I always had Radiolab as a podcast to check out, but it wasn’t until I read Ira Glass’s appreciation article for Transom.org, that I was finally convinced to check them out. Ira Glass’s article is long but worth reading in its entirety. I’m going to take the liberty though of summing up the main points of the article.
A Science Show that doesn’t sound like a science show.
Ira Glass explains that one reason people don’t watch shows like, say, PBS’s Nova is because it talks down to you. The tone is always “I’m talking to you in a big official voice. I’m talking to you like a grownup who’s teaching you something.” Radiolab is a show that avoids that as much as it can.
Science through Slick Storytelling
The reason you get interested in listening is not because of the particular scientific topic. You’re interested because they give you a well crafted story. You’re discovering along with them what is it about X topic that’s interesting.
The Sound and The Music
Take the Words episode for example. (Words by the way is not just my favorite Radiolab episode, or just my favorite podcast episode, it’s my favorite thing ever. It’s the best piece of media I ever been exposed to in my life.) The topic is language and how would it be to live in a world without it. The episode’s first story is about a 27 year old man, that was born deaf, that discovers “that everything has a name.” The build up to this realization, the sound effects used, and the voices of children in the background spelling out words in the end… I get chills just thinking about it.
The genius of Radiolab is how well they understand and use the medium of radio. They’re not using narrative like a story you read in a book. The narrative is the “of the cuff” conversation they have. They’re not being journalistic where all the setup is them asking questions and letting an expert answer them. All they do is tell the best story they can with just audio.