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Jad Abumrad in It’s a Long Story

From awkward kid to award-winning radio host and producer

Julia Lenton
Sydney Opera House

Five years out of university, Jad Abumrad was flailing. He’d studied composition and creative writing and wanted to be the “guy who wrote the pretty music for movies.” But his career as a musician had stalled.  It was his girlfriend – now wife – who suggested radio; the mid-point between music and storytelling. It was the first time a career in radio had crossed his mind.

The millions of fans who love Abumrad’s Radiolab owe his wife a vote of thanks. Co-founded in 2002 with Robert Krulwich, Radiolab, is credited with creating a new aesthetic for radio. A show about science, it has evolved into a celebration of curiosity and human experience. Interviews are heavily edited to make voice overlap. Music – often created by Abumrad – is layered to create distinctive soundscapes. Abumrad and Krulwich can move from the most arcane of topics to some of the biggest questions facing humanity; is it scientifically possible to understand everything? Who has the rights to the images of a dead man? Why is there obscure nihilistic philosophy on the back of Jay Z’s jacket?

The show is carried on more than 500 radio stations and its podcasts are downloaded over five million times each month. Even Ira Glass, of the legendary This American Life, admits to being jealous. 

Abumrad is the subject of the first episode of season two of the Opera House podcast It’s a Long Story. A podcast about the moments that made the people who shape our culture, the Radiolab host and co-creator talks to Hamish Macdonald about the biggest problems facing journalists today, why Radiolab is anti-soundbite, and what it was like to grow up as a Lebanese-American in Nashville.  

“I don’t remember my childhood as being lonely, I remember it as kind of amazing.”

Jad Abumrad

Abumrad remembers his childhood, which could be described as lonely, with great fondness.  

“I was kind of an awkward kid, not very good at socialising, so I would nerd out. I had a little synthesiser and a little four-track cassette recorder… creating these little whooshy soundscapes that for me felt like mental travel,” he says. “I don’t remember it as being lonely, I remember it as kind of amazing. I still do that. So much of my life is super social… but I still escape into my room and just kind of nerd out on the synth.”

After throwing himself into one of New York’s more dysfunctional community radio stations, Abumrad learned the basics, moved his way into public radio, and had several epiphanies that would eventually lead to Radiolab.

“The brain space that you have to get in to compose music is in a way very similar to the brain space you have to get in to compose ideas,” he says. “It’s technical – it involves aspects of structure and flow.”

“I can engineer a story from the inside out,” he says. “I see it very mechanically – what a story needs and what it is.”

For all of Radiolab’s success, Abumrad still struggles with a concise explanation of what the program is about. “On the most basic level it’s two guys, who really like each other, and sometimes want to kill each other, trying to investigate some complexity in the world,” he says. “In the course of an hour or however long, we hopefully take all of the forms that exist within radio – the interview, the feature – and we mix  them together in some sort of musical version of a conversation. You see how complicated this is? I already wanna smack myself!”

He is, however, quite clear about the things Radiolab will never do.   

“We won’t pander. We won’t try and destroy things that are complicated and try to make them simple. We won’t – I hope – bore you. We won’t get so technical to the point where you’ll never understand, but we won’t destroy the nuances so that you have a false feeling of understanding.”

In the podcast episode Abumrad talks at length about the state of media in 2017.  

“If we’re in a place where there is so much fragmentation that no one can even agree on what is true… then I feel that the stories we need to tell increasingly are stories which force one another to look through the other persons lens. We’ve started to tip toe in that direction as a show and that feels like the most important mission we have right now.”

Jad Abumrad on stage at BingeFest 2016

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