Radiolab co-host Jad Abumrad on journalism, the fury of Terry Gross fans and what makes 'messy' stories worth telling
The creative process, according to "Radiolab" co-host Jad Abumrad, is marked with uncertainty. Whether that creative queasiness — “gut churn,” he calls it — helps or hinders the operation is the inquiry at the center of Abumrad’s multimedia presentation of the same name, coming to Lawrence this weekend as part of the Free State Festival.
“In many ways, the talk — my life, actually — has been in some sense a study of that phenomenon,” says Abumrad, chatting over the phone from New York City, the town where even the most celebrated public radio personalities can remain incognito. (More on that later.)
Here, in an edited and condensed version of his interview with the Journal-World, the onetime MacArthur Fellow ("Radiolab," which he co-hosts with Robert Krulwich from New York City’s WNYC studios, now reaches more than 500 public radio stations across the country) shares stories from his days as a cub reporter, the fury of Terry Gross fans and what makes the “messy” stories of life worth telling.
“Gut Churn” is slated for 7 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St.
You grew up in Nashville as the child of Lebanese immigrants, and you’ve talked in the past about how this created a sense of not fully belonging here in the U.S. or in Lebanon. How did that experience inform your work as a journalist?
It’s funny — when you are not quite American and not quite Lebanese, or whatever hyphenated identity you find yourself to be, you’re kind of not either. And so it felt important for me to be something that was a third thing and not either. Becoming a journalist was kind of like that thing for me. It was like, here’s this third thing I can be where I can actually ask questions about the first two things. And if I look at all the work I’ve done in my life, it’s actually not about science — I mean, people label the show in various ways that don’t feel right to me — but it’s actually about two different cultures, two different spirits, crashing into each other. I think anyone who is an immigrant feels that (way) — you’re somehow of a place that you’re not really of, and you’re in a place that you’re not really in, and so you are somehow the collision between these two cultures, and that’s the story I do every single day.
You actually got your start not in journalism but as a film composer. How did you learn the ropes?
I sort of stumbled into it. I went to school for creative writing and music, and I got out of school and was trying to do both. I got to this point where I realized that I don’t seem to be good at either of these things. And my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, was like, “Well, you could do radio. It’s sort of the middle ground between the two things you’re doing.” So I got involved at a radio station. I got hooked very quickly. I got into it more for the craft, and I didn’t know the first thing about journalism.
I was volunteering at a radio station down the street from where I’m now sitting called WBAI. The first day I show up, the news director, who’s about to have a sex change — and I didn’t know (about it) — has just suddenly disappeared, and suddenly I’m there and there’s no one to teach me, and somebody just hands me a recorder. They’re like, “Go out and record this protest at City Hall.” So, I did this awful 12-minute piece of people rah-rah-ing about who the (expletive) knows what. But WBAI was so crazy at that moment that, literally, I walked in there and I was on the air not that day, maybe, but the next day. There was no barrier. I literally started figuring it out as I went. Basic stuff like, "How do I ask a question so that I get an answer I can use? And how do I create conversation between two different voices?"
It was very disorganized — I didn’t have anyone who was mentoring me in journalism. Honestly, I feel like I’ve only really been a good journalist in the last three or four years. I feel like, "OK, I can kind of deal with almost any scenario right now." I would’ve blown a lot of money but saved myself a lot of time had I gone to J School.
What’s happened within those three or four years, do you think, that’s taken you to the next level?
Maybe in 2011 or 2012, I kind of got fed up a little bit (with "Radiolab"). We were just doing this story where we’d talk to somebody who was really smart, and he or she would paint a picture of some imaginary thing and then we’d make it. And I just kind of felt like, “I’m sitting on my (expletive) in front of Pro Tools all day long, not actually having experiences.” The show works in a certain way, but it needs to be messier. It needs to be more engaged in the world. Like, I’m tired of these very clean, expansive studio conversations that lead you to that very predictable moment. As much as I love all that, I got tired of it.
I wanted to start looking into the messiness of human beings living in a messy world, while still focusing on the complexities of life, which is ultimately why I feel I have a job. That’s what I feel I’ve been put here to do. Long story short, we began to do stories that were maybe more about politics, more about cultures clashing, things that get lost in translation. That forced me into a situation where I almost felt like I had to start over. Doing a lot of science reporting puts you in a position of having to get really good at technical writing and you’ve got to figure out a way to explain things to people, but it can be a very limited journalistic space. When you’re dealing with people who are sometimes traumatized or sometimes yelling at you, there’s a different set of skills that are involved, and I learned all that stuff.
