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Radiolab creator Jad Abumrad speaks on innovative storytelling at UNT

Radiolab creator Jad Abumrad speaks on innovative storytelling at UNT

Radiolab creator Jad Abumrad speaks on innovative storytelling at UNT
September 18
15:12 2018

UNT’s Fine Arts Series has made it its mission to engage the student population through the words and talents of some of the world’s most accomplished individuals.

Co-creator of Radiolab Jad Abumrad is a continuation of that effort.

Through sound effects, snippets of interviews done over 16 years at Radiolab and personal anecdotes, Abumrad told the audience at UNT the story of how he found his way out of a difficult creative slump. Describing the atmosphere of Radiolab right before, Abumrad said the popular radio show was built on the feeling of an all-nighter. In order to overcome a newfound feeling of being stuck creatively, Abumrad found hidden lessons all around him that he had been too busy to see before.

In interviews, this could include mic sounds, pauses or very specific choices of words.

“I sort of evangelize the little s–t,” Abumrad said.

A radio show dedicated to the knowledge gained through great storytelling, Radiolab is a decorated program. Founded in 2002 as a podcast, it has won Peabody awards and a McArthur Genius Grant for the impact it has had on its listeners.

Abumrad felt he could impart on his audience of students — whether of the institution he is speaking at or those who listen to his podcast — the importance of and formula for great storytelling.

“Usually, when I’m interviewing people, I’m trying to nudge things – a bit of social engineering — [to] get things where I want,” Abumrad said.

Divulging his four main discoveries regarding the art of storytelling on his path to overcoming his inspirational slump, Abumrad sought to describe the fundamental center of what stories hope to accomplish.

Abumrad’s four main lessons were the power of silence in interviews, the ability to notice the small things that can either make a story more real or reveal a completely new side, the ability to use surprise to find gratitude in everyday miracles and the fundamental ability of stories to bring hope back to the creator.

“She was unconsciously writing herself back to hope,” Abumrad said of Octavia Butler, a sci-fi author who inspired his creative process. “That’s what every creative process promises. That’s what I did: Create myself back to hope.”

Fine Arts Series Coordinator Mike Fleming said Abumrad was requested by a professor in the media arts department as well as students. Fleming emphasized how Abumrad being at the top of his field as the creator of Radiolab made his knowledge and experience significant and useful for UNT students.

“Students could have a lot to learn from him, [ask] questions about how he got where he is, how he thinks about story-telling and reporting,” Fleming said. “[Abumrad’s appearance] is a huge benefit to students.”

Similarly, journalism lecturer Jacqueline Fellows, who had worked in public radio for over 10 years, remembers the advent of podcasts and how Radiolab drove the medium. Radiolab, Fellows said, brought in a whole new public to podcasts and public radio. She believes it set the standard for shows of a similar vein and found a new way to tell stories.

“To have him come speak is huge,” Fellows said. “He founded and co-created this podcast — 9 million downloads, heard every Sunday afternoon. The production techniques he uses are innovative. The subject matter is great, and he introduces complex subject matter that doesn’t make your eyes glaze over.”

Fellows thinks that Abumrad’s emphasis on innovative storytelling encourages students to find new ways to report and find stories.

Jad Abumrad starts his talk at UNT’s Fine Art series. He is the creator of NPR’s Radiolab. Jacob Ostermann

“A student wonders if an idea is too out there, Radiolab’s reporting and presenting of information shows that you can be really creative and make people care,” Fellows said.  “This is a huge opportunity for journalism students to learn from a master storyteller.”

For longtime fan Melanie Johnson, 25, Abumrad’s appeal is his ability to catch and keep attention. Johnson has been listening to RadioLab since her undergraduate studies when she needed something to listen to while she worked cataloging government documents at the library. Radiolab popped up on her suggested podcast list and she was hooked.

“The use of sound design and editing is everything to me,” Johnson said. “It presents the information in a way that holds my attention and makes me curious about the issues being discussed. There’s room for questions in these episodes, there’s room for wanting to know more. It’s not just a history or science lesson, it’s a discussion and a discovery.”

Similarly, for some new fans, Radiolab’s appeal is how it can make people see their interests in a new light.

“I am a fan of Radiolab because they look at things in a different way,” biology sophomore Taylor Cattes said. “Radiolab shows that science is bigger than just you and me and that’s something that should resonate with not just people in STEM, but that should resonate with everyone.”

Featured Image: Jad Abumrad speaking during his talk at UNT’s Fine Art series on Monday night. In 2011, Abumrad won the MacArthur Genius grant for “engaging audio explorations of scientific and philosophical questions that captivate listeners.” Jacob Ostermann

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Maritza Ramos

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