By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006
For many listeners, the signature sound of National Public Radio in the 1980s was the inviting singsong of Robert Krulwich, the reporter whose hyper-conversational manner could make any complex topic seem accessible.
Krulwich specialized in economics and science, and by combining rigorously linear storytelling with simple, perfectly chosen metaphors, he managed to explain why gas prices were soaring, or how interest rates work.
Now, after a two-decade-long sojourn in television (ABC, CBS, PBS's "Nova"), Krulwich has returned to public radio with a new experiment in telling complicated stories in a mass medium. "Radio Lab," a limited-run series that has its Washington premiere on WETA (90.9 FM) this week, takes on big questions such as why amputees still feel their missing limbs, when everyday speech turns into music, and what ancient Egyptian household trash tells us about the human condition (Hint: The enduring literature is porn).
"Radio Lab" exists to go after tough topics. Krulwich, who hosts the program with Jad Abumrad, believes that after matters of war and peace and the disparity of incomes, "the real world-changing events of our time are the discoveries now being made about the nature of the order of things and the nature of the mind."
But those are exactly the kinds of topics that journalists too often shy away from, he says, in part because of fear that audiences won't stick around through the hard parts. "Most people feel intimidated by these subjects when you call them by their real names -- biology, physics, chemistry," Krulwich says.
"Radio Lab" seeks to tell stories of cosmology, neuroscience and anthropology in a language new to broadcasting. Krulwich brings his affinity for sound effects, dramatizations and a narrative style reminiscent of great children's literature together with Abumrad's experiments in manipulating recorded speech to emphasize ideas and to break through media clutter.
A "Radio Lab" story includes traditional elements like interviews with scientists and a reporter's narration, but the story is regularly interrupted by words that suddenly repeat three or four times, vowel sounds that are elongated and warped to accentuate their meaning, and bits of electronic distortion or snatches of music that shift the mood and focus listeners' attention.
Add a continuing, partly scripted and partly improvised conversation between Abumrad and Krulwich, and the storytelling is hard to ignore. This is not your father's NPR.
"We didn't want to sound like the Car Guys or 'All Things Considered,' " says Krulwich, 58. "The sound of public radio is very, very clear. You recognize it within a second and a half after you tune in. Jad wanted to play with words like plastic things and make it part of the storytelling."
Abumrad, who is a generation younger than Krulwich, felt compelled to capture imaginations deadened by a constant barrage of electronic input.
Although Krulwich shares some biographical details with his younger partner -- both went to Oberlin College, both started out at New York's radical, listener-sponsored WBAI, both tried to push free of traditional journalistic forms -- the older man was "mystified at first by what Jad was doing. I didn't know what to make of this very musical approach to stories. I was scared to like it." But the more Krulwich thought about the fact that his own reports didn't seem to connect to his own teenagers, the more open he became to trying a new approach.
"The younger people at 'Radio Lab' think I'm full of too much dewy-eyed wonder, which they think of as an act, and I think they're full of detached ironic coolness, which is something of an act," Krulwich says. The trick was to find a way to tell stories that lured younger listeners without alienating the traditional public radio audience.
For public radio, the imperative to find new audiences runs smack into the need to hold onto the older listeners who pay the freight. That's why more than 80 public stations have found room in their schedules for 'Radio Lab,' which features Krulwich and Abumrad for pretty much the same reasons Hollywood producers put out a movie starring Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio.
After many years of steady growth, public radio's audience has flat-lined. "The sound, the beats of NPR are very predictable," Krulwich says. "We've got to have an element of surprise and delight, and that happens when you allow your reporters to sound like themselves, rather than the voices they put on for people outside."
"Radio Lab's" producers want the program to draw listeners into sophisticated topics through the arresting sound of the production and the distinctive personalities of the reporters -- just as public radio's most alluring voices, people such as Scott Simon, Ira Glass and Susan Stamberg, have for decades.
The result is a series of documentaries that make you feel like you understand, finally, what perfect pitch is and why some people have it while most of us don't, or what an out-of-body experience really is. The shows take much less work to listen to than traditional documentaries, yet the audio trickery is sometimes overbearing, as if the producers are too fearful of losing their audience.
But aside from those occasional excesses, there is a music to these nonfiction stories, a beat and a rhythm that feel fresh, and that's something that good old public radio dearly needs.
Radio Lab's five new shows will air on WETA at 3 p.m. Monday through Friday this week and then again in a five-hour marathon starting at noon on Oct. 21. Or listen anytime to podcasts of the program at http://feeds.wnyc.org/radiolab .