Bestcasts asks podcasters to discuss the three most memorable episodes of their podcast. Note: ties are allowed/encouraged.
The podcaster: Originally conceived as a two-hour block of NPR stories based around a not-necessarily-science-related theme, the first episodes of Radiolab airied on WNYC in 2002. At first, Jad Abumrad was the show’s solo commentator, but Robert Krulwich joined the fold semi-officially in 2003 after the two met during an interview. By 2004, Krulwich was on for good and Radiolab became an hour-long science-themed show, earning outspoken boosters like This American Life’s Ira Glass with its combination of excellent storytelling and sound-collage design. Though it’s now a popular podcast with more than 1.8 million listeners per episode, Radiolab still airs on more than 300 radio stations across the country every week. The show also does occasional live tours, and its new live event, Apocalyptical, will be making its way across the country this fall.
Episode #64: “Adoptive Couple V. Baby Girl” (May 30, 2013)
Jad Abumrad: I’m not sure “Adoptive Couple V. Baby Girl” is the most emblematic piece we’ve ever done, but in a way, maybe that’s why it’s my current favorite. It was such a departure for us. I enjoyed the idea of doing something completely different. You had this really complicated Supreme Court case involving a little girl and a question of where she should go. Should she go to the biological dad, who seemed to abandon her earlier, or should she go to the adoptive couple? Should she, in some sense, go to the sovereign Indian nation? It was a case where the reporter went to each person and completely identified with each perspective, but then didn’t give in to any of the perspectives.
The episode really tried hard to hold all of the perspectives at once, but they were incompatible. I just liked that. I think somehow that’s the deepest description of what we do. We’re supposed to move through a series of perspectives and identify with each one, but not give in to any of them. It requires empathy, it requires a sense of objectivity, it requires a sense of being emotionally open, but also being emotionally distant and analytical, so that you can balance. Somehow, on the deeply human part of what we do as storytellers, it all came together in that story.
Now, if you ask a lot of our listeners, they’re like, “Where’s the science?” and they yell and they feel that it’s sort of a one-off, but I think that the deepest part of our jobs, somehow, was successful in that story.
The A.V. Club: How did the story come about?
JA: It came about because I just had a thought one day. I was like, “You know, there are these Supreme Court cases, but I only hear about them vaguely—usually from Nina Totenberg on Morning Edition—where they’re presented as a sort of weird, Shakespearean ‘Judge this said this, then Judge so-and-so said this.’” She almost acts it out and I somehow never get it. That’s not a criticism of her; I just never understand what these cases are about and where they came from. Like in Roe V. Wade, who the hell is Roe? I have no idea at this point, but we all know the implications. So the idea was that [they] begin as these personal dramas and then get made gigantic in the Supreme Court. I just got interested in that. It was a vast new terrain.
So I told the staff, “Look at the [court’s] docket this year, and everybody pick one case. Do a little bit of initial reporting and see if anything comes up.” The only one that came through was Tim [Howard] on Adoptive Couple V. Baby Girl. That was the one that stuck because it had this huge backstory about the Indian Child Welfare Act and how a third of Indian children were being taken away from their families, which none of us knew the first thing about. It felt like peeling this endlessly layered onion. So it started as sort of a harebrained idea, like, “Let’s just see what it would be like for Radiolab to do legal reporting,” and then it ended up as that story.
AVC: Is a story like this something you want to do more of? Are you open to veering away from straight science?
JA: I definitely want to do more of it, and I don’t really draw the distinctions too much between the usual science stuff that we do and this. I feel like it’s all part of a piece.
You have to ask the deepest questions you can ask, always, no matter if you’re staring at a story that has lawyers involved or a story that has neuroscientists involved. I don’t need to report on scientists in order to do what we do. That doesn’t feel integral. I think I speak for both of us, but Robert may disagree. Our definition of science is a little bit bigger than most people’s.
AVC: How would you define science?
