Kudos to Radiolab

Sep 20, 2011

Ira writes:

Fantastic news today as one of our colleagues and friends at Radiolab, Jad Abumrad, was named a MacArthur "Genius Grant" winner. I couldn't agree more with whoever chooses people for those awards: Jad does amazing, beautiful, innovative work. That show sounds like nothing else on the air. And it's fun to listen to.

Coincidentally, yesterday I posted on the public radio website Transom an essay talking about what makes Radiolab so great. Transom is a site for people who want to make radio stories, so I get into the nuts and bolts of how the show is made, what they're doing to create their unusual sound and sensibility. But I also try to place Radiolab in context with where public radio is now, and where it could go. At one point, I talk about the chatty, informal style of narration on Radiolab, and how different it is from the tone of most public radio programs:

This question of tone is something lots of people in public radio have been talking about lately. A 2010 NPR/SmithGeiger survey of news consumers who rightly should be in the public radio audience, showed that one of the biggest reasons adults say they choose not to listen to public radio is that they’re put off by the tone. One survey respondent said: “This type of story could be interesting, but the reporter’s voice and intonation is soooo affected, upper class, wasp, Ph.D. student-like, it detracts from the story. She speaks like she is writing a novel.” Radiolab has invented a sound that won’t put off smart people who should be in our audience. Simply put: it’s a show that’s out for fun. It’s no surprise that a much younger audience loves Radiolab. It’s no surprise that a huge part of its fan base is people who don’t consider themselves public radio listeners.

If you're a fan of Radiolab like I am, I hope you check out the essay. And if you've ever thought about making your own radio stories, for fun or profit, you should poke around on the Transom site, where they tell you everything you could want to know, from what gear and editing software you can get on the cheap, to how to use that gear and software, to how to structure a story, with lessons and advice from the most experienced and interesting people doing radio, from the Planet Money team and the Kitchen Sisters to the late great Studs Terkel.

At the end of yesterday's essay about Radiolab, I wrote about how WNYC's managers have always been great supporters of the program, but they don't seem to treat Jad and his co-host Robert Krulwich as their resident geniuses. Radiolab is not central to the station's identity, the way our show is with our home station WBEZ Chicago. Understandably, I suppose, it's the very fine daily talk show hosts on WNYC - who log so much more time on the air - who define the identity of the radio station, not Radiolab.

Now that the MacArthur Fellowship has officially declared Jad to be a genius, it'll be interesting to see if that changes at all.