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How Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad turned childhood awkwardness into his job

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Take a good listen to this next story. It's all about the power of sound, and finding your voice.

    Jad Abumrad is the host and creator of Radiolab. It's a WNYC Radio studio's podcast.

    And he's the subject of this week's Brief But Spectacular. It's our series where we ask interesting people to describe their passions.

  • JAD ABUMRAD, Radiolab:

    Radio is such a cool thing, precisely because it doesn't have that, that thing, that evil thing right there. It lacks pictures.

    It creates a kind of active empathy, where you literally are co-authoring the experience with me. You're finishing the deed. I love radio precisely because it's empty of the things that you are awash in, my impoverished friends.

    I often hear Radiolab on the radio, and I — it's — look, let's just be honest, it's annoying on the radio. The radio is across the room. You're trying to do 12 things. The kids are running back and forth. It's really hard to listen casually to it, because then it just zooms by and you miss something.

    I feel like we are actually now more a podcast than we are a radio show. I do not know one 20-year-old that has a radio. It's being redefined. It's not the box on the mantelpiece anymore. It's our phones and our devices and whatever the next three versions of that will be. The radio will live on that in some way.

    I grew up as an Arab kid in Nashville, Tennessee. And then I would go to Lebanon, and I would be the American kid, so I was never quite in or out there. I was always in this weird in-between space, which I think is very normal for a lot of immigrant kids.

    Now that I look back on it, I feel like it was kind of a gift. It gives you this weird way of being of something, but standing apart from it. You learn to sort of look at things in a way that's really helpful when you're a journalist.

    The confusion of my adolescence, my identity, I carry that forward in a way, in a very deep way, into the show. This is not a show about knowing what you're talking about. You actually hear us sometimes uncomfortably fumbling through the dark on our way to a slightly better understanding.

    But those sort of intermediate places are awkward. And, I don't know, it's just an awkwardness I know very well from having grown up that way, as this Arab kid in Tennessee. The awkwardness used to feel like a bad thing. Now it just feels like work. It just feels like my job.

    Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on why radio will never die.

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