Radiolab: An Appreciation by Ira Glass
The great thing about Ira’s analysis is that it’s so detailed. He breaks down exactly what’s so good about Radiolab and why. You could almost learn the tricks and do it yourself. Almost. Honestly, though, you’d lose. It’s better sometimes just to appreciate. –Jay A
Radiolab: An Appreciation
I marvel at Radiolab when I hear it. I feel jealous. Its co-creators Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich have digested all the storytelling and production tricks of everyone in public radio before them, invented some slick moves of their own, and ended up creating the rarest thing you can create in any medium: a new aesthetic.
Take the opening of their show on the mathematics of random chance, stochasticity. The first aesthetic choice Jad and Robert make is that they don’t say you’re about to listen to a show about math or science. They don’t use the word stochasticity. They know those things would be a serious turn off for lots of people. In doing this, Jad and Robert sidestep most of the conventions of a normal science show – hell, of most normal broadcast journalism. I think our fellow public broadcasters do lots of accidentally counterproductive things without thinking twice, things that prevent lots of people from connecting with their work. On the very fine PBS science show Nova, the narration is that chipper TV style that says: “I’m talking to you in a big official voice. I’m talking to you like a grownup who’s teaching you something.” They accidentally make it feel like school. Radiolab avoids that entirely. I love science, but never watch Nova, because of the old-fashioned aesthetics. Nova can be corny. But I never miss Radiolab.
The result of keeping mum on this particular point? Rob Walker, writing in the New York Times, admitted something I experienced myself: “I heard several episodes of Radiolab before I figured out that it was supposed to be about science. I thought the ‘lab’ part of the title referred to experimentation with the medium.”
A digression but maybe an interesting one.
Just as Radiolab rarely says it’s a science show, we made a conscious choice when we started This American Life that although it’s a documentary show, we’d never call it that, and in fact we’d avoid the word whenever possible, because “documentary” sounds like it’s going to be boring. Heavy. Not entertaining. Even I hold my breath a little before tuning in a documentary program, and I make documentaries for a living.
Another digression, this time not about me: This question of tone, of how we accidentally alienate potential listeners, is something lots of people in public radio have been talking about lately. A 2010 NPR/SmithGeiger survey of news consumers who rightly should be in the public radio audience, showed that one of the biggest reasons adults say they choose not to listen to public radio is that they’re put off by the tone. One survey respondent said: “This type of story could be interesting, but the reporter’s voice and intonation is soooo affected, upper class, wasp, Ph.D. student-like, it detracts from the story. She speaks like she is writing a novel.” Radiolab has invented a sound that won’t put off smart people who should be in our audience. Simply put: it’s a show that’s out for fun. It’s no surprise that a much younger audience loves Radiolab. It’s no surprise that a huge part of its fan base is people who don’t consider themselves public radio listeners.
Okay. Those aesthetics.
The Stochasticity episode begins with a story that Jad tells Robert, about a young woman named Laura Buxton. She was living in a little English town called Stoke-on-Trent. She took a red balloon, wrote on it “Please return to Laura Buxton” and her address. It was a windy day. She stood in her front yard, held it in the air, and let go. This information is presented quickly and cheerfully. There’s a bounce to the whole thing. Music plays behind. Jad looks at a map, as he’s talking to Laura, naming the cities the balloon passed on its flight across England. It’s visual. Do I need to explain here that part of making great radio is remembering that you always need to give the audience things to look at? The map helps you see the balloon travel across the English countryside, makes the distance palpable and not just an abstract number of miles.
When the balloon is all the way on the other side of the country, it descends and touches down in the yard of another young woman. The music exits. A second young woman appears and explains that a neighbor was about to throw it away:
Second young woman: And then he saw the label ‘please send back to Laura Buxton’ and he was like ‘Oh my god.’
There’s an irregular sort of drum hit and a low note begins underneath what’s said next.
Robert: Why? Why’d he say ‘Oh my god’?
Jad: Okay so check this out. Remember how I told you the first girl who sent the balloon was ten?
Robert sort of grunts: Yeah.
Jad: The second girl? Who received it?
Second girl: Ten years old.
Jad: SHE’S ten.
Robert (cautiously): Ooookay.
The low hum underneath their conversation is getting louder and more insistent.
Jad: No wait; there’s more.
Robert: Better be.
