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'Radiolab' brings cool back to radio using emerging, traditional platforms

Salt Lake City — On a recent balmy weeknight, two New York City radio icons sit on opposite ends of a large stage during a sold-out live performance in front of 1,500 people.

Flanked only by a microphone stand, Robert Krulwich uses both hands to hold up his three-ring binder with production notes and a script. The 64-year-old Krulwich — a Columbia Law School grad whose résumé includes stints as Rolling Stone magazine's Washington bureau chief and a television correspondent for ABC's "Nightline" news program — looks like a professor in his blue blazer, button-down shirt and plain Levi's.

In contrast to Krulwich's simple setup, Jad Abumrad sits at the controls of what amounts to a powerful sound studio.

Not only does he have a MacBook Pro up and running, but Abumrad, 38, is also operating an audio interface box that allows him to create custom sound effects on the fly. His ear for sound and attention to sonic detail are carry-overs from his previous career as a music composer.

As co-hosts of the acclaimed science program "Radiolab," produced by radio station WNYC and distributed by NPR, Krulwich and Abumrad are in Utah for a special performance of their new live episode, "In the Dark," which examines a trio of topics sharing themes of light and sight: the evolution of the human eyeball, what it means to be blind and what outer space looks like to an astronaut.

After winning a prestigious 2010 Peabody Award, and with every episode of "Radiolab" reaching nearly three million listeners, Krulwich and Abumrad are certified rock stars in the radio business.

Their generational difference and distinct professional backgrounds combine to create an opposites-attract synergy that not only positions the show on the front lines of NPR's quest to innovate how Americans interact with audio programming, but also endears "Radiolab" to millions of educated listeners. And perhaps most notably, "Radiolab" is proof positive in an ever-shifting media landscape that high-quality storytelling and educational content can still succeed.

Traditional radio fades away

It wasn't so long ago when radio and its hard-copy alternatives, cassettes and compact discs, comprised the entirety of audio programming options for most Americans. But as data from the Pew Research Center's recent "State of the News Media" annual report indicates, history could very well end up viewing 2011 as a tipping point in the ongoing shift away from old paradigms: "38 percent of Americans now listen to audio on digital devices each week, and that is projected to double by 2015, while interest in traditional radio … is on the decline."

NPR understands all too well the ongoing erosion of traditional radio — after all, in 2010 National Public Radio officially changed its name to NPR in order to excise "radio" from the company's handle.

And moving forward, NPR is actively strategizing toward becoming a dominant force in emerging audio markets.

"We need to reach an audience in ways convenient and accessible to them in emerging and traditional platforms," NPR CEO Gary Knell tweeted on Dec. 1.

Each hour-long episode of "Radiolab" consists of three or more segments loosely connected by a common, science-based topic.

The program reaches 2.8 million listeners: one million on traditional radio, and another 1.8 million via podcast. Those numbers are not insignificant, but when taking into account that the programming NPR distributes nets 26.8 million listeners every week, it's clear that "Radiolab" is not a game-changer for NPR solely on the basis of its listenership.

And yet, "Radiolab" is, in fact, one of the most visible innovators in the NPR family of shows. The roots of that innovation are twofold. First of all, the essence of "Radiolab" is to make learning about science feel fun and cool by telling interesting stories through the framework of scientific principles.

For example, one delightfully eclectic episode from the 2010 season titled "Falling" explores the physics of black holes, recounts the melancholy legacy of daredevils who ride over the edge of Niagara Falls in a barrel, and explains the counterintuitive phenomenon of why a cat falling to the ground from a 20th-story apartment window is significantly less likely to suffer serious injury than a cat that falls only eight floors.

Second, Abumrad's audio creations sound singularly unique. He meticulously invests conscious thought into every music drop and sound effect; Abumrad also edits interviews so tightly that the sound of dead air — even for a second or two — is never permitted to detract from each episode's sense of swelling momentum.

As the New York Times noted last April, the rich production value Abumrad pours into every episode is essentially innovating a new class of podcast, that age well and are worthy of multiple listens.

"Yes, radio drifts by or washes over you when it comes out of a box on the other side of the room," Rob Walker wrote for the Times. "But remember, a majority of 'Radiolab' listeners actually take in the show via podcast, and there's something different going on when it enters your head through ear buds at the exact moment you have chosen to hear it, while you're commuting with nothing else to think about, or cleaning the kitchen, or lying down for the night. … In that situation, the value of a media product does not come from being fast. It comes from being timeless."

'Radiolab': a brief history

The sold-out, adoring audiences that Krulwich and Abumrad are encountering with "In the Dark" — one of the live shows Team Radiolab infrequently rolls out — belie the humble beginnings of "Radiolab."

The program's first iteration launched in 2002: a three-hour show designed simply to fill airtime for WNYC on Sunday nights. As the producer and lone host, Abumrad contented himself producing original segments that ran between re-runs of science documentaries.

By 2004, though, the concept for "Radiolab" had evolved to incorporate one hour of new reporting about a science topic.

Krulwich, then host of the PBS series "NOVA scienceNOW," began regularly joining Abumrad on the show. After it became clear the pair enjoyed great on-air chemistry, Krulwich resigned from PBS in 2006 in order to come aboard as a fully vested "Radiolab" co-host.

The allure and novelty of "Radiolab" doesn't end with its trademark wall of Abumrad-fueled sound.

Rather, "Radiolab" is also defined by the hosts' desire to connect with their audience in meaningful ways.

"These shows should reflect the broadest spectrum of human experience that you can," Abumrad told the Deseret News. "It isn't one thing — we're not trying to teach people per se, but we want them to learn stuff. We're not trying to move people per se, but we want them to be changed by these hours.

"More than anything I want them to just sit down and listen. Wanting someone to not move, it's more primal in a way — you want to come to somehow hold them, and that means delivering all the things a story can and should."

As much as Abumrad's production prowess gave "Radiolab" its first legs, the contribution of Krulwich to the show's evolution is just as crucial.

Not only did the longtime journalist bring decades of substantive reporting experience to the table, but his mirthful humor and insatiable curiosity unlocked the door to seemingly endless possibilities for compelling audio programming.

"We're trying to model a way of being curious," Krulwich said in a phone interview.

"Usually in journalism, the journalist will go off and learn the thing that he or she is trying to tell as carefully and as precisely as possible. But this is modeling something different: 'We don't know; this guy says he knows; let's find out.' …

"This is not a show about people who are well informed — it's a show about people who are trying to become informed. That's a big difference."