Abumrad set out to compose film scores, but instead turned his focus to journalism. He has a new podcast miniseries called The Vanishing of Harry Pace.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest, Jad Abumrad, is the producer of Radiolab, a nationally broadcast public radio show and podcast that originates from WNYC in New York. He’s considered to be a radio genius, like Ira Glass. As evidence, Jad is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called Genius Award. For about 17 years, he cohosted Radiolab with Robert Krulwich. They started off doing deep dives into science-related stories with highly produced narratives in which the voices were almost scored like music. Composing film scores was Jad’s initial aspiration.
The show’s focus evolved from stories about science-based reality to conflicting versions of truth and reality. Robert Krulwich retired from the show last year. Jad continues to produce the show and co-reports Radiolab’s miniseries. The podcast series “Dolly Parton’s America,” co-reported by Jad, won seven awards, including a Peabody. It used her life, music, theme park and personality to get to larger issues about messy relationships, women’s rights, how the civil war continues to play out and how music can bring together people who otherwise might disagree on nearly everything.
The new Radiolab miniseries is called “The Vanishing Of Harry Pace.” You may be thinking, Harry who? It’s one thing to get people interested in a miniseries about Dolly Parton. But how do you get listeners to believe that a miniseries about a man they’ve never heard of is worth their time? Here’s how. From the opening episode, this is Jad talking about Harry Pace’s grandchildren, who grew up knowing very little about Pace except that he was white and probably Italian.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
JAD ABUMRAD, BYLINE: What they discovered is that this man, Harry Pace, whose picture had been hanging on their wall their whole lives…
SHIMA OLIAEE: Well, first of all, he wasn’t Italian.
PETER PACE: It turns out that he was African American.
ERIC PACE: He was Black.
OLIAEE: That’s how he identified. That’s how he was seen.
J ABUMRAD: And he was someone who literally changed America.
OLIAEE: In, like, 19 different ways.
EMMETT PRICE: Music.
DAVID SUISMAN: Culture.
MARGO JEFFERSON: Theater.
IMANI PERRY: Housing.
JAMI FLOYD: Law.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He proceeded to fight the case all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The decision opened 500 new properties to Black residents.
J ABUMRAD: He desegregated whole neighborhoods, laid the groundwork for so much music.
PERRY: Like, without him…
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “CROSS ROAD BLUES”)
ROBERT JOHNSON: (Singing) Fell down on my knees.
PAUL SLADE: We’d have no Robert Johnson…
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL”)
THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Please allow me to introduce myself.
SLADE: …No Rolling Stones and no Eric Clapton.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “I LOVE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL”)
JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: (Singing) Singing, I love rock ‘n’ roll.
J ABUMRAD: He even had a hand in coining the term rock ‘n’ roll.
CHARLES MCKINNEY: I mean, this dude’s – good God. Why don’t we have, like, three movies about this dude, right? I mean, you know, hello, Ava DuVernay, right? Good God. I mean, this dude is, like – he is, like, the vocational MacGyver.
OLIAEE: But then, somehow, right at the peak of his power…
PRICE: It’s like, poof.
OLIAEE: …He vanishes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
J ABUMRAD: So completely that none of us know his story, not even his own family.
E PACE: Wow. So you’re telling me we’re related to this unsung hero, and you want me to just sit here and laugh about it? I got to go understand this.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. Jad Abumrad, welcome to FRESH AIR. I’m so glad I heard this series. It’s really just fantastic. And congratulations on it. And I want to start giving a shout out to Shima Oliaee, who co-reports the series with you.
J ABUMRAD: I’m sorry, Terry. It’s just – I just got to tell you, like, I do what you do. And it’s just such an honor to be here because you are the best. And so I’m just really excited.
GROSS: Oh, gee. Oh, thanks. I’m excited to have you. So I just have to say, there’s so much to talk about with you. And I couldn’t figure out how to start, exactly. Do you go through that when you’re about to start a project? Like, where do you begin? Like, what’s the right note to start on?
J ABUMRAD: Yeah. And actually, I mean, the clip that you played was the 12th beginning of the series.
GROSS: (Laughter) I feel better already (laughter).
J ABUMRAD: We tried so many – I mean, Shima and I – Shima, who co-created the project with me, like, we tried every different beginning to that series. And I was smiling when you played it because I thought, oh, that actually works…
J ABUMRAD: …Because so many didn’t work.
GROSS: So my doorway into “The Vanishing Of Harry Pace” was hearing that he founded Black Swan Records, which was, like, the first Black-owned record company – 1921 to ’23 – the first to record Ethel Waters, first to record the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice And Sing.” I mean, it’s just, like, remarkable recordings. And I’m really interested in music from that period. So I thought, like, yeah, I got to hear this. And then you started taking me into all these other directions, which were equally fascinating. But I was, like, not really prepared for it. What was your doorway into wanting to tell this story?