Jad: Remember I told you the first girl’s name was Laura Buxton.
The low drone music pokes up into the foreground a moment. A note hits.
Jad: Well … girl number two, can you introduce yourself.
Second girl: Hi. I’m Laura Buxton.
She gives a little laugh. The music comes to a dead stop on another drum hit – which echoes to silence. This all happens very quickly.
Jad: Girl number one:
First girl: I’m Laura Buxton.
Jad: Girl number two:
Second girl: I’m Laura Buxton.
Robert: They’re BOTH Laura Buxton?
Robert: Both named Laura Buxton??
A dramatic pause.
Robert: Get out!
A big violiny music sting.
Jad: You. Heard. Me. Right.
A sweet old Raymond Scott jazz tune starts bopping underneath him as he talks.
Jad: A ten-year-old girl named Laura Buxton lets go of a balloon.
Balloon sound effect.
Jad: That balloon lands …
Jad: … in the yard of another ten-year-old girl named Laura Buxton.
Robert: Is this for real?
A few notes of music melody.
Jad: I think it might be the strangest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
Second girl: It’s pretty weird.
Jad: So weird, we had to get them both into a studio.
Tinny voice with a British accent: Hello New York this is London. Can you hear me?
Second girl (talking obviously to the engineer in London): So we’re going to like –hear Americans through these?
I suppose that as much as I’m enjoying transcribing these bits and staring at how cool they look when you type them out, I should give you the link to listen to them. Here it is.
Keep in mind – however this looks on the page – it goes by very, very fast on the radio. Total duration: a minute and six seconds. That’s speedy. There’s a chattiness to it. The back and forth between Jad and Robert – in contrast to most broadcast journalism – is casual. Often it’s funny. Open to digression and disagreement and most of all: enthusiasm. All of this is part of what feels so original. You feel Jad’s excitement over how amazing this story is. There’s a sense of playfulness and discovery to the whole project. They’re having fun: unfaked, unforced, no kidding fun. That question, “So we’re going to hear Americans through these?” is such a nice touch – funny in a very understated way. What other radio show would throw in that tiny moment that’s basically the random stuff that’s said while they’re getting the other studio on the line?
What Banter’s Good For.
All this banter also helps them solve a storytelling problem that would come up for anyone trying to tell the story of the two Laura Buxtons. Consider: the entire point of this story is how completely amazingly incredible the coincidence is that both girls are named Laura Buxton (other coincidences and the mathematical likelihood of these coincidences follow). For the story to work, the listener really needs to feel the incredibleness of the coincidence. The more he or she feels that, the more punch the whole thing will have. So rather than have Jad narrate the story like any normal public radio reporter – go from script to quote to script to quote – the theater of having another co-host in there muttering at first “it better get better than this” and then exclaiming “No!” and finally “Is this for real?” sells the incredibleness way more effectively. This is a trick the Planet Money team is using all the time. Having two narrators lets them express amazement, underline what’s funny, manipulate the pacing, pause on a difficult idea and bring up opposing arguments in a very graceful way.
And the banter has an aesthetic of its own. Most journalism in our country lacks the sense of joyous discovery one gets in Radiolab. There’s none of the enthusiastic “Yes!” “No!” “Yes!” “You heard me right!” “Get outta here!”
I tend to have big pretentious, tiresome thoughts about how important that is. Real journalism – and by that I mean fact-based reporting – is getting trounced by commentary and opinion in all its forms, from Fox News to the political blogs to Jon Stewart. Everyone knows newspapers are in horrible trouble. TV news continually loses ratings. And one way we broadcast journalists can fight back and hold our audience is to sound like human beings on the air. Not know-it-all stiffs. One way the opinion guys kick our ass and appeal to an audience is that they talk like normal people, not like news robots speaking their stentorian news-speak. So I wish more broadcast journalism had such human narrators at its center. I think that would help fact-based journalism survive. But like I say, I’m kind of a nut on this subject.
To get that chatty style, Jad and Robert have invented some production techniques that are very different from what most of us use. They’ll come into the studio together with a script that’s halfway between a real script and a list of story beats they know they need to hit. For instance, here’s the script they took into the studio for that Laura Buxton story. Says Jad:
“Our studio scripts are a hybrid beast. Much of the script will be a list of loosely written plot points (kind of like a real script but a little sketchier), and those parts are meant to be improvised, but we’ll also mark some passages which have to be read word for word. Like, if we’re dealing with a passage that contains lots of technical writing, there’s no way to improvise that and get it right. But particularly the places where the story turns, or where the hosts are to take different sides of an issue, those moments are always improvised.”
