably peerless ability to explain complex issues in an entertaining manner. He got his start by laying out for listeners what it meant for Richard Nixon to be impeached.
In the summer of 1974, just a couple of months after graduating from law school, Krulwich recorded a bunch of questions and answers about impeachment on a cassette. He sent it to WBAI-FM, the Pacifica outlet in New York that he grew up listening to. It was a parody of Superman with a protagonist called Impeachment Man. Krulwich voiced all the characters in the homemade production, including a narrator who was obviously based on the sportscaster Howard Cosell. Nick Egleson, then WBAI’s public affairs director, heard the tape and was so impressed he asked Krulwich to bring his team into the station.
“It appeared to be this troupe of actors,” Egleson recently recalled. “I was stunned it was only him.”
Krulwich landed a job as a reporter in Pacifica’s Washington bureau. After a couple of years in the capital, he took a job as Washington bureau chief for Rolling Stone magazine. In 1976 Krulwich joined the network then known as National Public Radio, where he served as managing editor. After he “demoted” himself to reporter, Krulwich served as NPR’s business and economics correspondent from 1978 until 1985, when he moved to network television.
For those of us who were fortunate enough to work around Krulwich at NPR’s New York bureau, it often felt that he was just on a different plane. And he was so damn entertaining, I couldn’t help feeling that he should be in show business. As one of the so-called “full-time freelancers” at NPR for most of the 1980s, I had a desk in the bureau and used its recording facilities to produce my stories.
I remember an elevator ride with Krulwich from the seventh floor to the lobby. On the minute-long descent, he impersonated the voices of all three Kennedy brothers.
One day in the bureau’s reception area, I watched Krulwich as he left a phone message for his wife Tamar Lewin, who worked at the New York Times. He spoke in an East European accent and left a phony name.
But here’s a shocker: Despite his ability to craft thoroughly entertaining radio stories, Krulwich told me that taking to the stage has never been an option for him because of his learning disability. He can’t memorize lines.
“The possibility of being in theater is really not available to me,” Krulwich said, adding that he was cast as a dead guy in a college play.
The inability to memorize hasn’t stopped Krulwich from performing. After he joined CBS News in 1985, Krulwich was part of an improv group created for Connie Chung’s show. Its members included Jane Curtin, Buck Henry, Tony Hendra and Bob Elliot of Bob & Ray radio comedy fame. The group recorded five or six bits, including one in which First Lady Nancy Reagan was smothered by her fur coat. But they never aired, according to Krulwich. Then, at the suggestion of the comedy writer Herb Sargent, Krulwich offered the troupe’s improv services to NPR, which aired the ensemble’s annual semi-fictional year-in-review as a program called Backfire. The troupe performed at the Clinton White House in 1995.
‘Is it a job or is it play?’
A list of Krulwich’s friends past and present ranges from the super-famous to the totally obscure. Making new friends seems to be one of the great joys of his life. Now in retirement, new and longtime friends are among his collaborators.
“I have friends who are up to mischievous things, and sometimes it’s fun just to see what they’re up to,” Krulwich said. “Is it a job or is it play? You never know what’s going to happen.”
Krulwich described the younger content producers he’s working with post-Radiolab as “my new mafia.”
“The thing is to get to them before they get too famous,” said Krulwich.
One is Barnaby Dixon, a 29-year-old British puppeteer who makes small hand puppets with extraordinary biomechanical movement controlled by his fingers. Most of Dixon’s homemade puppets — they’re not marionettes — are intricate animal creatures.
“Barnaby Dixon is peculiarly good at storytelling and singing and dancing and entertaining,” Krulwich said. “And he’s peculiarly smart, so I figure one more trick and he’ll be doing science journalism.”
With 850,000 YouTube subscribers, Dixon makes most of his living from advertising revenue generated by his audience.
Krulwich met Dixon in November 2018 at ThinkerCon, a gathering of YouTube producers and other online content creators that took place in Huntsville, Ala. A fan of Dixon’s work, Krulwich learned that the puppeteer had savored listening to Radiolab while working with painstaking care on his stop-motion animation projects.
“In a matter of minutes after meeting, we decided to do an impromptu interview/demonstration on the first day of ThinkerCon,” recalled Dixon.
Krulwich, Dixon and a bug puppet made their way around the huge school lunchroom where ThinkerCon took place, bantering with each other as the bug puppet danced on the shoulders and faces of attendees.
“He gets them in the same way I get them,” Dixon said, referring to Krulwich and his puppets. “He sees the potential for what can be done.”
Krulwich said he and Dixon will collaborate on a piece for CBS’ Sunday Morning explaining why astronauts who fall on the moon tend to fall on their faces.
“I’ll take Robert Krulwich any way we can get him,” said Rand Morrison, EP of Sunday Morning. “He has a standing invitation to do work for us any time he wants. He’s a remarkable storyteller.”
Inherent in Krulwich’s mastery of telling stories is his talent for coaxing them out of people he meets, according to filmmaker Ric Burns, who has known Krulwich for 20 years. This skill, Burns said, is something Krulwich had in common with the late Dr. Oliver Sacks, the subject of Burns’ 2019documentary, Oliver Sacks: His Own Life. Krulwich and Sacks became close friends after Lawrence Weschler, a writer for the New Yorker, introduced them in the 1980s.
