The Terrors & Occasional Virtues of Not Knowing What You’re Doing
Anyone who knows me knows that much of the time, I have very little idea what the hell I’m doing. Sometimes by design, sometimes not. Choosing that character flaw as my topic was the only way I could get comfortable with the idea of writing a manifesto.
A bit of background…
The MacArthur foundation recently made a terrible mistake and awarded me a fellowship, a so-called “genius” grant. It’s a wonderful honor that comes with many benefits but also a small curse, which is that people suddenly expect you to be smarter than you are. To talk like a genius.
And I now get this question constantly: how did Radiolab happen? How did you guys come up with this idea? The questions have an edge to them, as in: don’t just tell me a story, gimme something I can use.
So I’ve noticed within myself this intense gravitational pull to bullshit. To pop-out a neat and tidy Radiolab Origin Story that’s filled with useful lessons.
As far as problems go, this isn’t a big one.
But it’s gotten me thinking: how did Radiolab actually happen? Or more generally, how does any new idea ACTUALLY come in to the world? What is it ACTUALLY like to make a “show” that’s NOT trying to be like other shows?
In an industry that innovates at the pace of geologic time, this seems like an important conversation to have. I hope this essay will start a conversation.
1. So how did Radiolab actually happen?
I’ve gotten so good at bullshitting answers that I figured I should do some actual reporting.
First, I called up Mikel Ellcessor, the general manager at WDET. Back in 2002, Mikel was WNYC’s program director. And one day, in March of that year, Mikel calls me into his office and the conversation goes something like this…
MIKEL: I wanna do something interesting on Sunday nights on our AM frequency. You interested in producing it?
ME: Sure. What do you have in mind?
MIKEL: I don’t know. Just make it different.
Two days before launch, it occurs to me to ask:
ME: Who’s hosting this?
MIKEL (after a long pause): Um…you.
So anyhow, roughly 9 years after that conversation, I called up Mikel to remind myself what actually happened next, and he said two words to me that completely shaped what I want to write about.
ME: So, what do you remember about the beginning?
MIKEL: What do you mean? Like how we got it on the air?
ME: Well, about…about…like if you step back from the particulars and you think broadly about that time. What sticks in your mind the most?
MIKEL: Gut churn.
ME: Gut churn.
MIKEL: Like years and years of being sick to my stomach.
ME: Yeah, yeah. Totally.
(Note from Jad: Early on, Mikel barely had enough money in his budget to pay me. There were times when he couldn’t. And he was often told to pull the plug.)
MIKEL: I remember sitting at my desk for long stretches of time just kind of rubbing my head. And pushing on my temples, because it, my head just hurt.
MIKEL: Because I couldn’t find a way to describe what we were doing with it in a way that anybody could call sort of rational or linear. And I, I really love the creative experience and I wanted to create as much room for you for that as possible. But I knew that someday, somebody was gonna ask us what was going on? What’s the long-term plan for this and how are we gonna pay for it? And it was a long time before we were able to answer those questions. So, in that big in-between space was where all that gut churn was, cause you just had to sit with it.
Ever since that conversation, I’ve been thinking non-stop about that phrase “gut churn.”
And I began to wonder, as a group, do we talk enough about gut churn? About the deep gastrointestinal discomfort involved in doing what we do?
So here are a few ways to think about it.
Physiologically, Gut Churn is an ancient response to being hunted.
Back when tigers chased our mammalian ancestors across the savannah, our body had to evolve ways to help us escape. One of its best tricks was, in times of crisis, to shut down everything that is non-essential to running. Here’s biologist Robert Sapolsky:
SAPOLSKY: Right now, this is no time to digest breakfast. You shut down digestion; you shut down growth. You void your bowels. You void your bladder as well. Get rid of the dead weight. That’s why people are executed in diapers typically.
So in other words, the gut churn Mikel is describing is his stomach ceasing to operate. It’s his body essentially saying, “Forget digestion, right? WE HAVE TO RUN FOR OUR LIVES!”
MIKEL: Yeah, you do start to ask, are we gonna survive this? That’s the existential question, whether people acknowledge it or not.
MIKEL: Is will I survive?
So somehow early Radiolab created gut churn, which is actually a fear of death.
Sounds dramatic, but then it occurred to me, he’s right.
For some reason, at the beginning, every decision DID feel like life or death. Like I would literally die if a story didn’t work. There was a kind of existential dread that hung over the entire endeavor, even though we were just making a radio show…heard…by no one.
