There are many combinations in life that you wouldn’t think of or expect to be good until you try them: peanut butter and bananas, chicken and waffles, chocolate and cheese (seriously, try that one). Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, the two hosts of documentary podcast Radiolab, are like that.
Robert is old enough to be Jad’s father, and before starting their radio show 10 years ago, Robert worked in television for decades, including CBS, ABC, and PBS. His reporting style is conversational and disarming, and makes complex ideas understandable without dumbing them down. Jad, before starting in radio, studied music composition and created film scores.
Despite their differences, Jad and Robert have many things in common. They both went to Oberlin College, 25 years apart. They both love science and big ideas. So when Jad was asked to interview Robert in 2003, the two became fast friends, and started experimenting with making radio pieces. They sent the first one to Ira Glass, host and head producer of This American Life, who unequivocally hated what they had produced, saying that they seemed to bring out the worst performance aspects in each other, and that he hoped that they would never work together again.
They continued to work together, and eventually developed a style that over five million listeners have come to deeply embrace.
Radiolab is a show about science, ethics, philosophy, and politics. But to describe it like that makes it sound insufferably boring. It is not insufferably boring, and the reason is that these are stories about people, the things they want, the things they then do, and what happens as a result; and Robert and Jad are really good at telling these stories.
I’ll try to explain the show another way: imagine you’ve got a cool older brother, the one who always told you what new music to listen to, or what interesting movie you should rent. You only see him at Thanksgiving now, but it’s always rad when you do. And you’ve also got this cool uncle, who you see even less often. But they’re both at your parents’ house this year for Thanksgiving, they’ve driven there together, and they’ve got this reporter friend with them who doesn’t have family to spend the holiday with. Dinner is finished, but the wine is still flowing, and they’re now having their friend tell everyone about the story she’s been working on overseas, asking her questions in a way that highlights all the twists and turns, and adds to how compelling her story is. The candles have become the only light source, the wine is the only taste you can remember now, and your brother’s instrumental CD from a few years ago that your mom put on the stereo seems to accentuate and underscore the mood of everything that’s happening in the story. That’s what listening to Radiolab is like.
In short, if you only listen to one podcast, listen to This American Life. If you listen to two, add Radiolab to that list.
Dave Cusick is director of programming and volunteers at CIVL Radio.