JA: I would define science as empiricism, I guess. You have ideas about the world and you try and measure those ideas against the way the world really is. That would probably be my only definition.
AVC: Robert, do you agree?
Robert Krulwich: I generally agree that the thing we’ve got to do is be puzzled and then try to un-puzzle ourselves. We may or may not succeed, but the show is really about staring hard at something and trying hard to figure it out. There’s no need to solve it at all. In fact, you rarely do. So what you’re celebrating is something called, “How come?” or “Why?” or “I don’t get it.” Then you just walk that line until you run out of things to say. If you do it artfully, it can turn out to be quite an adventure. I think science is always done that way. Some scientist wakes up one morning and tells himself a story, “Well, maybe the bird is doing that because…” and then you have to think of an experiment to test that proposition, then you wait with some suspense to find out whether it’s the case.
But, as Jad says, certainly a judge sitting with two contesting claims for truth has to go through a story, too. He has to pay very close attention and attempt to make a judgment. The difference in law is that the judgment sticks. The difference in science is that it never does. You think you’re right until someone shows you evidence that you’re wrong. But it’s really about the questions and the wonder, I think.
Episode #31: “Animal Minds” (April 2, 2010)
AVC: Robert, the episode you picked to talk about is “Animal Minds.” It’s one where, again, there are no clear answers. We don’t know if that whale really said “thank you.”
RK: We don’t. But I love that one for a variety of reasons. I thought it was interesting to hear such different answers to the same questions. Sometimes it was like, “If an animal could talk or understand or love another animal, a different animal, what would it have to have?” We had that whole spindle-cell section.
But what I really loved was the combination of drama and questions. They were so beautifully mixed. The whale is trapped in the ocean, loaded down with these heavy lobster and crab traps, and the weight of the traps is heavier than the whale herself. Jad does this by creating an underwater bubble effect with something like a harp—I don’t know what the instrument was—but it was an extraordinary, elegant bit of language without words. I thought it was kind of a triumph. Later on in that show when a goose is behaving badly to a writer that owns it and E.B. White is writing about a lovely goose and Paul Theroux is writing about a hideous goose, there is a wonderful little “honk” thing going on in the grass and there, to me, it’s actually in the gaze. One of the fun things about working with Jad is that his gaze can be surprisingly and deeply musical. I thought that show in particular, even though it had very strong stories, it was united, oddly enough, by a very deep musically composed sense. Because it begins in a church in Manhattan where animals are being blessed. The animals are all singing animal choruses, chirping, beeping, so on, and then someone mentions angels—I guess the priest—and then there’s a choir. Then, later, a very cynical man, yelling at us for talking about the whale as if we understood what it would be like to be a whale, says, “That makes as much sense to me as angels dancing on the head of this console,” at which point, all of a sudden angels show up again.
JA: Did they? I don’t remember that.
RK: Yeah! You stuck in angels. I love stuff like that because that’s as close as you can get in journalism to art, I think. It has a really compositional sense. That show particularly does because it never, ever came to a conclusion, but it was kind of riveting, because you had to keep bopping back and these were powerfully strong arguments. The people who are in the water say, “I know that whale said ‘thank you’ to me. What other explanation could there be for a huge animal to push toward me like she was going to kill me, stop short, and then sit very quietly and eyeball me with one eye? What else could that mean except something?” And the other guy saying, “That means nothing. She did it to a tugboat.”
I like that. It’s a kind of intellectual Ping-Pong. It’s very real.
JA: We constructed the story so that it’s so wet with emotion that you just can’t help but feel like this whale was saying “thank you,” and then the movement happens where the naysayer comes in. I forget, what was that guy’s name?
RK: I can’t remember.
JA: He was a British guy. He comes in and he plays his role perfectly, just, “I know you want to believe that, but no. The whale was not saying ‘thank you’.” The hatred, the vitriol that you feel for that man…
RK: We got him in this weird place where he said that maybe the whale could say “thank you” if the whale had been raised by a person, so then we decided to bottle-feed a whale, under the ocean. And he had to agree with that proposition. We had pushed him into such a weird corner.
