Host and co-creator of Radiolab, More Perfect, Dolly Parton’s America, and more, Jad Abumrad has inspired the sounds of thousands of podcasts and radio shows around the world (Kerning Cultures Network shows included). In this episode, he opens up about being raised in a Lebanese household in Tennessee, curious about the intersection of music and stories. He shares with us his journey towards developing the craft of storytelling through sound, including how he was ignored and (literally) tuned out when he first started.
This episode was produced by Hebah Fisher and Alex Atack, with editorial support by Dana Ballout and Tamara Rasamny. Sound design by Alex Atack, mixing by Mohamad Khreizat, and fact-checking by Zeina Dowidar. The original sting for al empire was composed by Ramzi Bashour. al empire is a Kerning Cultures Network production. Search ‘Kerning Cultures Network’ to hear other podcasts like this one, and follow @kerningcultures on Instagram to stay in touch!
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[AL EMPIRE STING]
DANA: This is Dana Ballout
HEBAH: And I’m Hebah Fisher
DANA: And you are listening to Al Empire.
DANA: Hebah, when we first landed this interview, our slack channel went mad. It was all CAPS of OMG and WTFs flooded my notification. I personally think.. No I can’t say that (laughs)
I was gonna say I personally peed from excitement. (laughs)
Ok, can you tell everyone, who are we talking about?
HEBAH: Ya. wait but first maybe you can guess, just listen to him
JAD: I mean, I grew up with public radio on all the time.
I just say that at the outset. And, the way that the public radio voice is talked in the, you know, that sort of very modulated metronomic way that they tell you the news. Like that was the sort of background noise of, of my car rides with my dad to school. So I always like, like so many people, I was just like, this is boring as fuck and I don’t know why anyone would listen to this. Please put on music – like I was that kid. But I do remember the moment when it felt enticing. And I do remember there was a moment where we were driving to Oberlin where I would, where I went to college, and maybe it was the first time or one of the first few times. And there’s this part of the drive where you turn off the highway and you drive through this town called Elyria. It was just one of those, like, it doesn’t have a lot of street lights. It was super dark and we’re driving and somewhere on the radio, a story from the lost and found sounds series came on.
Somebody had found in their attic one of these old vinyl records where Tennessee Williams, the playwright himself had made, and it was the only recording of his voice. And I remember we were driving through the night and like this voice kind of came on and I was like, oh my God, it’s like a ghost. It’s like a voice from the past. And the whole experience of listening to this gorgeously constructed story, and then this ghostly voice emerges from the middle of it. I do remember just feeling there, like suspended in the darkness. You know? As we were driving, I was like, oh wow. I feel like I’m floating. In the experience of the story. And it’s one of a million moments where I thought, I want to make other people feel that way.
DANA: Yes, my dear podcast nerds and lovers of radio and lovers of Radiolab. Today, we bring you the amazing, the wonderful, the ever inspiring JAD ABU MRAD. He’s the creator and host of Radiolab, a show with over 12 million listeners a month.
HEBAH: Radiolab is what made me fall in love with radio, before Kerning Cultures. I started listening to Radiolab in 2008, and it is… I never knew that radio could be so good!
DANA: Ya, It’s also nice to hear a Arab name on such a big platform. So, for those of you who don’t know, in addition to being the host of Radiolab, with again 12M listeners a month!!
He has also since created other industry-defining podcasts like More Perfect, and Dolly Parton’s America. He is, for so many of us podcasters, the gold standard of what good radio sounds like: a combination of deep reporting with child-like wonder and curiosity, with intricate sound design and a deep deep appreciation for the craft of radio. His work has always been a huge inspiration to us, at Kerning Cultures. In fact, if it weren’t for Jad’s work, I don’t know that you’d even be listening to this podcast now.
HEBAH: (laughs) I don’t think so
DANA: So… Here we go guys, Today on Al Empire, Jad Abumrad.
HEBAH: Jad started out as a reporter at the New York public radio station WBAI, then moved over to another public radio station, WNYC, which is where he started Radiolab, 18 years ago. Now, the show is staffed by a team of like 20 producers and they’ve won some of the biggest awards in radio and in journalism. Their stories have been adopted over to TV and otherwise.
In the last few years, Jad’s produced and hosted a few spin off shows as well; most recently, Dolly Parton’s America, which Dana I know you are obsessed with (laughs), it’s a deep dive documentary series into the musician Dolly Parton and her life and cultural impact in the US and globally. So, the day I met Jad I walked into WNYC Studios in NY, and I literally was giddy.
