For those who are unfamiliar, Radiolab is a show hosted on New York’s public radio station, WNYC. The two hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, spend an hour every week delivering an adventure looking at topics in science, philosophy, and other curiosities. Their normal show’s format consists of an exploration of a general theme, breaking down into a series of stories and interviews based upon the topic for consideration.
As an example, one show that sticks out for me in particular would be the episode “Blame” aired on September 12th, 2013. The overarching theme of this episode is battling with the ethics of blame, and it is broken down into three separate stories. The first looks at a man diagnosed with a neurological disorder that completely takes away his ability to control impulses, leading him to commit some horrific crimes despite his conscious desire to not do these actions. The second story speculates upon the growing popularity of convicted criminals to use the neurological disorder defense in order to not take accountability for their crimes. The third and final piece is perhaps one of the most crushing and evocative stories I have ever heard. It involves a father whose daughter was brutally murdered and who subsequently grapples with anger and forgiveness. Eventually he comes to accept the man who killed his daughter, and over correspondence he holds a lifelong and meaningful relationship with him.
Since Radiolab is a show of diverse topics, accumulating a huge bulk of material from interviews conducted by themselves and other producers, I was particularly interested to see how Jad and Robert would present their show in a live format. “Apocalyptical” was focused on the overall theme of extinction and endings, looking at its relevance to and occurrence in the world we live in now. The three main stories peered into more modern and studied hypotheses on the extinction of the dinosaurs, the incredible survival of a species of mammals who are considered to be responsible for our evolution, and an incredible story of two aging actors who overcome their advancing Parkinson’s disease to perform one final play.
The most unique opportunity of experiencing a live performance of Radiolab is to be presented with visuals that are normally absent in their broadcasted audio format. Undoubtedly, the producers grabbed ahold of this in order to present an experience that broke the convention of what a radio show can be. The show was aided by stunning puppetry, an incredible array of live visuals, and the backing of a diverse and inventive three member live band. In the center of the stage sat Jad and Robert behind a stone desk, speaking into their microphones as if they were in the recording booth. To the far left of the stage sat a man who created live visuals using various video cameras, live sketching, glitch art, and perplexing montages. In between the visuals man and the hosts sat a female guitarist who provided a slew of ambient and rhythmic sounds to set the background of the music. To the far right of the stage was a percussionist and a bassist who both also played an arsenal of homemade instruments using everything from garden tools, kazoos, and maimed cymbals. The musicians played a variety of cataclysmic, ambient, and avant-garde rhythms throughout the show. While music is nothing new for Radiolab, the way in which it was manipulated and displayed in the live performance certainly held more clout and an unmistakable presence as the band would go into lengthy free-form sessions. Music played live has an emotional rawness unlike what is found when listed through headphones, and it gave a much more intimate aura.
One of the characteristic features of any Radiolab story is an emphasis on the sensory and dramatic aspects of scientific topics that could otherwise easily be dry recitations of fact that seem irrelevant to one’s daily life. Using narrative techniques such as rich imagery and striking personalization, Jad and Robert create almost cinematic emotionally intense backstories that draw the listener in and encourage them to consider the deeper implications of apparently simple phenomena. In the segment on the extinction of the dinosaurs, Robert invited the listener to consider what it might have been like to be there on the day the meteor hit the earth; colorfully illustrating what that might have sounded, smelled, and looked like, the narrator amplified the surreal suddenness and violence of the event. In a similar vein, during the segment on Parkinson’s, the two interviewees suffering from the disease detailed the bodily sensations and emotional frustrations of slowly degenerating into nonresponsiveness, while the band made the same point with a parallel of haunting and disjointed ambient soundscapes. The narrators combined personal accounts with audio and video interviews with experts who, through demonstrations of experiments, tours of locations and theoretical and sensory descriptions, further highlighted the gritty realities of endings (whether in the case of the extinction of the dinosaurs or in the more gradual ending of control over one’s own body that Parkinson’s creates), helping the audience to place themselves vividly in each of the situations presented.
This sense of including the listener in the story makes for an evocative listening experience for the Radiolab podcast, which is usually listened to alone. In person, in a crowded theatre with thousands of other listeners, the effect is magnified. Somehow that same very personal style translates to a live performance, creating an intense emotional response in the listener individually which is only amplified by knowing hundreds of others around you are having the same experience. The production style of the narration itself was able to adapt in this unique setting: the narrators could take more space between segments of the show, allowing the stories to sink in and resonate while being beautifully supported by the rich music and thought-provoking visuals. Such looseness isn’t feasible in a radio format, where production must stay tighter to ensure keeping the listener drawn in through the only sense available. All in all, the live show was in turn witty, cleverly designed, tear-jerking, goose-bump inducing, and overall irresistibly engaging.