It’s really the happy business of not knowing, as opposed to the dry business of knowing, if you wanted to get down to it. That’s why I like that show so much: We knew nothing from the beginning to the end, but it was full of fun. I think the Supreme Court case was kind of similar. I’m not sure I would find it quite as rich in radio terms, but it did the same thing. You had to keep switching sides. There were the parents that raised a little baby girl for a year and a half and then have to take her to a train station and give her away to a man who this baby of theirs has never met, who didn’t even want her in the beginning. Then, all of a sudden, she’s living comfortably at home with a man she calls Daddy, and now the Supreme Court says, “Give her back.” That’s very whale-like. You’re never sure.
JA: There is a weird kind of discombobulating pleasure in having to switch sides. The world gets a tiny bit bigger every time you have to switch sides. And you’re right, that did happen in the whale story and it also happened in the Supreme Court one. It was really hard.
The thing that I enjoy about the Supreme Court one that we did is it was really hard to make sure you were never inadvertently taking a side when every single fact is in dispute in a case. It became this crazy balancing act to be able to identify with each of these people and have an empathic moment with each of them. But not do it to the exclusion of someone else. That’s just a different kind of thing than we’ve ever done and it meant a lot of holding back. So often Robert and I jump in with both feet, saying what we think, arguing about God, and we’re yelling at each other, and suddenly there are these two guys with too many opinions. But in this case it was about dialing yourself back so that you’re very small and the lens on this world we were investigating was very big. That was kind of exciting.
RK: And we’re 10 years old. When you’re 10 you get a new lollipop. You grow out of M&Ms, and you try Hershey’s with almonds for the first time. I don’t know. There’s a certain amount of growing up that one keeps doing.
AVC: How did you start working together 10 years ago? Not how did you meet, but how did you, Jad, say “Here’s what I want this podcast to be. There should be a choir of angels here. It should be a sound collage of a church with animals.” How did you both decide what Radiolab should really be?
JA: There was never a decisive moment. It was a smear. We never planned anything. I met Robert in a completely bizarre collision. We didn’t meet in radio land; we met out in the world. We started having breakfasts. Eventually, we played together and the first time we played together, it was just like, “Eh, let’s see what happens.” We ended up making a five-minute thing, which was totally baffling to both of us, but it had all the elements. It had a strange skit about rabbits. It had funny sounds happening and a surrealistic sort of thing. It had two guys bickering or talking and being confessional. And we just sort of like, “Oh, this is fun. Let’s do another five-minute thing.” Then Robert came on Radiolab as a guest, and we just started yakking and we’d play a story and talk about it.
There was never a sense that we’re going to make a thing that’s going to have it’s own set of rules and one day we’ll employ other people. That somehow didn’t occur to us until suddenly it was happening already. The choir of angels sort of sneaks its way in, seemingly on its own.
The idea of how we’re using sounds now never came about in any kind of studied way. A story would be there and suddenly he’s talking about a choir of angels and we’re like, “Hey, we started this thing with a choir of angels, let’s stick the choir back in!” Then there it is, [which] suggests something to you that you carry forward. But it has been a case of blind evolution. We only ever recognized the thing we were doing after the fact.
RK: I think the gift of it is that both of us are willing to be surprised by the other and annoyed by the other. I think the actual genius of the duet part is that we do seem to, for the most part, agree when we’ve hit something that seems good enough or just right, if we’re lucky. It would be very hard to do if we didn’t have a shared sense of duty somewhere. But it doesn’t always start that way. There are obvious differences, so that’s good, also. I don’t know exactly how to explain it. It’s just been really creative in the hardest, richest sense. It’s full of problems and resolutions and new problems and resolutions.
