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Radiolab: top iTunes Podcast

Here’s one more audio-related post. I suppose it’s now officially ‘audio week’ on this site (this wasn’t planned, but I’m on a roll).

I just listened to the latest episode of a my favorite radio show. The topic: an exploration of the relationship between biology and human engineering. Sound boring? Not interested in science? Listen to this show before you make up your mind. This just might be the best radio program in America. It’s Radiolab from WNYC in New York.

Of the many things that make this show special, the most apparent to me is the production quality. It’s not over-produced. It’s more about how cohesive and engaging the stories are in each episode. You know when you see a really great documentary or movie that just grabs you? The kind of show that draws you in? When you lose track of time? Radiolab is like that — for your ears.

What makes the show stand out? It’s hard to pinpoint. It has an experimental edge to it. They do things that I’ve never heard before on other ‘educational’ shows. They interview people (just like any other radio show), but the way they integrate the interview can be quite jarring and unexpected. Example: they often let the interviewee introduce him or herself — interviewers for radio/video usually ask the subject to ‘state your name and title.’ This typically never airs. It’s a method to ensure that the hosts get the name and title correct. On Radiolab, they often use this pre-interview audio to introduce the subject expert. This wouldn’t work if they did it every time, but my point is that they are willing to present a story in very untraditional ways.

Moreover, the storyline is sometimes nonlinear, which is relatively rare in audio stories. Interview sound clips can show up again later for effect (for humor, for emphasis). They also create and embed really interesting sound effects to illustrate visual elements. Some work, some don’t. It’s always entertaining and usually pretty funny, though. They also frequently use ambient sound to create tension, suspense and mood better than any show I’ve heard. In short, few shows know how to use sound as well as Radiolab. Few shows are as willing to push traditional boundaries to tell a story.

This experimental edge combines with the best part of the show: top-notch story telling. I don’t have much to say about this other than this: they spin a good tale. They take a potentially dry ‘science’ topic and bring it to life. They do this by finding amazingly interesting story segments.

I also think a part of what makes it work is that the co-hosts seem to genuinely like each other. They sound like they’re having a chat. It comes across so naturally, you might be fooled into thinking the show is effortless and spontaneous. That’s the kind of flow I’m talking about here — the kind you might expect in great video, but rarely find in an audio production.

I’m a big radio fan (the geeky ‘public radio’ sort of fan) and I’ve been listening to radio stories for a few decades now. I think what I’m trying to say is this: Radiolab is breaking new ground and raising the bar. It’s tossing aside traditional rules of documentary audio and opening up the medium. It’s 21st century radio. While This American Life (another amazing show) perhaps led the wave of alternative story telling and has done wonders to push the radio documentary envelope, Radiolab builds upon this. It takes it to a new creative level.

It’s worth going back in the archives to hear past shows. If you don’t, you won’t hear about fighter pilots with out of body experiences, the sound of a sleeping cat brain, the man who takes two hours to wipe his nose and thinks it only took him a moment, the guy who has had the same sound stuck in his head for over a decade, the woman who is really two women in one. In short, there are some great (and fascinating) stories to be found here.

Also check out The Ring and I: The Passion, The Myth, The Mania — it’s not a Radiolab program, but it was produced and hosted by Jad Abumrad (Radiolab co-host, co-creator). Abumrad is an outstanding storyteller — and this is one of the best audio programs I’ve ever heard. If nothing else, this show will surely answer all of those enduring questions I know you’ve had about Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

If you’re looking for a Mac connection here: Radiolab is available as a free podcast on iTunes. And the show is produced on a Mac.

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