“The Safest Place To Be Is Always Halfway Into Your Future.” – An Interview with Radiolab

The story of “the end,” or even attempts at conceptualizing this story, can be mystifying, terrifying, and often times, unimaginable. Yet Radiolab manages to approach this topic with refreshing curiosity, illuminating profound ideas through sound and science. When I first met Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, the hosts of Radiolab, it was several hours before their show at the Solid Sound Festival. Wilco organized the festival, and the band’s drummer, Glenn Kotche, along with Darin Gray, together known as On Fillmore, will accompany Radiolab on their tour this fall. Noveller, the solo electric guitar project of Brooklyn-based composer and filmmaker Sarah Lipstate, will also be joining them to create a live, improvised score. On this tour, “Apocalyptical,” Radiolab will push towards the end and continue to discover, even amidst complete destruction.   

– Julia Edelman

Robert Krulwich: The way we’ve done live shows before is we do exactly this – you go in, you try something, and there have been points where we don’t even know what we’re doing. During one of them, I said to him, “I know I’m on page seven, but I don’t remember any longer why I’m on page seven.” 

Jad Abumrad: We had a moment, actually, where we were typing madly, and moving the beginning, and making it the middle, and making it the end, we were just doing radical shifting and changing. We print, grab the prints out, run downstairs, and we hadn’t even changed. We just ran onstage to perform it, and we had grabbed the wrong script – it was four versions ago. So Robert is kind of glancing at the script, and improvising, and then he gets to a place where it just says, “Robert says something.” [Laughs] But we hadn’t figured out what he was going to say yet. And he says, “I think I’m confused and angry, but I forget why I’m confused and angry…do you know why I’m angry?”

RK: [Laughs] I mean, my memory is not like his, so there are times in some of these shows where he can do all the parts and all the in-betweens and everything. I can just leave for a while.

THE BELIEVER: How was it when you guys first started working together? How was the dynamic? 

RK: Honestly, it was one of those things that were kind of mystical.

JA: We met, actually, not to work together, but because the station sent me to record him reading something. It was one of these weird things, where I handed him a thing, he starts reading, but he doesn’t want to read the thing I gave him so he re-writes it, and suddenly we’re having a conversation…and I realized I was following the same path he had followed twenty-five years earlier. I had gone to Oberlin, worked at National Public Radio, there were three or four other things in there, and we were like, “This is spooky, let’s just have breakfast.”

RK: But the show is based pretty much on the breakfast. Something happened right away and it’s a very musical sort of thing, it feels very jazz-like. It’s a rare thing to work at a level where you don’t even have to say what you don’t have to say. 

BLVR: Do you guys picture yourselves as reporters or artists? Because radio is very informative, but there’s also a free associative element with it, and I’ve been wondering how you reconcile the two.

JA: I’m not sure I think of it in those terms. It’s increasingly journalistic, I think, what we do, but there is a fair amount of artistry. I would never call it art because that presumes something about how people are meant to consume it, which I don’t want to presume.  I want this to come across to people instantly. There is something about art, which somehow carries with it expectations that it should be for it’s own sake, which I don’t think this should be. But you want the images to be poetic and vivid the way that art cinema is. You want things to dance and move and have that subterranean musicality the way that great music is. But you’re telling a story and you want to seduce people, and you never want to get too far away from the act of drawing them in. 

BLVR: Do you pre-plan working with live music for your shows, or is the music improvised? 

JA: Well, the experience with On Fillmore was unique. I usually do most of the sound design and the music, so I’m used to having a weird dictatorial control. But when we walked in with Glenn and Darin, I had all the stuff I was ready to do, and in every situation, their suggestions were not only better than what I was thinking, but it was actually changing the story in a way I didn’t actually understand, and somehow illuminating a mood I didn’t know was there. 

BLVR: How did you guys pick the story for your live show? I know it’s about the extinction of the dinosaurs, can you tell me how that came about? 

JA: You read “The Giant Dinosaur Book” a million times and you think, “I’ve got to find something to be interested in here,” but it took a long time for me to suspend my skepticism. But there’s a particular moment in the story where this plume of rock vapor comes back to earth as little bits of glass, and what happens to the glass as it falls on the atmosphere is just beyond belief.

RK: You hear that the sky on a sunny afternoon is opening as a rock comes in, leaving a hole through which you can see the stars, because the rock is pushing the air in front of it so fiercely there’s not enough time for the air to collect behind it…When you hear or imagine an image like that, it’s a little hard to knock out of your head, so then you think, “How come? What happened next?”

BLVR: What do you guys think of the explosion of podcast culture? 

JA: I think it’s amazing. It’s probably the most transformative thing that has happened to the show. 

BLVR: How do you see it transforming in the future?

JA: Tracing it back from our perspective, it was hard for a long time to justify the work that went into it. At that point, radio was just this ephemeral thing and you turn it on, and it drifts out into the world, and the moment is over, it’s gone. Podcasting gave us a different relationship with our listeners, where it’s in their ears, they can stop and rewind, you can be so deep in their head, and suddenly those editing choices are justified, because they can go back and listen to it again. It makes more sense on an iPod than it does on a radio; it just always has. And now you’re seeing whole ecosystems of comedy and all these different comedians doing so much interesting stuff on podcasting. It’s interesting to see what happened to Marc Maron! His podcast launched his book, his TV show; he’s having a moment! And this all began with his podcast.  

RK: I figure the next obvious invention would be to keep it in your ear and put it in your eye. “Maybe I want to listen to it, maybe I want to see it.” And that kind of fluency between hearing and seeing will become interesting to people. I think we’re just at the beginning of something that we can’t even imagine.

JA: I have a weird sense that people ten years younger than me don’t own a radio, or maybe they own a radio, but they don’t call it a radio. There is some kind of definitional shift that is happening.

RK: The safest place to be is always halfway into your future, without even knowing what it is. [Laughs] 

BLVR: I know last September an episode called “The Fact of the Matter” generated a lot of backlash. How have you learned to deal with controversy since then?

RK: Until that show, I guess we thought we were everybody’s favorite puppy or something, and then all of a sudden, there are a lot of people who think we’re the ones to get mad at. So I thought the thing there was, “Oh my gosh, we’re now the man.” So that affects you. You have a much bigger audience, and you have to be, I guess, a little bit more careful, but you can’t be too careful about your experimenting without losing your soul. So, can you mature and still play? Can you be responsible but still a little irresponsible?

JA: It was hard for us. It was hard for a lot of people. But it’s exactly what Robert said. Back in the not too distant past, no one gave a shit about anything we were doing. We would take risks and mess around and we’d fall on our face, and there would be resounding silence. Now, suddenly, we’re making a thing, and weirdly, people are listening to it, and the trick is how to not get careful and cautious, and how to continue to take risks, even when people are listening. And that story was a risk.

You can listen to all of Radiolab’s shows for free on their website, here. Also see Ira Glass's Radiolab: An Appreciation.