Jad Abumrad (left) and Robert Krulwich in their office at NPR station WNYC.
To complement and enliven the subject matter, Radio Lab deploys a seductive and unusual editing style perfected over the last couple of years by Abumrad and producers at WNYC, the New York station where it originates. Sound effects and hard-to-place snatches of music swirl together with voices of the hosts, scientists, authors, animals, and toddlers. Abumrad describes the mix as, “two people talking, just like we are now. And then every once in a while a scientist parachutes in and says something, and then leaves. And a sound illustrates it, a thought bubble appears, and you’re seeing a picture of what you’ve just heard.”
Ira Glass, whose popular show, This American Life, helped make the airwaves safe for unorthodox storytelling, says Radio Lab is “trying to experiment with form in a way that’s immensely interesting. I love the curiosity and joyful wandering that suffuses the whole project.”
Brooke Gladstone, an NPR veteran who now co-hosts the weekly WNYC-based program On the Media, lauds Radio Lab for “letting things pop out of this weird little jack-in-the-box.” Even as the show deviates from many radio norms, she adds, “It combines what was always great about public radio: innovative use of sound and a sense of discovery.”
A recent Radio Lab editorial meeting in WNYC’s cramped headquarters proved a vivid illustration of those qualities. The co-hosts and senior producer Ellen Horne allowed a visitor to observe the suitably idiosyncratic process whereby story ideas are put forth, debated, examined, questioned, and either put on the fast track or in the catch-all category of “needs more research.”
In this group, there is no such thing as reading too much or talking to too many people. No idea is rejected out of hand; if it isn’t deemed ready to become a produced segment, it gets placed on a back burner of a very large stove. In taking stock of the latest news, this group is more likely to cite blog entries or New Scientist magazine than anything that pops up on the AP wire.
Krulwich happily plays the role of provocateur, clutching a wad of printouts and prodding the others to get to the root of why a particular story needs to be told. As the trio runs down a roster of existing ideas and throws out new ones for Season 3, the conversation settles into the same absorbing, late-night-dorm-lounge rhythms that animate the show itself. The setting suits the dialogue. The well-worn office is painted purple, carpeted in the speckled blue-and-black textures of a basement rec room, and crammed with books, CDs, and audio equipment. Out one window, the Chrysler Building offers a visual reminder that New York lies below. The conversation veers from Chinese zoos to the CIA headquarters to a snake wrangler in Tennessee.
“This is my hunch,” Krulwich starts in, assessing an idea for a show about deception that has to do with “face reader” Paul Ekman, who was profiled in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. “Out of 19,000 people, you find 24 who are uniquely able to spot a lie. Don’t you think if you could get to any of the 24 they’d have a little interesting nugget to tell?”
Horne, the producer, takes issue. “Ekman’s been written about a lot. And last time we talked about this show, we decided that maybe an interesting way to go would be to do our CIA guy, who was fantastic on tape and hasn’t been written about anywhere.”
Abumrad pipes up (though “pipes up” doesn’t accurately describe his mellow, understated speaking style): “I’m only interested if they have a juicy story to tell. And I’m concerned that it’s way too much content for this show.” Horne encourages a broader interpretation of the show’s theme of deception. “St. Augustine thought that fiction was a sin because it was a lot of lies,” she says.
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