Each week, hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad take listeners of “Radiolab,” their popular public radio show and podcast, on an audio tour of complex stories that cover a range of subjects.
For more than a decade, the Krulwich and Abumrad have explored subjects ranging from falling (in love and out of windows), to the minds of animals to gay Israeli couples adopting babies.
Combined with deconstructed audio techniques, interviews and natural sound, Krulwich and Abumrad have built a large and dedicated base of listeners.
On Jan. 22, Krulwich will bring a live stage version of the show to the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts in Tacoma. After talking about “Radiolab,” Krulwich will interview four local experts on Puget Sound water and the issues that surround it.
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“Radiolab” is distributed by New York Public Radio and airs on Pacific Lutheran University’s KPLU.
Q: How did “Radiolab” begin?
A: It was a friendship that turned into a play that turned in an experiment that turned into a show.
Q: “Radiolab” explores unusual subjects, but it wins fans for its unusual production values. How did that come about?
A: We thought, how can we explore the things we like to explore in this vocabulary that Jab was particularly gifted with? It’s an orchestral form of journalism that I’ve never run into before. It has a kind of stickiness. If you’re aware of the highs and lows, the silences, the breaks, the rhythms of what you are talking about, it turns out you can make people hear more stuff. It just sticks to your head a little better.
Q: Does the audio and format change show to show?
A: It changes quite a bit, depending on what we’re talking about. It has to, because it’s like scoring an idea. So different ideas bring different music.
Q: The format has one of you presenting the story to the other, often incredulous, host. Is that for real? Do you really have little to no idea what the other guy will be talking about?
A: It usually is exactly real, but sometimes it’s a little exaggerated. We improvise. We were, in our minds, competing against Ira Glass’s show (“This American Life”) and he’s pretty scripted. What you hear is a highlight reel. It’s a very intricate cut because it has to be seamless. It’s supposed to sound like a spontaneous jazz-like set. But it’s edited into an orchestral form. It’s the conversation that we in the end decided we need to have because it’s the most accurate.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on the highways that run under your feet in any woodland or forest. There’s all these fungi that hook up with the trees and they run little highways from one to another. The question is, what are they doing? Are trees fighting each other or feeding each other, defending against each other? There’s a whole world down there.
Then there’s this beetle called the deathwatch beetle. In the 19th century, you’d only hear it in your house when somebody was dying and everybody was quiet. Grandpa would be in bed dying and you’d hear in the wall “thunka-thunka-thunka.” These beetles live in old timber.
So, this morning, I was thinking for a Valentine’s Day piece we could explore how a beetle in the wood finds his girlfriend. It does it by banging his head against the wood. Then virginal lady beetles bang their head in response.
This animal is strangely adorable and really dumb. They get into all kinds of problems, sexually and communicatively. So, this morning I went to this percussive group called Stomp on the Lower East Side. I said, “You guys bang on things. I’m going to tell you a story about a beetle. And if this story checks out, I was wondering if you could orchestrate it for me.”
Q: How has “Radiolab” changed over the years?
A: We were on WNYC and a few others in the beginning and then the podcast audience began to grow on its own, almost mathematically. It was like a garage band having a crazy hit.
Or we just somehow found an appetite that nobody knew existed for a dense kind of complexity made fun to listen to by the originality of the sound. And also by the duet of two people, two guys, different ages, slightly off-putting but interesting. It’s beginning to grow around the world.
Q: Aside from metrics, how can you tell?
A: I was in Romania a few weeks ago, wandering down the street looking for something I could eat where I wouldn’t have to speak Romanian. I saw a restaurant with pictures of food so I walk in. I say, “I don’t speak Romanian” and (the owner) says in English, “Are you from ‘Radiolab?’ ”
Q: What are the areas of interest, the overall theme of the show currently?
A: We started sciency. Then 10 years in, Jad said, “Can we ...” and I said, “Yeah, do what you want” so we’ve kind of wandered off. We try investigative, law, emotionally difficult. But, complicated (stories). The things we try now are almost cinematic. We just did one in Oregon on ice cream wars. It’s these two guys who sell ice cream. They get into a ferocious ice cream war. It was juicy. Or icy.
Q: What subject or person did you try to tackle that you weren’t able to do?
A: We’ve nearly died (production-wise) on a couple of shows. We were doing a show called “The Good Show,” which asked why sometimes animals or plants are ostensibly generous to creatures which are not kin or don’t share their genes. We were trying to explain altruism.
One of the more popular answers to that is a mathematical one. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying different models to express a mathematical distance of relationship in some metaphorical way. That took forever. But we don’t go where we don’t think there isn’t a chance to climb the mountain.
Q: Where do you find your ideas?
We’re curious people and we mine the world for these stories. It takes a peculiar mind to ferret these things out. Another source is people we know: Oliver Sacks until he died, theoretical physicist Brian Greene, mathematician Steven Strogatz. We build relationships.
We also like to play with other podcasts and groups like The Moth. We trade. After working in television a long time, (public radio) is much more forgiving, communal, congenial business. Commercial television is very competitive. I was on ABC a long time. When you’re on television at ABC, no one else is. It’s just one screen. You have to fight your way on to that place.
With: Robert Krulwich.
When: 7:30 p.m., Jan. 22
Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma
Radiolab airs: on KPLU at 1 p.m. on Saturdays.