Interviewing Jad Abumrad is truly like tuning in for a super-exclusive episode of Radiolab, the wildly popular public radio program and podcast he created and hosts. Save for the music cues that add depth to the show’s notions on science, modern life and philosophy (and sans Robert Krulwich, Abumrad’s congenial co-host), a chat with Abumrad includes his familiar voice, bouncing between inquisitive and knowing tones. He wends his way around a question in that style listeners have come to expect, one that draws you in for the answer. And, yes, there are sound effects.
For instance, Abumrad discussed the element of surprise and why it’s essential to storytelling. He’ll cover the topic more fully in a Saturday evening performance presented by Society for the Performing Arts at the Cullen Theater at the Wortham Center.
“For me, the story really starts like you’re just like an idiot asking a question, some small question and that question leads you out into the world and you’re kind of lost and you’re flailing about, but then you hit some surprise and it’s like – whooom! – the story shifts, it changes face and it expands,” he said. “And then you kind of go out into the world again and you’re lost and you’re like, what the fuck’s going on? And then – shooom! - another surprise completely changes the shape of what you’re doing and the story expands even further; but now, the place that you walk into again is a much bigger lost space until that next moment of surprise changes things.”
Sound familiar, Radiolab faithful? Abumrad started the show in 2002 as a radio “laboratory,” and concocted an enduring formula for listeners. He’s a graduate of Oberlin College and studied creative writing and music composition there and brought these backgrounds together to create a storytelling aesthetic which leans heavily on dialogue, music and interviews to create compelling broadcasts. Along with Krulwich and a team of talented producers, Abumrad has fostered something that now reflects on modern life and challenges our ideas about it. The program reaches listeners on more than 500 stations nationally and averages more than 9 million podcast downloads a month. It’s not just popular, it’s lauded, too. Radiolab is a Peabody Award-winning program and in 2011 Abumrad was honored as a genius grant-winning MacArthur Fellow.
Despite its success, Abumrad said he nearly walked away from it all. He brought up the notion while discussing the tenor of Saturday’s show.
“I think what people can expect on the most basic level is something that feels very Radiolab-y. It’s kind of like, on one level, a deconstruction of things I think are really important to make stories awesome. It’s the special sauce, the ingredients that make any story stick deep in your skull and kind of move you,” he said. “So, on a basic level, it’s like that, and it’s demonstrations and it’s really cool visuals and I sort of tell the whole thing in a very Radiolab-y sort of way, where music and sound and all this kind of stuff is involved; but, really it’s a talk that’s super personal to me.
“I started thinking about the stuff that ended up in this talk because I kind of hit a crisis, maybe a couple of years ago, where I just got so burnt out that I thought I was basically going to stop. I mean, I’ve been doing the show for a long time and I created this spin-off and I just got to the point where I thought, ‘I think I’m just so tired and exhausted;’ but, more importantly, I’d just kind of forgotten what makes the stories work. I’d kind of gotten numb to the actual magic of what it is that we do.”
“I went and kind of sat in my room for six months and basically just took time off to reflect and in that quiet space where I was doing a ton of listening and just thinking, I kind of felt I rediscovered what it is that I’m doing. And so, the talk really is a bunch of things that I rediscovered that are key to making stories sing and making them feel really important.”
Without giving too much away – and setting up the proper amount of intrigue for Saturday’s event - he shared, “This is going to sound weird, but I had this realization about a manhole and the pipes underneath the ground that, in some sense, capture everything you need to know about storytelling.”
Abumrad’s approach to relating stories is one that connects listeners, no matter their diverse backgrounds. It’s informed by the storytellers he admired, people like This American Life’s Ira Glass, the humorist Jean Shepherd and surrealist radio host Joe Frank. He listened to pre-television era radio dramas and thought the theatrical flair of The Mercury Theatre or The Shadow could have a place in journalistic reporting. He combed through documentaries in his early days and that’s what brought the current events scope of Radiolab into focus.
“At the same time, I’m coming from music school and I had studied music and all of these weirdo post-war composers like Stockhausen and Ligeti who were using, in some cases, the sounds of car horns as musical objects and composing with the sound of the world. I was really into that stuff. So, I wanted to apply a very weird audio sensibility to this new art of storytelling that I was discovering through This American Life and Jean Shepherd, and, at the same time, also listening to Joe Frank.”
The formula is also in play in More Perfect, the Radiolab spin-off series about the Supreme Court. That program does what Radiolab has long accomplished by taking daunting topics and making them accessible in some way.
“It’s a weird thing right now, because of the way the world is and just the state of America, there’s this kind of real gravitational pull to do issue-based, capital ‘I’-important kind of storytelling. We do that a lot, obviously, a lot of places do. For me there’s almost this important calling, which is to do something that’s actually going to surprise and startle your audience. You kind of have to start there because that surprise leads to all kinds of other things, and when you surprise someone, the person is completely open. They’re open-hearted. At that point, you’re shocking somebody in into seeing not just what you’re saying in a new light, but they see their own world in a new light.
