Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad on the ‘Radical Uncertainty’ of Creating Something New

jad abumrad
Image by kris krüg via Flickr.

2011 MacArthur Fellow Jad Abumrad, who most public radio-lovers know as the co-founder and co-host of WYNC’s extremely popular, award-winning program, Radiolab, got his start in musical composition, and helped define the non-traditional, audio-rich sound of the show, which has now been on the air in some form for over a decade. He’s now kind of a cult favorite in the NPR/PRI crowd.

But he wasn’t always.

The show’s story-telling style, sound, and Jad’s jovial, semi-informal hosting style, is in stark contrast with what most public radio listeners expect from the sometimes-stuffy news and information medium, which is exactly why listeners around the world appreciate it. Getting something like that aired and respected by the establishment was, though, a scary, nervous-making challenge. And at first, it didn’t go over so well.

In a 2012 talk he gave on the 99u stage (which you can hear on 99u’s podcast, or viewed in the video below), he talked about the feelings of dread and excitement of creating something, calling it a “radical uncertainty that you feel when you’re trying to work without a template.”

“[It’s] not something that I think we, as a creative community, talk enough about: How crummy it feels to make something new,” he explained.

Jad’s only direction at the start of the show — which he co-hosts with long-time radio and television journalist Robert Krulwich — was to make a show that was different than what was currently on the air. Drawing on his background in audio and music mixing, he started grabbing bits of sound. The final product was a smart, audio-heavy, highly stylized production.

It was not immediately well-received. The radio station received “pages of pages of pages” of “vitriolic” commentary.

“That was some serious gut-churn in that moment,” Jad admits. But his boss gave him some advice: “that people are hating you now means you’re doing your job.”

Despite the criticism, though, Radiolab went on to become something of a cult favorite, and has even been widely embraced by the public radio community at large. The show won the 2010 George Foster Peabody Award for broadcast excellence, and is often placed alongside Ira Glass’s acclaimed radio show/podcast This American Life as one of the most insightful audio productions on the air today. Despite being originally a radio-specific program, Radiolab was also one of the first shows to experiment with supplemental podcast content, including shorts and additional segments. Now, most Radiolab listeners get the show via podcast, and the program is often viewed as a key element to the burgeoning medium of podcasting.

Jad went on to have other nerve-wracking moments — like the time his laptop died at the beginning of their first live show — and, he says, at those times, it’s a matter of re-framing.

“We, as a creative community, can either run from that feeling, or maybe we…take that feeling itself to be the pointing arrow. Like, ‘ok, I feel like my stomach is about to explode, but maybe that means I’m on the right track. Maybe that just means I’m doing my job.”

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.