In addition to being my favourite radio show, Radiolab is a masterpiece of sound design. The only thing that’s a drag is that it relies on lots of audio tricks that long ago disappeared from most music.
A bit of history., The Golden Age Of Radio of course had the most amazingly creative people. But they were somewhat held back by the limited bandwidth of AM radio and ‘mono’ recordings.
I credit two people in the late 1950’s for making Radiolab possible.
Ken Nordine was a voice you’ve undoubtedly heard hundreds of times. Even after his passing, his voice is so iconic you’ll come across it quite often. He was the voice of hundreds of commercials from Levi’s to.
Pianist Glenn Gould was the first well-known artist to experiment with what we would now call ‘stereo sound design’. He started hearing ‘music’ in the conversations and sounds all around him—the natural ambience of background chat. He began to think that music could be composed from such soundscapes. His recordings The Idea Of North are the wellspring for everyone from Brian Eno on forward.
(Interesting side note: Both Gould and Miles Davis were recording at the same studios for CBS in the early 1960’s. Davis was well-known as the first major jazz musician to incorporate edited ‘tracks’ into his recordings. It would be fascinating to learn how much Davis was influenced by Gould’s techniques.)
Radiolab is hosted by Macarthur Award Winner and producer Jad Ablumrod and NPR science mainstay Robert Krulwich. Each week they follow a ‘theme’ idea of some ‘sciency’ topic. The conceit is that they appear to be chatting and telling each some interesting tidbit to explain an idea. They cross fade into interviews with various experts.
What makes the show ‘special’ is that they use many more simultaneous tracks than is normal for radio. Instead of conversation or sound clips with perhaps a single bed of music or FX, a Radiolab moment may have a dozen bits of sounds playing at the same time; moving left and right, front and back, the same way a movie director moves the camera and changes shots during a scene. Sometimes they zoom in and then sometimes they’ll zoom out.
And because of this, Radiolab just wouldn’t work in mono. And it wouldn’t work with a more conventional format. In other words, it is idiomatic, not a gimmick, to paraphrase McLuhan, the medium is the message. Since there is no video, they perform an admirable jujitsu: you focus on far more complex layers of sound because you’re not distracted by visuals.
In short, these two have figured out a way to use radio to its full extent, to deliver ‘content’ that is completely fresh and compelling.
I salute Radiolab especially because they found a way to take radio to a genuinely new place (building on their forebears of course) in a time when all things seem to have gone ‘video’ and ‘shortform’. In a world where everyone is now expected to have a short attention span, Radiolab keeps listeners of all ages engaged for a full hour; not with tricks or shock, but with really entertaining descriptions of questions we all think about.
In writing music, I have always been fascinated by the ‘conversations’ that occur between the various instruments and parts in a good piece of music. Glenn Gould and Ken Nordine were the first to explore the literally relationships between ‘music’ and ‘conversation’ (the musical quality of conversation or the conversational quality of music?)
Radiolab, with innovative sound design which is an integral part of its structure takes this idea to the next level. And in so doing, makes a basically ‘info-tainment’ show not only more informative but more entertaining. It’s a real synergy where the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.