“That’s part of the experience that I had that sort of re-awakened me to the power of surprise. I feel like every story, on some level, has to have not just one of those surprises, but sometimes two or three surprises. “
“It’s very much a template,” he continued, then suggested “it’s not a manual” and “it’s not a playbook where you just go, ‘Point A, B, C, D – done.’” He paused, pondered aloud in that thoughtful voice Radiolab listeners have come to know and love, then offered, “If a template and a metaphor had a baby, what would they have? What would be the baby that they had? It’s like that.”
He said those story twists aren’t just important to listeners, they’re imperative to the storytellers, too.
“The truth is we spend a year, a year-and-a-half, two years with a story sometimes and so when you’re reporting a story, you get really fucking sick of it. Like you’re bored by it. Nothing that the people you’re interviewing are saying is surprising, you’re so, so bored. But then, there’ll be that one interview where someone says that one line and it’s just like, ‘Boing!’ and they make you think about something in a completely new way and suddenly the sheen on the world changes, the tint of the world changes completely, everything’s bright again.”
He’s describing wonder and awe, feelings Radiolab consciously cultivated at its start. Those feelings are still evident in the newer programs, but the path taken to reach them has changed, Abumrad said. He offered an example that sounded lifted from an early Radiolab script.
“Here we are in a Malaysian mangrove and there are thousands of fireflies blinking asynchronously,” he said in a hushed tone, “and then there’s a moment – snap! – where they all come into synch and they - ‘Zzzt…zzzt…zzzt’ - blink together. And that’s the very moment where you cue the music, the music comes in and it’s beautiful and it’s pretty and then someone comes over that music and says something cosmic. And you talk about the cosmos and that maybe this is what it’s really like, maybe this is the true nature of reality, lots of brainless little organisms adding up into some kid of emergent intelligence. You do that whole thing.
“The beats of that kind of thing capture the first phase of Radiolab. It was about kind of leading a person to a moment of wonder, a moment of awe, where then the music kind of expands and you stare out into the vastness and you think some deep thought,” he says.
“And then, somewhere around 2012 or so, maybe a bit earlier, I don’t want to say I began to get disenchanted with that, but just kind of frustrated. Not so much with the idea of moments of wonder, but there was a thing we were doing where we’d have a bit of science and then we’d have this wondrous moment and then you get to some deep truth about the world and it all felt very sanitized on some level. Like the truths that we were arriving at felt too easy and too clean. I don’t know, I just began to worry that there was something dishonest about it, not so much in any given story, but in what the form was saying.
“That was the moment where Radiolab started to venture into politics and into the law, all kinds of places, we just really branched out in a million directions and began to gravitate towards stories where that moment of wonder wasn’t like, ‘Aww,’” he sighs, “but, it was more a moment of struggle, a moment of like, “Aaargh! I don’t know what to think! I don’t know what to feel, I’ve got these ideas and I can’t seem to put them together.’ That became the moment that we were stretching for.
“I’d say over the last seven or eight years we’ve really started to try that and all the while the world we’re living in has become so fractured and there are multiple truths at play in any moment and that just felt like we were learning how to tell the story that is this moment in America.”
That makes what Abumrad and his team do “capital-I important.” He mentioned “UnErased,” a series on conversion therapy in America that he did recently, as an example of what Radiolab is working toward.
“Parts of that series were about documenting and playing witness to a thing that’s happening in America that’s not recognized, which is that people are being basically told that who they are is horrible and a thing to be converted,” he said.
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But, the series was more complex than that, he noted. It focused in part on John Smid, who lived life as a gay man, then was “saved” and became a leading conversion therapist, whose controversial approach sometimes led to grave consequences for those he attempted to convert. He re-converted later in life and in 2014 married his same-sex partner. He’s worked to make amends for his time as a conversion therapist.
“I was fascinated by this guy. This is a guy who’s done horrible things and it’s easy to contend that there’s one truth of it, which is that he’s hurt people and needs to suffer for it, but then there’s another truth which is that he’s hurt himself arguably more than any one other person and can a person like that be redeemed? I don’t know,” Abumrad noted. “There’s so many truths at odds in that story. That story, for me, is the kind of story I want to tell now, where you’re seeing the world through a series of other perspectives and kind of trying to get in their shoes
and at the same time holding them to account and at the same time treating them with empathy.
“I find these stories are trying to model ways to live and that story was trying to model for myself a way to live, where you don’t judge people, but you don’t let them off,” he said. “You hold your own perspective, but you approach them with empathy. That for me has become the leading edge of what I’m trying to do here at Radiolab, is tell those kinds of stories.”
Society for the Performing Arts presents Jad Abumrad, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 18 at Cullen Theater, Wortham Center, 501 Texas. Tickets start at $35.