We’ve had the pleasure of interviewing really cool people on Al Empire, I think none have I been more … just in eager anticipation of than Jad, it’s like meeting, you know, this role model that you have. Anyways, so we meet he ushers me into the studio, and his studio… you guys probably have seen some photos on Instagram of our studios which are closets and undercovers in our bedrooms, and he walks me in to this professional recording studio, and then we don’t sit in the same room, you can picture this, so he’s in one side, there’s a glass panel, I’m on other side, and I can see his two eyes poking up above the pop filter above the mic and like this is the interview, and I’ve never done an interview in such a professional setting before and then he also flips the table. I came with my own recording gears but he ended up recording the interview, he just dove right in sound engineer mode and did it all himself.
Okay. Can you, can you hear me?
HEBAH: I’ve never done an interview this way. This is .
HEBAH: It was so cool to see him in action
JAD: Yeah, we’re good, I am at your service now
HEBAH: Okay. What is your name? What do you do, Jad?
JAD: It’s interesting to hear someone say Jad, cause it, that takes a, that’s – I immediately, that’s always the different pronunciation between when I know I’m talking to my family and when I’m talking to everybody else here. Because here they say Jad with a “juuh”. Did you ask me what I do or what’s my name?
HEBAH: Can you introduce yourself?
JAD: Yeah, my name is Jad Abumrad, I am the host and creator of Radiolab, More Perfect, a few other things. And most recently, Dolly Parton’s America.
HEBAH: Let’s start at the very beginning, where were you born?
JAD: I was born in Syracuse, New York.
HEBAH: Oh, okay. But you grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, is that right?
JAD: I grew up in Tennessee. we moved there when I was five, I think. Yeah. And, I was born in Syracuse, lived in Lebanon for, I dunno, in total, two years, 18 months, two years, somewhere between the age of one and five, a couple of different stints. And then, my family. I, it’s funny, I, as part of the Dolly Parton project, oddly enough, I ended up talking to my dad about those early years and learning a lot. and my family was… many times going to go back to Lebanon. but, that would have been ‘77, ‘76, ‘78 when the war got really nasty. And so then we ended up resettling in, in Nashville and staying there for 13 years. And then there was college, and now there’s New York.
HEBAH: What was your household like growing up? What are your parents like and what kind of a home were you raised in?
JAD: My parents are doctors and, well, a doctor and a scientist. And we grew, I, so a lot of, they were very, hardworking. My earliest memories of them reading articles with, like spectacles balanced at the end of their nose. A lot of um, there were always sort of fellow scientists, usually like Lebanese scientists kind of crawling about the house. Because when my parents came to Nashville. I just remember that suddenly there was all these other Lebanese people start showing up. And, I later learned that my dad was getting people out of Lebanon and bring them to Nashville. And that included family members. So we, there was a year where my aunt and uncle, his brother, my mom’s sister, were living with us and we put them through high school because they couldn’t go back. And so there was always like a lot of family around. My grandma and grandpa lived with us for 15, 20 years, I think. there’s just always a lot of people, and I never really thought to ask why, but now I know it’s because the political situation was such a catastrophe that people were just coming to Nashville to escape. And my dad and mom became this like bridge to get people out, and so our house was always crawling with Lebanese people. I was kind of a shy, nerdy kid. So I had like a little cassette recorder four track thing and I would just sit in my room and make weird sounds on it. Particularly in high school, so I was really like, I think probably, I think around high school I figured out socially what it means to be – like I was just a super nerdy kid and, and, and felt socially awkward and a bit, you know, like being an Arab kid in this place.
And so I always felt like super much like at like an interloper a little bit. And so I just spent a lot of time in my room, you know? And thankfully I loved music. And so I would… I would play music and write music and compose, even before I even knew that that’s what I was doing, and I would make these strange droney weird sounds, which are not too different than what I’m doing now and on Radiolab, frankly. My parents found identity in science and all that, and I just felt like I found my identity in just… in making music.
HEBAH: What were your parents like and what do you think you took from them as part of your own personality?
JAD: My parents are like the hardest working people I’ve ever known. I mean, my mom is, has been studying one protein for 40 years.
JAD: It’s just one single protein, and she has created an entire field of science around this one protein that didn’t exist before. I mean, the protein existed, but the field of science didn’t exist… and, and she invented that and has been like working at that tirelessly, and for, I’d say a third or a half of that time, people thought she was crazy to have this idea about this protein.
My dad is this relentless, hustler, but also a doctor and a researcher, and, and they’re just like really driven people, and very, very kind, you know?
