Radiolab Co-Hosts Return to Oberlin

(published September 25, 2014)

Radiolab co-hosts and Oberlin alumni Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad on the stage of Finney Chapel, Sept. 19, 2014. Photo: Jonathan Jue-Wong
Radiolab co-hosts and Oberlin alumni Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad on the stage of Finney Chapel, Sept. 19, 2014. Photo: Jonathan Jue-Wong

“Aside from the Inn,” everything looks the same from Tappan, joked Jad Abumrad ’95, in reference to the major construction at the Oberlin Inn. Waxing nostalgic, Robert Krulwich ’69 recalled feeling surrounded by New Yorkers when he first arrived at Oberlin in the 1960s: “New Yorkers came in on their horses, and then there was everyone else,” he quipped.

College President Marvin Krislov introduced Krulwich and Abumrad, Oberlin grads and the two co-creators of acclaimed radio program Radiolab, to a packed audience of students and alumni at Finney Chapel last Friday night, on September 19. Radiolab, which is produced by NPR’s New York branch (WNYC), is famous for using analogies from everyday life to break down otherwise challenging, dense philosophical and scientific topics.

Abumrad, a native Tennessean who majored in creative writing and music composition at Oberlin, met Krulwich, a law-school-student-turned-journalist heralding from the Upper West Side, when he was assigned to interview him. Barring their Oberlin education, the two had also worked on WOBC while at Oberlin, and after graduating, at WBAI, WNYC and NPR.

Krulwich and Abumrad reminisced about their times at Oberlin—perhaps a little forcefully, given the massive number of alumni here for alumni weekend. They also gently aped Oberlin’s student body and culture. Abumrad told of how, during the first concert he attended at the Conservatory, someone “could not be confined by the form of a piano,” so they literally broke the instrument (its sounds being the performance). Overall, their summation of Oberlin led to the do-good nature of Oberlin students—“People here could go be stock brokers, but no, they’ll go become teachers because it’s the right thing to do.” They noted that the “restlessness that Oberlin poisons you slash gifts you with,” pervaded their lives after Oberlin, said Abumrad.

This “restlessness” is part of what brought Krulwich and Abumrad together, and what Radiolab thrives on. In their experience, they found that many radio programs are very fact-centric, but they wanted to create something different. Radiolab was created with a “we-don’t-know-this” structure, Abumrad said, so “if we put the process of figuring it out [on air, it] gives people company in the business of learning.”

Their show has received numerous awards, including from the National Academies Communication Award for “their imaginative use of radio to make science accessible to broad audiences,” and they are notorious for their ability to break down challenging scientific and philosophical concepts into manageable, accessible terms. Abumrad also received a MacArthur Genius Fellow grant in 2011 for his “engaging audio explorations of scientific and philosophical questions captivate listeners and bring to broadcast journalism a distinctive new aesthetic,” according to the MacArthur Foundation.

However, sharing their inquisitiveness about many of these great concepts can be challenging. Krulwich and Abumrad wanted to present the process of learning, so that they could share that experience with their audience, but in order to break down often technical and dense subjects, Krulwich explained that they do their own version of “noun-replacement theory.”

As an example, Abumrad played a segment from his computer on how humans process music neurologically. In a nutshell, we do this when certain receptors in our brain are inhibited, allowing other genes to flow; to explain the differences between these two genes, they used a child’s energetic voice to refer to the gene that “flowed,” and a gruff, old man’s as the receptor inhibitor.

Their goal is to learn with their audience and “make everything as understandable as possible,” Krulwich said, but sometimes, they simply “get it wrong.” They explored this other branch of learning in several contexts. One such occasion was when the co-hosts misunderstood a concept about how our bodies process roughly 40 percent of genes that are defunct in our bodies. Abumrad thought it worked like “noise filters,” and prepared a segment on it before being proved wrong. Krulwich asked, “What if we’re wrong?” Medicinally, they decided to play the segment with the wrong analogy and asked a scientist to “piss on it.” Why? Because “we want to model what it’s like to be wrong,” Krulwich said.

This also applies to admitting their faults in particular segments. Dressed in red, various members of Oberlin’s Asian American community asked about an episode from 2012 called “The Fact of the Matter”. The episode itself grappled with what “truth” means, and used the 1981 “yellow rain” incident in Laos to explain this. In doing so, Krulwich (quite insensitively) interviewed a Hmong veteran and refugee Eng Yang and his niece Kao Kalia Yang, after poorly introducing and concluding this segment. Various accusations floated around after the episode aired about whether or not Radiolab was manipulating the Yangs—after all, they had full responsibility in overseeing the segment’s editing. Abumrad emphasized again that, “we learn in front of the audience. That’s not just our shtick,” and Krulwich genuinely thanked the question for being asked before the next questioner in line took the microphone.

At one point during the convocation, Abumrad showed his computer’s desktop on a projector for the entire audience to see; on there was a large, music-editing file (presumably using the software, “Logic”). Most radio shows use a few different tracks—for example, tracks for the people narrating, and others for the people they interview; but Radiolab makes each show a spectacle. They use a multitude of sounds, like the ones we hear everyday—a child laughing, a “ding” when the microwave is finished—to break down each story. All together in one file, these many different sound bites looked like notes in a musical staff played by an orchestra.

If you want to learn with people, and for them to remember “something” that was in your show a few days later, you have to “make it exquisite in some fashion so people remember it.”

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