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How Radiolab co-host (and Nashville native) Jad Abumrad learned to stop worrying and love science

To the Wonder



Plenty of musicians have been inspired by acid. For Jad Abumrad, co-host and producer of the WNYC show Radiolab, it was presented in the form of a salt shaker. And by his own mother.

"My mom's trying to explain the way that fatty acids get into the cell," Abumrad tells the Scene by phone from New York, recalling a fairly typical dinner-table conversation with his parents when he was growing up in Nashville. "And I remember she would explain it like a napkin and a salt shaker. ... The salt shaker was the fat, and the napkin was the cell, and she would go through these long elaborate explanations of how the salt shaker gets into the napkin."

But he was nonplussed, as many kids his age would be, and that was part and parcel of his attitude at the time.

"I definitely remember being aggressively uninterested in what they do," Abumrad says of his scientist mother and physician father. "I'll tell you what science was for me, growing up: I went to USN, so every day after school I'd have to walk over to my mom's lab, which was just down the street. And I would sit there in her lab for hours. ... I was so bored. It was crushing boredom."

It wouldn't be until many years later, after he had left Nashville, studied music at Oberlin — "I remember going into music and wanting to do music because it felt exciting and fun, and it felt like everything science wasn't," he says — and started working in radio in New York, that Abumrad realized how deeply those conversations had embedded themselves.

"As I thought back on it," he says, "I was like, 'Wow, that's my material, in some sense. That's what I draw from.' So in a weird way, their passion for science was like a grenade I pulled the pin on [that] took 30 years to explode."

In 2011, his work on Radiolab earned Abumrad a "genius" fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, which said his "engaging audio explorations of scientific and philosophical questions captivate listeners and bring to broadcast journalism a distinctive new aesthetic."

And in a sense, that aesthetic was born in Nashville (where Radiolab airs on WPLN-FM Wednesday and Sunday nights).

"I think maybe I had an epiphany thinking back to moments like I described where I was talking to my mom. ... And I thought, you know, this stuff is not just an intellectual pursuit. It's driven by these moments of, like, just ecstatic wonder and amazement and curiosity, which is as much a musical feeling as anything."

A recent Radiolab episode exemplifies that aesthetic at its best. A segment called "Fault Line" explores Klüver-Bucy syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes hypersexuality and abnormal sexual urges, among other symptoms, by telling the story of a New Jersey couple. In the process, the segment unpacks a complex set of issues: whether Kevin (not his real name) is at fault for downloading child pornography, or whether his brain injury is to blame; how he should be sentenced in a court of law; how he reconciles his sense of self with actions he says he himself finds repulsive; how his marriage can survive both the revelation and subsequent jail and probation time.

As the story threads together interviews with Kevin, his wife, the prosecuting attorney and a neurologist who served as an expert witness at Kevin's trial, the transitions are quick and precise — voices overlap or nearly overlap, sometimes punctuated by atmospheric music and sound effects. (Abumrad characterizes the show's distinct editing and sound design style as "crazy weird edits and strange layers and bleeps and blurps and, y'know, caustic bursts.") At certain points, the interviews themselves are modulated: When Kevin describes losing his hearing after a seizure, the sound of his voice fades out abruptly to mirror what's happening in the story.

"I wanted to be a film composer," Abumrad says, as a way of explaining his approach to storytelling, at least in part. "And the reason I wanted to be a film composer was because there are those moments in any good movie where the story is kind of developing and developing and building and building, and there's a moment where the music comes in, and your heart just sinks. It's this moment where you feel suspended ... and it's a magical moment. ... It's all I wanted to do with my life, was just to make moments like that for other people."

For Apocalyptical, the live show that will include what Abumrad calls "a fascinating and raucous and precise reconstruction of one of the greatest extinctions this planet has ever seen" — that being the Chicxulub asteroid that smashed into Earth, extinguished almost all life and precipitated the conditions out of which the human race developed — he hopes to create some more of those moments, in more dimensions than usual.

"We're going to be playing to your eyes in a way that radio doesn't generally do," he adds. "And there's also going to be some moments that feel like communal radio listening. ... A couple thousand people sitting in a dark room, listening to a story together."

Music will be as integral as it is to the radio program, provided by On Fillmore, the duo of Darin Gray and Glenn Kotche — "watching him create sonic pictures on his drum set is just spellbinding," Abumrad says — and ambient guitarist-composer Sarah Lipstate, aka Noveller. Comedic polymath Reggie Watts — "one of the true creative geniuses I've ever come into contact with," Abumrad the MacArthur fellow says — will be performing for the Nashville show, one of only six dates he's joining. There might be some other surprises, too, for a homecoming show Abumrad says he is both excited and nervous about.

"I wouldn't be surprised if my dad found his way onstage," he says with a laugh. "We'll see how he feels about that. If not special guest surprises ... we'll change the show for Nashville, no doubt."



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