Jad Abumrad: Reinventing radio for the 21st Century

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    Radio reinvented for the 21st century

Radio reinvented for the 21st century 01:56

Editor's note: Jad Abumrad is the co-host of the innovative radio show "Radiolab." Together with Robert Krulwich, he explores heady topics and scientific topics with a sense of curiosity and fun. Tune in to CNN on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET to see a 30-minute profile of Abumrad on "The Next List."

CNN: Okay, so what is "Radiolab"?

Abumrad: "Radiolab" is a kind of crazy, slightly psychedelic adventure through a big idea. So we take an idea every week and we kind of do an hour-long investigation of it.Myself and Robert Krulwich are the hosts, and the whole thing is supposed to be like two guys sitting at a deli table. That's sort of the superstructure, two guys just chatting.

The whole thing has a crazy kind of hi-fi soundscape that weaves through all the different things. But really, at the end of the day, I want it to feel like two guys having slightly surreal but completely ordinary chat about the world. It's like the stuff that everybody's been thinking about, back to Aristotle, that really has no answer, like what is time, what is space, what is consciousness, like how do I know I'm conscious? Like how can I reflect upon my own experience? I'm addicted to that feeling of standing in wonder, like looking at the world in awe. But it can't be a cheap wonder.

I'm really interested in that line, you know, between here's the limits of what we can know, and here's just what's passed. I'm interested in sort of charting that terrain right at the edge.

    CNN: Can you describe the sound element of the show?

    Abumrad: Yes. Like you take my voice, your voice. You can take a tiny little snippet of that voice, and using synthesis techniques, you can stretch so it's 25 minutes long. And it sounds like a big landscape. But it's still got a little bit of the voice in there. So there's something voicy about it. I love that, because there's something familiar in there. And for me that sea of sound, that's the feeling it should always have.

    It's like you're going places that are a little bit different, a little bit strange, a little bit weird, kind of inviting. It's also a little bit scary, a little bit dreamy.

    CNN: What was the initial reception of Radiolab?

    Abumrad: Like what you guys do on television, stylistically, it is light years ahead of radio. MTV was doing music videos in the 80s with crazy fast cutting -- not that I like that stuff -- that was something that happened to TV a long time ago. And the idea that people would cut radio at the pace of life where you don't have long five-minute droning answers to questions, but you try and kind of create interesting music in the edit.

    The idea that you would do that in radio, for me, does not seem that radical. But to people who had grown up with the radio -- and who used it as a companion -- it was very troubling to them, and we got a lot, I wouldn't call it hate mail, but a lot of irritated listeners at the beginning, who were like, what are you doing?

    My personal feeling, if I were to psychoanalyze from afar, I would say that those people were traumatized by MTV and somehow we remind of that trauma in some small way, which, you know, is fine.

    To me it's a gift that you're giving a gift to listeners. And some of the stuff that came back from listeners was like, not just like hateful, but like personally hateful, like who the **** are you, who edits your show this way? I mean, there was a lot of like really nasty comments at the beginning. And so I can only think that radio had existed as a kind of bubble, where in terms of the way it moved, it moved at a pace that was about 30 years behind the rest of the universe, and so for me, you know, I didn't come into this as a radio listener. I came into it as a guy who loves music, as a guy who's a complete student of movies.

    You go to a movie, and it's like there's crazy, radical things that are happening underneath the story in terms of how it's cut, in terms of where the music is happening, in terms of the way the points of view are constantly shifting, these jump cuts in time, you know, one scene bleeds into another in ways you don't even notice.

    I try and do that stuff on the radio and people lose their -- you know, whatever. So, you know, I just feel like all I'm trying to do is create a sound and a music that makes sense to me, how I grew up, which is more about movies and music and that kind of energy. At the same time, I want to explore ideas in a way that's really tried-and-true public radio.

    CNN: Has having children affected your work?

    Abumrad: So when I had a kid I was really worried that I wouldn't be able to make it work, you know?

    But the interesting thing that happens is you just expand. You know, you get bigger in some weird way. And I still care about the show as much as I ever have. But then I leave the show and I go home and then there's someone who needs my attention. And he's all-consuming, too. And so you're bouncing between all-consuming universes. You know, you're going back and forth. It's like this oscillating thing.

    And now I've got two of them, two creatures that I've got to take care of. And I think it affects the show in that suddenly you leave and you walk in the door and it's like that kind of whiplash where you're like, oh, he doesn't care about what I was just thinking about.

    I think one of the greatest gifts that a child gives you is those first four years of life. And you get to watch a little being slowly emerge into consciousness. And you to watch them first figure out how to hold their head up. And then you get to watch them figure out how to roll and then crawl and then walk and then talk.

    It's amazing, every single one of those things is like an explosion. It's absolutely amazing. And you realize like just even you and I having this conversation right now is built on seven million little things that have to be there in order for this to happen. And it's amazing. A child gives you that sense of wonder back, which is so important to the work that we're doing.

    CNN: Do you think that radio has moved past the conventional 'companionship' role its play in the past?

    Abumrad: If you strip away everything from the show, what do you have left? You have a certain set of feelings and you have almost an animal spirit that exists between two people. It’s like this guy Robert and this guy Jad who really like each other, and occasionally hate each other but are extremely alive when they’re in the same room together. So at it’s base it’s two guys who share a deep like-mind in terms of what’s beautiful and what’s meaningful. It’s like when you remove it all and the spirit that exist between these two guys is in some sense what this show is selling. Even below the level of ideas, and the science, and the philosophy, it is ultimately about, that’s the engine, the connection between these two people.

    And you have to ask yourself what am I really doing. What’s happening here? And some times I think the thing that we’re doing is we we’re selling a certain attitude. The attitude has something to do with like this that the world is amazing, and it’s wonderful and it’s a little scary, and it’s this amazing thing you can walk into and be amazed and skeptical and then ultimately land in a moment of wonder. And that genuine affection we have for one another and genuine hostility at times that's what draws people in. There’s a lot of theatricality that draws people to the show. At the bottom level I really like Robert, Robert really likes me, we have a good time together and I think at some level if you just lost everything else, the show would still work as long as that’s there. So that’s about companionship. That’s been something that’s been in radio since the beginning. This idea that you connect with a person, the voice you’re hearing. In this case you’re connecting with a connection. So in this case it’s a network rather than just a one on one. So we’re in the sweet spot of radio … and sometimes you turn us on and you’re like "this doesn’t sound the way I thought it would sound," but it really is very old school on some level.