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Podthoughts by Ian Brill: Radio Lab

Posted by Maximum Fun on 5th August 2007

In our regular feature Podthoughts, freelance journalist Ian Brill helps you navigate your way through the thousands of podcasts available on the internet.

I discovered Radio Lab when Ira Glass recommended it at the end of a This American Life podcast. He was speaking to the right audience. WNYC’s Radio Lab starts with a big theme and examines it in a series of short segments. Like TAL they’re audio documentaries. The interviews aren’t soundbites. Hosts Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich and their producers ensure in-depth interviews with their subjects. They have to because unlike TAL Radio Lab’s segments stick much closer to their themes.

Throughout the show Abumrad and Krulwich will pop in and offer their opinions on the show’s binding idea, be it morality, mortality or the mystery of memory. They’ll often debate with each other, which is very interesting. The two have easily defined but different personalities. Kurlwich is a man of heart. Even when given the cold, hard scientific facts about memory or morality he’ll want to believe that there’s something more going on than just biological or evolutionary traits. Abumrad deals with the more logical side of things and plays a nice foil to Kurlwich.

What really impressed me about Radio Lab when I first heard it was how sound was edited. In the show “Memory and Forgetting” the hosts and the archived sounds of the interview subjects lap over each other. Sound effects dramatizing an event come in quick burst. Certain phrases and sounds are repeated at various times. This is the first time I’ve heard a radio show that matched the fast pace of television. Radio Lab makes sure to use this style deliberately and clearly. They know when to slow the show down, such as during somber and emotional moments. Listening to Radio Lab you get that immediate sense of being “there” on the field reports but you’re also pulled back by Abumrad and Kurlwich’s hosting. It’s a unique listening experience but a nice one.