When it comes to tastes in subject matter, Jad Abumrad scores big points for eclecticism. Over the course of the last 12 years, the Radiolab creator and his co-host Robert Krulwich have tackled such diverse subjects as dead composers' DNA, do-it-yourself electroshock, and the legend of bluesman Robert Johnson's deal with the devil.
Given its unusual reporting and engaging storytelling format, Radiolab is frequently compared to another nationally syndicated public radio show, This American Life, which got a seven-year jump on it. But while Ira Glass and company have an obvious affinity for human interest stories, the Radiolab duo tends to place more emphasis on quirky science, esoteric philosophies and general weirdness.
The son of a Lebanese surgeon, Abumrad and his extended family were among the extremely small percentage of folks in his Tennessee hometown who spoke Arabic. After moving to Ohio to study music composition and nonfiction writing at Oberlin College, he landed a staff job at WNYC-FM, where he came up with the formula for Radiolab. The weekly program is now carried by more than 400 stations, including KRCC.
Abumrad has also scored some obscure films and received a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant.
With typical wit and intelligence, Abumrad speaks in the following interview about drawing up diagrams of This American Life stories, transforming music samples into something altogether unrecognizable, and the ways in which ordinary idiots can bridge the gap between the strange and familiar.
Indy: Back before TV started, there would be these print ads that showed families gathering together around the radio, and they would actually be looking at the radio. Were you like that growing up — where you were so entranced by the sound that you paid attention to it 100 percent?
Abumrad: Yeah, I was one of those kids. Not so much with radio, I mean, that kind of came along a little later. But I would sit in my room — you know, this is in Tennessee now, growing up as a gangly, awkward Arab kid. I basically stayed in my room a lot, and I would listen to music and bop around on my bed, and just be completely content to live inside the world of whatever I was listening to.
I would also write a lot of music, and compose these epic film scores for movies that hadn't been made. So where other kids were out running around and trying to get laid, that was basically what I did instead.
I want to ask about how you translate visual elements to audio, in order to draw listeners into your stories. I was listening to the Robert Johnson segment, the one that opens with the two of you paying a midnight visit to the crossroads where he is supposed to have sold his soul to the devil. How do we know you were really there?
I don't know that I can definitely prove to you that I was there. [Laughs.] I can show you pictures.
But that could be anywhere. It could be some crossroads in New Jersey.
It's true, but if you listen to Radiolab, I think you understand that we make Radiolab as a deeply selfish act, to have adventures and to go places. Whether it's imaginary places or real places, that's why we do it.
Obviously, it's communication, it's about making a connection with listeners, it's all of those good, noble things. But primarily it's a shamelessly selfish act. And why would I make that up, when I could actually go there?
This is probably as good a time as any to ask the obligatory This American Life question.
You once said that you would diagram Ira Glass' stories in order to figure out how they were constructed. How true is that? Was there a point where you were kind of reverse-engineering them?
Well, I never actually went so far as to actually try and transpose it to what we do. But I would often listen to This American Life stories and think, "Dude, how the hell did they do that?"
So yeah, I would do these kind of diagrams, because, for me, storytelling is like a musical act in some deep, primary way. And I have a very strong intuition for how things should sound and be structured, but sometimes it's like the intuition and the intellect don't quite meet. So it really helped me figure out the vocabulary, by listening to a lot of This American Life stories, because they have a great sense of structure. And with some of the stories, you can tell that they've laid it out in a very kind of orderly, spare way. I feel like Ira is a great thinker about structure.
A lot of the sound design you do for the show involves taking samples of really eclectic music and then manipulating them. I know that hip-hop artists have always faced the dilemma of at what point you cross over the line from paying homage to paying royalties. What's your experience been with that? I mean, you're in a pretty high-profile position, with all your listeners.
Well, my ideal — and I will never get there — is to somehow have it be completely original. But what we end up doing a lot is taking, say, a little cello pluck from some Lutoslawski symphony, and then putting it through a program and messing around with it. [With] granular synthesis techniques, you can take a tiny quarter-second of that and stretch it out to last three and a half minutes. It still retains some of the characteristic of the cello, but it just sounds like an alien world now.
And I love that combination of familiar and alien, because I feel like that's the show really. It should be ordinary people — idiots like Robert and I mainly — venturing into places and ideas that should feel a bit weird and alien, that are sometimes scary and sometimes wonderful.
But in any case, at its best, we're doing these kind of transformations of preexisting music that are so radical and so complete that no one would ever know. And if they do know, they'd be like, "Oh yeah, that's so different from what I did that I'm cool with it." Most people are flattered, just because I'm choosing stuff from really weird musicians. And most of them get it that we're in public radio. It's not like we're making any money.
So you're not like Garrison Keillor?
No, I'm not like Garrison Keillor in so many ways that I couldn't list them.