Jad Abumrad and the Project That Named Him a McArthur Genius Fellow

photo by Nasser Qadri

– by Noha El-Khatib

I am by no means a nerd, but Radiolab made me wish I were more of one. And by nerd, I mean someone who has so much to offer because of his or her passion and dedication towards life, that they make you wish that you had paid more attention in school. This is why nerds are gaining popularity now, it’s because they are the ones who actually DO anything worth revering. I was one of those people that always loved learning, but hated studying. I could flip through the encyclopedias in the library and read about anything on my own for hours, but I couldn’t pay attention when teachers lectured about the Ottoman Empire, about the theory of relativity or about the Ming dynasty. My intellectual curiosity needed more to be fulfilled, and unfortunately I was a disappointment to so many of my teachers for this reason.

Radiolab is the savior schoolteacher. Radiolab is passion made contagious. Radiolab uses music to bait your imagination into thinking about stuff.

When our very own William Mullally recommended Radiolab to me in early 2010, it had already been developing a small but serious cult following. The host and creator, Jad Abumrad, is a Lebanese-American musician/journalist/storyteller/awesome guy. He along with Robert Krulwich host this gem of a show, bringing guests from all backgrounds to answer the most basic and complicated of questions. What makes humans do good deeds? What happens to us after we die? Who was the first person to ever get AIDS? What are the odds of someone winning the lottery 3 times in a row? Jad and Robert will ponder these questions and ask only the experts to shed light and unravel some of the mystery. Jad studied music composition and uses his skills and talent to tell stories. Robert uses his background as a science reporter and journalist to develop the dialogue with experts. But it’s not a science show. It’s not a music show. It’s both and it’s neither. It’s, according to their Facebook page, ‘highly addictive ear candy’.

photo by Nasser Qadri

My favorite bands are now competing with Radiolab for highest play count on my iTunes and iPod. I’m not kidding!

Jad was recently named a McArthur Genius Fellow, a prestigious award only given to those whose passion and work is deemed invaluable to the McArthur Foundation. So William and I decided to talk to Jad. We’ve been fans since the start, so we got in touch with Jad and he was generous enough to hang out with us (online) in a one-hour video interview and we got to ask him as much as our time would allow.

If you’re an iTunes user, go to the iTunes store and look at their most popular podcasts. Radiolab is bound to be in their top rated list, somewhere after This American Life. The episode that got me hooked is “Stochasticity” and Jad tells us about it in the interview below. If you’re NOT an iTunes user, go to  www.radiolab.org, like, now, and find the Stochasticity episode and listen to it while you lie in bed or fold your laundry.

Interview with Jad Abumrad of Radiolab

-By Noha El-Khatib & William Mullally-

Jad: I’m psyched to talk to you guys! It’s the first conversation I’ve had with somebody who’s doing Arab-centered news.

photo by Nasser Qadri

Noha: So you grew up in Tennessee but you’re originally Lebanese. How much of your family background are you still in touch with?
Jad: Yeah, my folks are Lebanese. My dad grew up in a small village in the mountains called Wadi Chahrour, and my mom grew up in Jounieh. I grew up as a first generation Arab-American, speaking Arabic in the house, but I think like a lot of kids who had this trajectory, I spoke it well enough but not too well. Maybe up to 6th grade level, which is probably too generous. It was a big part of my life! It was one of these things which I guess are very typical – my upbringing was an amalgam of French, English, and Arabic… and add to that kind of… Tennessee. That was kind of my childhood.
Noha: Do you have any exposure to music from the region, since you grew up speaking Arabic at home and your parents are pretty much Lebanese living abroad, what kind of exposure to any music from the region? I’m assuming Fairuz?
Jad: On an ambient level I’ve had Arabic music around me my whole life, but I sort of tuned it out to be honest. Fairuz was just basically a soundtrack for a long long time – I had at one point both sets of grandparents living with us and that was what made sense to them so I heard it a lot and they’d often play it at excruciating volumes (laughs). You know, I heard it my entire life and it never made sense to me. You know, I think that one of the fundamental ways in which I am not an Arab is that the music just doesn’t compute for me. When I was growing up, hair metal bands made more sense to me than Arabic music and I always felt like a sellout because Def Leppard was more of an influence on me than Arabic music. You know so much of Arabic pop is irritatingly synth-y. I think I’ve been kept away form Arabic music because all I’ve ever heard is Arabic pop.
Noha: Yeah, [unfortunately] that’s the biggest problem with Arabic music – it’s the pop.
Jad: The pop is so annoying, ugh. I can’t think of any music I like less than Arabic pop. I’m sorry I hope that’s not offensive to you guys.
Noha: No not at all –
William: Let’s get to Radiolab!
Noha: Oh yes! So when you first got Radiolab started, how did the support in general evolve?
Jad: Well it started at WNYC at the station in New York… It all happened in the dead of night on Sunday nights from 8 pm to 11 pm over the course of about a year when no one was listening. And as people started to listen – which was a very kind of long trajectory – the station began to resource it piece by piece. One of the great things about public radio – it can also be one of the maddening things – is that things are given time to evolve and they kind of live or die based on their own steam. And for whatever reasons, we got lucky enough to persevere, and now we’re supported through listener donations, through a couple of grants, we’re starting to get a tiny bit of revenue coming in from underwritings placed in our podcast. We’re just trying to make it work. The amount of reach we have, it’s still very much a shoestring operation.
William: What’s the big difference between the Radiolab Jad, and the non-Radiolab Jad? And do you think that’s changed over time?
Jad: Good question, it’s a question I actually ask myself a lot… I think the Radiolab Jad is the real Jad but with certain aspects of the real Jad amplified. The Radiolab Jad is a little more animated than the real Jad. He’s probably just as curious. I am actually just me; a curious guy, trying to know about the world. It does stem from the real me.