We just did a huge investigation into the global surrogacy market, and that’s a situation where every radioactive issue was there in one story, you know? Like, LGBT issues were there, race was there, cultural imperialism was there. And as a journalist, I have to wade through all that, and it’s demanded more of me. We’ve gone through enough of those hard stories where I feel like I’ve gotten my feet under me as a journalist. And I like that. Every story feels like it’s harder than I’m able to do right now, and yet, we do it, and I feel a little bit bigger at the end of it.
There’s been a crazy surge in podcasts over the last few years, thanks to shows like yours and “Serial,” to name one recent example. What does this say about the way we’re consuming media and stories now?
I don’t know. Here’s my sort of idealistic answer, which I’m not sure I buy, but I’ll just say it: We want everything at once, you know? And our tastes and our predilections exist as a series of paradoxes. Like, we want (stuff) that’s small and sugary and sound bitey and vapid. We want that. I want that. I want stuff that’s stupid, as much as I think I’m a smart person. But the more dumb stuff I want, the more stuff I want that’s challenging and long and rich and complicated. I feel like the shorter my attention span gets, the longer my attention span gets. And I see that in the world — everybody wants everything.
And so in some sense, the poles are pulling against each other. Stuff is getting stupider at the very moment it’s getting smarter, and in some way I can’t articulate to you right now, I feel like they’re related. The trends toward stupidity and toward brilliance seem to be related to me. I’ll work that out at some point and give you a better answer.
NPR has a very niche fandom. Any strange encounters with fans you’d like to share?
I saw somebody had a tattoo of my name on their shoulder, and I was like, “OK, that’s weird.” Kind of flattering but a little creepy, you know? And then I saw my name on a bathroom wall once. But that’s as strange as it gets.
I spend most of my life in this tiny room interacting with pretty much no one except my staff, so most of the time I have no idea what the outside world is doing or thinking about what we’re up to. I definitely don’t get on social media anymore, just because life’s too short — at least not for getting feedback — so I’m usually pretty oblivious. And also, people in New York just keep it so cool, you know? Even if they recognize you, they would never let you know.
As someone who listens to a lot of "Radiolab," it seems like each of those episodes must take a long time to produce. What’s that process like? And how much time does it take to produce an hour-long episode?
I would say maybe anywhere from six months to two years. Most of what we’re doing these days is actually on the podcast. It’s not one-hour shows anymore; it’s 40-minute pieces of one kind or another. And even those take us a year. But, you know, from the moment someone has the idea until the moment it hits the air, it doesn’t ever seem to happen faster than six months. And it’s not like six months of solid work. You’ve got the idea, you’re scheduling interviews, you’re doing second and third and fourth rounds of interviews, then you’re going through endless edits trying to get the story shape to work, and there’s a way in which that process never lasts anything shorter than six months. And you’re working on 20 of those at once. Maybe each of the producers has three or four they’re working on, and so we’re doing edits throughout the week on each of these different stories, and one of them will kind of go on the shelf on the while because maybe something fell through, but then maybe something will happen in the world and we’re like, “Oh, we should bring that piece back,” and we yank it off the shelf.
"Radiolab" has been on the air for about 15 years now. In that time, it’s been critically lauded for its experimental use of sound and music. But when it premiered, did you get that universal praise? Was there any sort of pushback from the old guard of radio?
Oh yeah, definitely pushback. When we debuted, it started out at 8 p.m. on the AM frequency here in New York, which for various technical reasons, nobody listens to (at that hour). Nobody. So I was in this kind of desert for a long time, which was, looking back on it, a good thing. I needed to be in that desert where I was ignored so I could learn a few things.
At our first home on FM, which is where the audience was, the program director put us at, I think, 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, for a week. He did this because Terry Gross was going on vacation. She takes a vacation once a year or whatever, and in that time, they just run re-runs. And so he’s thinking, “Rather than re-runs, we’ll just put this new show on.” So, they put us on, and people in Terry Town were pissed. They hated it. The listener services people send you these Excel spreadsheets of every single call that comes in, good or bad. And they sent us this Excel spreadsheet, and I naively thought, “Oh, we’re beautiful. People will think we’re beautiful.” And I remember opening this Excel spreadsheet up, and it was just pages and pages and pages of (criticism). Category 1 was like, “Where is Terry Gross? What have you done with Terry Gross?” And the other category was like, “Where is Terry Gross, and who the (expletive) are these guys?” In that, there were a lot of the criticisms that we still get, frankly, which are, “Quit editing 10,000 things together at once. Just tell the story. Why do you have to put all the sounds in?” That criticism was very, very loud at the beginning.
I think listening habits and styles have changed, and now I don’t think we sound that experimental anymore. I think there are a lot of people who are doing stuff probably taking it even farther than us. Like, "Love + Radio" — if you hear an average, run-of-the-mill episode of theirs, they’re doing (stuff) that is like, “Wow, you can do that? You’re allowed to do that?” I feel like we could be better, or more experimental.