I don’t know if I would have wanted to do a Supreme Court case, but I didn’t want to say, “Let’s not,” because I think saying no is dumb. If you’ve existed as long as I have, the only reason you learn how to keep going is by shutting up sometimes and saying, “Okay, let’s try it. I have no idea why you’d want to do that, but let’s just see.” Then let it happen. If any organization, let alone any creative person, finds themselves saying no more than yes, then their creative life is in jeopardy. You have to have standards, but you also have to have a dream of possibly doing things that you’ve never done before. And that means you have to say yes while biting your lip.
AVC: That is rather scientific, saying, “I don’t know. Try it. Prove me wrong.”
JA: Yes. Absolutely. That’s why the whole thing I was saying about the idea of science in its most expansive self. I hope that when we’re doing our jobs well we’re embodying a little bit of the spirit of science, if not always talking about science. Most of the time we’re talking about science, but our own bizarre, daffy brand of science.
RK: That’s where science and journalism maybe have split a little bit. I think that the typical journalism assignment is, “Okay, you’re the reporters. Go out, talk to the scientists, and find out what they’ve done, get it right, spell their names correctly, get it down, and act like you’re just reporting facts. These are the facts.” But from the scientist’s point of view, here’s what’s happened: They’ve woken up with a proposition that came or a hunch. They’ve tested it once, twice, three times, and that has brought them to the tentative thought that maybe something they thought about the universe might be true. So then the reporter calls in, “Whaddya got?” and they say, “Well, this might be true,” but you know, “this might” doesn’t seem to get him the headline. “True, Announces Scientist,” and that’s where the slip-up takes place. I think what Radiolab corrects is by staying puzzled, we stay true to what scientists really are, which is puzzled all the time.
JA: You were saying the “might” gets left out, I feel like that’s the thing we amplify, this speculative possibility. The maybes.
Episode #37: “Words” (September 10, 2010)
RK: “Words” was a revelation. Here’s this guy who can’t hear and doesn’t know that things have names, that this thing you write with is called a pencil or that the little animal that hops is a rabbit. Then he learns this, and it’s a revelation. He is surprised suddenly and enchanted by the world in a completely new way. That is the poetry of life. The other stuff is the puzzles of life. We don’t hit poetry too often, but every so often we do, and I thought that one was such an unusual, unlikely, and beautiful one that I was especially proud of it. Maybe because I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know what was going to happen.
JA: For me the “Words” episode stayed with me in a way that a lot of the others haven’t. I have a 4-year-old who, just today, I was trying to teach him the word “humid” because it’s so freaking humid out. I was like, “God, what a hard word to describe,” as I was trying to explain to him what humidity is. He kept asking me, “Is this humid? Is that humid?” We were just going back and forth on how to pin down the meaning of this word. I always think about it in moments like that. The central question of the “Words” episode is there is one theory of language that words are just descriptors, like, “This is a table.” And as soon as I have the world “table,” I know what to call it now. The table looks the same. It’s the same old table. But now it’s got a name.
RK: And you can share it.
JA: And I can share it. But there’s another, more interesting, definition of language that somehow the word itself changes the very thing you perceive. So now I know the word for “table,” something about the essential nature of this table has changed. It actually feeds back on perception, in a way. So when you know the word for “red,” maybe the reds in the world suddenly get redder. There’s a lot of interesting research that seems to make that case. And there’s a lot of argument with that case. But I always think about it, like, when that little dude learns a word, what actually is happening to the world he’s taking in? Is that world changing? Is it getting bigger, smaller, or is it simply getting labeled? I think about the “Words” episode every time that happens, and it happens all the time now.
The other thing I really like about that episode is that there’s a segment in the middle of that show where we talk about a study that’s centered around the phrase “left of the blue wall.” I will tell you, never has there been a harder segment. That segment kicked our ass 20 different ways…
RK: Oh God…
JA: I was reading this book, and there was this study outlined and it fucking blew my mind. I was like, “This is amazing,” and I went to tell Robert. I tell everybody else in the staff, “We have got to do something on this.” And then you spend weeks desperately trying to drag people back to that feeling, and it’s not working and you keep failing. But in the end, I think we were able to reconstruct that initial moment that made me want to do this. I can actually give that feeling to somebody else now. And hopefully they will be struck by it the way that I was struck by it.