Photo by Nasser Qadri

William: Something I’ve noticed about the way that you approach questions. You seem to like your questions more than you like things to be definitively answered. You like to find more mystery underneath every single layer. Why do you think that is?
Jad: (pauses) I dunno… I think when you ask a question—a question from your soul—you want the answer. At the same time, if the answer has the effect of narrowing the world you live in, then you don’t want the answer… [but] you want to be empirical, you want to be precise, and you want to be rigorous. The show is in a sense that tension. It’s a sort of tug between those two impulses. So you’ll often see that in the two hosts [Robert and Jad]. One of us will sort of be the skeptic at one point, and the other one will be the kind of person who wants to believe in magic, but then we’ll flip. Because I really do fundamentally believe that I am both a skeptic and I am also a believer in magic. And I think Radiolab is both of those things together.
William: So, especially in the “Afterlife” episode, you jumped in with fiction as well, and I thought that was really interesting and I thought that the fiction you guys used was the most powerful part of that episode. Do you think there are other questions that are best answered in fiction?
Jad: You know, I remember reading The Road, the Cormac McCarthy book, before it became a movie and that was just a piece of pure fiction but there was something in the landscape it created of quietness, you know, this man walking down a road towards the sea… I don’t know what I’m trying to say suddenly – but YES, I totally agree with what you’re saying I mean there are different kinds of truth. It’s a cliché. The way that I feel is that anything you do should be rigorous, even the poetry should be precise, you know? But poets can get to a kind of essential truth, often better than journalists, better than storytellers. I think essentially we are a fact-based show so the fiction is a kind of embroidery in some sense. They just kind of create a sonic landscape you’re just reading them aloud. And they [the fictional stories in the “Afterlife” episode] were written by a neuroscientist who himself couldn’t answer those questions through his own discipline so he turned to fiction and imagination. I love that move that he made going from ‘I can try and know the world but there is a point beyond which I just have to imagine the world.’ And for me that’s that sort of tug that I was talking about earlier where you skip from explanation and the power of reductive reasoning to the power of expansive imagination. That move to me is everything I want from the radio.
Noha: Can you give us an example of how an idea hit you for a show?
Jad: We just did a show called “Games”. The thing I always complain about when this show gets really hard to produce (which is most of the time) is that I say ‘Fuck this, I wanna do a sports show’. That was just some ridiculous thing I would say over and over and one day I thought, ‘Why don’t I just try it?’ And public radio is a notoriously hostile place for sports so I thought let’s make a smart show about sports and it came out of just this constant complaint.
William: Uh huh..
Jad: A show like “Loops”- that emerged from a series of something I’ve always been fascinated by something that repeats that’s not redundant. And you listen to the repeat over and over again. Some of the music I’ve loved the most is reeeally bad techno. It’s a funny thing when something repeats over and over again and suddenly you fall into a kind of trance without getting annoyed. So I got interested in ‘what makes a loop pleasant?’ vs ‘What makes a loop really annoying?’ There was just a stupid question which led to a successively less stupid question until we had a set of good questions.
(Jad on the Stochasticity episode)