J ABUMRAD: Well, so, you know, you mentioned “Dolly Parton’s America.” So Shina and I had made that series. And one of the voices in that series was a guy named Paul Slade, who – he’s this British music journalist who had told us about Appalachian murder ballads. And it was just sort of a small, little wrinkle in that nine-part series. And as we were coming off of that series and looking for something new to do, he reached out and said, hey; have you heard of Black Swan Records? I just wrote a book about it. And it was a small Kindle book. And we read it. And we both were just blown away at – I mean, it is one of those stories where you think you’re hearing a story about a guy who started a label. But then suddenly, you’re in the middle of a Supreme Court case about desegregating Chicago’s South Side. And then suddenly, you’re in this very complex, troubling drama about the politics of the color line. It’s just one of those stories that cuts across everything.
GROSS: And just to mention here, like, he starts off being mentored by W. E. B. Du Bois. They found, like, what was probably the first Black magazine together. Then he works with W. C. Handy. They found a sheet music publishing company and co-write “St. Louis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues.” I mean, it’s just a remarkable story. And then there’s a whole racial story in there about, what color was he really?
J ABUMRAD: Yeah.
GROSS: Embedded in this story is a bit of a personal connection for you. One of the grandsons talks about his racial confusion because he grew up thinking he’s white. And now he thinks, maybe I’m really Black. Like, was my grandfather Black? He was really light skinned. But apparently, he was really Black. But on a census report, he said he was white. So, you know, the grandson is, like, really confused and asked, like, so what am I? And you say in the podcast that you were asked when you were growing up. So what are you?
J ABUMRAD: Yeah. No. It’s a connection that I and my co-creator, Shima, make very cautiously because, you know, we’re both Middle Eastern. And, you know, you walk into a room and people think you’re one thing. Then they hear your name, and they think you’re another thing. And then they give you that look. It’s a look you recognize when – what are you, are you – some vaguely ethnic kind of person. And I think of it as the sort of the curse/gift of the inbetweeners, you know, where no one can quite fit you into a box that they’ve got in their head. That comes with a sort of irritation and also a little bit of a privilege, depending on which room you’re standing in and who you’re speaking to. But it’s something that – you know, it’s funny, every story I tell – it occurred to me in the middle of this project – it has something of that inbetweener spirit in it, you know, people who don’t fit, people whose identity or whose work or whose creative spirit somehow doesn’t quite sit in the predefined categories. So that was my personal connection. But it’s also kind of a professional, like, journey that I just feel like I’ve been on for the last 20 years.
GROSS: Well, your parents immigrated from Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war. Was it ’82 that they came here?
J ABUMRAD: They came here in ’72, actually. So…
GROSS: Oh, ’72. OK.
J ABUMRAD: Yeah, just…
GROSS: Right. OK.
J ABUMRAD: …Just before I was born and just as the war was really starting to slide into chaos.
GROSS: In Lebanon?
J ABUMRAD: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: So you grew up in Tennessee. Your father was a professor of surgery at Vanderbilt.
J ABUMRAD: That’s right, yeah.
GROSS: So were you, like, a campus kid?
J ABUMRAD: Yeah, I was. I mean, I would – my after-school was basically hanging out in – so both my parents are – well, my mother’s a molecular biologist. My dad’s a surgeon. And my after-school was hanging out in her lab and playing with her lab rats and just sitting there for hours. Or I’d hang out at his – at Vanderbilt where he works, and I would play pool with the med students. So, yeah, I was kind of the campus kid. I was just sort of, like, the lab kid who was just always around.
GROSS: Radiolab initially focused on science. Was part of the reason why you wanted to do that because you grew up partially in this lab? And was science more fun because you had rats?
GROSS: Like, you had little animals to watch? It wasn’t just, like, test tubes and textbooks.
J ABUMRAD: Well, yeah. I mean, I – it’s funny. Like, I – only later did I realize that the rats were – you know, the rats that I would pet and give names to and let them – I would put them in my pockets. Only later did I realize that they would later be sacrificed (laughter) to science.
J ABUMRAD: So – but, you know, I mean fast-forwarding to those early days of Radiolab where I became kind of – essentially a science reporter, part of it was about coming back into the family fold in some sense. I had grown up in the environment of science my entire life, but I didn’t really understand what they did. I didn’t understand what happens in a lab, the core of my mother’s research. I couldn’t have explained it to you. And so it was actually really exciting in the early days to ask them questions and to really understand, oh, that’s how science works – interesting.
