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Volume 77, Number 9 | August 01 - 07, 2007

Photo by Geoff Smith

Jad Abumrad, producer and co-host of the WNYC show Radio Lab, outside his Brooklyn home.

Tuning into Radio Lab’s strange frequency

By Orli Van Mourik

At Café Lafayette, a modest, French bistro in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Jad Abumrad puts down his salmon burger and begins what is for him a typical conversation.

“There’s a great story about Capuchin Monkeys,” he says, looking intently at me from behind a pair of transparent frames. Slim and animated, with a thatch of dark coiled hair and a perpetually amused expression, he looks like a boyish, 21st century version of Bill Nye the Science Guy.

“These researchers took two monkeys and put them side-by-side,” Abumrad goes on. “And they taught them to use pebbles as currency. The monkeys soon learned that they could exchange pebbles for cucumbers, but then at a certain point, the researchers arbitrarily started giving one monkey grapes.” He pauses for effect, a stickler when it comes to the art of storytelling. “Now, the rational, reasonable thing to do, if you’re the monkey that didn’t get the grape is to say: ‘All right, a cucumber is better than nothing.’ But instead, the monkey took all the pebbles and just threw them out of the cage.”

This strikes me as hilarious and, well, totally understandable. I’d chuck the pebbles at the guy in the lab coat too. Wouldn’t you?

Suddenly, I’m feeling far less evolved than I did at the start of this conversation—not that I’m surprised. As the producer and co-host of WNYC’s cult show, Radio Lab, Abumrad has a made a career of reinterpreting what we think we know. He is known for humanizing subjects as daunting as the neuroscience of morality and the biochemistry of stress.

The marketing folks at WNYC have dubbed Radio Lab a science show, but Abumrad is no scientist. He’s an artist conversant in the language of science. And he insists that Radio Lab is less about science that it is about asking “big questions:”

“The secret is that I don’t actually truly love science,” Abumrad tells me. “I just love the way scientists ask questions—I love feeling like you can actually say radical things based on something real, not on some pot-smoking notion. It feels like the truest avenue to truth.”

What this means is that a Radio Lab segment exploring the intricate and inexplicable laws governing the behavior of ant colonies can organically evolve into a debate between Abumrad and his co-host, NPR science reporter and long-time ABC News correspondent Robert Krulwich, about the existence of God:

Krulwich: “I think it’s not just fascinating that there are these hidden patterns—I think it’s kinda . . . holy. I think when you look at the way ants work, you’re looking at an author.”

Abumrad: “See, when you say that all the air just gets let out of the balloon for me.”

Krulwich (astonished): “Really? But see, what you’re left with then is that everything you see when you wake up in the morning—which we all agree is beautiful—is empty of purpose. Is that okay with you?”

Abumrad: “Yeah. In a way, it makes it even more mysterious to be alive.”

It’s rare to find a person like Abumrad: Someone inclined to ask the questions, but perfectly content not to have all the answers. Maybe this is what happens when an artist is raised in a family of scientists.

Abumrad is the only child of two ambitious Lebanese doctors. His father is a surgeon; his mother, a molecular biologist specializing in the study of obesity. Born in Syracuse in 1973, Abumrad moved to Nashville with his family when he was 12, so that his dad could take a job at Vanderbilt University. Jad didn’t exactly blend in. “In terms of foreigners, it was like me and this kid from Iran,” he says, laughing.

Despite being the only child of two people passionate about the scientific method, he never caught the bug. Instead he found solace in music. Starting with the guitar, he quickly graduated to piano. By the age of nine, he’d already chosen a career path: He wanted to write music for films. The way Abumrad tells it, he spent most of his time in Nashville sequestered in the practice room at school. (This may account for the complete absence of an accent. “You know how tornadoes jump a house every so often? Somehow that happened with the accent,” he riffs.)

When it came time for college, Abumrad chose the liberal arts Mecca, Oberlin. His ardor for film scores hadn’t cooled, but by his early 20s, he was beginning to wonder if he had the chops required to be a professional musician. He threw himself into literature instead, graduating with a major in creative writing and a minor in music.