They both have very unsentimental relationships to their, um culture and their upbringing. They’re sort of a thing and not of it at the same time, which maybe it’s just every immigrant experience. And so I think I take that particular stance from them as well.
HEBAH: Of course, we’re, we’re all the products of where we come from parents. What was your relationship like with Lebanon? Would you go visit? I know you lived there for a few years when you were a baby, but –
JAD: Yeah, my relationship with Lebanon was, we did go visit, and lived there for awhile and I don’t remember much from that … And then mostly my relationship to Lebanon was. You know, when we moved to Tennessee, I mean like we grow, I grew up speaking Arabic. I grew up with a very strong sense that I was Lebanese, but culturally I didn’t know what that meant. I knew what it meant in terms of the language, certainly in terms of the food, in terms of the people that we would see, because we had the Lebanese crawling all over everything. I mean, it was so many Lebanese in the house.
And, like.. Suddenly there are all these Lebanese doctors constantly around, and so it was very familiar, like the sounds and the movements and the vibrations of Lebanese culture were very familiar to me, but I do remember like the first time I went back to Lebanon as a, as an adult, which was in ‘94 or ‘1 or something, I don’t know, it would have been ‘94 or ‘5, somewhere around there. This is when the war was over and it was finally okay to go back. And I remember like, the feeling of like literally a feeling of touching down. And there’s something about like, just this intimate familiarity with the place, but other utter strangeness as well. Like I was like, oh, I get the way that people hold their bodies like I, oh, that’s so familiar to me. And the way that they talk and the way that, just the kind of those little subterranean cultural things just made so much sense to me.
That was my relationship with Lebanon was the, I always felt so deeply a part of, of Lebanon, but also completely alienated from it. You know? I always stuck in this interesting middle space
HEBAH: There’s something that I read that you’ve said, where being Lebanese American has given you a heightened sense of nuance. Can you explain what you, what you mean by that?
JAD: Hmm. I mean, I, I think what I mean is, I mean, nuance comes from when you – you’re able to be a part of, you’re able to sort of connect with somebody, but at the same time have a kind of analytical distance at the same time.
And I always feel that being the person who was from Lebanon, so I wasn’t really an American. But you go back to Lebanon and you’re reminded instantly, I’m not really an Arab either in the way that they define it. So you’re kind of both, but neither. Being in that place, it puts you in an interest – it’s a perfect stance for being a journalist, I think. Because you always kind of want to be in between spaces. You know, you want to be able to sort of see, identify with a person, but never over identify. So you kind of have to keep an arm’s length, but if you don’t lean in enough, then you’re not being empathetic, right? And every story has to start in empathy. And so it’s that. It’s that, it’s that feeling of like, in between this that I think you have, just as a kid growing up, you don’t know what to call it, but then it suddenly becomes your job. That’s kind of how it’s, that’s, that’s what I think about it.
HEBAH: Were you always a fantastic storyteller or who was the storyteller in your family growing up?
JAD: Neither of them. Really. Neither of them.
There’s nothing in them that would have predestined me to be a storyteller.
I think my storytelling instincts come out of being this guy who likes to put things together. Like it’s, it’s almost as if the designer of the Porsche started out as a mechanic. You know what I mean? Like I feel like a mechanic that then suddenly graduated into being the person who designs the car. Because I knew I liked the engine and the way it worked, and I liked the insides of stories and I’m like, Ooh, it’s kind of cool to start here and then to go here. Oh, no, wait, maybe the middle is the beginning, and the beginning is actually the end. Right? I love that, that process of composing a story. But get me like, sit me down and just have me start telling the story. I’ll screw it up constantly. I’ll get stuck in certain places and I’ll like hit these cul-de-sacs and start looping. I’m like, wow, shoot, this isn’t working. But if you give me a story and you say, all right, let me look at it, figure it out, figure out the right structure for it. I will figure it out better than anyone. So there’s – whatever that is called the, the building of a story. I’m a story builder rather than a storyteller. Yeah. That’s… okay. That’s, that’s what I would say.
HEBAH: How did you get to Oberlin college? So you studied creative writing, music composition with a special interest in electronic and electro acoustic music. How did you get there? And also, what was the conversation with your scientist mother and doctor father that their prodigal son was getting to go study creative writing and music?