You know, like, my mother has been studying one protein for almost 40 years – one single protein. And every year, she discovers it has some new job that it does. You know, Year 1 – oh, it helps fat get into cells. Year 2 – oh, it helps you taste things on your tongue. Year 3 – oh, it’s in the heart, and it does something about, you know, fatty acids and yada, yada. I mean, every year she discovers some new job it has. I had never, till that point, really stopped to think about that process and to think about the patience and the focus that it takes. And so it was really cool to be a science reporter and then be able to turn to these two people and ask them questions that simultaneously, A, helped my work but, B, also explained my childhood in some sense. So, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: I think it’s time for a break, so let’s take a break here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Jad Abumrad, the creator of the public radio show and podcast Radiolab. The new Radiolab miniseries he co-reports is called The Vanishing Of Harry Pace. We’ll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NOLENS VOLENS’ “COOLOHUNTER”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Jad Abumrad, the creator and producer of the public radio show and podcast Radiolab. He co-reports the new Radiolab miniseries “The Vanishing Of Harry Pace.” He also co-reported the miniseries “Dolly Parton’s America.”
So this kind of segues into Dolly Parton because your doorway into Dolly Parton was, in part, the fact that she and your father, the surgeon, became friends. So just tell the story of how they met.
J ABUMRAD: Yeah, it’s just one of those strange, you know, the universe is stranger than you could imagine kind of moments. So I grew up in Nashville, Tenn., and Nashville is Dolly’s world. I mean, I guess the world is Dolly’s world at this point. But Nashville is, like, the epicenter of the Dollyverse (ph) in that you could walk down the street, and she’s on a billboard every three blocks. And you hear her blaring out of cars, and she just kind of infuses the air. And that’s the world I grew up in. And then – it’s either 2003 or 2013; I can’t remember exactly – but Dolly gets into a minor car crash, is brought to Vanderbilt Hospital, and my dad happens to be on duty at that moment and takes care of her. And she was fine. Nothing happened to her. And I guess he checked up on her a few times.
And then through that, they became friends, which is – even as I say this to you, Terry, it’s the strangest thing, because my dad is a really – he’s not the kind of guy that hangs out with famous people or country – like, he’s a – he’s this amazing, incredible guy. But he’s just, like, this Lebanese doctor, and suddenly he’s friends with this global icon. And I had never really believed that to be true. He would mention, oh, I talked to Dolly today. And I’d be like, yeah, right, sure you did, Dad.
J ABUMRAD: But then 2016 – this was during the Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump election cycle – Dolly Parton did a concert in Queens. You know, I work in New York, and I was just thunderstruck by how excited everybody I work with was for this concert. And I didn’t realize that she had such a grip on New Yorkers. And there was something – then people came back from this concert, and they just seemed so – everybody told these stories of how, like, her concerts were this mishmash of all of these slices of America that apparently are not supposed to get along – men in drag standing next to men in trucker hats, little girls in sparkly dresses next to women holding hands next to church ladies. You know, it’s just, like, all of the different people in the culture war that we’re told shouldn’t get along, they’re all there, standing shoulder to shoulder, singing, “I Will Always Love You.”
And I was like, oh, that’s kind of interesting, particularly at this moment when politics seemed to be kind of a dumpster fire, right? It just seemed like, oh, this was an alternate American space. And I just was suddenly really interested to know how she does it. So I called my dad and I was like, Dad, do you really know Dolly Parton? Is that true? – because if it is, can you introduce me? And he said, sure. And then I – he – I flew to Nashville. And you know, we went to this place, and she walked into the room and much smaller than I expected but also, like, larger than life in all the ways you expect. And I somehow convinced her – probably largely, she did it as a favor to my dad; I should be honest – to be a subject of a series. And the rest is history.
GROSS: Yeah, it’s a fascinating series because you get into so much about race and North-South divisions and what is the meaning of feminism. And it’s very, very rich. And you found a very personal connection in her story, too, and I want to play a clip from that. You go to Dollywood, and you see, like, a replica of the mountain shack that she grew up in. And you decide, well, I’m going to go to the real shack. So you go to the mountain. You go to the real shack. It’s beautiful – beautiful mountain, pristine forests. And you have this memory that seems to be intruding. It’s kind of not quite a deja vu but a rhyme of another memory. And you’re puzzling through that, and then you have a realization. So here’s the clip in which you describe the realization you had when you were standing in Dolly Parton’s shack where she grew up.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
J ABUMRAD: The memory that kept intruding was from almost exactly 20 years earlier.
UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing in non-English language).
