Jad Abumrad on the Evolution of Radiolab

Fourteen years ago, Jad Abumrad started Radiolab – a heavily sound-scaped, intricately edited radio show that went on to become one of podcasting's first success stories, with an audience numbering in the millions. How did he do it? Ahead of his appearance at the Wheeler Centre later this month, Melissa Cranenburgh asked the podcast veteran his thoughts on Radiolab's evolution, making music with words, his countless podcast progeny and that moment when he realised that a lot of people were actually listening.

Photograph of Jad Abumrad with co-host Robert Krulwich

Photo: Jared Kelly (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Jad Abumrad on what you can do when nobody's listening:

We started on the radio back in 2002. At that point, podcasting wasn’t even a thing. You just put stuff out on the radio and it disappeared. And so it really didn’t make any sense at that point why we would spend so much time making these carefully crafted, sound-rich documentaries … I don’t know, we just kinda wanted to, you know?

And the station which is our home, WNYC, just took a bet. They were like, 'We don’t really know what to do with this thing', you know? 'It’s a little too highly produced for radio, there’s too few of them for radio'. But they just took a bet and they just let us sort of slowly evolve. Mostly on our own. Like, not a lot of people listening.

 … On what the hell he was thinking:

The work is really fun. I mean, of course I would always feel sorry for myself: Why isn’t anyone listening? What’s wrong? But honestly, that was always secondary to whatever story it was that we were producing. There was something just really joyous in the act of trying to solve these problems.

Where do we put the noises? How do we make it crescendo in just the right way? And, I don’t know, those [kinds of] problems … the problems of the materials, in a sense. You know when you hear sculptors talk about trying to get this epoxy resin substance to work with this other substance? At the end of the day, that’s what keeps them going. Little problems embedded in the materials they work with. I feel like that’s always been the case for me.

 … On being a failed musician:

Now what I really enjoy is the sort of tug-of-war between the journalism, the storytelling and the craft.

I started very much as a musician. But … as a failed musician. I was trying to write music for films and it wasn’t working. And I was attracted to broadcasting because there’s an immediacy to it. The words of the story dictate everything. The order in which they go, the way you deliver them, everything else follows from that. 

I’ve just sort of learnt broadcasting. I’ve learnt journalism. Now what I really enjoy is the sort of tug-of-war between the journalism, the storytelling and the craft. And the music. There are times when … I want the music extremely sparse. That really focuses your attention on the words and the information. And there are times when I really want the music to take over. But I know the story doesn’t want that. And so the story is trying to pull me in one direction. And my musical instincts are going in a different direction. The show kind of lives in between those two spaces  ̶  where it’s not exactly music anymore and it’s not exactly journalism. It’s somehow a kind of unhappy but very satisfying alliance between those two.

… On realising this was his life:

We’ve done four tours at this point. And the second or third tour would have been 2010/11 ... That particular tour had this moment at the end of every show where we tell [a] story about an astronaut. This astronaut is at the International Space Station trying to make a repair, and he’s trapped outside in space ... And so he knows, if I don’t get inside this thing, I’m going to either asphyxiate, or I’m going to be dead, boiled inside my space suit. So it’s this really tense moment. And then he finally gets [inside] and he talks about this feeling of … gratitude that he survived. And he looks at the earth and gets a vision of his family. Just a really beautiful moment of release.

As you kind of get to be a grandpa podcaster, it’s just ... giving other people support so they can go and do their thing.

In that moment on stage, what would happen was, Rob [co-host Rob Krulwich] and I would walk to the front of the stage. And we’d sit down. And the lights would go totally dark. And … the entire audience would then light up little LED lights. These teeny little lights that we had packed before hand; we put one on every seat. So they’d all take up these lights and it would just look like a starry night. The first time we did it, I remember being like, 'Look at all these people. Look at all these little lights. Holy shit! I can’t believe this is my life. These people bought a ticket to come see us. And now they’re all part of this constellation, you know.' It was pretty amazing.

… On Radiolab’s podcast progeny:

There are a lot of people who worked for me who are now making their own shows, and some of them are amazing. Like ... the folks at Reply All. I mean Tim Howard, one of my really great producers, is now running that show and that’s a fantastic show. So good. Lulu Miller … Lulu is the first person I hired ... and, sure enough, made Invisibilia, which was a huge success.

Let’s see, who else? Pat Walters, who was a producer, just launched a show recently at Gimlet [Undone] … I don’t know that I would take credit for any of their work, but I do feel proud that they moved through our shop and are now making their own work. And I hope to continue that process ... I mean that’s kind of what it’s been about recently, as you kind of get to be a grandpa podcaster, it’s just ... giving other people support so they can go and do their thing. 

 

Portrait of Melissa Cranenburgh

Melissa Cranenburgh is a Melbourne-based writer, editor and broadcaster. She has been the acting editor and long-term associate editor of the Big Issue, as well as co-editor of its annual fiction edition. She is a regular co-host on 3RRR’s The Reading Room and her work has featured in Radio National’s Books and Arts, the Sydney Morning Herald and more.