RK: At one point I was like a spinning rat… remember?
JA: I did a bunch of rat voices in the middle of it, and that just felt wrong. We took that out. I feel a sort of quiet pride that we actually made that segment work.
RK: The secret of that one is there were so many crushed moments. We would put so much energy into [it]. We did singing ones… it was very complicated. I remember in “The Good Show,” when it became mathematical—when you talk about why people are nice to each other, you don’t suddenly think you’re going to do math. Then there we were. It turned out we had to do math in that one. The best explanation for why an animal would be willing to sacrifice itself for another animal or help one to its own cost turned out to be statistical. Sometimes you just can’t choose your fights. They choose you. Then you have to figure out, “How do I do this?” It’s hard.
AVC: How do you figure that sort of stuff out?
RK: We have editorial meetings on Fridays and we talk about things. Then sometimes, when you try one thing and it fails, it taps you on the shoulder and says, “What you should have done is talk to so-and-so.” So you talk to so-and-so. Or sometimes it fails halfway. Or sometimes it just becomes more complicated than you thought. So you’re just told by the material to keep searching. We do have arguments about that because having spent more than 20 years in commercial broadcasting at ABC News or CBS, when you ran into a thicket…
JA: You just cut.
RK: You want to know why Jack and Jill went up a hill? Fetching a pail of water isn’t good enough for you? Maybe there was some thirst question? Let’s just say they went up the hill. Forget about the water. Don’t do the water.
So I would just do that. I would just get rid of the sections that were hard. But Jad didn’t have that part. So he’d say, “Maybe we should try it this way. Maybe we should double it.” I said, “Double it, are you kidding? No.” Then I would get scared. But that’s the fun part, because he’s scared in his places, I’m scared in mine, but at least we’re not scared at quite the same things. Well, now we are probably.
I guess the to answer your question is that you can start with a hunch or something that just catches your eye or your ear, but when you’re in the middle of it, it starts telling you what to do.
JA: It also really depends on the nature of the story that you’re working on. When you’re doing a “left of the blue wall” kind of story, which is just so damn abstract, you’re trying to make it feel like music in some sense. It shouldn’t feel like information. It should somehow dance. It should get around your rational defenses. And so you play it for somebody. I’ll play it for Robert or I’ll play it for somebody on staff, and you just kind of watch their eyes. You watch the parts where their eyes get wide. You watch their hips. Are they leaning in or are they leaning back? You have to start to become a student of the emotional life of the people around you. You get a really quick sense of when a story is gripping and when it’s not.
RK: I used to call those the dummy edits. When I was at CBS, I happened to be assigned an office in the middle of As The World Turns, which was one of their soap operas. So my next-door neighbors were people dressed up in costumes. They’d have bloody bandages and policemen and nurses and things, and I would be doing things like leveraged buyouts, because I was an economics reporter. I would come onto the set, and I would gather all these bloodied doctors and nurses and say, “I’m going to read it.” I would read them the leveraged-buyout piece and do exactly what Jad said. I would watch their eyes. They were very good at respect and they were actors so they knew what to look like when they were being watched, but I could tell when they had no idea what I was talking about, and I would go back into the room and rewrite because my script didn’t pass the dummy edit. Then you take your dummy edit, once you’ve gotten it right, and bring it back to the smarty, who had told you the story, and say, “Am I too simple?” and they’ll go, “Yeah. This is missing this, it’s missing that,” and then you go back to the dummy and say, “All right…” It’s basic dummy/smarty/dummy/smarty/dummy/smarty/done. That’s it.
AVC: How do you decide what makes the show and what makes a short?
JA: Well, the shorts are the things that probably wanted to be part of a larger show, but they didn’t make friends very well.
RK: Or they’re just too weird.