JAD: I got there cause it’s the only place that admitted me. I applied to like four or five places. I forget which. I had, I don’t know why, I mean it makes sense to me now in terms of what I do, but I don’t know where this idea entered my mind, but I had gotten it into my head really early on that I wanted to be a film composer. That was sort of the idea that I had, given myself. I think I really liked the movie music, and I just was like, I want to make movie music. And so it was an idea that I had sort of stated to myself out loud for 10 years before college. And so I think by the time I was ready to go off to school, everybody was like, yo, all right, good luck. Clearly you’re going to go do that. So I applied to the best music schools that I knew of, which were USC, Indiana. Oberlin. And maybe one other that I’m forgetting. And Indiana turned me down. USC turned me down, which was crushing. I was crushed because I was like, that’s the best film scoring though. In retrospect I’m really glad. And then Oberlin said yes. And so, my parents, God love them, they just never, they never put pressure on me to be a scientist or to go in that direction. It’s sort of the opposite experience that a lot of immigrant kids have where you’re expected to be an engineer or doctor or lawyer. And I was never, never any pressure, and they had that pressure, right?
They were pressured into the things that they ended up doing, but they never put that pressure on me. So I feel really grateful. And they were like, yeah, go off and write music. We’ll pay for you to do that. Which is crazy. I’m like, wow, my parents are amazing. And, there wasn’t really any conversation. It was just like, this is what I want to do, and they were like ‘okay’.
HEBAH: When we left off, Jad was telling us about his decision to study music at Oberlin, and how supportive his parents were about that choice.
HEBAH: Tell me about your journey into radio after you graduated.
JAD: I mean I came out of school with – out of Oberlin with, this idea that I was going to write music and write, um stories.
I wanted to write stories, I thought short stories, and I wanted to write music. And I came out of school and tried to do that – both, and failed at both. And uh a four or five years in, there was this new thing called the internet that was happening. I mean, this is ‘95, ‘6, so the internet existed obviously, but it… people were just discovering it as a place to do business. Right? And so you had these new things called web design places. And so I found myself working in a web design shop, hating it.
And there was a moment where um somebody offered me a job for a lot of money to do that. And I just remember it was this like.. crisis moment. I was like, I, if I take this job, that means I’m going to work in the internet. And I hate that. I can’t do that. I, it just like … freaked me out. And so I ran away from that, ended up working at a, um community radio station. That was my sort of like, I just need to get back to making sound and, and writing stories. And, My girlfriend at the time, now wife, was like, why don’t you just do radio? Because it’s kinda like two things together. So I started volunteering and, I volunteered at a WBAI, which is sort of a very famous, a community radio station in New York. But at the time it was falling apart. There is this huge amount of infighting. And so they were super short staffed and basically I walked in at exactly the right moment and they were just like, here is a microphone and a recorder. Go cover this protest. And so I ran out. I had no idea. Like what does it mean to cover something? Like what do you even do? What does that…? So I asked some questions. So I went and I went to this place. People were yelling and screaming. I didn’t even know what the issue was. I got some tape, ran back. What do I do now? Okay. Like put it on some, put it on like some reel to reel, like actual tape. I’d been working on a computer, but they were like, put it on this tape. Choose the best moments. Cut the tape with a… scissors.
HEBAH: That’s where it comes from. Cut tape!
JAD: Are you just realizing that right now??
HEBAH: Yeah I didn’t know!
JAD: Oh no, maybe we should cut tape. It’s actually an amazing – I mean, the computer generation that we are generations plural. it’s an amazing thing to go backwards. Totally different way of thinking about sound. Because you’re, you hold it with your fingers and you rock the tape. Like, if you want to make a cut, you kind of rock it and you’re like [cutting sounds] and then you slice. It’s amazing. So I had to do that. And um and what you end up with is a coat, a coat hanger with lots of little bits of tape hanging off it, and you’re like, okay, that’s expert one. That’s expert two. That’s the person at the protest. And then, you write your narration. Record that onto tape, cut that up. And then you, you just basically splice your narration to the tape, to your narration, to the tape until you have one long piece of collaged tape. And that’s your story. And I remember I had to run out at nine, cover a protest, come back at around 11. Do all the snipping and cutting and writing and stringing together. And then it was on the air at like 3. I remember that was my first day, and I just remember like feeling like – that was amazing. Like that was everything I want in life just happened.
HEBAH: How did you get from WBAI to WNYC?