J ABUMRAD: I’d gone to Lebanon with my dad for a wedding. This is when I was just getting into recording, so I had my recorder with me everywhere I went. And the day after the wedding, my dad has driven us up the mountains to show us the village where he was born and raised.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking non-English language).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking non-English language).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking non-English language).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: A little village called Wadi Chahrour.
UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing in non-English language).
J ABUMRAD: It’s this little enclave where literally half the village has our last name. It’s high up in the mountains – actually, the exact same elevation as the mountain where Dolly lived. The air sort of has that exact same kind of thinness to it. And when we finally got to see his house…
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS ECHOING)
J ABUMRAD: …It looked a lot like Dolly.
When I saw her house…
I told him about it later.
…It reminded me instantly of your house…
NAJI ABUMRAD: Yeah.
J ABUMRAD: …In Wadi.
N ABUMRAD: It’s almost identical like Dolly. There was one bedroom. We were five kids and two parents. And so you put your floor mat, and you sleep side to side. And when you wake up in the morning, you stack the floor mats…
J ABUMRAD: Wow.
N ABUMRAD: …In the corner.
J ABUMRAD: So seven people in one room.
N ABUMRAD: Seven people in one room.
J ABUMRAD: Jesus. How do you even sleep?
N ABUMRAD: You sleep. You learn.
J ABUMRAD: God. Tell me who you are just so I have your introduction.
N ABUMRAD: What you mean? I’m Naji Abumrad. I’m your father.
GROSS: OK. That’s a clip from “Dolly Parton’s America” co-reported by my guest, Jad Abumrad, who is the creator of Radiolab. I love, you know, later on, when you talk to Dolly Parton in this part of the series, she ends by saying, you never really know your parents like other people do. And when I heard that, I thought, oh, yeah, that’s so true.
J ABUMRAD: Yeah.
GROSS: And so was she, in a way, a doorway to getting to know a part of your father that you otherwise might not have known?
J ABUMRAD: Yeah, it’s exactly that. I mean, that line – when she said that to me, it struck me, really. I was – it kind of stopped me in my tracks because she was a doorway. She is a doorway. I mean, there’s something very powerful to me, having grown up in Tennessee – you know, I think Dolly and my dad came to stand for a union of two cultures that I had always held as very, very separate. The mountains of Lebanon and that experience in terms of the immigrant experience, in terms of just the sort of trajectory of coming down the mountain and leaving but also in terms of the music that flowed from these two places – I had always held all of that stuff to be extremely separate.
And it was really, really moving to me to discover that there are actually – you know, there are trade routes that run down from the mountains of Lebanon into east Tennessee. There are singing styles, melismatic singing styles that came from the Middle East that influenced Appalachian singing. Certainly the banjo and these kinds of things – you know, these flowed in from Africa through Haiti. It’s really moving to me to find that these musical styles are never separate and that country music is as much mine as anyone’s. Now, I can’t say I love country music, but it felt really good to know that this music could be mine and, by extension, the culture.
You know, it’s never – it’s not the easiest thing to be an Arab, like – an awkward, gangly Arab kid growing up in a Southern Baptist universe. It’s a part of this experience, for me, exploring their relationship – was to sort of find my place in Tennessee. And I’m very grateful to the project that it allowed me to do that and really grateful to my dad that he allowed me to – and Dolly, too – that they both allowing me to sit there and pester them with all these questions.
GROSS: Let me introduce you here because it’s time for another break. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Jad Abumrad, the creator of the public radio show and podcast Radiolab. He co-reports the new Radiolab miniseries, “The Vanishing Of Harry Pace.” He also co-reported the miniseries “Dolly Parton’s America.” We’ll be right back after a short break. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MY TENNESSEE MOUNTAIN HOME”)
DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Sitting on the front porch on a summer afternoon in a straight-back chair on two legs leaned against the wall, watch the kids a-playing with June bugs on a string and chase the glowing fireflies when evening shadows fall. In my Tennessee mountain home, life is as peaceful as a baby’s sigh. In my Tennessee mountain home…
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to my interview with Jad Abumrad, the creator and co-host of the public radio show and podcast Radiolab. It started off as a deep dive into science-related stories, then opened up to other stories where there was a meaningful conflict to investigate or mystery to solve. He co-reports the new Radiolab miniseries “The Vanishing Of Harry Pace.” He also co-reported the miniseries “Dolly Parton’s America.”