“Sacks, like Krulwich, had the extraordinary ability to get people to trust him” and tell him things, Burns said. Burns described it as “an extraordinary capacity for empathy. That was a major bond between the two of them, the capacity for empathy.”
Burns interviewed Krulwich for his documentary, and the director credits him for providing valuable input during editing of the film. (Burns’ Steeplechase Films completed Oliver Sacks: His Own Life as a project of Vulcan Productions. PBS American Masters will present its broadcast premierein 2021.)
“I don’t think there’s anything he’s not curious about,” Burns said of Krulwich. “He’s kind of strolling down the boulevard of life … with his eyes wide open and just going, ‘Oh, my God, look at that.’”
Burns and Krulwich plan to co-produce another documentary, The Hard Problem. Mining footage of the scientists interviewed for the Oliver Sacks film, Burns and Krulwich will tackle the topic of consciousness. Burns plans to shoot another dozen or so interviews for the film, which he referred to as “halfway done but in its infancy.” Krulwich will be on camera, he said.
Both Burns and Krulwich concede the documentary will be a challenge.
“It’s not going to be like any Burns project,” said Krulwich. “It’s not going to be heavily narrated. To do a film where you don’t have any idea of what to put on the screen with a guy who’s quite accomplished at putting other things on the screen, but nothing like this … is a kind of fun thing to try.”
“A film on consciousness,” Burns remarked. “How preposterous!” Tackling such anamorphous topic is a quixotic effort, he said — “hence, Robert Krulwich.”
“I think he’s the master of the invisible,” Burns said. “Krulwich is someone who’s really trying to understand what things mean, how people feel about them, what they understand to be the case.”
Burns doesn’t have funding for The Hard Problem yet but vowed to “go grab some people by the ankles and hold them upside down until some money falls out of their pockets.”
Collaborating ‘in the spirit of friendship’
Krulwich’s other upcoming collaborations include a project on Varma’s study of jellyfish, whichcould end up on stage or as a digital video, and a new podcast focused on coming-of-age stories.
The collaboration with Varma has been incubating for nearly five years. Krulwich regards the 33-year-old freelancer for National Geographic as “a real wizard.” The pair met in 2015 at the Radiolab office, when Varma was visiting a friend who directs research for the show.
Krulwich said he has been thinking for years about ways to talk about Varma’s pictures.
Varma, who is based in Berkeley, Calif., is currently on a storytelling fellowship from the National Geographic Society. He is raising jellyfish in aquariums and other containers in his backyard. The project is a study of how they deal with stress and regenerate after injury.
“Robert is the greatest science storyteller that I know of today, and I hope to learn how to tell stories about the natural world by working with him,” said Varma.
Much closer to Krulwich’s home in Manhattan, next-door neighbor Kevin Burke is working on the podcast Your Hometown, which explores how the place and the time that an individual grows up shapes them as a human being.
Burke is director of research at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard and no stranger to storytelling. He serves as senior story producer on Finding Your Roots, the popular PBS series from Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Your Hometown is funded by a number of foundations, including the New York–based J.M. Kaplan Fund. Through a series of live events and private recordings planned this spring and summer at the Museum of the City of New York, Burke will gather material for 10 episodes on prominent people who grew up in the city.
The collaboration started from neighborly chats between Burke and Krulwich as they sat on a bench near their homes, Burke said. Krulwich offered to listen to Burke’s interviews.
Burke regards the feedback from a radio storyteller with “genius ears” as invaluable. More importantly, he said it gave him faith in himself as a first-time podcast producer.
“Robert was critical in just giving me the confidence to jump off the diving board,” Burke said. “It’s not like I looked him up and said, ‘Hey, this guy could really be a big help. Let me see if I can get a meeting with him.’ It happened organically. It happened in the spirit of a new friendship. And that is what makes it special.”
In another project, Krulwich and three friends will tackle climate change. “I’m not doing this for anybody yet, and I don’t know the form this is going to take,” he said. “We’ll just go find someplace to put it.”
The climate change venture includes a web-based interactive calculator that allows visitors toplug in their birth date and learn how much fossil fuel has been burned since their birth.
“I was kind of amazed that if you were born in 1990 or 1997, more than half of all the coal, oil and natural gas that’s ever been burned has been burned since you were born,” Krulwich remarked, in one of the many detours that conversations with him inevitably take.
One partner in this project is Aatish Bhatia, a physicist and science educator with whom Krulwich has been co-writing video scripts. Another is the Brooklyn-based animator Nate Milton, whosefilm Eli premiered Jan. 24 at the Sundance Film Festival.
“We’ve been trying to figure out something to work on together for a couple years,” said Milton, who went to ThinkerCon with Krulwich in 2018. “I think we’re going to Brown [University] to talk to a class there.
“I have no idea why we’re going, I just say ‘Yes,’” Milton said. “It’s like hanging out with Forrest Gump.”