JAD: I just kept doing it. And, I kept pitching NPR stories that I wanted to do, and they kept saying no, but then they said yes, finally. And then I worked on one feature for five months and got it onto a news magazine, and that was like such a rush. And then, I did that a bunch more and then suddenly I got to a place after about two years of doing it where people would actually call me to go do stuff. And then I happened to be, then I got a full time job here at the station, different building. And that was my first full time job in radio, was ‘99, 2000. Then, I quit that and right around the time that I quit, 9/11 had happened and the station was completely changing its formats to become all news. And in that shift there was this sense that new Yorkers wanted to hear stories from the world because we were just in this moment where New York had been attacked and nobody knew why. Everyone felt naive and we needed to understand our impact in the world better. So let’s hear the stories from the world. So there was this thought, well, we’re going to create spaces on the schedule where we can hear other documentaries. And so I just happened to be around when the news director at that time, Michael Assessor had the idea to do that, and he was like, you’re going to be the DJ of all of these old documentaries, and you’ve got three hours to do it every week, and here’s a big box of old, documentaries and just make it – do it. And then that was Radiolab.
HEBAH: It was very experimental.
JAD: It was super weird, right? Yeah, I mean I would be surprised if more than 20 people were listening to any given hour of Radiolab in those early days.
HEBAH: 20 people??
JAD: I know, cause I mean like there’s this thing with the AM radio waves. They travel quite long distances. And apparently there was a thing where our AM waves would bounce off the Hudson river and land in Canada and scramble the stations in Canada. And the Canadians hated that. So they’d yell at the FCC who then yell at us, and the FCC mandated that we cut our power at eight o’clock.
Which is exactly when I aired. So unless you were hugging the transmitter, you could not hear Radiolab. And I experienced this one day because the show was always live. But one day I got it done ahead of time and somebody else was doing it and I was driving with my family. And I heard the show come on and it was just like [distortion noises] Hi.. I’m Jad… [distortion noises]. And that’s what it sounded like, and I was like, Oh my God, no one’s hearing me! And I was, that was the rude awakening. I realized, Oh, right, this – no wonder they’re letting me do whatever I want because no one can hear it.
HEBAH: How long did that go on for where nobody was listening?
JAD: I wanna say about a year and a half…
HEBAH: Holy shit! (laughs)
JAD: I felt insulted. I felt demeaned. I was like, where is my audience? I deserve tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people that are not there. This is horrible. But actually what I needed was to be ignored for a long time and to get the experimental stuff out of my system. You know, basic stuff like figuring out how to talk into a mic. That’s a surprisingly hard thing. I think kids these days, says, the old guy (laughs), they, I think they’re born and they, there’s like, ah, the mic – at last. You know, I think a lot of, like, a lot of people come when they just sit down in front of mic and they’re so at ease. It took me a long time to figure out like, who, who am I in front of this black fuzzy thing? that’s a weird existential question. You know, you got to figure it out. you know, look what, what kind of stories do I want to do? I don’t, I didn’t know. I needed to figure that out, so I needed to be left alone and ignored. And so it was great. It was – I fully advocate for benign neglect as professional development.
HEBAH: Yeah. And like getting paid for it. That’s great.
JAD: Well, getting paid – sometimes… that happens sometimes. Not always.
HEBAH: When did you meet Robert? How did Robert come into who became your co host on Radiolab? How did you meet Robert Krulwich?
JAD: I met Robert. So this is during the period of benign neglect. one of the ways that I ensured that the station wouldn’t fire me was I did other things for the station. So, I would make promos for the station and, you know, little promos. We did a whole series of promos about like little vignettes of portraits of listeners who are listening to the radio. So I remember one in particular, like a florist who had the radio on as he’s cutting flowers and he’d say, how are you? The tulips are the best, especially the tulips from Holland. But, you know, I just loved cut, snip, snip, snip, cut all the tulips while listening to the news. It keeps me informed and you know, it’s like one of these things? And it’s like 25 seconds and it’s very sound rich.
So that was the way that we convinced them to keep Radiolab happening. And so Robert was one of the people that I made a promo with, not the kind I’m describing but, we… At one point, I had to just record people reading, like, what’s the word? Trying to convince other people to give money to the station. Right? And so they gave me a list of people to go and just have them read a script. And Robert was on the list and Robert was the one guy at the very end of the process who refused to read the script that I gave him, uh and I now know that to be like…. (laughs) and that is just a law of Robert, he will say what’s he’s gonna say, he is not gonna read your words and god I love him for it, but at the time he didn’t want to read my words, he rewrote it on the spot in this way that was hilarious and baffling and weird, and we just started talking the day that I recorded him, and I think initially it was just like I was doing all of the things that he was doing 25 years earlier. I had worked at WBAI, which is where he started. I went to Oberlin, which is where he went to school, and then I had done some work at NPR and he was part of the first wave of NPR reporters. And so it was just kind of this weird like, oh God, we, we had instant chemistry and also these weird symmetries. So we just had breakfast the next morning. And we just kind of got on in that way that like, it hasn’t happened to me since, you know? We just like, connected. And it was so easy to talk to him. One of those friends where like an hour and a half goes by and you don’t even notice. And that was it. We would have breakfast at once every month. And, I was doing a show called Radiolab at that point. And, it was a moment in the show where they – WNYC – decided, we’re going to shut this thing down. You know, you’ve had your fun. Let’s wind this little art project down. And so they um gave me this opportunity to do this thing called, like, a profile of Wagner’s ring cycle, which was coming to town.