photo by Nasser Qadri

Jad: That’s one of my favorites actually. So that one: We had read this article by this journalist, Natalie Angier who covers science stuff at The Times and there was an article which began with a coin flip. It essentially [asked] “Do you think it’s weird when you flip a coin and you get heads ten times in a row? Actually that’s not that weird.” That’s what the whole point was. What are, mathematically, the odds of a miracle happening? It turns out if you reframe your thinking that miracles are pretty non-miraculous… start with magic, piss on the magic, but then rebuild the magic in a sort of way that feels appropriate. So in a way it’s a process of trying to figure out how to be alive, full of wonder in a world that is still constrained by the rules of reality. So how do you be alive and full of wonder in a world but not in denial of the real world? I think that’s one for the key questions… for life. And for me that segment was kind of our way of addressing that.
Noha: Yeah, I remember my reaction to that… the magic was pissed on, exactly. And I’ve never been able to look at another coincidence the same since that episode.
William: So what music, tv, movies, books, etc has excited you recently?
Jad: So let me go to my iTunes….
Noha: Highest playcount.
Jad: Yeah. So…. Zoe Keating.
Noha: Yeah! I got really into her after you brought her on the show.
Jad: Yeah, she’s amazing. Well let me just answer off the top of my head… I tend to like very almost formless music, so sometimes really really drone-y stuff, the kind of stuff that gets worked into the show. Um… I like Fennesz. Do you know Fennesz?
William: Yeah, Endless Summer.
Jad: Yeah, electro, synth-y kinda stuff. I like that kinda stuff a lot. I do listen to a lot of techno. Guilty pleasure. A lot of black metal recently. Just because it’s the only thing that makes sense. (laughs)
Noha: What black metal?
Jad: Ulver. I’ve been going back to some old [Black] Sabbath, which you certainly wouldn’t call that metal but that’s sort of the genesis of it all. Um… Alcest, it’s a French black metal band. Oh yeah… I like Katy Perry’s “Firework”!  I have a lot of avant-gardes, you know, classical sort of music, strange, dissonant noises. So I have to sort of break my sort of trunks of the musical mind it would be like (gestures one column to his left) drone… almost minimal… like, no music. Just a drone. And then (gestures another column to his right) noise. And so a lot of Merzbow, and stuff like that which is like caustic, noisy, and awful sounding. I can even play you some if you like. (Fiddles with laptop to play something that sounds like the hissing you hear when you flip the tv to an inactive channel)
William: What interests you about it, about sound? Where does sound stop and music begin?
Jad: Well that’s a good question, I mean I don’t know that you can draw an even line between them. I don’t know that there is a point… it’s a great spectrum maybe? And music is organized sound… and to the degree that you [can] hear within that kind of block of white noise, a choice is being made… the sonority’s changing, you hear everything repeating, it can begin to feel like music. A lot of times what I want is to somehow destroy music in some way. I want music that somehow is not music. So I go to things that don’t have easy forms, that don’t have song structures, a lot. At the same time, you can’t deny Katy Perry (laughs). I love that, too. I feel I’m both in an uneasy armed truce. I listen to classical music, recently I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz. I listen to a lot of electronic music. The new Alva Noto is really interesting. It just sounds like a computer breaking down to a beat. I don’t listen to a lot of music with words. That would be maybe the only thing I don’t listen to. But even that’s not true all of the time…
William: Unless Katy Perry’s involved.
Jad: Katy Perry… yeah. She has a TER-rible voice. In her high register, she has, like, no voice, but still the songs are great.
William: So now in the aftermath of winning the McArthur Genius Fellowship [in which you were granted $50,000 by the McArthur Foundation to continue his project], after the shock has worn off, how is it now?
Jad: It’s been a trip, it’s been really trippy. Like in the LSD sense, it’s been really, very very strange… I didn’t expect that and it was really discombobulating; that intense amount of attention so quickly. There were days where I was feeling like almost.. ashamed? (laughs) If that makes sense…
Noha: Awww!
Jad: everybody in the radio world has been really excited, almost like WE won. So it’s been really exciting to feel like it isn’t just an honor for me, but it’s a bigger honor. And it’s certainly… you know, I couldn’t have done… I mean I’ve said this before, but I’m just a few lucky breaks away from being a well-educated bum. And so there’s so many things that had to happen for Radiolab to happen that go beyond me. It had to do with Robert, the team, the station where I work it has amazing leadership, they allowed this show to gestate, so at the end of it all, what I really feel is gratitude… I get to do this thing for a living. I get to have intimate conversations with people and to make the story that is so exciting to me, and the fact that I get to do that is kind of awesome. And then somebody calls me and tells me this insane thing about this award, because I get to do this thing I love, it’s just all so amazing. I feel really grateful.
Noha: Well congratulations!
William: It’s definitely support because you’re doing something important.

Skyping with Jad

Photo by Nasser Qadri

Jad: Well it was really cool to talk to you guys!
Noha: Thank you for the interview and for Radiolab!

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One response to “Jad Abumrad and the Project That Named Him a McArthur Genius Fellow

  1. Pingback: Interview With Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad | Salaam

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