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June 27, 2013

Creative voices come to Cleveland

Popular podcasters turn summit into experiment

By Doug Vehovec

“From now on, when we think creative voices we’ll think Radiolab.”

Attendees of the 2013 Creative Voices Summit, held on June 11, were left with those words following a presentation by the hosts of the Peabody Award-winning radio program and podcast Radiolab.

Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad

The show’s hosts, Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, visited Cleveland to share a behind-the-scenes look at what makes their program tick. During the hour-and-a-half presentation they gave the audience an insider’s view into the creative decisions that led up to Radiolab’s inception and how a show is put together.

The event, produced by a collaboration between the the nonprofit educational organization ideastream and Radiolab, was held at the Idea Center at Playhouse Square. Through a partnership between WVIZ/PBS and 90.3 WCPN, the Idea Center stands as an edifice to both creativity and education. The innovative and technology-based facility on Cleveland’s main cultural corridor serves both ideastream and the Playhouse Square Foundation’s art education programs.

Audience members familiar with the program’s distinctive audio production style may have been there simply as fans of the show. Some in attendance might have hoped for a glimpse into the creative decision-making process. But everyone in the Westfield Insurance Studio was treated to a meta-event when the guys from Radiolab revealed that the summit itself was part of their creative process.

The audience would become part of that process. “We’re going to actually experiment on you,” Krulwich said.

View this clip on YouTube.

With a decades-long career as a journalist on both radio and television, Krulwich is known for his inventiveness and ability to convey complex information in a way that’s understandable. The meaning behind his cryptic announcement would become clearer throughout the presentation.

Krulwich’s co-host – radio host and producer Jad Abumrad – explained the dilemma the two faced when first developing what would become Radiolab. The two struck up a friendship through a chance meeting and began meeting regularly for breakfast. Their conversations were a free-flowing exchange, one of the signatures of their program.

“How do you tell a story that’s composed with a lot of science, but that moves quickly and has the architecture you want and keeps the energy that was there at the diner?” Abumrad said.

They found their answer embedded in Abumrad’s audio work. As a trained musician he approaches storytelling like a piece of music. The beat and tempo of a voice, the lifts, lulls and even silence combine to reveal the most fun parts of a story. Musical accompaniment is what defines each Radiolab program.

“At first it’s just two guys talking,” Abumrad said. “Then the music creeps in and suddenly something different happens right there. It’s two guys seducing everyone listening.”

The idea is that the spoken word is a form of music. The coughs, laughs, giggles and interruptions are the rhythms and beats of life. They contribute to explaining the complex, dense, difficult and technical science.

“The music and the sense of the argument, if they are well matched, turn the argument into steel,” Krulwich said.

To illustrate this point, the two shared a segment from the show “Musical Language.” The clip demonstrated the concept of speech-to-song illusion discovered by Diana Deutsch, a British-American perceptual and cognitive psychologist.

While preparing the commentary for her CD “Musical Illusions and Paradoxes,” Deutsch left the room while an audio loop continued to play. After a few minutes she heard singing. But it wasn’t singing at all – the spoken words had transformed into music. And once that shift occurs in the brain, it sticks. So it was with audience members who quietly hummed along to the same seductive song-words heard by Deutsch on that day:

“Sometimes behave so strangely…”

The convergence of the human voice and music was a success. What had been a routine editing session became an experiment in sound and the nature of music; what had been a presentation about creative decision making became an experiment in making creative decisions.

Abumrad informed the audience that their participation at the summit was part of their plan to develop a plan for a live Radiolab show.

“We’re going to run through a dry read of a story that we’re working on,” Abumrad said. “You guys will be the very first humans who will hear this.”

Far from dry, the story revealed new scientific information about the day of “Dinopocalypse.” Modern science suggests that the age of dinosaurs literally ended in the span of an afternoon.

Sprinkled throughout the telling were moments of participation from both the audience and Radiolab’s production team, who acted as fill-ins for a sound effects crew that will be part of the live show. Audio clips – what Abumrad described in the past as “jaggedy sounds, little plurps and things, strange staccato, percussive things” – enhanced the story.

Also presented was a fully-costumed version of the “hypothetical placental mammal.” Scientists theorize that this creature began to diversify into new species of mammals following the demise of dinosaurs.

The creature’s official name is Schrëwdinger, chosen by way of a voting contest after the decision of what to call it was given to Radiolab producer and Ohio native Molly Webster.

Following the read-through, Krulwich and Abumrad collected notecards from the audience on which they provided feedback on what was essentially a rough rehearsal. They also fielded questions from the audience. The last of these, and most appropriate, was in regards to creative decisions in balancing the narrative elements and the science involved in the Radiolab show.

“What does a scientist do, really?” Krulwich said. “A scientist tells him or herself a story, and then tests it. It’s storytelling in a very specific way, but I don’t believe they are two different worlds.”

“We give a voice to things that have no voice,” Abumrad said. “They are separate endeavors, but the fun is balancing the tension between them.”

The Radiolab live show will come to Cleveland on October 4 at the State Theatre. Tickets are on sale now at the Playhouse Square box office and online.