As the creator of Radiolab, Jad Abumrad is not just responsible for one of the most highly regarded radio shows and podcasts, but for a style of sound design that influenced many of today’s most popular audio shows.
He’s also the host of Radiolab spinoff More Perfect, a show about Supreme Court rulings and amendments to the Constitution. We talked to him about his career, the Radiolab team, and the hate letters he writes to Pro Tools.
Name: Jad Abumrad Location: Brooklyn, Manhattan Current Gig: Host/Creator of Radiolab, More Perfect Current mobile device: iPhone 8 Plus Current computer: Mac Pro (trashcan), MacBook Pro 13 inch One word that best describes how you work: Constantly
Tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I was a scrawny Lebanese kid growing up in Nashville, Tennessee during Gulf War 1, so I spent a lot of time in my room, playing with a 4-track cassette recorder and making imaginary film scores for movies that didn’t exist.
I’m not sure how, but I got it into my head early that I’d be a film scorer. I went to Oberlin College to do that. But after graduating (barely) and entering the real world, I realised that writing music for films is hard and that I wasn’t very good at it.
So after about five years in the wild, I decided to give up music. It was at that point that Karla (my then girlfriend, now wife) suggested I try radio. So I did.
I started Radiolab in early 2002. It’s been a long, slow evolution since then. I learned almost everything I know about journalism and reporting on the job. A lot of mistakes later, here I am.
Take us through a recent workday.
My weeks are divided into chaos days and production days. Chaos days are Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Production days are Tuesday, Thursdays.
Today is Wednesday, so my calendar looks like one of those redistricted maps from South Carolina. I have three 20-minute meetings with producers about stories, a “task force” meeting with the ad sales team, a call with a lawyer, a one-hour exploratory interview about the constitutionality of the US/Mexico border zone, a two-hour studio “braindump” (where the reporter recounts what they’ve been up to) for a story in progress about the opioid epidemic in rural Kentucky, then I have another call with a lawyer and after that a ten-minute tracking session with Robert [Krulwich, co-host of Radiolab] to update a radio broadcast. At 4:30 I run home to be a dad for a few hours. After the kids go to sleep, I’ll work in Pro Tools from 8 to midnight on the next More Perfect episode, which I’ll finish Thursday. [Season 3 concluded in December after Jad answered these questions.]
Tomorrow, Thursday, I have no meetings. In my calendar it just says “Production.” A big pink block. My favourite thing. So I’ll spend the day in my studio.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
Pro Tools: I wish I could live without it but I can’t. I spend so much time in Pro Tools I sometimes have Pro Tools dreams, where people are talking to me and the words fall out of their mouths as little coloured blocks that I then frantically try to cut into smaller blocks.
Here’s an average Pro Tools session:
Pro Tools crashes a lot. When it does, a little box pops up.
I’ll often write messages to whoever doesn’t read them on the other side.
I don’t like Pro Tools. It’s a loveless marriage.
Ableton Live: This program I love. Live is where I compose the music that gets put into Pro Tools. I love how flexible it is. It’s got one workspace (session view)...
…where you can build a collection of musical cells that can then be combined in an infinity of patterns, like Legos.
On each track you can set up bizarre chains of effects that take one piano note and turn it into a cloud of noise. It’s just the best program. If only it had more keyboard shortcuts, I’d give up Pro Tools forever.
Granite: A little granular synthesis software that I’ve used for ten years and still love. Granular synthesis is a kind of sound processing that splits a sound into a series of particles (or “grains”). You can then recombine those grains in any number of ways to create big gauzy masses of sounds. Great for drones.
Other non-audio apps I can’t live without...
Google Docs: Damn you Google for owning it all, but wow is it amazing (and increasingly critical) for us to be able to have two different producers in two different cities working on the same script at the same time.
Evernote: I put my whole life in Evernote. Article clippings, receipts, notes from phone conversations.
What’s your workspace setup like?
Here’s my home studio in Brooklyn. It’s set up for both music and podcastifiying.
Moog Sub 37: The funnest synth ever.
Korg MS-20: Newest addition.
Pedals: Over the years I’ve accumulated a ton of guitar pedals. I find it’s a very fun (and tactile) way to manipulate sound. My pedal board currently has two JVS pedals for gain, a TC Electronic Ditto pedal for looping, two ElectroHarmonix POG pedals for pitch shifting and harmonizing, an Eventide H9 for all kinds of weird effects, and there’s also a few Earthquaker Devices pedals underneath that painting (my son Amil’s self-portrait he made in art class).
A Lyra-8 Synth: A very, very weird “organismic” synthesiser that honestly has a mind of its own. Every time I turn it on it generates a different noise, depending on its mood.
5. Thermionic Culture Vulture: This is basically a distortion box. When I score Radiolab stories, I often take the very clean sounds that come out of synthesizers and run them through this box to dirty them up.
6. Dreadbox Abyss: Simple synth with strange built in effects. Great for pads.
7. Ableton Push 2: I’m not a fanatic about the Push like some people are, but it’s great as a MIDI controller for Ableton.
8. Matched pair of Empirical Labs Distressors: Great compressors for squashing drums or really anything.
9. Native Instruments Kontrol 49 keyboard
10. AKG 414: Been using this mic since 2002.
11. UAD Apollo 16: The heart of my setup. All audio goes in and out of this.
What’s more important than people think about creating radio and podcasting? What’s less important?