HEBAH: I have no idea what that is.
JAD: So Wagner, one of the great, German composers, in all of classical music.
And he wrote this thing called the ring cycle, which is four hours, sorry, four operas, encompassing 20 hours. And so it was coming to town and it’s just like a big event. It’s like Woodstock or something. Every time it happens, people who love Wagner lose their mind and they schedule their whole lives around it, so they’re like do a documentary about this. And it sort of, the implicit understanding was that if I did it well, maybe they’d reconsider shutting down Radiolab. Anyhow this is a long story. The only point of which is that I did the documentary, it got on the air, Robert heard it and was like, that was pretty good. Shit. Do you want to try some stuff? Ultimately I think we just started building this style together. That was a style of like taking that chemistry that we had as people and matching that with crazy editing and sound design and these big thinky ideas of science and it’s, yeah. So just somehow it spilled out of our relationship. You know?
HEBAH: So, can you tell me what Radiolab is in one sentence?
JAD: Oh, man, that’s a horrible question. it is a. It is a series, it’s a show, it’s a space, it’s a, it’s a long running series on the radio and now on the podcast primarily, that is all about investigating the beautiful, chaotic complexities of life, and finding wonderfully simple ways to explain those complexities and wonderful ways of complicating the simple. And we do it through, through stories and every trick that has ever been used on the radio. So it’s a show that very much is about the craft of making radio, but it’s also about investigating a complicated world.
But yeah, I don’t know if that’s the right, that’s, I wasn’t a sentence. I don’t know if I can ever make it into a sentence, but yeah.
HEBAH: That was great. Okay, so Radiolab since this, these early days with Robert and figuring stuff out together has become an institution, 2 million plus weekly listeners to the radio and the podcast. Are you going to correct that statistic?
JAD: Uhhh… Here’s my, my latest numbers. I know that there’s like 2 million-ish on the radio, and monthly to the podcast, I think we’re in the 10 million range.
JAD: That’s not weekly, but monthly, I’d say 10 million. So that plus the 2 million, I don’t know. I mean the, we added all of the listeners on the podcast up a while back, and if you add the more perfect people. And the Radiolab people, and now the Dolly Parton people, it’s like 130 million a year.
HEBAH: That’s a big number of humans. Two Peabody awards and a team of 20-some producers working on bi-monthly program for Radiolab, More Perfect, Dolly Parton’s. And your sound and style have legitimately shaped the way thousands of podcasts aspire to sound like, Kerning Cultures included. Tell me about the first time that you realized that you were a big deal. When was the first time you realized you were famous?
JAD: I don’t know. It’s a quiet kind of fame, you know, because it’s your picture and your face isn’t attached to the voice. Most days, most months, and I just don’t, I, for, I honestly forget, every so often there was a time I was walking down my block – not my block, but the block over – and somebody came out of their house because they heard my voice, talking to my kid. So I was talking to my kid about something and then they ran out and they’re like, Oh my God, you, it’s you. And it’s like in those moments, I some-… that it’s sometimes like there’s a beat at when that happens, or I think, what do they mean? And then I remember, oh, right, I’m the guy who tells them the stories on the, on the radio. It’s almost like in that moment you have to board a plane in your mind, fly all the way across the world and land the plane because I feel very far away psychically and spiritually from that guy. I mean, that guy is me, but that guy in that person’s mind, I feel very far away from that. I’m just like, I don’t, most days I don’t think about myself that way. I have to remind myself like, not to be an asshole on the street because they’re going to experience that, not as a, just a normal asshole, but as Jad being an asshole.
HEBAH: In 2011 you were awarded the MacArthur grant, which is the genius grant. Can you put me in the moment of that day when you received the news, and then what did that do for you afterwards? Was there this pressure to continue to produce at genius standard?
JAD: it was a weird day. It was a weird day.
