This Saturday, “Radiolab” creator and co-host Jad Abumrad will visit Kenyon to deliver a talk titled “The Miracle of Indoor Plumbing.” This event was rescheduled from last semester when an illness prevented Abumrad’s visit.
Without giving away too much, what should attendees expect, especially those who have listened to Radiolab before and are familiar with your style?
I tried to structure [it] as an episode. It’s a series of things I’ve discovered along the way in making the show and making radio. Specifically, it’s a talk about a moment where I was sort of in crisis and I was thinking of stopping, and I took a break from the show because I was just so exhausted and I went to sort of sit on my own for a while and really try to reflect on, like, “The things I do on a daily basis, why do those matter? Those bits of craft that I internalized, why are they important?” I just needed to take a beat to rediscover that.
So basically what I do in the talk is walk through a series of anecdotes drawn from my own life, drawn from the storytellers that I’ve worked with, that really just woke me up to the power of simple bits of business within the act of telling stories, small things like surprise or details; the things that we talk about but never actually really stop and stare at.
You studied creative writing and music at Oberlin. How do music and sound, in your mind, enhance the ability to tell a story effectively?
I ended up sort of stumbling into radio. Through a series of lucky breaks, I was suddenly working on a radio show … And the thing that I realized [while working there] is that when you’re telling a story, you use your voice. Your voice goes up, and it goes down, and sometimes it gets quiet. Sometimes, when you get excited, you make your voice really staccato and syncopated and then sometimes you get really hushed and legato — and I use those words specifically, because it turns out that storytelling is a deeply musical act. You’ve got rise and fall of pitch, you’ve got rhythm, you’ve got meter, you’ve got all of these things that are musical ideas. For me, there is almost no division between the story and the music. And with Radiolab, the intent was to take that fusion of music and the spoken word and really push it as far as it could go.
When you’re thinking about creating a Radiolab show in the context of you, the guests and the subjects of the show, do you see the creation of the story as being in your hands? Or do you see your role as getting them to tell their story?
It’s a couple things. First, I think people sort of show up now to a Radiolab interview knowing essentially the kind of thing we do, and so I think we benefit from our reputation at this point — which is, people show up ready to play. So you don’t have to drag them into the story world quite as much; they will go there willingly … You look for the places where the story shifts and changes and you really zoom in on those moments and ask them all kinds of questions to get into the psychology of those moments. And then, every so often, you ask them, “So, what does it mean to you?” You look for the meaning. For me that is the essential thing: anecdote plus meaning.But ultimately, it starts with someone telling you something happened and then telling you what they think it means.
Is that a pretty good synopsis of what viewers can expect you walking through next Saturday?
Yeah, that’s exactly it. It’s four separate anecdotes — some of them are larger and some of them are smaller — that for me illuminate some essentially beautiful and universal aspect, not just of storytelling, but of speaking and communicating and being heard.
I will be there. Unless someone literally cuts off my legs, I will be there, because I felt so bad last time. I was just so sick and I was like, “I must go.” But I could barely move. So this time, nothing’s going to hold me back.
Is that on the record?
That is on the record. Only thing that’ll hold me back is an act of God.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.