Why the Founder of Radiolab Ignores His Audience
Storytelling Innovator Series

Interview: Why the Founder of Radiolab Ignores His Audience

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Co-written by Ted Karczewski.

“It begins with a simple feeling of, I have a thousand things going on, but right now, all I care about is knowing this one answer to this one question.”

For Jad Abumrad, founder of the podcast Radiolab and Skyword’s closing keynote at Forward 2016, this is how a story is born.

Radiolab, as stated on the website, is a show about curiosity. It’s “where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.”

The show’s massive success (it’s broadcast on over 500 member stations across the US) is all the more impressive considering the rapid rise in popularity of podcasting in recent years. With the number of Americans who have listened to a podcast in the last month nearly doubling since 2008, people’s appetite for audio storytelling is clearly growing, as are the number of podcasts. Last year, there were over 60,000 active podcasts produced per month.

So how did Radiolab, a show with a seemingly simple undertaking—to follow a kernel of curiosity through a story—become so popular?

The Content Standard Managing Editor Ted Karczewski and I recently spoke with Abumrad about audio storytelling as he prepares for his keynote at Skyword’s industry conference later in June. As storytellers and writers, both of us wanted to understand what makes Abumrad so successful. What could we learn from his creative process that we could bring to the Content Standard?

In this story, Abumrad, talks to us about the intimacy of podcasting, where his curiosity comes from, and when to listen to (and when to ignore) your audience.

Where Abumrad’s Curiosity Comes From

Where do you find a good story? Where is it conceived? These are difficult enough questions for experienced storytellers like Abumrad. For marketers who may not have much experience in story craft, they may seem impossible. But if you’re curious about something, then you’ve taken the first step.

“You just kind of get hooked by something,” Abumrad says. “It’s very much the way that anyone discovers anything, except you’re always looking. You’re reading a lot, you’re spending 3-4 hours a day looking, looking, looking for stuff. You’re on the phone—a thousand phone calls for a thousand ideas that won’t go anymore—to find the one that does.

“You get a little bit of that brain fever. Some question or idea or experience presents that feeling to you: Wow, I don’t know how to feel about this. That’s exciting. I have so many questions. You then spend the next six months to a year trying to painstakingly reconstruct the story to give someone else that very same feeling you had at the beginning.”

Which Storytelling Techniques Work for Podcasting?

In today’s fast-paced, media-hungry, digital-everything world, there are countless ways through which to tell stories and engage audiences, and more channels are emerging seemingly by the day. For marketers, this presents a both a big opportunity and an equally large challenge. You may know through which channels to reach your audience today, but what about in the future? And once you invest in these channels—branded blogs, video hubs, social media, and many more, how do you know which storytelling techniques will work for each?

For Abumrad, all good stories must grab people through original perspectives, but someone’s experience changes as the channel does.

“With podcasting and audio, it’s a different experience to listen,” he says. “It’s much more about intimacy, I think. When I watch TV, I’m not feeling an intimate connection with Jon Snow. It’s more like you’re just beholding it—you’re one of the multitude that is engaging in the spectacle. But when you’re listening to a podcast, you really do feel like it’s just you and that person. You feel a one-on-one connection.”

Creating an intimate, memorable experience has perhaps been the biggest challenge for marketers in the era of personalization, and as both brands and media try to reach consumers in thousands of ways, oftentimes this personalized feeling is lost, especially when the storytelling lacks dimension.

“You use language that’s super visual, you try and play to the emotional peak of characters—it’s much more of an emotional medium,” says Abumrad. “Print does information super well—you can have pages and pages of information. But on radio, that information has to be somehow subsumed in emotional action of the character. You’re always looking for ways to bury information inside the events and actions of these human beings, and beyond that, the thing we all want, whatever medium, is for things to be surprising. We want to hear stories of transformation. We want to hear about someone whose life changes in front of your eyes. We want to hear that moment when they step back from their life and reflect on it, think about it. We want to create that space for people to have their own reflections.

“You want anecdotes and you want meaning,” Abumrad says. “Sometimes it’s as simple as that—having those two ingredients in the right proportions.”

Podcasting, Audio Storytelling - Man at a Mixer

The Building Blocks of Digital Storytelling

Abumrad, who studied creative writing and music composition in college, remembers the time when he realized that music composition and storytelling shared many of the same building blocks.

“I remember I was producing a story maybe ten years ago, and I had this simple epiphany that all the things you do as a storyteller [are musical]—all the elements that you work with—narration, which has this pitch to it, an up and down, a contour, a rhythm, sometimes you’re speaking in a very metronomic way, sometimes you’re speaking really syncopated,” says Abumrad. “Sometimes you get quiet, sometimes you get loud. Even just in the way we speak, suddenly it felt very musical to me.”