In fact – I find this fascinating – every night, WNYC drops the power on its AM frequency because AM radio waves tend to travel long distances, bouncing off the horizon and interfering with radio stations in Dallas and Canada. So WNYC lowers the power of the AM signal every night to such an extent that unless you were literally standing directly in front of the transmitter, you couldn’t even tune in the show.
So anyhow, I can’t exactly explain the existential dread except to say two things.
A) I don’t think it’s that unusual. I smell it on a lot of people I work with.
B) The dread might be the cost of freedom.
Kierkegaard talked about it this way: a man stands on the edge of a cliff and looks down at all the possibilities of his life. He reflects on all the things he could become. He knows he has to jump (i.e. make a choice). But he also knows that if he jumps, he’ll have to live within the boundaries of that one choice. So the man feels exhilaration but also an intense dread, what Kgard called “the dizziness of freedom.”
So gut churn is double edged. It’s impending death but it’s also the thing we all want: profound freedom.
Anyhow, my own dizziness/churn began the moment Mikel told me I’d have to host this thing. The word “host” unleashed a hornet’s nest of questions.
What kind of host should I be?
Am I a journalist? So should I be formal?
How personal is too personal?
What stories are my stories?
What music is my music?
In other words:
Who am I?
It’s a funny thing, how the microphone poses that question.
So I spent the first year trying to untangle these questions.
I used to talk about this period as a time of “benign neglect,” when WNYC was kind enough to leave me alone to suck (because that’s what I needed, a space to be bad without anyone listening). But the conversation with Mikel cured me of this fiction. It wasn’t benign. There was genuine terror involved.
The show was originally designed to be a “documentary showcase.” Every week, I had to fill 3 hours without any money to pay for stories. On a good week, Jay Allison would lend me some of his old work. On a bad week, I’d have to fill a twenty-minute hole with this…
20 minutes of footsteps.
Makes me want to stick a rusty fork in my eye. Sorry audio nerds.
Anyhow. Here’s an early stunt.
We asked listeners to call our voicemail and scream, and then we invited Gregory Whitehead to analyze each scream like he was some kind of doctor.
Point is, I was just making it up.
The idea that this program could be its own thing literally did not feel like a possibility for over a year. And it happened in tiny moments that I could have never predicted.
For example, one night, in 2003, Ellen Horne and I stayed up till dawn, playing around with the sound of radio static. By morning we’d made twenty of these little 30 second program ID’s…
I cannot tell you WHY that collection of noises was important. But it was the first thing I’d heard that I was like…hey, that’s not bad. I think I might hear myself in there somewhere.
It was like being lost in the dark and then an arrow appears. A pointing arrow; placed there by your future self, that says, “Follow me.”
[On pointing arrows: My own philosophy on storytelling is that people don't want to be told how to feel but they do want to be told what to pay attention to. One of the most basic ways to do this when you're telling a story is to use what's sometimes called a "pointing arrow," or signposting. Right before something happens, drop in a little phrase like..."and that's the moment when everything changed"...or..." and that's when things got interesting." Those phrases are like little arrows that tell the listeners: pay attention to what's about to happen because it's important. (We use these mercilessly in Radiolab, too much perhaps). Anyhow. I felt like as I was living inside the story I'm telling you now, I'd periodically bump into these pointing arrows, but I could never predict when they'd appear or where they'd lead.]
Fast forward six months, another pointing arrow appears.
I’m having breakfast with a guy named Robert Krulwich…
(We’d met randomly, long story.)
…and Robert and I are talking about memory. I tell him about an interview I’d just done with a memory scientist where I’d learned a cool fact: that every time you remember a memory, that memory changes. It is transformed by your current mood and then is restored as an entirely new memory.
He agrees that this is cool. I then tell him the problem. The tape with the scientist is deadly. Like, fall-asleep-ten seconds-in-deadly. So I can’t use it.
Robert says, “Not so fast, I have an idea.”
A day later, we’re in the studio and he’s riffing a scenario about a rabbit in a garden. We decide to merge the rabbit with the boring scientist.
So Ellen and I stay up all night again doing just that, throwing in a little sound design along the way. This is the result.
As clumsy at it sounds to me now, a few days later, when I heard that on the air, I was like oh damn!…that’s kinda interesting, how all those layers of adjacent conversations bleed into one another. We hadn’t really planned to do it like that. But there it was, another big fat pointing arrow.
So I thought, follow it.
My point in all of this is that when I look back, we didn’t plan Radiolab.
It was not a conductive process, with two guys standing on pedestals waving it all into being. It was an inductive process.
