The Jad Abumrad Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

Today I interview the award-winning host and producer of the super-cool WNYC show "Radio Lab," which I first heard about when Ira Glass gave it a shout-out on "This American Life" last year. His peeps were kind enough to send me a bio so let me just slide that right in here for you. The son of a scientist and a doctor, 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, including On the Media, PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and WNYC's "24 Hours at the Edge of Ground Zero". The Ring & I, an insightful, funny, and lyrical look at the enduring power of Wagner's Ring Cycle which he produced and hosted, aired nationally and internationally and earned ten awards, including the prestigious 2005 National Headliner Grand Award in Radio. "Look Out...Martians!," a dramatic re-telling of the Orson Welles' infamous "War of the Worlds" broadcast in 1939, earned two awards, including the Edward R. Murrow 2003 Regional Award for Writing. Abumrad was a member of the team that launched The Next Big Thing and has been a teacher for WNYC's award-winning youth journalism series, Radio Rookies.

How do you guys choose your topics for shows?
Well, we work on topics for a really long time, so the litmus test for topic choosing, at least for me, is to ask some basic question like: do I love this idea? Like really love it? Would I marry this idea? Would I stick by this idea even if it got a terminal illness and became ugly and deformed?

As for what makes me fall in love to begin with: usually it has something to do with finding those "universe in a blade of a grass" moments. A moment in a story where an average person, just living their life runs smack into a Big Idea. It's that collision that gives rise to the show.

Have you ever wanted to do a show on a topic but it was too difficult for any reason?
Sure. Genetics, for example. I know there's a way to make really exciting, mind-blowing radio about the interplay between genes and genetic switches...but I haven't found it yet.

How long does it typically take to produce an episode?
In the past we did 5 per year, but we're moving into making 10 per year. So that's somewhere between one and two months per episode.

There are a lot of little audio asides per episode: are those scripted or made up as you go along?
Made up mostly. Although we're always working within a pretty rigid architecture.

And it used to be very hard for me to describe how the two elements work together...the Architecture vs the Improvisation. But I remember one day running into a friend who at the time belonged to an improv comedy troupe, and when I described our process to him he just said "oh, sure" like it was perfectly normal. So I don't feel quite as weird (or special) anymore. Cause our process is Improv 101. We start with an outline. We go into the studio, improvise on that outline and in the process make mistakes. Some mistakes are pleasing, others not. We take the happy accidents, script around them, then repeat.

What editing programs do you use to create the show?
Protools. I am to Protools as Keanu Reaves was to The Matrix. I also use lots of odd granular synth programs to make all the weird noises that we use as punctuation.

Will Radio Lab ever broadcast on a regular schedule? Or do you guys just like being kooky and unpredictable?
No and sorta. If we could do this weekly and not turn into stress monsters, we'd consider it. But then we'd be just another weekly show. We aim to do something a little different, a little more lasting--and it takes longer. The shorter seasons allow us to hone each episode, to throw in moments that might not register on the first listening. And with the ease of podcasting, radio's changing. Well put together radio programs can be heard and reheard: it's suddenly something like making music. And I'm playing for the third listen.

What is it about your cohost Robert Krulwich's and your personalities that makes you work well together?
We like each other. That's the most basic ingredient. Robert and I started out as breakfast buddies and the radio partnership came a ways after. That history is very useful, because it gives me something to refer back to while making the show. In my mind, I filter all the radio-decisions through the memory of two guys having breakfast at a diner. The show should sound like a quantum version of two guys chatting.

But the interesting thing is that Robert and I have very different styles. We disagree about all kinds of stuff. should a radio reporter should sound on the radio? (Robert say loud, brassy! I say quiet, intimate.) much information is too much information? (I say more more more more! He, because of his TV-training, says no, moron, less less!) And of course he takes his eggs poached, I like scrambled. But, eggs aside, all the disagreements lead to compromises which in the end make the show way better than either of us could do alone.

