Unique Approach to Covering Science

Radiolab host wins MacArthur Fellowship

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

WNYC’s Radiolab host Jad Abumrad began his career as a composer, but he soon evolved into equal parts composer, journalist, editor, storyteller and scientist. Science, in fact, often provides the undercurrent for many of his on-air tales.

“On some ambient level, science has always been a part of my life,” he says. “My dad was a doctor, and my mom a molecular biologist. My earliest memories are of playing with her lab rats and putting them in my pocket.”

This youthful exposure led to his developing “a sense of deep, deep patience,” and the stance that “you should never believe something until you believe it - and, even then, you never believe it,” he says. “That was the spirit that came to me being around my mother, a process of learning, of being sure to ask the right questions. Now, I’ve found myself coming back to it as a journalist.”

Radiolab began in 2002 as a local WNYC program, with Abumrad presenting documentary shorts and stories from independent producers. In 2005, National Public Radio science correspondent Robert Krulwich joined as co-host, and together they crafted the hour-long format familiar to audiences now, with engaging dialogue, music and sound effects that lure listeners into examinations of such mind-bending topics as the nature of numbers, the loops that fill our lives or the mathematics of randomness. Today, Radiolab airs on more than 300 stations, and is one of public radio’s most downloaded podcasts.

“We’re not really a classic science show, but we get a lot of our inspiration from science,” says Abumrad, recent winner of a prestigious $500,000 “no strings attached” MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius” grant. “We deal with science like poetry. We’re looking for poetry, the heat and passion and big ideas, but we treat it with a great deal of respect and rigor. Our intended audience is not the day-to-day news consumers, but people interested in the world and excited about things—the poets, the artists and the misfits.

“I think traditional science journalism has misconceived itself as a geography,” he adds. “Traditional science journalism covers people in lab coats who do research. We think of science more as attitude. People who ask the questions and use a method. You can apply it to anything, sports, politics, etc. I like that more promiscuous definition of science.”

Radiolab receives funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) through the agency’s Informal Science Education Program (under the Education and Human Resources Directorate), which supports the project’s innovative approach to exposing non-science listeners to transformative STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) concepts such as stochasticity (physics, statistics, neuroscience), musical language (behavioral science, neurology, acoustics) and space (mathematics, astronomy, technology, engineering). It received $503,798 from NSF this year.

One award-winning segment, for example, entitled “A Very Lucky Wind,” introduced listeners to stochasticity, the mathematics of randomness, by following the route of a drifting balloon across the south of England. Another, “Falling Time,” examined what goes on in the brain during life or death moments, when time seems to move at an excruciatingly slow pace.

The structure of Radiolab episodes often resembles the scientific process itself, with surprises, reversals, confusion, and discovery. When putting together these science- based programs, “I learned early that you have to go back to the scientists mid stream and tell them: ‘we are going to do it like this, are you cool with that?’” he says. “They help us. We enlist them as distant co-authors, because there’s no way for us to get it exactly right.

“Part of the process is that no one person owns the truth of it, and we take that to heart,” he adds. “Whenever we do the hard science, I don’t trust myself. I try my best, and expect Robert to rip it apart. A lot of scientists want to communicate what they are doing, and reconstruct the feeling—the heat—they want that. So you end up with equal parts extreme excitement, and equal parts extreme caution. You have to listen to both, and balance them against each other. But you also have to remember that the worst thing you can do is a piece that will put your audience into a coma. It’s a tension. In some sense it’s the central tension of what we do as journalists.”

The composer in Abumrad surfaces toward the end of producing each show. “It’s about the rhythms and voicing and pacing, and also the musical sea on which the story is floating,” he says. “I use music to unlock those moments to get deeper in the story. I think it’s more about mood than focusing on emotional content. When people turn on Radiolab, it sounds a little bit different. That has to do with the editing and musicality of it. That part comes online really late in the process.”

The ideas for the shows arise from everywhere, including from Radiolab colleagues, and listeners. “They kind of just come,” he says. “We read a lot, and we’re lucky enough to have a loose network of people formed around the show who have ideas. There was one piece we did—a listener sent us an email. She was a grad student doing research on movement, on Parkinson’s symptoms in mice. She sent us a chilling story, she had taken a medicine and ended up getting the same symptoms as the mice. We showed up one day and recorded. We’ve had some listeners send us their homemade versions of shows.”

Conversely, “the people who give us the most grief are our listeners,” he says. “I’m a big sports fan. Apparently, our listeners are not. One time we did a whole show about the appeal of sports. We got quite a bit of backlash on that one, listeners who said ‘no, no. That’s not what you do.’ Maybe it wasn’t as intellectual or scientific as we’d hoped.”

Of his on-air partner, Krulwich, he says: “I got lucky ten times over to have this kind of chemistry.”

It’s a kind of yin and yang, he says, not opposing forces, but complementary opposites.

“It’s yin and yang, but constantly on the move,” he says. “If one of us is excited about a story, we bring it to the other person. It used to be when I found a story that was kind of daffy, and I thought it was cool, Robert was the skeptic. Now we both bounce things around.

When he’s excited about something, I see it as my role to be excited, but I also see it as my role to make sure it’s a worthwhile excitement. We understand that there are roles to play, and we’ve found a way to play both roles. The relationship never feels definable. It just works.”

He still hasn’t figured out how he will use his unexpected MacArthur windfall, although he feels “this weird pressure to do something morally good with it,” he says.

“I want to make the show better, and public radio better,” he adds. “Still, every time I think about it, my mind goes a little bit blank.”


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