People are always surprised at how much time we spend looking for stories. We’ll often spend months calling and reading and conducting interviews only to then kill the story. The longer I do this, the longer it seems to take to find the thing that’s gonna surprise the audience.
What’s your best shortcut or life hack?
Waking up at 5 AM Does that count? I have to listen to hours of tape a week, and I like listening at that early hour when the kids are asleep and the house is quiet. It’s a beautiful little window of time where I can hear things differently.
My best rage hack: When I get mad, I pretend I’m a director watching the me that’s mad on stage acting out a scene and really killing it. Director Me then claps and says, “Nice performance!” Somehow that little bit of dissociation helps turn rage into amusement.
Here’s a meeting hack that’s by no means original: I have meetings while walking. I find that meetings generally end up feeling like the place where the meeting is happening, so if that place is a conference room...well. Better for the meeting to feel like New York City.
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.
Our whole process is unusual and finicky. We once tried to draw it out on a big whiteboard, thinking that’d help us better track the progress of stories in production. It had the opposite effect. No one wanted to look at the board cause it’s crazy-making. So now we stash the thing in our studio.
But I still do like this process. And we’ve simplified it quite a bit over the years.
We’ve borrowed a lot of process ideas from other fields. We’ll draw out storyboards, sort of like film or comic writers do. We’ll make mood boards, sort of like how I understand architects do at the start of the design process.
In general, we spend a lot of time trying to distill stories into gestures, a series of emotional beats. Sort of how the gesturalist painters painted in expressive brush strokes where you could see movement through these big sweeps of the hand. For me, as a listener, I need story structures that you can feel, where you can hear questions driving the action, the emotional energy rising and falling. I personally have trouble with stories where the structure gets too analytical and intricate.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
Oh my god, so many people to mention.
There’s Soren Wheeler, Radiolab’s Managing Editor. He’s my right hand at Radiolab and kind of the show’s Atlas. I wish one day he’d get this tattooed on his butt:
Suzie Lechtenberg, my other right (left?) hand person at Radiolab. She startedMore Perfect with me a few years ago and is now Radiolab’s Executive Producer. It’s rare to find a creative person who’s so brilliant at managing other creative people.
The person I lean on most on a daily basis is Shima Oliaee. Shima is a unicorn. She does everything from schedule my chaos days to help me develop series ideas to make famous people cry in interviews (that’s happened several times).
Oh and Robert Krulwich! Duh. When Bobby K. opens his mouth, you never know what’s gonna come out. Snakes, butterflies, poetry?
He’s the guy I call when I’m really stuck on a problem, because he’s always able to say the one thing that’ll get me unstuck. I’ve been drafting off of Robert’s brilliance for 15 years.
Dylan Keefe, director of sound design. Dylan once had a #1 hit on the radio. Now he makes beautiful music for Radiolab. Maria Matasar-Padilla, Radiolab’s managing director. She charges into burning meetings that others run away from to put out institutional fires.
Bethel Habte (Radiolab’s newest producer, Werk It star), Becca Bressler (co-Werk It star and Radiolab’s point guard), Kelly Prime, Julia Longoria and Sarah Qari (More Perfect trio who, in between producing amendment liner notes, travel the world reporting about democracy gone wrong… sometimes right). Latif Nasser (Canadian story genius and host of a new series coming soon!). Annie McEwen (expert story builder, second Canadian among us).
Molly Webster (intrepid science explorer, host and force behind Gonads!), Tracie Hunt (crack reporter, spelunker of forgotten archives), David Gebel (who keeps our shit in order), Matt Kielty (the man everyone wants to work with), producer Simon Adler (the man we’ll all be working for one day), Pat Walters (soulful editor, sailor and host of a new series coming soon!), Arianne Wack (lord of our radio broadcast and the 594 stations where it goes), Rachael Cusick (one of our newest audio makers and a black belt in baking), and Alex Overington (More Perfect’s genius composer, the man behind the “Oyez” theme song).
It’s the best team I’ve ever worked with, may ever work with.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
Shima and I use Todoist to capture and organise tasks. But to-do lists quickly become guilt lists. So if something really has to get done we just put it in the calendar and trust.
How do you recharge or take a break?
I watch premier league highlights or NBA highlights or really highlights from any sport that isn’t golf.
What’s your favourite side project?
On the podcast side of things, I just completed a side project called Unerased that dives into the history of gay conversion therapy in America. We worked with Focus Films to produce the series so that the four episodes landed in conjunction with the movie Boy Erased, based on a memoir by Garrard Conley. Conversion therapy is such a bizarre and under-recognised phenomenon in America. It was exciting to be able to unearth these histories. Also: I’m always writing music in the gaps. Last night I spent far too long trying to create an audio mashup of Om Kalthoum and Appalachian folk music.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
I’m currently reading a book called Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer. A friend recommended I read it, even though I’m not a God person.
What do you listen to while you work (when you’re not doing audio work)?
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
That to be a boss, I don’t have to know where we’re going. I just have to be the guy that leads the search.
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
At this point in my career, I feel like there should be fewer late nights. But there are still so many late nights.
That said, I do love the late nights.