They’ll ad lib their way through this so-called “script” a few times, rolling tape the whole time. Then Jad or one of the show’s producers cuts together a version. They listen to it. Then they’ll go back and re-record bits of banter, to make a quicker transition from one section to the next, or to slow down and explain some point more thoroughly, or to set up a piece of tape slightly differently. They’ll do this three or four times, jumping into the studio to make little improvements and adjusting as Jad and the other producers layer in the other production elements, the music and sound.
Thus the utterly effortless chitchat that floats you so cheerfully from plot point to character moment to scientific explanation to the next plot point is actually worked over second by second and beat by beat, over the course of weeks.
Jad, and Music.
A word about the music. Jad’s an Oberlin-trained composer so he’s always either writing the music to fit the stories on his show, the way a composer writes a film score, or he adapts other people’s music so well you can’t tell it wasn’t custom made. No other public radio show has this.
And so you end up with this super-polished production work where every note and phrase and breath is worked out to the microsecond. The timing and entrance of every little note, each of the sound effects, the quotes, the echo on the voices and music, the tinniness or bassy-ness of each element in the mix, it’s all calibrated and machined like an expensive handmade watch. No other radio show sweats the production work to that extent; it’s not even close. And all that meticulous work is in the service of something that’s the opposite of careful and meticulous: this totally chatty, happy, loose, spontaneous-sounding conversation between Jad and Robert and their interviewees.
So you have looseness set on top of a perfectly-ordered audio architecture. Dancers freestyling it on an architect’s blueprints. Okay, that metaphor’s forced, but you get the idea.
To me, this sounds very new.
Sometimes the results astound me with their complexity and deftness. I heard an episode last week – it’s the one they call “Cities” – where in four minutes (starting seven-and-a-half minutes into the show) Jad recreates a science experiment with his own listeners all over the world – Mumbai, Jerusalem, Buenos Aires, Thailand, Liberia, Oslo, Dublin, Copenhagen, Moscow. Each of the listeners lays out a string on the sidewalk in his or her city and takes a stopwatch and counts the speed of footsteps while recording audio of the footsteps. The sheer velocity of this short segment is part of the fun. We jump from person to person and city to city – plus the old 60′s tune “These Boots are Made for Walking” which is reconfigured beat by beat for this purpose – plus Jad explaining the steps of the experiment – plus the scientist who did the original research – plus, a nice touch, a computer-generated voice to read the results. All leading to this intriguing idea about how each city has its own measurable walking speed, which can be shown to exist through direct measurement. And leading to this more novelistic (or maybe it’s just more stoner-ish) thought: Who’s beating the drum? Who sets the walking speed?
It’s a crazy tour de force of radio production, all the more impressive when you think of the difficulty of organizing a dozen people all over the globe and making them get the right kind of audio, and then sifting down what must’ve been 12 or 15 hours of sound to a compelling, funny, utterly original bit of radio that only lasted four minutes. I don’t know any other radio show that would’ve been able to execute the whole thing that fast. I don’t think I could’ve. For one thing, after all that work, you usually make a much bigger deal out of the whole “We reached out to you! All over the globe!” thing. All that effort and trouble, you drag it out for way more than four minutes on the air. But that’s not how they roll on Radiolab. They invented this insanely concise, entertaining way to tell that story, and they have no problem hurtling through it quickly.
A Unique Editorial Sensibility.
The editorial vision of the show is also utterly original. What other show takes on the kinds of subjects Radiolab does? What other show would even take up the question of walking speed in different cities, much less invest dozens of hours in manufacturing an original audio experiment? (And BTW they just did a second all-over-the-globe audio inquiry like this one, about tic-tac-toe.) As Bill McKibben pointed out in the New York Review of Books about Jad and Robert: “In an almost comic attempt to make their job hard, the duo take only the most difficult subjects from science and philosophy: ‘Time,’ ‘Morality,’ ‘Memory and Forgetting,’ ‘Limits.’” Listening to Radiolab I have the unusual experience where nearly every story is something I’ve never heard of or thought about before, and the stories lead to ideas I’m utterly unfamiliar with. That’s a standard very few of us even aspire to, much less achieve.