History played such a big part in the miniseries that you’ve been doing, in all of the miniseries that you’ve been doing. And, you know, like with Dolly Parton, the Civil War figures into it because at Dollywood, there used to be something called Dolly’s Dixie Stampede when – which people in the audience are divided into two teams, North and South, and they’re competing with each other. And of course, Dixie figures into the title. And she’s called out for it eventually in a piece by Aisha Harris. And she takes Dixie out of the name and changes it from North Pole to South Pole so it doesn’t seem so Civil War-ish.
So that – I mean, excuse me for doing such a short and not very good version of that, but the point – the larger point I want to make (laughter) is that the echoes of the Civil War still figure into our culture and certainly figure into your miniseries, “Dolly Parton’s America.” And of course, your father left Lebanon because of civil war, so, like, civil war is a – it’s a part of your life. You haven’t directly experienced it, but it’s there in the shadows of your life.
J ABUMRAD: Oh, yeah. I mean, you know, I’d never made that connection, but you’re absolutely right. You know, it’s funny. It’s – and therein lies, I think, one of the principal differences. You know, the Civil War as it’s taught and thought about in Nashville – less and less these days, but certainly when I was growing up – it’s glorified. It’s talked about in a kind of antebellum romantic way of, you know, big, big dresses and plantation homes, and everyone’s happy and oh, the good old days.
That’s certainly not how people think about the Lebanese civil war. It was unavoidable. It is not romanticized. I mean, certainly, there are different versions of truth that you will get from any number of the 18 different sects that were at war in Lebanon. But I certainly registered it by watching my parents watch the TV in 1983 when there was that famous bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon. I distinctly remember them looking at the TV and the sadness I saw on their faces. So it’s a strange dissonance to see that and then to also grow up in a place where this very traumatic bit of American history is kind of routinely sanitized and glorified. And I grew up in that South, so it was interesting to be from Lebanon but to also be in a place where the trauma is hidden intentionally.
GROSS: So you wanted to be a film composer. You studied composition. What was the transition into radio? How did you – what made you think you wanted to work in radio?
J ABUMRAD: You know, I was at that moment where I was trying to write music for films. I realized I was kind of sucking at it. And I was also simultaneously working in this new industry called the internet. This is 1996, so this is when, like, the internet was, like, as a commercial platform, really exploding. And I was hating that work and failing at the work I really loved and trying to also write stories. And that wasn’t working. So I was kind of in that very typical post-college flail.
And my then-girlfriend, now wife Karla, said, well, look, you kind of like to write stories. You like to write music. Have you ever thought about radio? Because it’s kind of like – it’s sound, which is kind of like music, and it’s also very much about writing and storytelling. So why don’t you do that?
I met a person who turned out to work at WBAI. And I went and volunteered for them. First day I was there, there was some kind of internal, like, drama happening where, like, half the staff had walked out or something. I mean, this is…
GROSS: Oh, yeah. There were always dramas like that going on at WBAI (laughter).
J ABUMRAD: Oh, my God. Oh, my God. It’s just, like, such a – like, just one drama after another. And I happened to walk into the middle of one where there was no one in the newsroom. And they needed bodies. And so the news director at the time, Jose Rodriguez (ph), handed me a tape recorder and a microphone and said, go out and cover this protest. I had literally never interviewed anyone in my life before. I didn’t know how to cover anything. What do you even ask? But I was suddenly running down the street towards city hall. And then I got to the steps. And people were yelling about whatever it was. And I just recorded them all yelling. I asked some really bad questions. Came back, cut the tape as best I could, and I had made a news story by 3:00 that first day.
And just that whole process of running out, recording, capturing people’s voices and then trying to write little sentences that connect one voice to another voice, something about that just was the – that I just felt so powerful. I was like, this is amazing. To record the world and then to have to distill it and then make meaning out of it and then communicate it? Oh, my God. I was hooked. And so I just stayed at WBAI for a year just trying to learn. How do you do this? What questions do you ask? How do you sound like a real grown-up reporter?
GROSS: Oh, how did – did you try to change your voice?
J ABUMRAD: Oh, yeah, I did. I did the whole – I did the Walter Cronkite thing where (in staccato) I talk like this so everyone would take me seriously.
And then I realized that that’s just ridiculous. And then I tried to sound like myself, which took years, by the way.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.
J ABUMRAD: So, you know, I look back on that period between when I was first getting in to when someone first recognized me, which was, you know, years. Years went by. And I was largely ignored during that time. I was literally making a show on the AM signal at 8 p.m. Sunday nights, which is exactly when they kill the power of the AM frequency. So it didn’t even travel. Like, I don’t know, it traveled, like, ten blocks. No one could hear my show.
