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.”