It’s the End of an Era for Radiolab

Photo: WNYC

Radiolab is moving into a radically new era.

Earlier today, Jad Abumrad, who created and led the legendary WNYC Studios podcast for almost two decades, announced that he’s stepping away from the show, seemingly for good. He’s handing the show over to Latif Nasser and Lulu Miller, who were named co-hosts in late 2020, months after original co-host Robert Krulwich, who held the role since 2005, finally retired. “This feels like the right time,” Abumrad wrote in the announcement note.

It’s a momentous occasion, but for close observers, this development doesn’t entirely come out of nowhere. In 2016, Abumrad took a four-month break from Radiolab, in large part to recharge from what he’s described as burnout from the years of making the show in his distinctly intense and very hands-on manner, one where everything runs through his final judgment. It’s an approach that’s frequently led him to working deep into the early mornings, even as he’s progressed in age and as the team around him grew into a sizable operation. In interviews given since his return, Abumrad often talked about the break as having changed his relationship with producing the show: He realized it could exist independently of him. “I needed that perspective,” he told Fresh Air in 2020. “I realized not only can the team work really, really well without me, but that I needed to walk out of the room more so that they can take it in new directions.” His departure, then, marks the endpoint of that realization.

Jad Abumrad. Photo: Dominik Bindl/Getty Images

A word that constantly pops up when Abumrad talks about himself in interviews is “restless,” which, from the outside looking in, is as clear as day. It’s hard not to detect a searching, relentless quality in the work. You can hear it in the nature of the show’s inquiries, probing and dissatisfied until it discovers a revelation. You can hear it in the busy sonic sensibility that’s a hallmark of Radiolab’s identity: the cascading waterfall of voices to communicate a simple sentence; the hard lean into the maximalism of a moment, whether it comes in the burst of sound effects or a drown of silence; the belief in telling a story as an elaborate magic trick.

You can detect it, as well, in the ways the show has constantly reshaped itself over time. Though it’s probably more accurate to describe Radiolab as defined by the interests of its creative team, its earlier seasons can be adequately described as principally dealing in topics related to science, philosophy, and the relationship between those two things. Those early episodes tackled broad and bold themes, ranging from the usual universals (time, death, morality, etc.) to the specifically strange (animal stories, brain anomalies, statistical oddities). In the tradition of narrative public radio, they leaned on telling human interest-style stories to push forward key queries or ideas. Two qualities stood out in its earlier iteration: a commitment to the power of wonder and a deep belief in science as the foundation for the experience of truth.

It is that second quality that would eventually bring controversy. A 2012 episode, “The Fact of Matter,” saw the team trying to tackle the notion of truth by exploring a political incident in the ’80s known as Yellow Rain. What actually happened in this historical event remains unresolved to this day. The story involves accusations that chemical weapons were used by the Soviet Union against insurgents in several Southeast Asian countries, including Laos, and while refugees claimed to have witnessed those weapons being used in the form of “yellow rain,” scientific evidence would later conclusively show that the yellow rain was not linked to chemical weaponry, but to natural causes. The controversy around the episode was rooted in an interview segment with a Hmong refugee that saw the show’s commitment to scientific findings painfully clash with the subjectivity of the refugee’s lived experience of the conflict and belief that chemical weapons were used. Krulwich, in particular, was heavily criticized for his rough handling of the interview. He later apologized. “This episode of Radiolab was about truth, how different people experience different truths and how those differences can be painfully hard to reconcile,” Krulwich wrote in an addendum to the piece. “I care deeply about getting the facts right. Looking back on it now, I see that I was insensitive: I sound hectoring and uncaring. For that, I apologize.”

That incident marked a spiritual turning point for the show, as it began to internalize the limits of science as the principal way of knowing the world. “We looked like assholes, and we were rightfully yelled at,” Abumrad told the Longform podcast in 2020, reflecting on the episode. “From that point forward, we barely ever told stories where we simply trusted one way of knowing to the exclusion of others.”

