Talking to Jad Abumrad on the phone is like listening to him on the radio, but with more cursing—especially if your officemates are crinkling bags and sharpening pencils in the background, creating weird ambient music around his voice.
Abumrad is the creator and cohost, with Robert Krulwich, of Radiolab, a nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast that comes out of WNYC and can be heard in the Triangle every Sunday at 2 p.m. on NPR affiliate WUNC.
For more than a decade, Radiolab has explored heady scientific and philosophical questions through a personal, story-driven lens, all woven together with Abumrad's elaborate sound design. Though it began as an unlikely experiment—a "hot mess," to hear Abumrad tell it—the program now reaches about 1.8 million people per week, challenging one of its key influences, This American Life, for listener share.
In conversation, Abumrad is as confident, thoughtful and voluble as he is on Radiolab; he also reveals a penchant for space metaphors that is unsurprising in someone whose creative trajectory appears to have been effortlessly meteoric.
But his new multimedia lecture GUT CHURN, which he delivers at the Carolina Theatre on Sunday night, undermines that appearance. It focuses on Abumrad's insecurities, creative sloughs of despondency and sense of being an incompetent fraud—and how he learned to turn these feelings into creative fuel.
The talk is structured like an episode of Radiolab, and delves into the show's behind-the-scenes workings. In typically polymathic fashion, it also deals with Texas hold 'em poker, Cherokee dream hunting, psychotherapy and Rainer Maria Rilke. It finds Abumrad trying to tell an authentic, warts-and-all story about the chaos behind Radiolab and getting lost in the "German Forest" of the creative process.
Last week, we spoke with Abumrad about how winning a MacArthur Fellowship galvanized a story he had long wanted to tell, the slow innovation curve of public radio and why Gut Churn is emphatically not like a TED Talk.
INDY: What do you talk about in Gut Churn?
JAD ABUMRAD: On one level, it's a personal meditation on how Radiolab happened. When the MacArthur thing was announced, I got that question a lot—how did it happen? I was always at a loss to tell a story that made any sense. So much of the history of the show and my own creative process is about being lost and taking weird risks and not ever feeling like they would work—long periods of wayward drift, and then things would click, and here we are again. I was always trying to find a way to tell that story that honored the actual experience of it.
It's also a wide-ranging mash-up of different ways of thinking about that darkness and how it might actually be a good thing. If this talk will do anything for the person in the seat listening, it's taking these weird feelings of being lost and turning them into something awesome.
On a third level, it's an explication of storytelling and craft, because in weathering those dark periods, I've come up with a bunch of techniques I use with myself and the staff, and I'll be talking about that a lot. "Here's how we do it at Radiolab, here's how we tell a story, here's the weird little things we think about"—which I think are surprising.
When you're talking about the darkness, you mean the feeling of being creatively lost?
Yeah, I'm talking about the kind of doubt that goes from being a little uncertain to being an all-encompassing sense of being stuck. What the fuck am I doing, where am I going, I'm a fraud. That kind of feeling happens, for me at least, all the time. Everyone I talk to, it's somehow part of their process too. I was reading all these books about creativity and none of them were talking about that. It was important to me to think about these feelings and rewrite them, so the next time they happened, it would be like, "Hello, old friend, it's you again."
So those negative feelings that make you feel stuck can also give you the impetus to fight your way out of them?
Absolutely, impetus is a really good word. That sense of being a fraud or not knowing what I'm doing—I see that as thrust now. It's the thing that propels you forward. If you think of it that way, those feelings mean something different than they usually mean. I started to see them as energy, like what comes out of the boosters in a rocket, and they've become a lot easier to deal with as a result.
I hear myself saying all this to you and it sounds pretty heavy. But I would say that it's actually a very funny talk, with a ton of video and imagery and funny stories of getting lost. Particularly, a story about getting very lost while doing a documentary on Wagner's Ring cycle and ending up in what I call the German Forest. So I hope it comes out as fun and lively, but the core of it is talking about negative feelings.
When it comes to this talk's origins, is there more to the story than you getting the MacArthur and starting to think about "innovation," as I've read?
Sure, there were a couple of things that happened. I feel that public radio exists in a separate dimension [from other media], and it changes over these long arcs of time. Innovation, when it happens, happens inexplicably, in these strange pockets. Something is born and then it just kind of coasts in orbit for 30 years. Car Talk is still airing reruns, and it probably will until you and I are grandparents.
