Science has never been cooler. We're living in a time when "I fucking love science" is maybe the most popular thing on Facebook and Neil deGrasse Tyson is a universally accepted badass. So the popularity of a show like Radiolab, from WNYC, New York Public Radio, isn't surprising. The show presents scientific narratives in lucid and smartly edited episodes that make better use of sound and dialogue than anything else on the radio. Hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad present stories that spiral off of a broad theme in weird ways. The episode titled "Ouch!" for example dealt with an entomologist trying to chart the intensity of insect stings and why doctors have so much trouble finding a way to measure pain.
The show has addressed scientific topics (like continent-spanning wars between ant super-colonies), dense legal and philosophical issues (a riveting debacle over the Indian Child Welfare Act) and occasionally a mix of the two (quicksand in popular culture). The show won a Peabody in 2010 and Abumrad won a MacArthur grant in 2011. In 2008 they started touring the country performing live shows that, like the radio and podcast episodes, focused on a theme. Last year's was "In the Dark," and on Monday they arrive at the Verizon Theater in Dallas with "Apocalyptical."
"There are moments in this live show that are some of my favorite we've worked on," says Abumrad. "There's this 30-foot-long arcing puppet come onto the stage, with these beautiful visuals we've created, and Robert's holding a giant lotus leaf flower that we've made. There are moments where I can't believe I get to do this."
"This thing we're doing is not like the radio show," Krulwich adds, "but it is of the radio show. It puts us at risk again. It's visual and on a scale that we've never worked on. There are musicians who are remarkably versatile and create whole soundscapes and sometimes without having done it before because they're very improvisational." See also: Drink Deep, Dracula: Philip Glass Resurrected Bela Lugosi Last Night
Among those musicians is Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and stand-up comics Reggie Watts and Patton Oswalt have been appearing too. But every performance of Apocalyptical has changed from the one before it, and Krulwich and Abumrad don't know what exactly the Dallas show will be like before the day it happens.
Apocalyptical is all about endings, from slow and drawn out ones to instant and widespread catastrophe. Abumrad and Krulwich are almost giddy as they hint at dinosaur extinctions happening during the show.
Talking with the two of them is delightful, and feels in an odd way like listening to the show. They sporadically start chatting with each other but their banter is always inclusive or illustrative ...
"We release everything now podcast first then retrofit it for the radio," says Abumrad. "which used to be the other way around. The podcast has so much more freedom on almost every level than the radio broadcast. So it's become our primary place to put stuff."
"The podcast audience is different from the radio audience in its physical connection to us," Krulwich chimes in. "They put us in their head, literally in the ear when they're listening. That justifies a lot of the production value that we add. If you're in the car with the window down or in the kitchen and there's bacon sizzling -- if I put bacon in the room you wouldn't listen."
"It's true, I wouldn't pay attention," says Abumrad.
"Do you think if we were in your head you could eat bacon and hear yourself at the same time?"
"No, because those earbuds amplify the noise of your crunching."
... before they eventually circle back: "Podcasting kind of saved our radio asses."
The show hasn't been without its controversies. A September 2012 episode titled "The Fact of the Matter" dealt in part with investigation of the use of chemical weapon attacks against the Hmong during the Vietnam War. The segment, "Yellow Rain," drew sharp criticism that the show treated its Hmong interviewees cavalierly and with little sensitivity.
"Well the kerfuffle was very large and that made us feel like we've gotten very large," says Krulwich. "One of the lessons of that was now we're a fairly big program, and we've always thought of ourselves as a very teeny one. I've apologized for what I thought was a fair critique and I probably wouldn't repeat that mistake again, but I don't know that we changed in any fundamental way.
"We have to be as bold as we know how to be, but fair," he adds.
Earlier, when I asked about the difference between Radiolab and typical science journalism, Krulwich broke it down thusly:
"If you're a newspaper science reporter or working for a blog which is about health, people come to you to get tips and conclusions and they want it packaged well so they can do something. We want to remind people what it's like to just be curious, which is a sloppy, stumbling, often wrong and eventually rewarding and making you feel braver than you would otherwise experience. We don't have to have an answer. All we have to do is have a really good question."
Radiolab's success is its ability to foster a sense of wonder about the world and all the weird and constantly updating things we only sort of understand about it. If they're able to accomplish all that with only audio then what they do onstage with puppets and dancing eyeballs must really be something to behold.
Radiolab Live is 8 p.m. on Monday, November 4, at Verizon Theater. Tickets are $37.50 - $47.50, available here.
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