If you’re on this site and haven’t heard of Radiolab, I want to hear about life on your planet. I have so many questions: how did you get here? What do you think of us? Have you figured out normcore? My email is firstname.lastname@example.org — I await your messages.
The rest of us already know Radiolab is the most famous radio show that isn’t hosted by some guy telling stories about these American lives. Co-Host Jad Abumrad is a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and professionally trained composer. Imagine if Mozart and Einstein had a child together who, instead of unlocking the mysteries of the universe or penning masterpieces, just wants to tell you how colors work. Of course his episodes are masterpieces in their own right and he’s usually explaining the universe, but what did you expect? His parents are Mozart and Einstein.
Nominally a show about curiosity, Radiolab is really just a biweekly excuse for Jad to flex his literally scrawny, 1 but symbolically massive biceps, and remind the world that he’s the best audio reporter to grace your speakers.
Co-Host Robert Krulwich is no genius, 2 but he’s no Garfunkel either. The pair co-founded the show and it shares genes with both hosts. Krulwich is like your cantankerous grandfather, but gigglier. He’s been in public radio since the dawn of time and tethers the show to reality. When Jad reaches for the stars, Robert is there to smack him back to Earth. And that’s important. Their banter lets them go places traditional reporters can’t. Drawing equally from Stephen Hawking and Ray Bradbury, Radiolab asks the big questions about science and society.
But scientific musings don’t guarantee success. That’s why Firefly got canceled after one season and why you don’t remember the difference between igneous and metamorphic rocks. Science can be grass-growing, paint-drying, Philadelphia 76ers-level boring. Radiolab makes it fun. The staff comes up with a loose script for each episode, but most of the show’s conversations are organic and improvised. In turn, the raillery, squabbles, and giggles give the show the type of energy you need to make explaining parasites and pheromones interesting.
And the show doesn’t shy from the scientific and heady. Radiolab made a name for itself taking on big topics—early episodes tackled space, time, and death. Though the show has since expanded to cover wrestling, the War in Iraq, and football, Radiolab is at its best when it is explaining something you didn’t pay attention to in your 10th grade science class. In “Emergence,” the show explains how ants use chemicals to communicate; “Numbers” argues we have an innate understanding of counting and mathematics; In “Talking to Machines,” Radiolab romps through the latest developments in artificial intelligence. Every other week, the Radiolab staff chats with scientists, reporters, and regular people as they scour the (un)known Earth looking for answers. And it fucking rocks.
Radiolab and the Diane Rhem Show are both public radio shows, which means they are technically the same thing. Technically. But there’s a reason some shows get SNL’s schweddy balls treatment and Radiolab gets invited to the Colbert Report (RIP). Ira Glass puts it best:
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.
Radiolab is public radio’s forward pass and Jad Abumrad is Pop Fucking Warner. Even in the golden age of podcasting, many—if not most—shows treat audio as a crutch. 3 If you listen closely, you hear programs working around the limitations of audio. Narrators make sure to “give listeners something to look at.” Producers break their backs eliminating background noise. Despite audio’s many strengths, some believe that if a story cannot be spoken that it’s not suitable for the radio.
This view would seem to hold doubly true for science stories. Imagine someone explaining DNA without pointing to a picture of the double-helix. Imagine sex-ed without the horrifying slide shows of STDs. It just wouldn’t work. Or at least, it shouldn’t.
Jad and Robert grasp what few others do. In radio, the medium is the message; the sound is the story. Radiolab uses audio’s unique characteristics—tone, pitch, tempo, timbre, and more—to enhance each episode.
Take for example, the episode “Colors:” We learn different creatures see different colors (Thanks, Radiolab!). More specifically, some animals are capable of seeing wavelengths of light humans cannot. As it turns out, mantis shrimp are the Radiolab of seeing. With sixteen different color receptors (humans have three; dogs have two) the mantis shrimp can see things that we are literally incapable of imagining. Radiolab’s task, then, is to explain color to the blind. To do so, they commissioned a choir to sing a different note for each color in the mantis shrimp’s rainbow. Red is a resonant baritone and “super-duper ultraviolet,” the imagined name of one of the mantis shrimp’s many additional colors, is a high soprano. This trick of “showing by singing” is rich and beautiful and works well. The choir also treats us to a version of Handel’s Messiah with the “alleluia’s” swapped out for “MANTIS SHRIMP.” The show’s use of sound and music is not always as ambitious or obvious, but Jad composes music for episodes and weaves subtle sound effects into every story, creating earth-shattering radio.
Of course, none of this would matter if they weren’t damn good storytellers, but Radiolab is the best at what they do. “23 Weeks 6 Days” leaves you 4 bawling in your cubicle and “La Mancha Screwjob” will have you seriously considering a career as a professional wrestler. Alumna Lulu Miller learned from the masters and eclipsed Serial (yes, that Serial) with Invisibilia.
Radiolab is the epicenter of radio goodness. Welcome.
- This is a guess. ^
- At least, as determined by the MacArthur Foundation. We love you, Robert ^
- Notable exceptions include: The Truth and The Heart. ^
- Or at least me ^
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