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Invasion of the Pod People

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Photo: Jared Kelly

at Melbourne Town Hall

Radiolab, Risk and Genius: Jad Abumrad and Andrew Denton

Of Jad Abumrad and his podcast Radiolab, one colleague has confessed: ‘I marvel at Radiolab when I hear it. I feel jealous. I’m a hack in comparison. Everyone else is too.’ That colleague is This American Life creator Ira Glass, and he’s one of many who have credited Abumrad (and his co-host, NPR legend Robert Krulwich) with creating a new aesthetic for broadcast journalism.

If it seems like high praise for Abumrad, consider that Radiolab is one of the world’s most popular podcasts. Admired for its gentle explorations of big questions, the show – which was collecting listeners in their millions long before podcasting arrived at the mainstream’s door – has won many significant awards. Abumrad himself has been awarded a prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant, and his incredibly labour-intensive sound designs complement killer editorial instincts and an elegant, accessible sense of curiosity.

Yet the Lebanese-American is cautious of success and its particular ability to temper creative risk-taking. For him, deep doubt and discomfort were – are – essential parts of his trajectory; after all, he studied creative writing and music composition, and radio was never part of his plan. And on Radiolab, he’s reluctant to offer inspirational advice or prepackaged answers. ‘There’s something in the average TED talk that makes me want to hurl,’ he says. ‘For me, the entire idea is learning to love the messiness of ideas that aren’t easily digestible.’

In Melbourne for the first time, Abumrad will chat with veteran broadcaster Andrew Denton. Perhaps best known for his landmark interview show Enough Rope, Denton’s first podcast, Better Off Dead – produced in partnership with the Wheeler Centre – topped Australia’s iTunes chart, drew widespread acclaim and stirred passionate public debate about voluntary assisted dying in this country.

Hear from two of the world’s foremost storytellers as they discuss creativity, risk and the hot, curious power of the uncertain.


Portrait of Jad Abumrad

Jad Abumrad

Jad Abumrad is the host and creator of Radiolab, a public radio program broadcast on 524 stations across the US and downloaded more than 9 million times a month as a podcast. Most days, Radiolab is the second most popular podcast, just behind This American Life.

Abumrad did most of his growing up in Tennessee, before studying creative writing and music composition at Oberlin College in Ohio. Following graduation, Abumrad wrote music for films, and reported and produced documentaries for a variety of local and national public radio programs. 

In 2002, Abumrad began tinkering with an idea for a new kind of radio program, an open-ended radio 'laboratory'. Radiolab has since evolved into one of public radio’s most popular programs. Abumrad hosts the program with Robert Krulwich and also serves as its lead producer, composer and managing editor.

Alongside his radio work, Abumrad continues to work as a composer and remixer. His music is currently being performed across the country. 

Portrait of Andrew Denton

Andrew Denton

Andrew Denton is widely recognised as one of Australian media's genuinely creative forces.

Invasion of the Pod People

In the last few years, podcasts have matured into the storytelling format du jour – with a little help from a certain sensationally popular true crime serial (ahem). Yet the surge of interest and excitement around audio features and podcasts has been gaining momentum for even longer, propelled by a diversity of formats.

Take the narrative artisanship of This American Life or the sonic vivacity of Radiolab; the topical deep dives of Slate’s Culture Gabfest or Phillip Adams’s Late Night Live; the animated storytelling of The Moth or Sum of All Parts; or the intimate conversations found in Death, Sex and Money or WTF with Marc Maron. The influence of these and countless other shows can be felt in today’s most interesting podcasts (insert shameless plug for the Wheeler Centre’s own successful forays into richly-produced feature-making, including Andrew Denton’s Better Off Dead, and The Messenger, here). 

Beloved for their sense of proximity, their active listenership, portability and in some cases, ambitiously-crafted audio, podcasts have a unique ability to keep listeners in the company of their own choosing – and to render mundane tasks bearable. And since design show 99% Invisible’s record-breaking Kickstarter campaigns – podcasts have also shown promise in otherwise dim times for media businesses. What’s next for podcasting – and how could it be done better?

In celebration of all things audible, we’re bringing you some of podcasting’s best and brightest to share their thoughts and insights on the art (and business) of listening. 


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