Some memorable ones, or anyway, some of my personal favorites:
- In a show about parasites, there’s the story of an allergy-ridden guy who learns that people who don’t have proper sanitation and live with parasites in their bodies tend not to have allergies (for reasons that are explained in the show). His allergies are ruining his life, so he flies to Africa and trudges barefoot around latrines to infect himself with hookworms. Which – of course – works. Would it be a story if it didn’t? He is cured. (We later ran this one on our show.) Listen to the “Parasites” episode here.
- In the Stochasticity show, there’s the story where a math professor has some groups of students flip a coin over and over a hundred times and write down whether it’s heads or tails each time. Other groups of students are supposed to fake it: they write heads or tails a hundred times in a list without flipping a coin. True randomness is so distinct, so easy to spot if you know what to look for, that the professor is always able to spot which of the lists were generated by real coin flips. Listen to the “Stochasticity” episode here.
- There was the perfectly staged character study in the New Normal episode, about a small, conservative town, Silverton, Oregon, and how they ended up with – and embraced – the nation’s first transgender mayor. The structure of this story is something I could teach a class about. It’s amazing. If you listen, note exactly how far into the story we are before the idea shows up of anyone being transgender. I’m guessing Jad and Robert calculated that they wanted listeners to invest in the characters and the town before they made that reveal, that lots of people hear ‘transgender’ and feel either disinterest or hostility. They lay out stakes early without telling us what the story will be about – which is no mean trick. There’s also this moment that’s completely offhand and totally poetic at the same time: Jad plops his main character down in an empty movie theater and says, “Let’s sit and pretend we’re watching the movie of your life.” We hear the sound of an old movie projector, and they begin. Listen to the “New Normal” episode here.
- Another favorite: the story in an episode called “Lost and Found” about a young woman in a coma that has this amazing bait-and-switch structure where it seems like it’s about the conflict between her boyfriend and her parents but in fact comes to be about life in a coma. Things get said in that story about what it’s like to be in a coma that I’ll remember for the rest of my life, things I’m sure I’ll mull over someday when I’m actually in a coma. (“Oh no!” I’ll think in my half-dreaming, half-aware haze, “Goddamn Radiolab was right!”) In that story – and this is so rare in any radio story – some key plot twists, really stunning moments to have on tape, occur with a microphone present. So often we all have to rely on getting people to talk about those moments later, in retrospect. There’s no recording of the moment itself. When that story finished playing, the thought crossed my mind: was that the very best radio story I’ve ever heard? Listen to the “Lost and Found” episode here.
Radiolab also does a beautiful job figuring out a mix of stories that’ll move us from one idea to the next over the course of an hour. Lots of their episodes have a coherent argument to them, an argument that takes an hour and several stories to lay out. The Stochasticity show was like that for sure, and the Parasites show (where we met parasites who do creepy things and parasites who do useful things). There was an entire hour recently that took up the provocative question: from an evolutionary perspective, why would it be useful for us, or for any creature, to ever help one another? To ever be good? That’s a really hard premise for stories with ideas and emotion and strong characters and interesting plot lines. Imagine for a second having to fill that hour with stories: where would you even start? Jad and Robert take us from the family relations of a guy who invented an equation to explain why anyone would help anyone else to a man who dove in front of a subway car to save a stranger (okay, that’s sort of a normal one that you or I might’ve thought of) to the trenches of World War I, plus lots of other stuff besides. They jam a lot of the world into an hour of Radiolab. It’s a tour of way more exotic and surprising places than most radio shows.
Or take an episode they called “After Life,” which broke format in a number of ways. First, it was a lot of very brief stories, butted together semi-abruptly. Second, it included not only reports about the science of death, but short pieces of fiction. These were by David Eagleman, read by the great, morosely deadpan actor Jeffrey Tambor (Larry Sanders Show anyone? Arrested Development?). One story begins:
“There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is the moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time. So you wait in this lobby until the third death. There are long tables with coffee, tea and cookies; you can help yourself. There are people here from all over the world, and with a little effort you can strike up convivial small talk.”