I was on the plane.. I was on the plane on, I can’t remember where I was coming from… on the plane. We just landed at LaGuardia and I got an email with no subject line that said, dear, Mr. Abumrad, please call me. I have some very important news to deliver, or something like that. And you’re like, if you get an email with no subject line, you’re like, this is a scam or something. So he sort of looked at it and I was like, I think this is a scam I should delete. But then I looked at the from and it said MacArthur foundation, and I was like, interesting, I don’t know what that means. So, I emailed them back and I said, okay, what’s your number? He emailed me back. I said, okay, this sounds like a legitimate human. So then I had, I had gotten off the plane, I had forgotten my wallet on the plane, and then my luggage was lost. So I did get my wallet, but I remember I was in a –
HEBAH: This was a terrible day.
JAD: I remember, this is a moment where I was like, you’re in that weird, like, oh, I’ve just been disconnected from my life. I don’t have an ID and I don’t have luggage. So you feel already a little bit like you’re off the grid. And then the guy called, and he was, I forget his name, but he said something like, I just want to let you know that you are a recipient of the MacArthur so-and-so. And I was like, what? What are we talking about? And then he said, no, I just need to ask you one question and then you’ll never hear from me again. How do you spell your name? And I gave him my spelling, and then he says, I’m going to read to you a paragraph, tell me if you have any problems with this. And it was something like Jad Abumrad has worked in radio and defined a new aesthetic and something, something public radio. I was like, wait, what? I did that? He’s like, do you have any issues with that? I was like, no, it’s awesome, but what, what? And then he’s like, okay, you’ll never hear from me again. Click. And then literally that was it. I was just standing there in LaGuardia, in the line for the reclaim-your-luggage thing. I was like, what did that just happen? It feels like a burden on some level. And then it feels amazing, you know, and then you’re just like, oh, this is great. And people return your phone calls, you know, in a way that they didn’t earlier. And also, like, there’s, there are times when it’s like 4:00 AM, and you’re trying to work on a story and it’s not working. And as you know, every story makes you feel stupid, humiliates you. And there are times that, those moments where I’m like, I thought I was supposed to be better at this. And then you say to yourself, well, they gave me that genius thing, so I must not be as stupid as I feel right now. And so you say that to yourself and it does help, it does. but other than that, at this point, it is. it’s a really cool distinction. I’ve long since spent the money on my kids’ education and also I’m building a little studio in my house. and, now it’s just a thing I say to myself sometimes at 4am.
HEBAH: I want to be respectful of your time. You gave me an hour. Could I take another half hour of it or do you have to go?
JAD: I have to go.
JAD: So here’s what I’ll tell you. Where are you staying?
HEBAH: I’m in Manhattan.
JAD: Okay. You can, if you want, you can ride in the car with me to get my kids.
JAD: Different sound quality, but you can ask me some questions in the car if you want.
HEBAH: Yeah sure! That would be great.
JAD: Let’s do that.
HEBAH: I’ve never done this on the go before.
[closing and opening doors to car]
JAD: It’s pretty quiet in here…
HEBAH: I met with Jad in February of 2020, and at that time it was something of a pivotal moment in Radiolab’s history because his co host, Robert Krowlich, announced that he was going to retire from the show, after some 17 years of producing it together
HEBAH: So this, this past January, Robert left the show after some 17 years of working together and the fabulous chemistry that you have together. Can you tell me what it’s been like for you to continue? I know there’s other shows in addition to that, but that sort of flagship show, what it’s been like to continue Radiolab without Robert, and what’s the dialogue in your head in terms of what this next chapter looks like for you flying solo with an amazing team behind you.
JAD: Yeah, I mean, it’s, personally sad for me, you know? I think about it symbolically and I’m like, man, Robert’s leaving. Yeah. I feel the pain of that and he’s just such a soulmate – a soul slash studio mate and it’s weird to think of doing the show without him at the same time this part of me that thinks, well, you know, he and I are going to be friends. We’re still going to have breakfast once a month and it’s going to be like, so there’s nothing I’m personally, I’m losing. There’s part of me that’s excited cause I’m like, this is actually, like a new beginning. When, when in the, in the course of doing something for 18 years, you find yourself back at the starting line? That just feels like a gift. And we get to say to ourselves and to our audience, like, this is a collective. It has been for a long, long time. But now we get to say that. There’s still in for up until now, this superstructure of two guys, like a duet. And spiritually. I think that’s where it came from. But it’s evolved along the way and it’s become a much bigger group. And now it’s about the group. It’s about this collective, this team. And I think that’s the story we’re going to tell. And, and that feels pretty exciting.
