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Sept. 21, 2011, noon

Jad Abumrad, Radiolab’s ‘genius’ storyteller, on what public radio needs now: ‘more joy, more chaos’

“It needs more anarchy. And it needs more moods. The range of human experiences is covered and reported about on NPR, but it’s not reflected in the tone, and it’s not reflected in the style.”

WNYC's Jad Abumrad

First thing’s first: Jad Abumrad does not know how he will spend half a million dollars, but it’s probably going right into his labor of love, the mind-bending radio show that earned him a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant this week.

“The central problem for me has always been that the show eats me alive, and how do I get out from under it just enough to re-imagine it? Particularly because the rest of my life is getting so chaotic,” he told me. (Abumrad has a 2-year-old child and another due in February.)

If you don’t know WNYC’s Radiolab or haven’t heard it before, I will break the rules of blogging now and ask you to leave this page and go listen. Abumrad and co-host Robert Krulwich (who has been experimenting with radio journalism since the ’70s) take big, huge ideas — time, randomness, mortality, fate — and shrink them into something edible and charming. It’s science that feels like play.

Ira Glass summed up the program’s success in his timely appreciation this week: “Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich have digested all the storytelling and production tricks of everyone in public radio before them, invented some slick moves of their own, and ended up creating the rarest thing you can create in any medium: a new aesthetic.”

That’s precisely what MacArthur recognized in announcing the prize, the “new aesthetic.” Abumrad, a musician by training, calls himself Radiolab’s “art director.” He thinks the craft of storytelling and the content are, or should be, inextricable. He scores 30 to 40 percent of the music himself, he estimates, and mashes up other people’s work for the rest.

Said Abumrad: “Storytelling, not so much the reporting and the journalism, but the actual act of telling a story is a very musical thing, and suddenly I was able to put it all into one task, which was awesome, because I’d always held them to be very separate, you know, like, I can try and write something or I can try and make music. They didn’t seem to have anything to do with each other. But over the course of trying to be a journalist, somewhere along the way I just ended up in this middle ground, which is what I think the show embodies. It’s about reporting, it’s about journalism, it’s about storytelling.

“And, like, it’s no-bullshit reporting! We really try and do a good job. We don’t fuck around. We really try and get our facts right. But at the same time, it’s a musical act. We’re using voices, we’re using the edits as musical objects, and you’re kind of thinking contour and counterpoint and voice leading and all this bullshit I was taught in music school that I never thought would be useful that somehow has come to roost in journalism.”

“The only way to really loosen the reins a little bit is to say to yourself, ‘Let’s do an experiment that makes me actually deeply nervous, because it could be bad.’ I’m prepared to suck for awhile.”

Herein lies a weird problem for Radiolab, which debuted in the middle of the night nine years ago: It is a program that is so successful in busting public radio’s “sound” that it has a sound of its own now. This American Life has a sound, Marketplace has a sound — you know it when you hear it. How do you hang on to a successful formula while also trying to break free from it?

“I think about Stefan Sagmeister,” the Austrian graphic designer, “who every six years, I think it is, seven years, he just quits his life and moves to some distant spot on the globe and just throws himself into some new art and comes back, refreshed. I think to myself, how can I do that without actually leaving?” he said.

“It’s also going to be about, frankly, it’s going to be about sucking, you know? The only way to really loosen the reins a little bit is to say to yourself, ‘Let’s do an experiment that makes me actually deeply nervous, because it could be bad.’ I’m prepared to suck for awhile.”

I caught Abumrad by phone yesterday as he rode a train to Baltimore for the Public Radio Program Directors’ annual conference, where he is the keynote speaker. That’s what he plans to tell the crowd, he said: “I’m going to be talking about how much it deeply sucks, emotionally sucks, to try and do something different, and then I’m going to try to urge the program directors who are in the room to run towards that feeling rather than run away from it.”

Abumrad wants great things for public radio. He still feels like an outsider, he said, in an effort to qualify his opinion.

“It needs more joy. It needs more chaos. It needs more anarchy. And it needs more moods. The range of human experiences is covered and reported about on NPR, but it’s not reflected in the tone, and it’s not reflected in the style, and I think that Ira has a point when he says opinion-based journalism, if you even call it that, you know, punditizing is gaining attraction because it sounds like life. I do think that if public radio is guilty of anything, it’s that its very musical DNA has ceased to sound like life. That’s actually, on paper, a small problem, but actually, in the real world, the way it hits you when it comes out of the box, that’s a cataclysmic problem,” he said.

“Like I’m going to this conference right now and there will inevitably be two panels about, ‘How do we broaden our sound?’ and this kind of thing. And it’s always talked about as, like, Let’s dress up in our mother’s clothes,” he said. “We have gotten trapped in a certain sense of esteem, and we have a great deal of esteemed journalists and reporters and hosts. But equally important to esteem is currency and relevance, and we do need to think about that. I don’t have the answer, exactly. But I think in this day and age, that is almost as important as integrity and esteem.”

One more thing — I had to ask: Why no MacArthur grant for Krulwich? The show is nothing without his curiosity and humanity. “You’re going to have ask them that,” Abumrad said. “If I were on that committee, I would give both of us an award, or I would give him an award and then mug him and steal half of it. Obviously this is an honor that, in some spiritual sense, is for both of us.”

Update: I originally misquoted Abumrad as saying the show “keeps” him alive, when in fact it “eats” him alive. “But ‘keeps’ works,” as he pointed out on Twitter.

POSTED     Sept. 21, 2011, noon
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