The Radiolab Effect

The public radio show has turned on a cult of young creatives to the poetry of science

Melissa Stanley went to school for music—or rather, Music Industry. The 26-year-old recalls “taking maybe one physics class in college, and that was it” for her formal science education. After graduation, she became a director of A&R and booking at Jezebel Music, a concert-promotion outfit for unsigned acts in Brooklyn. Then, at the office sometime in 2007, things changed. “One day,” she said, “we just got tired of all of the music that we had on our computers, so I turned on WNYC.” The program on the air was Radiolab.

“I can’t remember if they played the entire ‘Musical Language’ episode, or if it was just one segment … but my co-worker and I were just in awe. I think that was the turning point for me. Both of us became WNYC members that day, and I ordered both of Diana Deutsch’s CDs, and I eventually found a copy of her textbook, The Psychology of Music (Academic Press, 1982).”

Dr. Deutsch, a UC San Diego professor who’s pioneered research into cross-cultural music perception and cognition and was on the air that day, is the sort of slightly whimsical academic—biostatisticians of bee colonies; pathologists in possession of famous historical tumors—Radiolab has adopted as its own. Yet for listeners such as Stanley, secondhand access to the whimsy of the lab comes twinged with regret about the limits of the life they’ve chosen.

“I was always obsessed with music, but at 17 years old I had no idea that people were even studying the science behind music, or the way it affects people. … When I heard the ‘Musical Language’ episode, it just opened up my eyes to this whole other world behind musicality. I began to read more and more about it. If my teachers had been as engaging as [Radiolab hosts] Jad [Abumrad] and Robert [Krulwich], I would probably have a completely different life right now.”

Hoping eventually to make that alternate, scientific life happen, Stanley is in the meantime working on a play, with her friend and fellow diehard Erin Smith, based on research recounted in the Radiolab episode “Stress.”

The Radiolab effect on Gen-Y cultural production is widespread. In Edinburgh, Scotland, Jez Burrows, a 24-year-old designer and illustrator, was inspired to organize a collective art project called “In Radiolab We Trust,” proceeds from which went to WNYC.

“It’s funny,” Burrows said of his success drawing artists as well as buyers. “The vast majority of the artists I know seem to spend a lot of time listening to podcasts. It used to be This American Life that was the touchstone, but more and more I’m hearing Radiolab.”

In August, it was likewise Radiolab—and not This American Life—heard over the radio as Mary-Louis Parker tossed a croquet mallet (and murder weapon) out her car window on the season premiere of Weeds.

A September episode of Radiolab, “Falling,” nicely captures the show’s aesthetic appeal, and its appeal to the aesthete. The episode comes in the form of eight rapid-fire, free-associational segments: A neuroscientist has subjects free-fall 150 feet into a circus net to study their sensation of “slowing” time. A girl describes falling in, and out of, love with a prosopagnosic (face-blind) boy. Researchers analyze police reports of cats falling 10 stories and landing on their feet. Physicists struggle to answer why we fall, and fall more often as we age. The story of the first woman to clear Niagara Falls in a barrel. An evolutionary explanation for hypnic jerks. Walking as a form of controlled falling. What it feels like to fall in a black hole.

As you’d imagine, smiles ensue. But Radiolab is more than just a post-ironic, earnestly clever refashioning of findings for the literate and curious. What seems like dumbing-down harbors revelation: To listen to enough Radiolab is to see that scientists haven’t simply replaced the theologians, the metaphysicians and the social critics as posers and answerers of the biggest questions. They’ve also become, in a time of gene-splicing and hadron-colliding and psychopharmacology, our true avatars of creative expression, the last radical artists left.

Radiolab, which airs at 3 p.m. Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays on KNPR (88.9 FM) through the end of the month, is a program only ostensibly about science and scientists. At a deeper level, its interest is in limning the full varieties of human wonder, while serving as a real-time chronicle of the triumph of science.

“To tell you the truth, I hate science,” Abumrad said. “The rigor you have to go through to be a scientist would drive me crazy.”

When he started Radiolab in 2002, the subject matter wasn’t strictly science, nor was the format settled at all. Each week, the show would air think pieces by Abumrad and other young NPR producers, often thematically—if tendentiously—linked. Thirty-one episodes ran that first year, from “Death Penalty and the Prison Economy” to “Race Relations, the Power of Pop, and the History of Rhythm ’n’ Blues.”

Radiolab took on its present form in 2005, with the arrival of Krulwich, a veteran science reporter for PBS and ABC News as well as NPR. To his 30-something co-host’s experimental mélange of curious topics and more curious sounds, Krulwich, now in his 60s, brought a calming, erudite avuncularity, and the banter between the two soon became the most edifying bit of intergenerational male bonding on the radio.

With the on-air team in place, the weekly anthology of hodgepodge documentaries was sculpted down into immaculately edited seasons of five episodes each. The subject matter narrowed in scope, but broadened in outlook, to hour-long meditations on, and titled, “Time,” “Race,” “Diagnosis,” “Sperm” and so on.

Without the pair ever really planning on it, research scientists became the main guests. “Science just seemed to be the place where really big ideas were floating to the surface,” Abumrad said. And Radiolab, begun as a limited local series, turned into a premiere civilian springboard into scientific waters. The show is heard on more than 300 NPR stations. But radio itself is only a sideline—the real audience is online. With some 1.8 million subscribers, the Radiolab podcast is the second you’ll find listed on the iTunes Store’s Science and Medicine page.

“This show is a conversation between science and mystery,” Abumrad said. “You’re right at the edge of what the science can tell you. Which to me is as much about, like, magical thinking and weirdness and poetry as the science itself.”

A lot of time is spent on sound. Abumrad and his fellow producers work in a sonic idiom unlike anything else on the air or on the Web. The ingenuity of a scientist such as Deutsch isn’t simply told with an astutely edited interview; it’s formally instantiated in the noises of a more familiar sort of creativity. New voices float in and out of scene, often before they’re identified; accounts of field and lab work are enveloped in a stylized, hyper-real ambience.

“There’ll be strategic silence and then no silences,” Krulwich said. “There’ll be periods where it’s just back and forth and then periods when you hear someone talking for a long time. All those things are not accidents; they’re about whatever’s being said. And then the way it parses through is—and this is composer’s logic—you keep surprising the audience. Keep a person alert below the level of understanding.”

But the immense skill of these compositions may best be witnessed in the reactions of those decidedly above the level of understanding. Despite the radical cutting and remixing, a half-decade of Ph.D. guests have been almost universally pleased at the aestheticizing their science received on Radiolab.

For Abumrad, this comes down to his artistry emerging organically from theirs. “Herbert Spencer [the English philosopher] had this idea that if you recorded someone talking and you removed the words, essentially what you have is a series of musical gestures, contours of pitches rising and falling,” he said. “If you take those sounds and amplified it, what you’d have is music. So in essence he’s saying music is contained within human communication. So I think of the sound design as somehow locked within the things we record. It’s just choosing the sounds—amplifying some kernel inside it. Whatever they’re talking about should give birth to the sounds, based on their ideas.”

Stanley, the Brooklyn concert planner, has heard enough. She’s decided to become a neuroscientist of music, a quarter-life change that will first mean getting a second bachelor’s degree.

“It will probably be the toughest thing that I will have to face,” she said. “I don’t have any money; I won’t get very much aid; and my family is not entirely on board with my plan. But I know it is what I have to do. … I’m not going to give up on my dreams. I will figure it out.”

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