Is there anything you are 100 percent uninterested in?
Hmm, that's a good question. Radiolab has been through many phases these days, but we still air a lot of our old episodes on the radio. So someone will hear an older episode that’s maybe more neuroscience-based. Not to say we don’t do that type of reporting anymore — we do — but we’ll get a lot suggestions like, “Hey you guys should do a show about synesthesia. That’s where people see numbers and they’re colors and it’s crazy!” I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gotten that pitch.
A lot of people these days will approach us with ideas they think we should do, which really end up being stories that remind them of the kind of stories we would do. But actually we didn’t do those stories because they’re not interesting. That will happen a lot, especially with like "gee-whiz" science. I love covering science, but the science has to lead you to some meaning, some new way of seeing the world, and if it doesn’t do that, it’s just neat. It’s just not something we’re gonna do.
These days we’re going in so many different directions that I think our audience is a little confused, but it’s a good confusion. So we don’t get as many of those out-of-the-blue pitches, because I think people are just waiting to see what we’ll do, and we’re sort of waiting to see what we’ll do, too.
One of my favorite Radiolab episodes is "Bliss." To me, that show marks the transition you were discussing. Is that the time you'd point to as a shift away from purely neuroscience-based stories to the stuff you're doing now?
That’s interesting, now you’ve got me curious. I’m gonna look at when that was … that would have broadcast, when did we put that out? It doesn’t have a date on it. Season 11. When would that have been? Season’s a word that doesn’t really mean much anymore ...
I’d guess 2011.
That sounds about right. I’ve never actually thought of the "Bliss" episode as a point of inflection, though I love that episode.
I was actually just thinking about this this morning for the first time. We’ve been on the air for almost 18 years at this point. We began really as a show whose primary mission was to lead people to moments of wonder, so it was a lot of science stuff, a lot of neuroscience. So you get to that point in the story where you get to the edge of what you know, then cue the music and we say something profound and philosophical, and we all stare dewey-eyed at what’s beyond. ... That became the moment of wonder that we were all searching for in early Radiolab. I think you’re right, around "Bliss," 2011-2012 particularly, I think we started to shift in what we wanted to accomplish. It wasn’t as much about moments of wonder, as it was about examining those complex areas where you find two separate truths which seem to be simultaneously true, but also mutually exclusive. It became about competing truths.
For me, I’d point the shift at "Yellow Rain." That’s an episode that really got us in trouble. That was an attempt — not the best attempt frankly — but it was an attempt to struggle with two different ways of seeing the world, both of which seemed completely valid. You had a scientific way of seeing, and then you had something that was more about lived experience. That for me became the calling, even though that first time blew up in our face. That for me became the mission.
Now I think we’re moving into a new space. Now the leading edge of the work is much more about history, taking the past and making it “not the foreign country,” as they say. We’re translating the past and making it a lived presence. So I feel like that’s our latest version of ourself.
Do you listen to old Radiolab episodes? Or is the old stuff completely behind you?
It’s usually behind me. We're updating [older] episodes now, so I’m listening to our old stuff more than I ever have, and I have that experience of being utterly horrified, and sometimes going, “Oh, that was a good day, we made some good decisions that day.” But generally speaking, I do spend my time running away from the things we made.
What's the biggest challenge specific to putting together a new episode of More Perfect?
I think it’s that "bring the past to life" thing. It's always the biggest challenge. But there are challenges on a lot of levels. We’re legal idiots, we don't really know anything. The More Perfect team, we’re not lawyers by training, we didn’t even know much about the law or the Constitution. Which is part of why we started the show, we wanted to teach ourselves, so we could communicate it to others. There’s that challenge of understanding how to talk about the law in a way that's precise but also colloquial. Threading that needle can be really hard. Because if you start to use words that feel right, but don’t have the proper legal definition, you could end up saying things that are just wrong. A lot of the challenge is just talking with our advisers, a group of constitutional lawyer and historian types: “Did we say this right?” That’s kind of a challenge, though it doesn’t seem like the biggest challenge.
The biggest challenge for me is two-pronged. … let me work my way up. So there’s that challenge, just getting the shit right.
There’s also in every More Perfect episode that moment where you go into the court. Making those [scenes] make emotional sense is so stupidly, annoyingly hard. Because you listen to these arguments and it’s like, they really fighting about something. But as best as I can tell, it’s about jurisdiction, and I don’t really care about jurisdiction. I don’t care which court gets to see this thing. That’s the least interesting thing — they’re spending 40 minutes arguing about it, but I feel like there’s something else going on, but I can’t really figure out what it is. … So you’ll call a bunch of people, and it’s like, "Oh, they’re arguing about this thing that Jefferson and Hamilton were arguing about back in 1783." … Then you try to write your way through that, you fuck it up 12 times. You just have to beat those passages until you get them into a shape and a language that makes sense to you. Then you can spit them out as if you’ve known it all along.
Your talk in Pittsburgh this week is on the subject of migration. Why migration?
This was an unusual invitation for me. It was a case where folks saw a pattern in our work that I didn't notice. One of the quiet through-lines [of Radiolab] seems to be this idea of migration. If you look at three or four different stories we've done, they all deal with migration, migrating birds, migrating peoples, migrating ideas. So someone approached us and said, "I see this thing you guys are doing, do you wanna talk about it?" And I was like, "I guess I kinda do!" I never noticed. It’s always fun to discover something in your own thinking that you didn’t even know was there.
Then there’s another side to ambient music, like Stars of the Lid. It really wants you to feel suspended in an uncertain moment. Those kinds of ambient groups where somehow the affect is melancholic and sad and nostalgic, and those speak to me.
Kinda like "Disintegration Loops." The two chords are nice and consonant and comforting, but you're still trapped there.
Totally. We tend to use that kind of stuff on [Radiolab], it’s somewhere between … It’s like the intoxicating dream laced with a sort of existential angst. I couldn’t describe it beyond that. It’s really hard to talk about ambient music.
OK, that’s all I got, but I wanted to tell you that someone in the past week has been editing your Wikipedia page so your name reads “Album Rod.”
Not in the title, but in the body.
Let me see … “Album Rod.” [Laughs] Wow. That’s really funny. Can I edit this?
Yup, pretty sure.
Oh my god, I can edit, I’m editing it right now! I didn’t know I had this power. "Jad Album Rod." [Laughs] That’s so funny. Thanks for the heads up!