RadioLab’s Jad Abumrad shares lessons in storytelling at Stanford

JAD ABUMRAD, host and producer of the radio show and podcast RadioLab, recently shared his thoughts on communication and the creative process to a packed Memorial Auditorium at Stanford.

Abumrad’s talk was part documentary, part performance, his words punctuated with music, beats, clips from phone conversations and, at one point, a recording of his own stomach noises.

The event was co-sponsored by the Stanford Speakers Bureau and the Stanford Storytelling Project, an arts program aimed at helping students better understand and further deepen their lives through stories.

By its own description, RadioLab, which airs on public radio, is a show about curiosity, “where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy and human experience.” Abumrad’s co-host is ROBERT KRULWICH.

Abumrad, the son of a physician and a scientist, studied creative writing and experimental music composition at Oberlin College. After graduation, he wrote music for films and worked as a reporter and documentary producer for several local and national public radio programs. His idea for “a new kind of radio show” developed while he worked on staff at WNYC.

Jad Abumrad (Photo credit: Photo credit: Reade Levinson)
Jad Abumrad (Photo credit: Photo credit: Jake Warga )

Asked what he remembered from the show’s beginning, Abumrad described an overwhelming sense of fear and uncertainty about what exactly he was trying to create, a feeling he referred to as “gut churn.” Abumrad played the audience a clip from a phone call with co-producer MIKEL ELLCESSOR. During the early days, Ellcessor recalled, “I remember sitting at my desk for long stretches of time just sort of rubbing my head.”

Abumrad said his breakthrough came during an interview with ANNE FERNALD, head of Stanford’s Center for Infant Studies, for a story about how the human body reacts to sound.

“Sound is touch at a distance,” Fernald told him. Her words led Abumrad to structure RadioLab in a way so as to take the listener on an immersive journey, using language to create sensations and sound effects to drive a deeper understanding.

The show’s segments tend to roll out in a series of Eureka moments. “We’ve created a structure that mirrors our actual process of discovery,” Abumrad said.

Today, RadioLab is one of the most popular radio programs in the country. The show is downloaded an estimated 5 million times each month and heard on more than 500 stations nationwide. In 2011, Abumrad was named a MacArthur Fellow for his “engaging audio explorations of scientific and philosophical questions.” Through his work with RadioLab, the MacArthur Foundation wrote, Abumrad has brought “a distinctive new aesthetic” to broadcast journalism.

In his closing remarks, Abumrad urged everyone to not shy away from the feelings of radical uncertainty common to creative projects.

“You just have to sit there in that horrible emptiness and find authenticity,” he explained. A successful radio piece transcends distance; the beauty in radio comes from putting on headphones and being instantaneously engaged in intimate conversation with someone on the other side of the world, he said.

In the meantime, Abumrad said, “the very best thing I can say about walking through periods of doubt is to walk with somebody.”