I was horribly miserable about that. But I look back now, and I think, thank God people were ignoring me. It gave me a chance to figure out simple things. Like, how do you speak into a microphone and not sound like an ass? What music works in a story? What kind of stories are my stories versus the stories other people tell? Like, all those basic questions you kind of have to answer, I got to fumble my way through the dark for a long time finding the answers. And then, someone finally paid attention.
GROSS: I think I need to take another break here. So let me reintroduce you. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Jad Abumrad, the creator of the public radio show and podcast Radiolab. The new Radiolab miniseries is called “The Vanishing Of Harry Pace.” We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Jad Abumrad, the creator and producer of the public radio show and podcast Radiolab. And the new Radiolab miniseries is called “The Vanishing Of Harry Pace.”
So, Jad, in the “Dolly Parton’s America” miniseries, you mention that early in your career, you were taking your tape recorder everywhere. Did you become obsessive about recording everything in case it would figure into a story, in case you could, like, use it sometime?
J ABUMRAD: Yeah. I mean, it’s – I imagine this is what people do when they first get into my line of work. I mean, I had a tape recorder, and I was just initially fascinated with just recording just spaces, sounds, wind blowing through trees, traffic, the sound of the beach – you know, just storyless locations, basically. And then I remember I – you know, I traveled across country with some friends, and we drove into all of these beautiful places. And I recorded the entire journey. And it was surprisingly useless tape because there was no – you know, you learn as you do this to do interviews where people tell you stories and they give you bits of observations that allow you to construct a journey.
But initially, I just recorded everything without that stuff. And then gradually, as I started working at a community radio station, I learned, oh, you know, you need to actually ask questions, and you need to engage your environment and be curious. And that’s when I sort of learned the business of journalism. But at first, I was just fascinated by capturing sounds. It just seemed so cool. Like, you could kind of snatch them out of the air and stick them in this little box and then have them with you.
GROSS: One of the things that you do that – on Radiolab is that you have – you’re kind of, like, scoring voices as if it was music. And you might have, like, three people in the course of one sentence, each one stating a phrase. And the phrases all follow as if one person – like, if you were writing it, it would look like one person saying that sentence. But when you hear it, it’s voiced by three separate people. And this is all taken, like, from interviews. It’s not like they’re reading their part.
So I want to play an example of that. And so this is from a show that you did called “Lost And Found,” and the story being told in this – and don’t worry if this is confusing because it’s not about the story that – it’s not the story I want our listeners to hear. It’s the production work. It was about a woman with a rare, like, neurological disorder in which she had episodes in which everything around her seemed unfamiliar. She couldn’t even recognize her own home. And doctors said there was no explanation, and finally she was told, you need a psychiatrist, until she met a doctor who was studying face blindness and saw the connection between her kind of spatial blindness and face blindness. So I want to play a clip from that, and listen for the production style.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
J ABUMRAD: But Giuseppe had this idea that maybe, just like face blindness, there could be such a thing as location blindness. So he asked Sharon to go online and play this game.
GIUSEPPE IARIA: Sort of video game.
SHARON ROSEMAN: It’s like virtual reality.
IARIA: Not like where you have to shoot people and fight people and blah, blah, blah.
ROSEMAN: The screen would be showing you these landmarks, like a flower shop…
IARIA: The bar…
IARIA: …The bakery…
ROSEMAN: And then eventually, I needed to be able to say…
IARIA: Where things are with respect to one another.
ROSEMAN: Well, nothing – not even a guess for me. And it actually made me physically ill.
J ABUMRAD: And then Giuseppe told her something. Before you, I’d met this woman.
IARIA: This lady who was complaining about orientation.
J ABUMRAD: And she also failed this test. So I brought her in…
IARIA: To the lab.
J ABUMRAD: …Had her play the game…
IARIA: In the scanner, in the MRI scanner.
J ABUMRAD: …In the brain scanner…
IARIA: And we were able to find activity all over the brain.
J ABUMRAD: Except in one little place.
IARIA: We were not able to detect any increased activity within the hippocampus.
J ABUMRAD: Which just so happens to be the home of Jonah’s little guys.
JONAH LEHRER: Place cells, order cells, grid cells.
ROSEMAN: That particular part of the brain, the hippocampus, just never developed. And at that point, that’s when Giuseppe…
J ABUMRAD: For the first time, told her this thing has a name.
ROSEMAN: DTD for developmental topographical disorientation.
IARIA: Developmental topographical disorientation.
GROSS: So, Jad, how did you come up with that style?
J ABUMRAD: Wow. It’s weird to hear that because that’s, like, a montage of memories. I think maybe it was – coming out of music school, one of the few things that really stuck in my head in music school was counterpoint. There was a class we had to take on 16th century baroque counterpoint and the ways in which you have four voices, and there are very rigid rules as to how the voices can move. There’s, you know, when the alto voice goes up, then the tenor voice has to go down and yada, yada – that kind of thing. And every voice has to have its own integrity, but it also has to somehow move in opposition or in relation to the other voices.