The story goes on to describe life in that lobby. Jad invents this murmury soundscape for it, with music I assumed he composed himself for the purpose, it’s so perfect, but that apparently he found somewhere. The feeling the story gives is like nothing I’ve ever heard on the radio. And very different from their normal gig. That whole episode is very different from a normal hour of Radiolab, full of mournful feelings, and one of my favorite hours of radio I’ve ever heard.
Their videos are just as good, and very different from the aesthetic of the radio show or, come to think of it, any video I’ve seen any public radio show or public radio station attempt. Their Words video is a little piece of art on its own, with its own rules and aesthetics. I was stunned to learn, talking to Robert Krulwich, that none of the footage in it is found footage. It was all shot with non-actors for this video. Public radio shows and stations that are wondering how to reach all the people who don’t yet know about their programs might consider the cost and the reach of this video. It’s very cost-effective audience outreach: over 700,000 people watched the video on YouTube, and the price to make it was $4000. (Anyone who’s shot video will be stunned at how cheap that is. These were young filmmakers who’ve since moved on from that price point, though there’s an army of other young filmmakers behind them.)
What’s striking is the ambition of all this. Jad and Robert seem to be inventing their effects and techniques as they go. I’m a hack in comparison. Everyone else is too.
Robert, and DNA.
Jad Abumrad’s generation of public radio producers came of age in the last decade, after public radio was already an established national institution. Robert Krulwich is old school. If it weren’t laughable to call anyone in public radio O.G., he’d be O.G. NPR was created in 1970. Robert became a reporter there in 1976.
The amused, curious spirit that’s at the heart of the Radiolab sound, Krulwich was doing as a solo act back in 1980 on All Things Considered. He even had groundbreaking-for-the-time audio production back then. If I had more patience for searching the Internet, I bet I could find audio of the explanations of Reaganomics he did using “lab mice” (i.e. speeded up voices), or the fake opera “Rato Interesso” he staged in one news report to explain interest rates (inserting audio clips of Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan into real arias) or the story – a personal favorite – where he put all the money in the U.S. economy onto the field of a giant stadium (or anyway, he created the sound of that happening) to explain how governmental borrowing drives up interest rates for the rest of us.
When Radiolab began, I’m guessing that a lot of the reporting chops and story sensibility were Robert’s. And on lots of those early episodes it’s Robert playing the skeptical older journalist, questioning Jad, poking at premises. But over the years, that distinction has evaporated and now, in any given episode, it’s just as likely for Jad to knock down Robert’s premises. Sometimes when I listen to the show, I feel like Jad has taken all the key elements of Robert’s 1980 sensibility – the humor, the insistence on entertaining, the surprising story choices, the amused intimate interviews and the chatty narration style – and retooled them for the digital age and a completely different generation. It’s Jad’s ear and astonishing production chops that define the sound of Radiolab, but the DNA of that sound comes from Robert.
Fascinatingly, WNYC does not seem to treat Jad and Robert as their resident geniuses. WNYC likes them fine. It supported their work before anyone was noticing. And all credit to WNYC for being one of the very few public radio stations who see it as part of their mission to invest in innovative new shows like this and Studio 360 and The Takeaway. But the two guys who are rethinking and reinventing American radio don’t seem to be a big part of the station’s identity. Perhaps inevitably, it’s the daily talk show hosts (and especially the very skillful Brian Lehrer), who log so many more hours on the air, who define that. Meanwhile, around the country, public radio managers seem to appreciate the show and to understand that Jad and Robert are trying something new, but often they broadcast Radiolab at marginal times without the kind of heavy promotion that might befit the most groundbreaking, audience-friendly show of the last decade. (Though to be fair, because Radiolab is not in weekly production, it can be hard to schedule effectively.) The fact that it took the Peabody Awards committee so many years to figure out that Radiolab deserved that honor is a sign that a lot of people used to a more mainstream media sort of excellence don’t always apprehend what’s so special about Radiolab. Sometimes it seems like the only people who understand how terrific the show is, are listeners. When I meet public radio fans, and we get to talking about what programs they’re liking these days, Radiolab is the program they want to gush about.
For my part, I find it comforting that this level of excellence is so labor intensive that they only can make ten full shows a year (plus, sure, 16 “shorts” that they distribute on the Internet). If they could do an hour of this every week, I think I’d have to quit radio. What would be the point of continuing? How could anyone compete with that?