Thursday, August 02, 2007


I've really been nothing short of a selfish bastard for the last 5 months. Back in March, I stumbled upon the podcast of a program called Radio Lab, and I haven't shared it with you. I've listened to more than a dozen episodes now, and I firmly believe it is the best program ever broadcast on radio.

That's really saying something right now. While traditional over-the-air commercial radio is so awful I can't bring myself to listen to it, public radio has been creating some great programming. And with the advent of podcasting, anyone with an Internet hookup has access to great shows from all over the world. On my iPod right now I've got Australian shows on brain science and sound art, a music nerd talk show out of Chicago, weekly drum and bass mixes from the UK, and, of course, the biggest radio nerd show of them all, This American Life.

But Radio Lab stands out even among this distinguished company. The show is about science and builds on the basic This American Life storytelling platform. You could call it This Scientific American Life. But while TAL takes an abstract idea or notion and invites a variety of writers to do stories on that subject, Radio Lab takes things in a different direction.

Hosts Jad Abumrad and Martin Krulwich take a concept like time, or morality, or memory and then launch a one hour exploration on the subject. But the result is much deeper and richer than that simple explanation can provide. Abumrad and Krulwich have a talent for taking mind bogglingly complex subjects and making them interesting and accessible.

But Radio Lab is out for more than mere edutainment... they're out to solve all the mysteries of Life, the Universe, and Everything in the course of 60 minutes. And what's amazing is that they almost succeed. A program on zoos reveals insights on materialism and happiness. An exploration of space becomes a moving story about enduring love. Music is even found in a looped sample of an audio recording. Every episode contains a jaw-dropping, mind-bending, pull-your-car-off-the-side-of-the-road-and-listen-more-closely moment.

As a matter of fact, I wouldn't listen in your car at all. Instead, get out some headphones. The show is expertly edited and a good set of headphones helps bring out all the details.

My only complaint with the show is that there isn't enough of it. They make about 5 per year for reasons I don't understand. But there are about 15 episodes available either via iTunes or on the show's website, and they are all excellent examples of what can happen when radio is in the hands of intelligent, creative, and curious people. I recommend it as highly as I possibly can.

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At 11:22 am, Blogger thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

Hey, uh, when I click on that last link — "this shows website" — I'm taking to a Russian website that includes pictures of what appear to be spark plugs.

Is the radio show in Russian? Because, if so, I'll probably need to brush up on my language skills first.

At 11:23 am, Blogger thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

Oh, wait. That's not a spark plug. But that doesn't change the fact that it's in Russian. Or something not English.

At 12:15 pm, Blogger Matthew said...

Typo. I just fixed it. My bad.

Thanks for the tip

At 8:33 pm, Blogger Pat said...

I've just rediscovered Joe Frank. While not as educational, thoroughly entertaining nonetheless.

At 10:34 pm, Blogger Matthew said...

I was a big fan of Joe Frank back in his KCRW heyday. His podcast hasn't posted anything in a long time... shame


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