And there’s something in that kind of cutting of interviews so that they’re finishing each other’s sentences, so that they’re all operating in that way – there is something kind of contrapuntal about that. And it’s just fun. Like, I really enjoy that. I enjoy trying to make one person finish another person’s sentence and that person hand off to a third person. It felt a little bit like counterpoint, like baroque counterpoint. And I also just really like the idea that there are many people telling one story. It feels like a Greek chorus in a way.
GROSS: I’m trying to imagine practically how you do that. Like, do you have transcripts and try to find the phrases that will match, you know, so that you can piece together different voices and have them be coherently formed into one sentence?
J ABUMRAD: These days, yes. Back in the days when I was making the thing we just – that you just played, I think typically what would happen is you’re editing a sentence. And as you know, you know, people start sentences with a lot of power and intention. And then they meander in the middle, and they go off into some other thought. And they stop a sentence before it’s over and digress. And, you know, very often, as you’re editing, you have – like, oh, I really love the way this person started that sentence, but I wish they had just finished, right?
GROSS: Yeah (laughter).
J ABUMRAD: You know?
GROSS: I know that feeling.
J ABUMRAD: I wish they finished by going down rather than going up. Everybody – and it’s a sentence going up. And, you know, OK, so let me go find somebody else who finishes the sentence in the way I wish the first person had. So then you go sort of rooting around in the tape. And you’re like, ooh, there’s a good sentence. And then you, you know, stick the butt of – end of one sentence onto the top end of another. And then it completes the thought in the way that you feel musically should happen, in the way that you feel the first person was trying to, but then they kind of cut themselves off. So typically, it’s problem-solving like that. You’re trying to solve grammatical problems by using other people’s verbs and nouns and adjectives.
GROSS: So in 2016, you took a break from Radiolab for four months. I know you probably really needed a break. This is real detail work. It’s, like, big-picture and tiny, micro-picture, too. You’re working on so many levels at the same time. So I can understand why you’d need a break. But why did you actually decide you’re going to take the break? Because there’s a big gap between feeling like you need a break and actually taking it.
J ABUMRAD: Yeah. I mean, it’s everything you said. But it’s also – you know, there’s – at the heart of the way that I work – or worked, I should say; I feel like I’ve changed a lot since that break, largely as a result of the break – is, you know, you fall head-over-heels in love. Like, you’re passionately in love with whatever it is you’re working on at that moment. And you lose yourself to it.
But there’s a sort of an edge to it, which is a bit of a dysfunction. You obsess. And then it becomes hard to run a team, you know? And over the years, I had really started as, like, quite literally a one-man band working alone in a basement. And that’s how it started in, you know, 2002. I literally was making the show in the basement of the home I’m in right now.
And then it had grown – to 2016 – to be a big team of people. But I hadn’t really changed the way that I work. And that was kind of a problem. And so I was still funneling the entire team through me. So everything would get edited, edited, edited and then handed to me. And I would do the final edit on everything. And it just wasn’t healthy for me. And it wasn’t healthy for the team. And so I took a break.
And it was, I think, a really important decision because I realized a few things. And I think the team did, too. I mean, the team continued to make the show. And I had that beautiful experience – I imagine you have this when you take vacations where, like, you hear your show, somebody else doing your show, and you think, oh, damn, that was good, you know? Just like, I had that experience for the first time in my life of, like, oh, damn, that was really good.
GROSS: I know what you’re talking about because there’s times I feel like, oh, God, I need a vacation so badly. And then I’m on vacation, and I’ll tune in an interview on our show and think, like, what an interesting job. I wish I could do that.
J ABUMRAD: Yeah.
GROSS: And I was like, wait a minute.
J ABUMRAD: Exactly.
GROSS: And so that’s – yeah. That’s a really interesting phenomenon.
J ABUMRAD: And I think it’s very healing to hear that, you know…
J ABUMRAD: …Because you need that perspective. And I needed it. And I realized, oh, not only does the team – can the team work really, really well without me, but I do need to walk out of the room more so that they can take it in new directions. And that was the beginning of me actually, I think, becoming an adult in the workplace and, like, just trying to be a professional person where I’m not micromanaging, and I’m trying to guide people.
And, you know, I don’t do it the right way every time. But I – it’s – the way that Radiolab operates now is much more, you know, like a little company, where so many of the decisions are being made without me now. And I think they’re better for it. So that was the beginning of that shift in my work. And I needed to make that shift because I wasn’t just, like, the artist in the bedroom anymore. I was – it was bigger than that at that point. It was beyond me.