Have you ever learned anything through Radio Lab that frightened you or made you sad?
Frightened, no. And not exactly sad either...even though Radio Lab airs plenty of stories that might make you huddle in the closet and weep a little. Last season, for instance, we aired the story of guy documenting his dad's death...and I mean really documenting. He photographs the bed sores, the cracked skin, the step by step agony of dementia. And he photographs the very moment his dad passes away. It's an unflinching, brutal look at what happens when a body gets old and dies. But in the end, it didn't make me feel sad. Quite the opposite. I feel really thankful for stories like that.

How do you go about researching the stories?

We read a lot. And we're very lucky to have access to a posse of smarties - like Jonah Lehrer, Oliver Sacks, Steve Strogatz, Diana Deutsch. They're our "council of elders."

I read in an interview that you spent some time trying to figure out what a host should sound like--how would you describe the style/attitude you have on Radio Lab, and is it what you set out for it to be?
I would describe Radio Jad (RJ) as a smarter, more animated version of Normal Jad (NJ). NJ fumbles for words, runs on his sentences for minutes at a time. RJ speaks in nice clean sentences, because he has the benefit of Protools (of which NJ is the undisputed world champion). Regardless, RJ is still very much NJ. Just a certain part of NJ... amplified.

I don't know that I set out to sound this way or any other way. Truthfully, I never planned to be the host of a radio show. My background is in music composition. And I still find the experience of being alone in an airless booth in front of a microphone... very, very odd. It doesn't come naturally to me. And it's taken me a while to learn how to sound like myself (except smarter).

You've talked about under-preparing more for shows so that you can be more surprised by what you get. Were there any particular shows that you wish you had done that for?
Well, I no longer believe in under-preparing. I think I said that out of frustration. At the time, I was having the following experience, over and over. I'd do an interview, listen back and get wildly annoyed at the guy asking the questions (me). I'd even start to shout at that guy things like: follow up you dumbass! Can you please just ask the question without adding fifteen disclaimers, you moron!

What would happen is that the me on tape would know too much. But over-preparing wasn't so much the problem as an inability to forget. I realize now that an interviewer needs to have the power to induce temporary self-amnesia, to forget everything he knows the moment you hit record and approach the conversation with a beginner's mind. It's a mental trick I haven't totally mastered.

What other shows influenced you in creating Radio Lab, either positively or negatively?

If by influence, you mean what shows or producers do I ruthlessly steal from? Joe Richman for his beautiful characters, Kitchen Sisters for their musicality, Jay Allison for all of the above. There's also something very old school, even Orson Wellesy, about the way we use theater (even if it's high tech). And lastly, This American Life. Such a brilliant show, but Ira and company cast a long shadow. So on the negative, I've had to learn to steal from him without getting caught. (I can't even count the number of "you're an Ira poser" emails I got when I first started Radio Lab.)

I find that the way I listen to Radio Lab depends on what I get out of it, IE it's easier for me to tune in less when I'm listening on my ipod at work whereas when I'm in the car. What do you think are the ideal circumstances under which to listen to the show?
Someone I work with told me recently that she downloaded Radio Lab on her phone, which she keeps in her back pocket...and every so often she sits on her phone and my voice comes out of her ass. I think that's the ideal circumstances.

What have been some of the most fun cocktail-party-worthy factoids you've learned from doing the show?

Oh my god, don't get me started about Ants.

Do you know that some species of ants actually garden? And some species keep slaves!?

In fact, just watch this video. It'll blow your mind right out your face.

I'm a fount of ant-related cocktail banter. At parties, I often go into a fugue state about ants until the person I'm fugueing too starts to mumble something about "needing to make the rounds."

Did you ever utilize your parents' scientific expertise when you were a kid in school, for a science fair perhaps? What are some of your favorite film scores?
If I were smart, I would have tapped my parents' science powers to win the science fair. But instead, I did some dumb project about boiling an egg and failed chemistry and consequently became a musician. And yes, film-scores are a favorite topic of mine, second after ants. Check it.

Other than Radio Lab, which have been your favorite public radio shows to work on?

On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is a Valkyrie. Any self-respecting storyteller should beg her for an edit.

What have you been listening to lately?
Lots of German techno, Bernard Hermann's soundtrack to Vertigo, the new Madlib, Deerhunter, one particular song off the new Band of Horses album that I hate but can't stop listening to, Stars of the Lid.

How does it feel to be the 201st person interviewed for
I feel like Bono.