JA: We’re constantly coming up with ideas and hopefully you find a container that’s an hour long to place the idea in. If the show topic is of a particular kind, it’ll have lots of babies. It’ll send you in lots of directions almost immediately. You end up sometimes with too many in one container and that becomes a short, or sometimes the shorts are the shows where they just didn’t pair off with other things. They just resisted every attempt to put them next to something and those become the things.
But in terms of what makes the show, I don’t know. There’s some kind of arc to it where you’re shifting textures, you’re shifting moods, you’re going from big to small, you’re going from something experiential that’s just a person getting their coat on, walking out the door, then taking that experience and dragging it into the lab and saying, “Okay, now help me understand that experience.” Then that person gives you some kind of way of thinking about the experience you’ve just encountered. And on the radio, when you put that experience next to the scientist being smart, they kind of vibrate against each other in a way that’s like, “I like it here.” That feels to me like the beginning of something. That’s the raw genetic material for our show.
Sometimes it doesn’t settle. Sometimes the only thing that settles it is time running out.
There are a lot of times where we’ll have five things for three spaces or we have two things for four spaces and only two days left to do it. Then you just lower your head and get it done. I look back on a lot of the shows and I feel like, “Oh, that was a good show. It had a feeling that moved through the hour and it took you to different places.” And there are other shows where I feel like, “Oh. This is just three things that are kind of the same thing stuck together.” Those are a little bit less satisfying, but you just keep throwing darts.
AVC: Is it something you’ve gotten better at over time?
RK: No, I don’t think we have.
JA: It feels like it’s gotten harder because you don’t want to repeat yourself, so everything you encounter that is genuinely interesting to you reminds you of something else that yesterday was genuinely interesting to you.
RK: As we were walking into this room, we were talking about a piece that we were very interested in, but we were now trying to figure out how to avoid making it about what we’ve already talked about, which is a problem we wouldn’t have had three years ago.
JA: Sometimes it feels like you’re going to the same dinner party every Friday night with the same people and they all know each other and you’re like, “God, I just want to get one new friend in there, but I’m not very good at making friends.” You’re constantly searching for a new configuration. At the same time, you don’t want to abandon your friends. You don’t want to kick your friends out of the party just because they’re not new. It’s a pretty ordinary challenge, I think, for a show that’s 10 years old.
AVC: That’s also a little scientific, because so many scientists have to focus on one tiny specific thing their whole career, but they have to figure out how to keep looking at it from different ways.
JA: I can tell you a case in point. My mother has, for the last probably 20 years, been working on one tiny protein in a fat cell, called CD36. And she’s been looking at this one minuscule protein for my entire adult life and it keeps having new jobs. I remember initially it was like, “This is the thing we think will ferry the fat in through the wall of the cell. That’s what it does.” Then it turns out that’s only its day job. It has a night job, where it does something entirely different. And then it has a weekend job that she’s discovering now that has to do with taste on the tongue. So now when you taste that particular umami taste that we all love so much, it might be because this protein is somehow on the taste bud doing some such thing that I can’t explain to you. So it keeps acquiring jobs and she keeps looking at the same thing and just learning more and more and more about it. We’ve made her mugs with this protein on it. We’ve made her T-shirts. It’s just like a member of the family at this point.
AVC: What have you always wanted to tackle, but you’ve never figured out a way to do it?
RK: Like, everything.
Just before we chose the subject for this stage show, we had another stage show in mind, which basically broke us in half for a while. The one we abandoned is certainly in category A of “illusive.” Jad saw a television show in England about a very provocative prisoner’s dilemma: Two people are sitting at a table, there’s a lot of money on the table, they can either share the money or by one device or another, they can steal the money. They can have it all for themselves. And there’s a protocol of how you do that and it involves lying. So these two people lie to each other. It’s so riveting, and then they betray each other and you don’t know which one is going to do that and I found that as fascinating a thing as I’ve seen in a long time. But we couldn’t figure out how to examine it. We had done a prisoner’s dilemma show already. It just wouldn’t shake our hand. It kept turning its back on us. So we had to leave it, but not forever.
