I suck at science. Ok, that’s not true. I suck at math, which in turn makes it difficult for me to do science-type stuff. But I like science. I just don’t get a lot of the technical how-to-get-shit-done bits. Sometimes I wish I understood it more so I didn’t feel like people have to dumb it down to talk to me about cool science stuff, especially when it’s something I think is really interesting. I hate that feeling. That being-the-reason-that-the-conversation-is-being-reduced-to-the-lowest-common-denominator kind of feeling. But it’s necessary in this case, in this realm. I know that’s a bit of a contradiction, but still. It is what it is.
Which is why I’m a huge Radiolab fan. If you don’t know Radiolab, unearth your NPR love from wherever it’s been hiding and go look that shit up because it’s freaking awesome. And then come back and read the rest of this. I’ll wait here.
Doo doo dooo…(That’s my “waiting patiently” whistle. Didn’t really come across, did it? Gotta work on that one. )
Freaking awesome, right? For those of you not playing along: Radiolab is a badass radio show out of New York (WNYC) hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. (They’ve got a sort of good cop/bad cop, deadpan guy/fall guy dynamic dynamic going on. Superfun.) Did I build it up enough at the beginning for you to know it’s about science? Because it’s about science. But they never say that it’s about science. I mean, you could say it’s about anything, really: philosophy, language, storytelling, the human experience, blah blah blah. But at the bottom of it all, it’s a show about the science that backs all those other things up. Which is odd, but I give them props for not being too niche or pigeonholey. Basically it’s radio theater (or theatre, if you prefer) meets documentary journalism. It sounds weird, I know. Hear me out.
On the show they take an interesting question or concept and look at it from a couple of different angles, not so much through technical bullshit (although there is a little of that just to get the listener up to speed), but through good storytelling. It’s the best possible way to get into the guts of these ideas, especially for laypeople, which I assume most listeners are. Because this stuff is really cool. And I wouldn’t have ever heard about it otherwise. If it were just people talking and oversimplifying it would sound like every other boring documentary out there. But I’m big enough to admit that when I don’t know much about something, making it fun makes it way more interesting. On a similar note, every episode of Radiolab gives me like ten more books to add to my list (which is a monstrous thing of OCD spreadsheet beauty, let me tell you).
Besides the happyfun learning time you get, Radiolab is extremely joyful to the earholes. Jad Abumrad is a musician, so there’s a sort of symphonic, through-composed feel to every episode (he’s also a winner of last year’s MacArthur Genius Grant – major street cred). Like I said, it’s basically radio theater. Little one-act plays, full to brimming with fantastic sound production – cool loopy stuff, great music, voice effects, etc. Supremely listenable. There’s definitely something to be said for relying on both economy of language and auditory artistry to get a point across (“auditory artistry” sounds like a horrible dubstep band, by the way, so if your horrible dubstep band needs a name please feel free to use that one). I think this combo is becoming a lost art in some ways. Besides your standard NPR fare (Prarie Home Companion, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, This American Life) and all those hateful political talk shows, there’s not much going on in the radiosphere these days. I will say as a caveat to that point, though, that there are some cool kind of retro-radio-show-style things happening on some fun podcasts that I’ve discovered lately (i.e., The Thrilling Adventure Hour). So maybe just the delivery mechanism for listeney awesomeness is changing, not the desire to make it.
Still, you’ve got to admit that it’s pretty ballsy to dedicate one’s self to radio at this point in the culture game. Before television ruined us as a nation, we could listen to a good old fashioned story and think up good old fashioned pictures in our good old fashioned brains. And so it was for a thousand thousand years. Now it’s almost gone. We live in a Twitter society, you know? Tiny bits of mental effluvium leak out of us all the time and we’re obsessed with absorbing the brain dribbles of others. Our attention span is about 140 characters. Which is sick and sad, but I feel like it’s an inevitable evil at this point, so just hang on tight to the sides of the handbasket and enjoy the ride to intellectual hell, ok?
Check out all the full-length episodes and a metric ton of short podcastlets at radiolab.org. You will not regret it.