How 'Radiolab' Is Changing the Sound of the Radio

The innovative show portends a post-Internet revival of production values, minus the pretension to authority.


Nothing on the dial sounds quite like WNYC's Radiolab. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich's science-heavy show foregrounds complex and fascinating production values as well as buddy-comedy banter that leads listeners on the path to enlightenment. After an incredibly successful few years, 'the Radiolab effect' has begun to influence the next generation of great radio producers, reports Julia Barton at Nieman Storyboard. She spoke with Julie Shapiro, the artistic director of the wonderful Third Coast International Audio Festival, and Roman Mars, who produces the 99% Invisible podcast and helped judge the festival this year. Both have heard hundreds of radio pieces from up-and-comers.

It turns out that replicating the show's production values is difficult, but its approach to knowledge and storytelling are easier to incorporate.

[T]hey are hearing another trademark of the show, its conversational style. You'd think, since the talk radio format is mostly talk, that this would be a given. But radio evolved in the age of oratory, when a stentorian delivery helped pierce the broadcast static, and that's what listeners still expect.

In the age of HD and earbuds, though, producers are finding they can sound more like themselves. "Radiolab" co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich break down complicated stories through a relaxed Socratic dialogue, an approach that's also been popularized by NPR's "Planet Money" and APM's "Freakonomics."

Barton's suggests that our cultural expectations of radio -- funneled through different technological listening devices -- are changing. It may be broadcast over traditional airwaves, but it's webby. It feels interactive and interrogative rather than narrowly investigative. Abumrad and Krulwich aren't coming from on high, but right there with the listener adventuring through the story.

I was reminded of Andrew Sullivan's wonderful 2008 piece for this magazine, "Why I Blog."

The blogger can get away with less and afford fewer pretensions of authority. He is--more than any writer of the past--a node among other nodes, connected but unfinished without the links and the comments and the track-backs that make the blogosphere, at its best, a conversation, rather than a production.

What's different about Radiolab (and what I think is changing about the web) is that it *is* a production, just one of a very new kind. Radiolab is actually post-blog and post-livestream. It's not aping the oratory of old or the raggedness of the new. It's a hybrid that takes lessons from the past, recent and deep.

That's where I think web journalism is headed, too.  "No one wants to read a 9,000-word treatise online," reads a telling line from Sullivan piece. "On the Web, one-sentence links are as legitimate as thousand-word diatribes--in fact, they are often valued more."

While this might have been true at one point, it simply no longer is. Here at The Atlantic, there is a very strong positive correlation between length of post and readers attracted. The genre conventions of blogging are changing. Few old-style linkblogs exist and a whole culture has developed around the longread. New online publications (e.g. The Verge) look beautiful.

This is the Radiolab effect extended: expect less pretension to authority, greater understanding of one's nodeness, but greater respect for the production culture of the pre-web era.

Image: JWA Commons + some manipulations.