So if Radiolab is actually what Ira says it is – “a new aesthetic in public radio” (god bless Ira) – and if Radiolab really does represent some kind of change…all I can say, based on my own experience, is that change isn’t something that can be planned. It’s something that can only be recognized.
2. So how do you recognize change?
Two things to say on this…
A) Get comfortable with the idea that you won’t know what’s good until it’s already happened.
Not to say you shouldn’t make plans. You should. But if your real aim is to be surprised, plans only get you so far.
And so now, at Radiolab, our process contains an irritating but vital amount of “recognition time.”
We decide on an experiment, try not to overthink it, then do it. Quickly. Then we tear it apart. What worked? What didn’t?
(Actually, in the end, who cares what didn’t work. Most things don’t work. Better to ask, what can I carry forward?)
These meetings often involve sheets like this:
Maxi Jackson was the poster of this note. And I think he was making a point about proximity, that most journalists in public radio unconsciously assume a certain amount of distance between themselves and their audience. Maybe it’s four feet for one reporter, 20 feet for another, all the way across the street for a third.
This note reminds me to obliterate that distance, to make every story a road-trip, an act of co-discovery.
It’s just one of those things: you don’t understand what you’re doing until someone gives it a name.
I don’t remember who posted this or the context. But this speaks to me now about the limits of explanation. There’s a grand-canyon sized gulf between explanation and experience.
So why EXPLAIN a dolphin to you when I can EMBODY a dolphin’s point of view?
“So imagine, you’re this dolphin, you’re swimming along, the water is rough, chasing a porpoise.”
(Hardcore scientists hate this kind of language. For very sensible reasons. But they’re not my clients.)
The second thing that occurs to me is…
B) …you have to selectively tune out listeners. The “how dare you” instinct is strong in public radio listeners, and you just have to ignore it.
In 2004, after we’d bumped in to a few pointing arrows, Robert, Ellen and I had something we were proud of. And WNYC finally agreed to put us on the FM frequency in place of…drumroll please…Fresh Air. For an entire week.
We thought we had arrived.
But here’s a tiny dab of the feedback we received.
These are obviously reenactments. But they’re drawn from an XL spreadsheet of real listener reactions compiled by WNYC’s listener services department.
When I first read that spreadsheet, it knocked me on my ass.
But then Dean Cappello, WNYC’s creative director, told me something that will forever be seared in my brain.
He said: All those people yelling at you? That just means you’re on the right track; that you’re doing your job.
If you think about it, that’s a pretty radical thing to say. He’s basically defining his job description to include the task of periodically alienating his audience.
But Dean has a point. Every public radio show is driven by curiosity and new ideas. Our listeners are geared for newness. They’re addicted to newness. They crave it like crack. So NOT giving them new voices, not giving them new styles is letting them down. It’s like being in a relationship with someone you love but you stop dressing up for them. You show up to your dinner date in sweatpants.
Just to bounce to the present…I’m gonna ask a new question.
3. What now?
Now that Radiolab is nine years old, and now that we’ve found an audience, a strange thing has happened. (Notice the pointing arrow phrase.)
There’s now a pressure to NOT do the very thing that got us here – not experiment, not play with forms, not take risks.
If I could identify my one constant source of gut churn right now, it’s this: how do I keep the quality high but NOT repeat myself?
It’s way, way easier to keep the quality high if you choose to solve the same old problems over and over. But if you do that, you risk becoming a caricature of yourself.
So what do you do?
If you’re Stefan Sagmeister…
…the famous designer…
you say to yourself, every seven years, I will take a year off, I will travel to some random spot on the globe and throw myself into some new art form (like Indonesian basket-weaving). And even if president Obama himself calls (and he did), I will turn him down (and Stefan did).
I love this approach. He’s forcefully engineered inspiration into his creative life. Problem is, who can afford to pick up and leave for a year?
So I asked myself, is there a more modest way to do what Stefan is doing?
A brief digression: I recently ran across a novel way to think about this question. In evolutionary theory, there’s a concept called the “adjacent possible,” coined by scientist Stuart Kauffman.
The “adjacent possible” refers to the change that’s available to you — i.e. adjacent, next door – versus the change that’s not.
For instance, in the primordial soup that created life, you had ammonia, methane, water and a few amino acids. You can’t take those ingredients, put ‘em in a bowl and suddenly whip up a sunflower. A sunflower is not part of the “adjacent possible.”
