Digital Shamanism – Radiolab's Old-Fashioned, Newfangled Storytelling Magic
Jad Abumrad is the creator of WNYC's Radiolab and a 2011 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient. He is a radio host and producer whose engaging audio explorations of scientific and philosophical questions captivate listeners and bring to broadcast journalism a distinctive new aesthetic. As co-host and producer of the nationally syndicated program Radiolab, Abumrad employs his background as a composer to orchestrate dialogue, music, and sound effects into compelling documentaries that draw listeners into investigations of otherwise intimidating topics, such as the nature of numbers, the evolution of altruism, or the science of emergent phenomena within ant colonies and other complex systems.
Jad Abumrad: I do feel like the kind of storytelling that I do is somehow independent of the technology that delivers it. I mean, I do happen to work on the radio, and I’m a guy who likes sound, so, in that sense, this technology does suit me. But I feel like storytellers, they're kind of like shamans, in way, and that your job, as a storyteller, is to kind of create a circle of connection that might as well be thousands of years ago around a campfire, in some sense. Your job is to induce a kind of dream state between people, which is, I think, where the stories live. The good stories are in a kind of collective dream state.
So even though Radiolab uses millions of layers and weird noises that are kind of interlapping in crazy sort of like counterpoint, I do feel like, in some sense, we’re doing something that's very old. It’s ancient. It just so happens that my voice contains all the bleeps and the bloops and the strange things that this technology enables, and I do feel like that's a crutch sometimes. I really do. I mean, there's something amazing about a person getting on stage like almost naked in front of an audience and just with their voice inducing that dream state. It’s something magical about that. For me, someone who doesn't quite feel comfortable doing that, getting on stage, this technology allows me to have that voice.
But there are some crazy things you can do now, crazy synthesis techniques, where you can use any source to create these big long drones and soundscapes, and I use that stuff all the time. You know, what I’ll do, one of my favorite little things I like to do in scoring the show is to take a bit of someone’s voice that was just in the segment and maybe just like the “ch” on a syllable and using various things you can sort of almost grab it with two hands and stretch it and make it a mile long and create these like, strange kind of landscapes that are weirdly familiar. They sound weirdly like the voice still. So I love playing with that kind of stuff and there's all kinds of new technology within sound creation and every single one of it I use it all.
Radiolab uses cutting edge audio tech and ancient storytelling techniques to evoke wonder in an entirely new way.
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