Friday, November 30, 2007

Pick of the Week: WNYC's RadioLab

This week, I was surprised to look at my podcast list on iTunes and see a new episode of RadioLab. Turns out it isn't a true episode, but an excerpt from a talk that the cohosts gave earlier this year on the making of RadioLab. It's a worthwhile 30 minutes of discussion about the use of sound to provide an emotional context for stories--specifically, stories about science. It also has some interesting lessons about collaboration in design; there's a lot of acknowledgment and discussion about the positives and negatives of bringing new technologies (digital audio manipulation) into a classic venue (radio).

For those who haven't heard of it, RadioLab is a newish (since 2005) NPR show that comes out of WNYC, and it is hands-down my favorite NPR show. It's This American Life meets Science Friday with a whole slew of strange audio tweaks thrown in. I realized, after listening to the "making of" piece, that one of the things I love most about it is its ability to merge the tried and true with the cutting edge. RadioLab is a superlative model of how we can think of new ideas and new technology as an "and" instead of an "instead".

Here are some other things to love about RadioLab:
  • The two hosts, Robert Krulwich (seasoned science journalist) and Jad Abumrad (young techy) are a wonderful team. Sure, they're each good on their own, but the magic happens in their exchanges. They have arguments about consciousness without sounding pretentious. They each do interviews with outsiders separately, and then they set up those interviews on air by "explaining" them to each other. They ask each other the dumb questions a listener wonders. They complete each other's sentences and make talking about science seem like a reasonable and fascinating thing to do at the dinner table. They make radio a discussion, not a tutorial. And that makes it feel much more participatory.
  • They also are an instructive model of the fusion of the old and the new, a gentle voiceprint of a world where new and traditional technologies come together without posturing or fear. Jad is the newcomer, Robert the established one, and those roles are openly acknowledged. They discuss, on air, their feelings about how stories should be represented, discussed, and spiced up. They are a pair of designers working it out.
  • They take big complex ideas, like emergence, and examine them in concrete and fantastical ways. Heck, they take simple ideas, like zoos, and do the same thing.
  • They are storytellers, not fact sharers. I feel strongly about this. So many people only report on science, as if science were too objective to have emotional content worth exposing. They use tried-and-true radio formats like interviews and profiles, and then sequence in unusual audio effects to create an emotional landscape to the stories.
Listen to the piece, listen to the show. Enjoy.

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