Like every aspiring writer before him, it didn’t take Abumrad long to discover that Corporate America wasn’t clamoring to hire philosophically-inclined liberal arts majors. It was the mid-’90s and the technology revolution was in full swing. He ended up doing web design to make ends meet. While Abumrad knew the tech industry wasn’t going to be his final destination, he wasn’t quite sure where he was headed. He moonlighted as a writer and occasionally composed music for short films, but nothing quite gelled. Then, after a few years of slaving away in the cyber mines, it hit him: Radio! “I was like: Well, I like writing and I like music and I’m not terribly good at either in isolation. Radio felt like an intersection of those two things.”

Abumrad landed a gig at WNYC and in 2002, he was given dominion over a slice of underused airtime—three late-night hours on Sundays. Given the dearth of listeners in that time slot, management basically told him to “do whatever the hell he wanted with it.” What he did was Radio Lab, a pastiche of recycled documentary snippets exploring a particular theme, interspersed with Abumrad’s commentary, and ornamented with a strangely euphonious collection of sounds and music. His subjects covered a broad spectrum, ranging from the tourist mentality to Wagner’s Ring Cycle and advertising. He didn’t know exactly what he was doing—he just knew that he enjoyed the feeling of asking the really big questions. It reminded him somehow of being transported by a well-composed piece of music. The feeling of neurons firing, connections being forged, “it makes you feel suspended,” he says.

After a couple of years, Abumrad found himself gravitating more and more towards science in search of that feeling. “Science just happens to be where all the big questions seem to be coming from right now,” Abumrad says. He’d hit on something. The powers-that-be at WNYC knew it and so did Abumrad’s mentor Robert Krulwich. “Jad’s a composer by instinct and training,” says Krulwich. “I’ve always cut my own stuff for television and radio and there were beats he was putting in that I’d never heard before. I couldn’t quite understand [why], but I loved it.” And so, in 2005, Radio Lab was officially christened a science show and given a second life with Krulwich sitting in as a co-host.

The revamped Radio Lab is going into its fourth season. Drawing on the wisdom of a bevy of scientists and a “Council of Elders” that includes everyone from famed neurologist Oliver Sacks to Abumrad’s mother, Nada, the show has tackled subjects as timeless as sleep, memory, music. Unlike other public radio shows, it doesn’t have a regular spot on the schedule. Its complex subject matter requires exhaustive research, and its unorthodox style demands endless hours of audio tweaking. They keep costs down by producing a limited number of shows and keeping the staff lean. The first three seasons were comprised of five-show “bursts,” which were slotted into another show’s regular time slot when it went on hiatus. Now that the buzz is building, they intend to ramp up production to ten shows per season next spring.

The show’s irregular schedule is both a good and bad thing, as far as Abumrad is concerned. A born perfectionist, he’s more than happy to have the time to polish each show. But he’s aware that the current set up makes it harder to build up an audience. At a recent singles mixer in Brooklyn, hosted by the Radio Lab crew, Abumrad asked the audience how they’d heard about the event. “Half the crowd were [among the] die-hard cult of Radio Lab, but a lot of people were like: ‘Yeah, I think I like your show, but every time I get interested in it, you’re not there anymore,” Abumrad says, with a tired smile.

Radio Lab may never have the kind of mass appeal of NPR ratings winners like Fresh Air and All Things Considered. Some listeners have complained about the strange sounds on the show, and not everyone likes having their worldviews upended. “The people who listen to Radio Lab like that feeling of thinking that they know something and then suddenly having their perspective just shift,” Abumrad says.

Yet for a niche show, Radio Lab has developed an impressive following: It’s been picked up by over 150 stations and earned half a million listeners, including heavy hitters like This American Life’s Ira Glass. WNYC’s Senior Vice President of Programming Dean Cappello is among their biggest fans. “Five great Radio Lab shows is as good as half a year of other programs,” says Cappello. “It doesn’t just tell you stories. It provokes you; it respects your intelligence.”

Still, no amount of applause makes up for the occasional critical comment the show receives, Abumrad admits. Like any artist, he pours so much of himself into the show it’s hard not to take the occasional bad review personally. “When people don’t like the show, I feel like they don’t like me—that’s the truth of it,” he says, finally abandoning his uneaten salmon burger for good. He often has to remind himself that as a radio host, he is walking into people’s homes uninvited. “You might be dressed beautifully, but you’re still intruding,” he says, shrugging. But there’s little doubt Abumrad will keep trying to win them over:

“The next season is going to be about blowing up the template we’ve created. Trying to mess it up a bit. Because the whole idea is that we don’t have a set way of doing this. Our mandate is to be constantly reinventing the wheel.”

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