"Today," Radiolab cohost Robert Krulwich growled in my ear, "the story of an ax-wielding nun coming through a window to smash some staphylococcus and take you back to the future."
I was at the gym, listening to podcasts in the hopes of distracting myself from the agony of the twisting, crushing machines into which I had placed myself. This particular episode of Radiolab concerned staph infections and told the story of a microbiologist who studied Viking battles and accidentally rediscovered an ancient formula for antibiotics.
As it turned out, the topic might not have been suited for gym listening. After a description of how staph thrives in warm, moist environments, I found myself spending more time wiping down the equipment than actually using it. Such is the psychological hold of a masterfully produced podcast.
Only about half of Americans have ever heard of podcasts, according to the Pew Research Center, and only 17 percent have ever listened to one, which is a shame, because it's where some of the best storytelling in the world is happening right now.
And Radiolab is among the best. Each week, hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich lead a lyrical exploration of topics too strange to ignore: a Viking cure for staph, shooting rhinos in order to save them, giant balloons that dropped missiles on the American Midwest, the brain-altering properties of smoke-detector batteries.
"We wanted to model what a truly curious person has to go through," Krulwich told me. He was kind enough to return my call at 11 p.m. on a Saturday to talk about his work for an hour, an experience that felt strangely like hearing an episode of his show produced solely for me.
On each episode of Radiolab, the hosts go through the process of learning about a compelling topic as the show unfolds, rather than the usual journalistic process of understanding everything about a topic before explaining it. "It's..." Krulwich paused, "an odd way to go about the news."
Krulwich will be bringing this "odd way" to the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts in Tacoma on January 22, with a live show called Inside Radiolab that promises insight into "what makes their work examining big questions in science, philosophy, and the human experience so compelling." Also advertised are interviews with local science specialists and dignitaries, and although I don't know what a local science dignitary is, I cannot wait to find out.
"We stumble through, and the audience hears us learning," Krulwich says of the show's boundless curiosity. "Yes, it's embarrassing, but it's what it takes to learn something. If WE can do this, YOU can do this."
When Krulwich started working in broadcasting for NPR in 1978, it was a time when you'd read your piece into a microphone and it would wash over radios and then vanish into the sky on its way to Mars. "It had no physicalness," Krulwich said. "Now, because of Steve Jobs, there's an easy record of everything. For the first time recoverable, and for the first time literature."
Podcasts are also far more intimate than television or the radio in your car. "You're literally in someone's ear," Krulwich said. "People can't help themselves—they'll paint in their own heads what you're talking about. They become your coauthors... When you're inside someone, you can rub them in a lot of extra ways. You can lift them up, carry them, move them around, excite them, frustrate them. There's no one else in the world but you and them. That's a slightly new thing."
Well, sure, in terms of audio production it's new. In terms of interpersonal relationships, it's the oldest practice in the world.
Today, it seems that podcasting is on the cusp of evolving still further, thanks to steadily growing listenership and, perhaps more importantly, more advertising money at stake than ever before. Last year's megahit Serial changed the landscape of the medium, and Serial just startled its fans by announcing that the second season will be available via Pandora—no more clunky MP3 downloads, RSS feeds, or apps required. Meanwhile, more car manufacturers are incorporating podcast-friendly interfaces to serve commuters. Listenership is creeping up, as are advertising rates.
That means there's a bit of a gold rush happening now, a glut of content. Some of it's phenomenal, and you should absolutely be listening to Radiolab. Krulwich recommends Alec Baldwin's podcast, Here's the Thing; Mike Pesca's news and culture podcast, The Gist; and Too Beautiful to Live with Luke Burbank and Andrew Walsh. Personally, I'm addicted to Throwing Shade, a comedic take on issues that matter to ladies and gays; Linoleum Knife, a podcast of the cinema; You Must Remember This, a lush remembrance of Hollywood history; Savage Lovecast, Dan Savage's advice show; Mystery Show, an investigation of strangely personal mysteries; 99% Invisible, an appreciation of hidden worlds; and Out on the Lanai, for die-hard fans of The Golden Girls. Check out Welcome to Night Vale, a fictional local broadcast from a haunted town, and bad-movie fans can choose between How Did This Get Made?, The Flop House, and Bad Gay Movies = Bitchy Gay Men. I also love the show LadyWatch for chatter about classy dames, Tomefoolery for laughs about weird literature, and Judge John Hodgman for conflict and justice. Subscribe to Can I Pet Your Dog? for canine gossip.
I also produce two podcasts of my own. On The Sewers of Paris, I interview a different gay man each week about the entertainment that changed his life (a few weeks ago, I talked to Wes Hurley, creator of the web series Capitol Hill, about growing up in Vladivostok, where pirate broadcasts of American films helped him dream of moving to a country where human remains didn't wash past his house whenever the cemetery flooded). And my podcast Defining Marriage tells the personal stories of the people who fought for marriage equality over the last 40 years (and is based on my book of the same name).
The technical barriers to podcasting are low, at least compared to starting your own radio station. You just need a microphone, a computer, and a little online storage.
But there's more to a podcast than the equipment—there's also the more ineffable quality of storytelling, the magic that happens when a Radiolab captures your attention. There are, after all, a ton of super-boring shows out there.
I've made shows like Radiolab the subject of constant study and, I have to admit, a bit of mimicry at times. In the same way, Krulwich still fondly recalls the radio broadcasters who shaped him as a listener (and eventual creator) when he was young. During our call, I could hear the nostalgia in his voice when he remembered being mesmerized by storytellers like Ernie Kovacs, who would invent and inhabit characters, or Les Keiter, who would sit in a studio next to a telegraph machine, receiving dispatches from a far-off baseball game so he could announce and describe it as though he was actually there.
In a way, those broadcasters' voices are still echoing today. Their ability to start a story that holds your attention at the gym, or in a car, or on an airplane doesn't dissipate over time. It's a craft that touches something fundamentally human about us, passed through osmosis from listener to speaker to listener to speaker. The podcasting renaissance that 17 percent of us enjoy today is happening on the shoulders of giants upon giants, and the shows on your iPhone can trace their lineage back to the great audio storytellers of the early days of radio.
Another of Krulwich's favorites was Long John Nebel, a master broadcaster who spun simple sponsor messages into elaborate tales. "He was on WOR," Krulwich recalled. "He would have 25 minutes of ads with 10 minutes of interviewing. If his sponsor was an ice-skate company, he would tell stories about ice-skating and then somehow mention the skates. I just sat there spellbound. I thought to myself, 'How long can he keep this thing going?'"
How long? As long, I suspect, as there are stories to be told.