JA: No, we’ll come back to it.
I can answer that question in two ways. When we did the “Colors” show we were faced with a limitation of radio. In the middle of this interview, Robert posed this strange image, which is, “If a crow, a dog, and a butterfly were looking at a rainbow, would they see the same rainbow?” Let’s just line them up and imagine that they’re looking up at the sky and they see a rainbow. Would they all see the same colors? That’s a really bizarre thought experiment. And, somehow, through a sequence of things, we ended up talking to a guy who was telling us about a shrimp who could see maybe 100,000 colors in the rainbow, so many that we can’t see. And we were like, “Shit! This is radio. How the hell do we even do this story? It’s all about color, and you can’t see it.” But then we ended up getting a choir full of 160 voices to sing the different colors. So, as opposed to just R.O.Y G. B.I.V, you added superinfared. We had this whole spectrum that you couldn’t see, but you could hear. It worked so well I remember thinking, “Okay, I no longer believe in the limitations of radio. We can do anything now.” If we can make a mantis shrimp looking at the rainbow actually appear in your imagination…
RK: Inside the “Hallelujah Chorus” by Handel…
JA: On the other hand, I regularly listen to This American Life, and I hear stories that they do and I think, “Fuck. I want to do that.” It’s the way they are able to investigate. Like the thing they just did about school shootings, I think, “God, that’s a story I’d love to be able to figure out how to do.” So there are definitely a lot of stories and a lot of subjects that we haven’t even touched that I hear them poking at. I want to do our own spin on those kinds of stories.
AVC: That “Words” show in particular must have had a lot of auditory constraints. You’re talking about sign language, for instance.
RK: It’s a constraint. If you want to be a poet, you can just write it on a napkin and it’s the length of the napkin, I guess. But usually you decide you’ll rhyme it or you’ll have a formula. In radio that’s something called, “Close your eyes and listen.” I did television for a very long time, but if you’re on television, words don’t count. What the eye sees beats the words. If you switch sides, from radio to television, you learn that the wordiness that you learn on the radio is useless or not nearly as powerful, and you have to learn to trust that the eye will just beat the ear. But having those constraints make it fun. You must limit yourself, I think. If you allow anything to happen all the time, you have nothing.
The radio part is magical, though, because a very talented person took the mantis shrimp after our episode and started exploring. His presentation was entirely visual. What’s his name?
JA: The Oatmeal.
RK: The Oatmeal. He’s pretty brilliant. I was jealous of what he got to do, but he was jealous of what we got to do. I think that’s the fun of it. You push your constraint as far as you can and that’s the joy of it. But you don’t give up the constraint. If you’re going to be in radio, you have to learn to beat the fact that you’re going to paint on the inside of their heads, not through their eyeballs. And if you’re going to be on television, you have to figure out how to do it as close to wordlessly as you can. That’s the nature of the beast. And if you’re going to write it, you have to create rhythms in the speech that somehow translate into images and thoughts and a sense of flow that come out of the words you’ve chosen and the places you’ve put your commas. Each one has it’s own integrity.
AVC: How has being a podcast changed the radio show?
JA: Well, it has justified it in a way. I remember when we were just a radio show, we were a very hard radio show to justify. I remember having a lot of conversations at the beginning where people would just look at me like I was insane. “Wait, you’re working this hard to put in little noises that are going to go on the radio? They’re just going to disappear!”
RK: “People have their window open. They’re driving at 55 miles an hour.”
JA: “They’re vacuuming. They’re doing the dishes. Why would you, A) spend the time and, B) why would you task them with this? They don’t want to listen to all the little noises you make. They want to be able to listen to this with half their ear so they can live their life with the other half!” Unfortunately, they were right. But, being who I am, I didn’t listen. And then suddenly podcasting comes along, and it creates an entirely different set of options between you and the person who’s listening, because they can rewind, they can listen really closely, they can carry you around with them…
RK: You’re literally in their head.