GROSS: My guest is Jad Abumrad, the creator of the public radio show and podcast Radiolab. The new Radiolab miniseries he co-reports is called “The Vanishing Of Harry Pace.” We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Jad Abumrad, the creator and producer of the public radio show and podcast Radiolab. He co-reports the new Radiolab miniseries “The Vanishing Of Harry Pace.” He also co-reported the miniseries “Dolly Parton’s America.”
For years, you hosted Radiolab with Robert Krulwich. And there’s – I don’t know – a 20-something-year difference between your ages. He was really one of the early reporters on NPR. He did some brilliant stuff because he was an economics reporter, and he made it fun to listen to his reports. He turned it into, like, comedy and musicals. So he was just amazingly creative.
How did that age gap, the generational distance between you, work out in terms of your personal relationship and professional one? Were there times when it, like, was really a helpful dynamic and times when you didn’t quite understand each other’s perspective?
J ABUMRAD: Oh, yeah. Yes, to all of it. You know, we – initially when we met, we met kind of in a fluke-ish sort of way and then became friends and then breakfast companions before we worked together. And I met him, and I am ashamed to say I didn’t know what a legend he was at that point. I mean, I kind of recognized him, but we just started talking a lot. And then he heard something I had made because I just started Radiolab at that point. And we started doing these five-minute experiments that I would squeeze into the show in the early days when no one was listening.
And to work with Robert and to see him, like, in – I mean, he is one of the most kinetic, fluid thinkers I’ve ever met. You know, you can throw anything at him, and he’ll process it. And then he’ll start speaking, and you don’t know, when he speaks, what’s going to come out. Is it going to be snakes? Is it going to be butterflies? Like, just anything can come out of his mouth at any time. And it was amazing to me at that point in my development to have a guy like that to model myself after because he just – anything was possible with Robert. Like, he was open to any risk, to any adventure.
And he gave me permission to try stuff at a time when I wasn’t really sure it was OK to be doing what I was doing. He would say, no, do more of it. Double it. Triple it. And so when it came to having adventures into trying new stuff in sound or to layering voices or doing any number of experiments which ultimately would take us onto the stage and to four live tours, all of that – like, he was the perfect companion.
I think where we butted heads – and it was healthy, I think – was we had very different instincts about how to speak to an audience, you know, how to explain something. You know, he’s one of the great explanatory journalists of the last 50 years, I would say. But his belief was that you have to kind of overexplain things, and you have to always be two steps behind the audience and to make them feel smart. And my belief – and I think it’s generational – was, no, you actually want to run ahead of your audience. Your audience wants to play catch-up. So it’s OK if you use complicated words. It’s OK if you do weird, you know, Tarantino-esque, weird structural flips and that kind of stuff. That’s good. The audience likes that.
And he – and we would fight like gladiators about that stuff. You know, like, it’s OK if you say a word like DNA and don’t really explain what DNA is. This is in the early days. We would fight about that. So we would butt heads about, you know, that and what level of information is right. And – but when it came to the joy and the adventure and just the, like, recognition of, like, something is beautiful, we both had a kind of like-mindedness that I still find spooky to think about. We both just connected on such a deep level and still do. I mean, I talk to him every week, and it’s still wonderful to feel like we share that even when we’re not working together.
GROSS: Yeah. I think it was last year that he retired from the show.
J ABUMRAD: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: Well, Jad, it’s really been great to talk with you. I really appreciate it. And I really appreciate your work. So thank you. Thank you for the interview. Thank you for Radiolab and your miniseries and all the great stuff you’ve done. It opens up your ears and your mind to listen.
J ABUMRAD: Well, thank you. And I’ll just say back to you, Terry, you are the person that we all sort of idolize and chase in terms of how to do the job with integrity and thoughtfulness. And it’s just such an honor to sit here and speak with you.
GROSS: Well, you’ve made my day, my week. Thank you so much.
Jad Abumrad is the creator of the public radio show and podcast Radiolab. He co-reports the new Radiolab miniseries “The Vanishing Of Harry Pace.” Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we’ll talk about how the delta variant is changing the course of the pandemic and how we should respond. My guest will be Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency care physician, former Baltimore health commissioner and a CNN medical analyst and Washington Post columnist. Her new memoir is about coming to the U.S. as a poor immigrant from China, relying on the public health care system and becoming a doctor. I hope you’ll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS’ “ON SONNY’S SIDE”)
GROSS: FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with help today from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Latimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I’m Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS’ “ON SONNY’S SIDE”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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