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Jad Abumrad Tells Origin Story Of 'Radiolab', Learns To Embrace 'Gut Churn'
Jad Abumrad told the gut-churning tale of how Radiolab came to be.

The public radio program "Radiolab" – part documentary, part audio art, part mad-scientist radio drama – is an experience unlike any other in the media. So what does it feel like to create something brand new like that?

"Radiolab" founder Jad Abumrad has been thinking about that question, and he said the best way to describe it is: gut churn. Abumrad will be giving a soundscaped live talk Tuesday nightin Seattle called “Embracing the Gut Churn.”

“It kind of feels like you’re going to die,” Abumrad told KPLU. “And then you ask yourself, why do I feel this way on account of a radio piece or something you know is minor, And yet it triggers these deep fight-or-flight reflexes.”

Abumrad said he got more intrigued with that deep-down queasiness that comes with making something new, and whether there was something to learn from it.

“I want to find what’s interesting in this. How can I come to understand these feelings differently, so that when they happen, they're no longer threatening, it’s just like, ‘hello again, old friend,’” he said.

‘I Hate Theme Songs’

"Radiolab" (which airs on KPLU Saturdays at 1 p.m.) began as a three-hour anthology program in the wee hours of night on WNYC’s AM station.

“Literally no one [was listening],” Abumrad said. “They drop the power at night so no one can get the signal. So I was sitting there making radio literally for no one,” he said.

The show was made up of repurposed stories and segments from other outlets, like the BBC and independent producers. That meant it had, by definition, no voice of its own. That can be freeing, but as Abumrad explains it’s also ground zero for that churning-tummy feeling.

So what does a show do when it’s trying to distil its identity? Why, it makes a theme song, of course.

“But then I thought, I hate theme songs,” Abumrad said.

‘You’re Listening To Radiolab’

So one night, Abumrad and producer Ellen Horne stayed up late playing around with some audio — radio static, people reading the name of the show and the station — and montaging it all together as a kind of funky collage. An anti-theme song.

They didn’t actually think much of it until they listened back to the next day. Its crinkly sonic texture and quirky production style struck him. “We could be that,” thought Abumrad.

“It was sort of like a pointing arrow. I didn’t know where it was pointing, but we had enough recognition to be like, well that’s interesting. Let’s just follow that,” Abumrad said. “I think it’s about standing in the uncomfortable space long enough and just having faith that something’s going to hit you in the head.”

In Seattle, ‘Most Uncomfortable 15 Minutes Of My Life.’

One of Abumrad’s most memorable stories of standing in that “uncomfortable space” unfolded on a stage in Seattle. "Radiolab" tours occasionally with live versions of its show. That was still a new idea a few years ago when Abumrad and crew, backed by cellist Zoe Keating, found themselves at a Seattle venue before their largest crowd to date.

When it came time to start the show, Abumrad went to launch the audio from his laptop. He discovered, to his horror, the laptop was dead.

“Not just like ran out of power, it’s like so dead that it’s not even warm. There's no flicker of light on this machine anywhere,” he said.

The whole show was on that computer. There was no plan B.

“Robert’s like, ‘Just play then thing, Jad.’I was like, ‘Robert, I can’t. It’s dead,’” Abumrad recalled. “His eyes died a little bit.”

The pair sat on stage, guts churning in the awkward silence.

“We felt like we were floating through spaces. I mean it was the weirdest, most uncomfortable 15 minutes of my life,” he said.

As they sat there onstage, twisting in the futility of it all, a voice came out of the darkness: “You have a cellist!”

“Oh my God, yes!” cried Abumrad. Zoe Keating came out and struck up the cello, an ethereal, layered piece called “Sun Will Set.” As the piece wound down, the laptop flickered to life, and the show went on.

“Zoe was the person that rescued us,” Abumrad said.

Keating is joining Abumrad in Seattle once again as the two take the stage at Benaroya Hall Tuesday evening, at 7:30 p.m.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.