Old Standards; New Designs in Storytelling

I started listening to Radiolab per the recommendation of John Biewen, American RadioWorks producer and Director of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. Biewen edited a book recently called “Reality Radio,” about the new age of radio that we are diving into head first, and increasingly on a new kind of wireless the pioneers of the old one could hardly have imagined. Radio is undergoing a change, not only in how it is distributed, marketed, and financed, but also in how it sounds. Few are more responsible for this change than Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich at RadioLab.

Many have written about the show, particularly Jad since his being named a MacArthur Fellow last year, and how it is different from everything else on the air (or in the ether), but The Atlantic recently wrote about how RadioLab’s excellence goes beyond their creative science stories. Think about blogging just three years ago. Blogs used to look a lot like how Drudge still looks today. They were, for the most part, amateurish writers making amateurish arguments on amateurish websites; or maybe just posting a bunch of links to other sites. There was nothing grand about them. They were pariahs of writing.

Today, that kind of blogging still exists; but increasingly we are seeing blogs like The Verge, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, and (at the risk of being shameless) this one. The people who write blogs like these are not always “experts” or “authorities” on the subjects they write, some of them are students, some are journalists, but mostly we are all just curious individuals sharing our curiosities with the world. We may rely on experts to help us interpret or shed a theoretical background on something, but authoritative opinion is neither taken for granted nor the focus of our stories. The same is true of podcasts like RadioLab.

Jad and Robert take their listeners on a journey through the cloudy, mysterious worlds of whatever stories they tell. Whether it is neuroscience, botany, astrophysics, or mathematics. They do not always tell the whole story, but they tell a story. How else could someone with no interest or experience in lucid dreaming learn that it is a way of eliminating recurring nightmares? In that particular story, they did it with the assistance of experts, but also through a kind of dialogic process of discovery; they want to get at the root of not just the answer, but the research question itself. Other shows might have interviewed the scientist, asked a few questions about the experiment, and reported an answer over the course of maximum two-and-a-half minutes. RadioLab did it in about 17.
The Atlantic recently called this the “RadioLab Effect.” In the near future we should “expect less pretension to authority, greater understanding of one’s nodeness, but greater respect for the production culture of the pre-web era.” We do not have to be experts, or defer to them, in order to understand something complicated. We just have to have a story, and a strong sense of curiosity. Experts, after all, were not born that way. No one will understand lucid dreaming better than experts after listening to RadioLab, but we can have a converstaion about it with someone. Who knows, maybe it’ll inspire one of us normies to become experts.

Is there a podcast or blog you think is especially poigniant? Let us know in the comments.

Greg Boone is the former Director of Multimedia at gnovis and the webmaster. He is interested in the intersections of technology and society. The guiding question of his research is what is the role of science and technology in society, and what consequences do they have for democracy? Greg has been podcasting since he worked for KGSM Radio at Gustavus Adolphus College, his work can be found at http://harmsboone.org and http://internationalunderground.org.