HEBAH: So I know that there was, an episode that, Robert has said that he wanted to do about snail sex or something? That you refused. What’s an episode that you’ve always wanted to do that, that hasn’t come to life yet? Maybe because somebody shot it down.
JAD: I want to make a series of meditation tapes, and put them on Radiolab. And it’s like they’re going to be, you know, these like these things that are happening right now. Like where you have your app and you hit meditate and it tells you in a deep breath, just breathe in, breathe out, take all the troubles, breathe it in, and now let it out through your fingertips. You know that like, they’re kind of hilarious and sort of hokey, but also like we all freaking need them. So I want to make a very Radiolab-y version of that. That is deeply subversive, but also deeply calming. So that’s, that’s the latest thing like, those are the kinds of ideas I have these days where it’s like, maybe not like do an important documentary about, you know, race in America, which we’ve kind of done a lot of that kinda stuff. But I want to make like a meditation tape, a weird ass meditation tape.
HEBAH: Do you ever get tired of being curious all the time?
JAD: I get tired of a certain kind of curiosity. There’s a – curiosity can be cruel in a way, you know, like, finding someone’s pain interesting, is kind of cruel in a way. And so there’s a certain kind of curiosity that’s, that’s divorced from empathy that I’ve gotten tired of. And then, you know, we’ve done certain, I mean, we’ve made that mistake, I think sometimes. And so now that I now I think about it as like – it can never come cheap, you know, like whether it’s curiosity or wonder or any of these sort of aspects that are important to our stories, they have to be hard earned.
And so if you’re curious about somebody, you should also be willing to share yourself in the process. And to be vulnerable to them and the way that they’re being vulnerable to you. I think that’s just like a prerequisite. it’s got to begin in empathy. you can’t be a kind of clinical, like distant look down your nose, kind of curiosity.
So I think a lot about that, but like getting tired of curiosity feels like death. On some fundamental level. So no, like I think as a storyteller and as a human, I have to never get to that place.
So this is the, this is this school, so we’re going to hop out. You’re welcome to ride with me and the kids if you like.
HEBAH: At this point, we had arrived at Jad’s kids’ school in Brooklyn. I went inside with him with all my wires following me trying not to trip over them, we met his kids they’re playing soccer in the gymnasium with some friends
HEBAH: which one?
JAD: in the yellow and..Amil we gotta go man!
HEBAH: And we got into the car and then I rode with them a little longer, running a few errands like dropping the kids off at their reading lessons.
So what’s your name?
HEBAH: How old are you?
HEBAH: You’re 10, what about you?
TEJ: My name is Tej, and I’m 7 turning 8 on this Monday.
HEBAH: This Monday! Happy birthday! What are you gonna do for your birthday?
TEJ: I have no Idea!
HEBAH: I asked his kids if they listen to podcasts… if they’ve listened to their dad, they said they love podcasts, they said they love podcasts but they don’t listen to Radiolab.
AMIL: What.. Radiolab, maybe I have heard of but uh the name, might not have heard..
JAD: what do you mean, you know that I work on a show called Radiolab.
AMIL: I know but still, maybe I have heard it but maybe I didn’t know I was hearing it.
JAD: Oh I see I see
HEBAH: And then it was time to say goodbye and end the interview… in a totally different part of the city from where it began. And honestly, they say don’t meet your heroes, but… spending the afternoon with Jad and his boys.. Somehow, I admired him even more.
DANA: This episode was produced by Tamara Rasamny, Alex Atack, Hebah Fisher, and myself, Dana Ballout. Sound design by Alex Atack / Mohamad Khreizat, and fact-checking by Zeina Dowidar. Our original sting was composed by Ramzi Bashour, and Al Empire is produced by the Kerning Cultures Network. If you’re liking Al Empire, please subscribe to the show so you’ll never miss an episode. Also leave a rating and review on whatever podcast app you’re listening to us from. Be honest, but also, give us a little love. It really helps boost our rankings, so that other listeners can find out about us in the podcast libraries. And next week on Al Empire…
MONA: I mean, that was raised in the few of the meetings where I was asked who takes care of your children? I was asked how do you juggle being a mother and being an entrepreneur? I was asked if the customers of Mumzworld were my friends. I got all sorts of questions.
HEBAH: What would you say in response?
MONA: Yeah, so I mean these again… it comes with the territory. It’s irrelevant for me. What was relevant for me was having a business that had very very strong fundamentals that spoke for itself.
That’s in 1 week.
Thanks for listening guys, take care.