But with those ingredients, you CAN whip up a cell, and cell opens up new possibilities. Here’s Steven Johnson, in his excellent book, Where Good Ideas Come From:
“[With these basic ingredients]…fatty acids will naturally self-organize into spheres lined with a dual layer of molecules, very similar to the membranes that define the boundaries of modern cells. Once the fatty acids combine to form those bounded spheres, a new wing of the adjacent possible opens up, because those molecules implicitly create a fundamental division between the inside and outside of the sphere. This division is the very essence of a cell. Once you have an ‘inside, you can put things there: food, organelles, genetic code.”
I like Steven Johnson’s phrase “a new wing of the adjacent possible opens up.” The adjacent possible of today opens up the adjacent possible of tomorrow, and the adjacent possible of the day after and on and on until you end up with a sunflower.
So back to my question, which I’ll now re-phrase: what’s Radiolab‘s adjacent possible?
(I like asking the question this way, because it captures both the potential and limitations of change.)
Here are a few things we’re trying.
A) We’ve decided to widen the subjects we cover.
We’ve done science and philosophy. What about sports, counter terrorism, music? If you judge by the comments on our website, the results are mixed.
God I hate when you talk about music – Alex, Jun. 19, 2012
First, I am a huge fan of Radiolab in general. However . . .
1.) You guys are not Click and Clack. Stop giggling and guffawing at every opportunity. It gets old.
2.) Please please please more science. This episode on games was entertaining, but should have been punted to This American Life -Seth Bowden from Washington, D.C., Aug. 25, 2011
Too bad, punks.
B) We’ve decided that the best way to reimagine yourself is to collaborate promiscuously.
Speaking of adjacent spaces, in the last five or six years, Al Gore’s internet has made it very easy to play with people right outside your borders. This kind of play can be a form of travel.
We just hosted a remix contest.
We just collaborated with 60 plus bands on a Covers of the Rainbow project.
And on several occasions, we’ve handed our episodes to independent filmmakers.
Here’s one of our first video experiments, produced by a guy named Will Hoffman, who went on to create Everynone with Dan Mercadente and Julius Hoffman.
Will created this video in conjunction with an episode we produced about the moment of death.
We paid Will two grand for that video. I find it one of the most inspiring things we’ve done in the last few years. Not to mention that it’s closing in on 2 million views.
With the reputation we’ve won over the last 40 years, I think public radio is in a situation now where if we simply say hello to the people living in some of these adjacent spaces, they’ll wanna play us. And in the play, maybe they’ll show us a new way to be.
C) We decided that the ultimate experiment might be to take this show, which is so heavily edited that our sessions often look this…
…and we decided to make it a stage show.
This was a huge technical challenge, but thanks to Ira, we knew it could be done.
But let me close with a little story…
We end our first tour show in Seattle, in front of 2,000 people, by far the biggest house we’ve ever played to that point. We get on stage and I shoot this video of this little video of the audience…
For a moment, Robert and I feel like we’d entered Mount Olympus.
But then I look at my laptop and it’s completely dead. Not a flicker of electricity anywhere in it. Sometime between rehearsal and performance, it had given up the ghost. And we have no backup.
There’s a pause. Robert looks at me and says, “Just play the thing. The program ID.” I look at him and say, “I can’t play it.” Pause. Then I see his eyes register what’s happening, and I’ve never felt such crippling fear. My digestion completely stopped. My cells stopped growing.
For 20 minutes, Robert and I literally drifted through space…
Like two free-floating particles.
So there’s a question of what to do with a moment like that, what to do with the gut churn and the existential dread that is inevitable when you find yourself way outside your comfort zone.
Milton Erickson, the great psychologist, had this idea that you can reframe anything. You can take the worst feeling in the world and “reframe” it so that that terrible feeling becomes its own solution.
And I think about moments like that now, and I think, I can either run from that feeling, we as a community can either run from that feeling, or we can run TO that feeling. We can treat that feeling as an arrow that we need to follow.
Like, OK, I’m about to vomit, my stomach is about to leap out of my mouth…but maybe that just means I’m on the right track. Maybe that just means I’m doing my job.
About Jad Abumrad
Jad Abumrad is the host and creator of the cult-sensation Radiolab, which reaches 2.5 million people per month. He’s been called a “master of the radio craft” for his unique ability to combine cutting edge sound-design, cinematic storytelling and a personal approach to explaining complex topics, from the stochasticity of tumor cells to the mathematics of morality. Jad studied creative writing and music composition at Oberlin College in Ohio. He composes much of the music for Radiolab, and in the past has composed music for film, theater and dance. He’s currently co-producing a toddler and an infant. In 2011, Radiolab received a Peabody Award, the highest honor in broadcasting.