Oberlin alumni Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich helm the WNYC-produced Radiolab, which has wrangled a devoted audience over the past decade. I spoke with Abumrad as he was wrapping up the live tour's first two shows in Hartford, Conn., and eyeing a trip toward the Midwest. They'll arrive in Cleveland for an Oct. 4 show at the State Theatre.
Eric Sandy: So is it too simple to say that this is a Radiolab episode transposed to the stage?
Jad Abumrad: If you're sitting in the audience you will have moments where you think, "Okay I get this. I'm listening to a story. It sounds like Radiolab. It feels like Radiolab. It's got the music and that intimate radio feeling..." But then there are going to be other moments where you're like, "Whaaat the fuuck is going on?!" There are things happening on the stage that you won't expect. There are three of the most amazing musicians that I've ever gotten the pleasure to stand next to. Just beautiful. I can't even believe this is my job. There are gonna be some moments that are gonna feel familiar—and we do our best to make them feel as dense and as textured as the radio show. But very, very live. There are other moments that are just a complete and total departure. You kinda get to discover new parts of who you are becoming—who you will be tomorrow. It's a completely new landscape for us.
You guys are always trying to include visuals in your episodes. How do you deal with the fact that you have actual visuals to work with on this live show?
You just walk right into that and play to people's eyeballs. There's the mental eyeball people have when sounds enter their ears and they get to imagine them. I love that. The core of what I do is paint mental pictures. So we'll also have these three beautiful screens above our heads; well, let's put shit on them! But how do you do that as a radio storyteller? What images do you show and what images do you not show? That's one of the central questions we've been asking ourselves. There are times when we've made a calculated decision to say, "Okay. Make the screens go dark. We've got these three amazing musicians here." Glenn Kotche and Darin Gray from the band On Fillmore. Darin plays the bass; Glenn plays this insane drum set that he's built out of a junkyard.
Oh, he's amazing. I'm a huge Wilco fan, myself.
God, yeah. And those two guys together—they can make any noise. They're like the greatest foley artists you've ever encountered. So it's like, let them make the pictures. And Sarah Lipstate creates these lush, huge textures. Let's let her sorta paint the landscape. There are times where we let them carry it and there are times where we want to show you something directly. Part of the fun of this is being explicitly visual, rather than implicitly.
Reminds me of the "Colors" episode, when you used a choir to represent the color spectrum. Is this kinda like an evolution from that process?
Well, it's all part of the same—yeah, I guess so, actually. That example was confronting the limitations of audio right there. It was like, shoot, we just learned this thing about mantis shrimp: They can see thousands and thousands of colors. Maybe millions. So the choir became the audio-metaphoric solution to a very real problem. Like, how do you experience what a mantis shrimp can experience? Ultimately, that's what I think we have to do with each story: Give somebody an experience of the thing you're talking about. It's always a question of evolving and changing—stepping maybe two or three steps into what feels dangerous.
There's this credulous attitude throughout the show—whether between you and Robert or from the audience. Aside from being a dramatic storytelling device, is that credulity one way you and Robert try to find answers to your questions?
It's hard for me to define the show. I've always seen the show as a kind of wrestling match. Part of my soul wants to believe in magic. And another part of me wants to be skeptical and poke at things and ask, "How does the world really work?" I don't think that's a tension that will ever resolve inside of me or inside of Robert. The show is that tension. You want to fall in love with these stories, but you also want to just understand the truth of things. That sense of, "Hold on a second!" is really important to the show. Equally important is that sense of "Wow!" Those two things act as a duet.
And very often, there's no one answer to these questions. That sense of wonder is the fundamental answer at the end of the day sometimes, right?
The shows more and more often end up in a kind of—I don't want to call it ambivalence, because that's wrong. It's not a shirking of an attempt to find an answer. The shows end up increasingly in these uncomfortable positions where you're trying to hold two opposing thoughts in your head at the same time. That, to me, feels like an acknowledgement of what the world is really like. The world is not actually collapsable into simple truths. Sometimes our audience doesn't dig that. They're like, "Well, what do I think of that?" It's something all of us here are really thinking about: How do you communicate ideas that don't have simple answers?
That also shows how engaged the audience is. Whether they're enthralled or critical, it's an interesting sign for radio as a medium. What do you think of the future of radio and podcasting?
It's hard for me to know where it's all gonna go. I see a weird, beautiful renaissance happening all around us. There are shows all around the radio—some of which started as podcasts—that are incredible. I honestly for a while had given up that there would be a new generation. I just thought somehow that, oh, public radio is a place where things just go on forever. And I'm not judging that; I just thought that was the life cycle of public radio. There's this whole new generation of people making radio. So in one sense, radio has never been more alive, you know? Right now, the present is really freaking awesome.
Your musical background is certainly a credit to Radiolab. The show sings. Is that a conscious thing?
I can't help it. I came to radio not with any of that sort of knowledge of radio history, which held me back in some ways. But I didn't have a sense of how radio was supposed to sound or not sound. Music was the only thing I had to draw on. I didn't have any Kronkite or Murrow in my ears. When Robert came to it, he did have that stuff in his ears. But he also had Broadway show tunes and a really strange kind of bebop rhythm to his delivery. He had a completely different set of music that he was bringing in. It became fun to match our musics.
Even the editing of the show has a musical flow. And this goes back to your and Robert's credulity—those gasps and sighs and everything. There's a harmony to the show; do you feel that?
It's the music of two people tumbling through a wonderful and sometimes very scary world.
And a fun world too, right?
You captured it right there. Robert and I were buddies before we were collaborators. At the end of the day, he still brings that out in me. And we're very excited to come to Cleveland. WCPN was one of the first stations to support us—waaay back in the day. I have a very special sort of—I feel like I owe Cleveland a lot in some sense. When we were workshopping it, we ran to Cleveland quickly and did a quick performance of a piece of the show. Cleveland was there for the creation of it.
Anything fans should know going into this show?
They should bear in mind that if they've ever heard our voices and attached images to those voices, they will be disappointed probably. (Laughs) Other than that, they should come prepared to see something that's a bit strange and hopefully wonderful and entertaining and maybe moving at times.