The podcast went on to dramatically broaden out from its original focus on science toward murkier subjects of politics, society, and the ways we live with each other — as Abumrad described in the Longform interview, a shift from the feeling of pure wonder toward the feeling of interior struggle. (Perhaps the first major work of this era was the 2014 episode “60 Words,” produced with BuzzFeed News, examining the single legal sentence that allowed the longest war in American history, for which it won a Peabody.) Later, when Abumrad returned from his brief hiatus in 2016, that emphasis on murkier in-betweens would further coalesce with his push to have the show evolve beyond him, which chiefly took the form of new spin-off projects and miniseries built around other Radiolab producers. Among them: More Perfect, a series about the Supreme Court co-created by Kelsey Padgett and Suzie Lechtenberg; The Other Latif, a political and legal intrigue saga by Latif Nasser; The Vanishing of Harry Pace and Dolly Parton’s America, both with Shima Oliaee; and Mixtape, with Simon Adler.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of what Radiolab has done for the podcast world. The show continues to reach millions of people directly through their phones, in addition to many others reached through the 450 or so public-radio stations that syndicate the show. It’s influenced an entire generation of producers. Some, directly forged by working on the show, went on to build prominent new companies and podcasts. Among them: Lulu Miller, one of the earliest Radiolab producers, who went on to co-create Invisibilia with Alix Spiegel before returning to the show as co-host; Tim Howard, another early Radiolab producer, who’s now the editor of Reply All; and Julia Longoria, a producer on More Perfect, who you can find today leading The Experiment for WNYC and The Atlantic. And on top of everything else, the podcast was also the gateway show for the many listeners who otherwise would not have dare tried to figure out clunky podcast apps.

I, too, was one of those for whom Radiolab was the gateway podcast. It found me as a college student in 2009, sliding into my life as I dug through iTunes for free stuff to jam into my iPod Shuffle, and it hooked me instantly. (Remember those Shuffles? They were perfect: tiny, non-discrete, gray, clippable. I miss it everyday.) The usual story I tell about why I was drawn to it generally goes along the lines of me having grown up in a country without much of a tradition in radio documentary; how it spoke to me, perhaps, the way the Velvet Underground spoke to someone only becoming familiar with rock music in general. But the real story is significantly lamer: I was drawn to those early episodes — particularly “After Life” and “Morality” — because they hit me just at the right time in my pretentious philosophical explorations as a young guy in college.

In any case, over the years, I drifted away from the show. Part of the reason was just the nature of things: As podcasts grew more popular and abundant, and as I grew into writing about podcasts as a profession, I was simply drawn toward other, newer things to explore. In other words, I took Radiolab for granted.

Some of it was emotional, too. As we moved deeper into the Trump presidency, Radiolab’s earnest sensibility started to hit me differently. Even as the show shifted its emphasis toward the feeling of interior struggle, the show largely maintained its love and capacity for wonder, and for a while, I wasn’t there for it. My sensibilities had grown wearier, in search of sharper edges. That was my loss. Believing in wonder is hard. Believing in wonder these days is even harder. And this team never stopped doing it.

I recognize I’m writing this as if it’s an obituary for the series, but nothing’s really ending. To begin with, Radiolab isn’t going anywhere, and Abumrad has left the show in capable hands. Having picked the show back up over the past year, I’ve been struck by just how much Miller and Nasser are natural successors, and how they bring a bit of the feeling from the earliest days of the show. I’m eager to see where they’ll take it. Meanwhile, Abumrad is still around, though he doesn’t appear to have concrete plans on a next project. “After 20 years, hundreds of episodes, several spinoffs, and one pandemic, I’ll be doing some writing, some teaching, some music-making, some thinking, and frankly, some being,” he wrote in his parting note. If there’s ever to be a Next Big Thing for Abumrad, I hope he takes all the time in the world.

It’s the End of an Era for Radiolab