Perhaps the ability to decipher between the times that music tells a better story than words is what makes Radiolab so successful. Songs, scores, and soundscapes, like stories, are active compositions, but unlike storytelling, they feel less programmatic.

“We’re trying to tell stories where one line pulls you into the next and into the next…Things are happening. Oftentimes, music is much more embodied. Nothing is actually happening, but somehow it’s capturing the sense of something,” says Abumrad. “There’s a freedom to it.

Yet no matter how powerful music can be, in the world of audio storytelling, narration ultimately drives the story forward.

“I’m always asking myself when I’m making these stories, where can I let the music have the foreground?” he says. “And I can never really give the foreground for too long—you always have to have some sort of narration driving the thing forward. The music has to be subservient to the story.”

DJ Playing Music to his Audience

The Pressure to Create—and to Listen to Your Audience

Does following your gut instincts make sense for all storytelling mediums? In Abumrad’s opinion, no.

“My wife is in TV, and she’s constantly looking at our process and thinking, you guys are idiots. You guys are total fuckups. Because what TV producers do is they know exactly the story they’re gonna get before they get it—they have to because it’s so damn expensive. There’s not a lot of surprise in the process, but we’re constantly going down rabbit holes.”

Jad’s process specifically lacks process, and that’s what makes his work so unique. He’s committed to telling stories that matter, in a way that immerses the listener in a world that he controls completely. You’re listening to the story unfold, forgetting which scene is told through language and which scenes comprise musical notes. It pulls you in, and you fall down that rabbit hole with him until you’re met with an epiphany of your own, a moment of truth, in a big reveal.

Still, for podcasting and other exploratory digital storytelling mediums, how you handle feedback from your audience is a critical component of creative growth.

“You kind of have to forget about the audience for long stretches, because it’s kind of like you’re just trying to follow your sense. But that’s a lot easier to do when no one’s listening, which for most of Radiolab’s life was the case. It was like, you get interested in something, let’s go check it out. Doesn’t work out? Whatever, fine. But then suddenly you’re in a situation where there are people listening, and there are all these deadlines, underwriting, sponsorships, all these layers that have grown up around the show. Sometimes it’s a lot harder to get back into that beginners’ mindset of a kid playing with toys, and you have to be that in the very beginning. Luckily, I have Robert, who somehow spookily exists in that happy mind space all the time. It’s very contagious, so he helps get back to that space.”

At some point, as the editor, you have to take control of the stories that you want to tell and trust that your instinct serves you well.

“I trust that the audience wants something new, something they haven’t heard about before, so I ignore them. You kind of have to know that what the audience wants is not what the most vocal members say they want. You kind of have to know who not to listen to, and who to listen to, and build a little buffer around you to flip back into the excited, childlike spaces where you’re just curious to know what happens.

“One of the things we’re constantly struggling with is how to balance demands with the fact that we need to take risks, and risks by definition aren’t going to work out a lot of the time.”

What’s the Future of Radio in Storytelling and Technology?

With the explosion of innovative content types—virtual reality, interactive long-form stories, 360 degree and live video, to name just a few—it’s hard to know how reinvented mediums like radio will fair in the future. Will people continue to tune in or change the channel?

Abumrad doesn’t know either, but he thinks podcasting will be part of the forecast.

“In New York right now, we have this climate change weather pattern where we have all seasons at once: Monday you have winter, Tuesday, you have spring, Wednesday summer, Thursday would be Fall—it’s all seasons in the course of the week,” says Abumrad. “I think in some weird way in terms of today’s media fragmentation, it’s a little bit like that all the time. You have stuff that’s short and sparkly for short attention spans, and then things that are extremely long and absorbing, people seem to want that too. And you have things that are highly produced, and you have things that incredibly edgy and authentic and people seem to want that.

“It seems like our media diets are omnivorous—we want all things all the time,” he says. “The truism for me is if it doesn’t suck, people will want it.”

As marketers, this is great to hear. We so often are at risk of getting caught up in the technicalities of content discovery—focusing on the best SEO practices and social media hacks, and paying top dollar for placements that we forget about the creative process.

“My only prediction is that some way, the quality will always rise to the top,” says Abumrad. “Or maybe not the top, but to the surface so that people will find it. That’s the thing about right now—there’s so many ways for people to find things, it takes longer for things to break through, but if it’s good, it will.”

Want to hear more about the storytelling process at Radiolab from Abumrad himself? Come to Forward 2016, Skyword’s industry conference June 22-23 in Boston, where he will keynote our final day.

Managing editor of the Content Standard, writer at Monster, Sound of Boston, Trill, and others. Hip-hop producer.

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