When Jad Abumrad began making Radiolab, there was no such thing as a podcast. Now both Abumrad and his podcast Radiolab have won several accolades, including a MacArthur Fellowship, two Peabody awards and a National Academies Communication Award. Last Saturday night, Abumrad came to Rosse Hall to deliver “The Miracle of Indoor Plumbing,” a talk about his approach to storytelling.
Many students and community members turned out for the event, filling most of the seats on the floor. An enormous cheer went up when President Sean Decatur introduced the speaker and Mr. Abumrad took the stage and began to tell his story. After years of working on Radiolab, Abumrad had found himself unsatisfied; he could no longer tell if he was genuinely interested in a story or just pretending to be so.
In “The Miracle of Indoor Plumbing,” with the assistance of a well-produced video, Abumrad told four anecdotes about how he rekindled his passion for his work. One story revolved around him discovering a sculpture workshop just a few blocks from his office. The various wonders he found there — chisels and gorgon heads, statues lurking in corners and a magazine dedicated to the craft of fake blood — reminded him of the wonders of everyday life, like indoor plumbing.
Abumrad also discussed the importance of silence. While he took a break from his job at Radiolab, Abumrad spent most of his days in silence: He would take care of his children but would not speak to other adults. The extended period without talking helped him gather his thoughts and discover what exactly he appreciates about his job.
Later in the talk he spoke about the importance of tiny details to making a story feel real and visceral. To illustrate this, Abumrad showed a picture of a young woman lying down in grief at a soldier’s tombstone. Abumrad drew attention to what seemed like an unimportant detail: a plastic water bottle sitting next to her. This water bottle, Abumrad explained, made the moment feel real and turned the picture into a story.
In the fourth and final anecdote, Abumrad focused on a story that he discovered during his time away from Radiolab: Octavia Butler’s Hugo Award-winning short story “Speech Sounds,” from her collection of short stories Bloodchild and Other Stories. Projecting an illustrator’s interpretation of the story onto the screen behind him, Abumrad talked through the plot of the story, what was going on in Octavia Butler’s life when she wrote it and how it taught him that a storyteller’s job is to write people back to hope.
After he finished, Abumrad took some time to answer questions from the audience. When asked by an audience member about his influences, Abumrad explained that he loved many people in radio and podcasting, such as Ira Glass. In response to one question about what to do after graduation, Abumrad compared a liberal arts education to a hand grenade: It might take years to go off, but when it does, you will be incredibly grateful for it. Abumrad talked about how he spent a long time imitating radio voices he admired before finding his own voice, saying, “I went through all those different phases until I figured out I could just speak like I speak.”
After the event, Abumrad went to Storer Hall for a reception. About a dozen diehard fans quickly surrounded him, asking him about everything from how he handles criticism to his understanding of Neanderthals. “He isn’t an icing person!” said Sarah McPeek ’19, who stated that she was excited to learn even this little detail about him.
Grant Holt ’22 shared in the excitment. “It was like a live podcast right in front of me,” he said. “Jad has such a way of speaking that just conveys information in such a concise yet compelling way.”