JA: And suddenly all of the obsessive work that went into this stuff felt like it could be justified. I’m not sure, but I think our podcasting audience has eclipsed our broadcasting audience. Even as our broadcasting audience grows, I think we’re mostly a podcast at this point.
RK: Yeah. I think what that means is that you can address questions at different lengths, which broadcasting can’t do. You have to fit inside a clock for a variety of reasons. You can be far denser in your production, as Jad just said, because people are listening with buds in their ears. You can take more risks because when the person is committed to downloading you and spending time with you, in some funny way they’re a little bit more your co-author. I guess the act of choosing you is a little more deliberate, so the fact that you’re now on means that they’re going to stay for one more beat or two or three. That means not only do you have a bigger chance to score with your audience member, but that your audience member has gotten a little bit more of a will to stay with you and hear what you have to say. It’s a tighter dance than it used to be. And you put all of those three together, suddenly you get a much more sophisticated joint relationship.
Then you add the geographical distribution of this. In a broadcast world, you are within the range of a transmitter. With this stuff, you can be in Chad or you can be in Togo—the Peace Corps people who write us are in those places—or you can be in Fez or you can be in Minsk. You listen to Jay Z or whatever and you sample some spoken word. If you like that stuff, you share it with friends. One of the things we’ve noticed is we’re now getting a pretty big international audience, which we didn’t even think about before. I think there’s an enormous adventure in that. I don’t yet know what it’s about, but without podcasts, that simply wouldn’t happen. You don’t get people listening to you in Argentina. You don’t get editorials in the London Guardian about a show that no one in England can hear on the air. You don’t get to go to fan clubs in Oslo and places like that and have your voice recognized in Israel when you just get out of a train. The iPod seems to be uninterested in distance. So distance is collapsing in some new way.
JA: I also think it’s been very healthy for public radio, too. Public radio has, historically, had the least risk-taking system that I can think of. Shows that were invented in the ’70s and ’80s are just consistently on the air forever. You’re seeing a lot more risk-taking now, which probably isn’t because of podcasting, but if you look at podcasting and the ecosystem that is podcasting, you have all these little niche communities that have sprouted up. You have all these great comedy podcasts; you have people like Marc Maron who’s doing an interview show in his garage and that leads to a million other things. It just seems like it’s a little bit more of an anything-goes/Wild West/“let’s invent something” mentality within podcasting. I love the idea that’s it’s going to feed back on the radio station. I feel like that’s happening. A lot of radio stations now broadcast things that were formerly just podcasts, just because they’re good.
Roman Mars, I think, started as a podcast and then got picked up and now he’s on, like, a dozen stations or something. You’d have to check the numbers. But he’s a guy who’s just an extreme talent toiling away in his own little dimension, and now he’s somehow bringing that to the mainstream. I think that’s really healthy. I think there are all these adjacent spaces to the business that we work in where great things are happening and those should be infecting us.
RK: The audience for podcasts grew spectacularly in the last 10 years. It’s growing around the world spectacularly now, but the number of people who think, “Hey, I’m going to do a podcast!” has grown spectacularly as well. In a business-like way, you have more supply for what may be beginning to be an ebbing demand. Then you’re going to have a winnowing effect, but we happened to grow up in the easiest possible podcast moment. We were new in it and NPR was very strong in it and Ira Glass in particular said, “Try these people out,” early on, so that gave us a big boost. We rode in on a very fast rising tide. If you were to start this in five years, do some new idea, I think you’d just be in a different world. But then again, I don’t know what the next machine is going to be. It may turn out to be that sunglasses or eyeglasses—which after all, have stems toward your ears—will turn out to be the new radio and TV set of the next generation. I have no idea. In which case, you’ll think that you’ll be talking to somebody, but they’ll actually be watching Fred Astaire dancing and you won’t even be aware of it.
JA: Hopefully they’ll be interested in stories about whales.
RK: Although, by that time, we could probably put Fred Astaire on the whale in some way, and it can be a combo.