So Radiolab came along and no one gave a shit. And from my perspective, when the MacArthur came about, people looked over and were like, "Oh! That thing happened right in the middle of our little tribe." I suddenly got accosted by all these questions of how it happened. My mouth would move and my brain would catch up, and I would hear myself and think, "No, dude." This talk was an attempt to answer that question authentically.
A couple of years before that, on our first live tour, I was on stage in Seattle in front of the biggest group we'd ever performed for, maybe 2,000 people. Robert [Krulwich] and I walked out and I sat down and my laptop was dead, with the entire show in it. Our biggest show ever basically ground to a halt before it even started. The lights are shining in your eyes and you can't see the audience. It really felt like we were floating through space, the void. It turned out fine, but part of me is talking back to the guy who was sitting on stage, completely terrified.
We structure our stories at Radiolab so that every single one is an act of getting lost and then being found. We have these questions that propel us into uncertain spaces, and we root around. Hopefully we have moments of epiphany and insight, but those only propel us toward more questions and uncertainty. That's why people like it, because they feel like it's two guys genuinely getting confused and lost.
The concept of innovation is a tricky one because it's been so watered down by its incessant use in the language of business and entrepreneurship. Is that something you have to talk around?
Part of my personal challenge is how to talk, in conversations like this, about what I'm going to be speaking about while avoiding those conventions. Because I fucking hate that stuff. This may be unfair to say, but there's something in the average Ted Talk that makes me want to hurl, something prepackaged and simple and un-messy. For me, the entire idea is learning to love the messiness of ideas that aren't easily digestible, how-to things. One lesson I've given myself is that you have to chase the antelope, after listening to a story of a guy describing chasing an antelope for 12 years. For me, the lessons are these weird, poetic, offbeat things that don't try to distill what is inevitably a deeply uncomfortable [creative] process.
This sounds a lot like an episode of Radiolab. Why did you want to do it as a live talk? Was the idea of Radiolab about Radiolab too meta?
I built it in a way that you'll feel like you're sitting down inside a one-hour Radiolab episode, except with lots of animations and video. Part of the challenge I gave myself in making Radiolab to begin with, and increasingly now that we've been on the air for 12 years, is "What can we do that puts us back in that beginner's mindset"—back in the German Forest in some sense? Where you're 47 percent freaked out, but not over 50. We've begun to do live shows as an answer to that, working with musicians and puppetry and video artists. And I've never done this. I've never stood up there on my own and talked about something so personal. That's exciting to me because I don't know what will happen. Radiolab itself is currently trying to figure out the next weird, dangerous ponds we could jump into, and for me this is a personal answer to that question.
Take us back to how Radiolab got started.
9/11 had recently happened and WNYC was completely reorganizing. We had been a hybrid station that had talk radio in the morning, then classical music and All Things Considered in the afternoon. The reorganization resulted in blocks of time opening up, and [WNYC Program Director] Mikel Ellcessor was like, "You, with the curly hair, come here. We're going to do this thing on Sunday night. We're going to call it Radiolab."
The "lab" was because we didn't know what the fuck was going to happen. It was an experiment. I had no experience, so I didn't even know what the status quo was. I was just getting into public radio via the usual suspects, the newsmagazines and Ira [Glass]. I didn't have that long-steeped history, and then immediately I was in this anything-goes play space. I had to fill three hours, and originally it was an anthology show. I was asking people from all over to send me any decent stories they'd recorded. I had this educational period where I basically listened to nothing but the history of radio, from Walter Cronkite to Jean Shepherd to Ira to now.
And I was coming at it as a musician who had gone to school for composition and studied all these weird avant-garde composers. I would try to mash avant-garde classical and electronica with classic news documentary with radio dramas with first-person storytelling and interviews. For the first year, it was just a hot mess. But it was very much in keeping with the mandate of the show.
It's interesting you mention listening to the history of radio, because while the show is rightfully hailed for being innovative, when I listen to it I feel like it's drawing on practices so old and out of date they feel new again, Foley effects for example.
Yeah, we sent out a web survey to find out who listens to us, and there were a hell of a lot of 21-year-olds and a hell of a lot of 70-year-olds. There are people who remember when radio was about playing to the imagination, and something in what we were doing felt very familiar to them. It's like The Mercury Theatre on the Air, but a hypertext version. I feel like what we're doing is actually more old than new.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pain in the gut"