Good bad feelings

Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad digs deep for creativity

Radiolab creator Jad Abumrad.

Radiolab creator Jad Abumrad.

Photo courtesy of Chico Performances.

Chico Performances presents Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad, Saturday, March 3, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $20-$30 (students $10)
Laxson Auditorium
Chico State

Oftentimes when we try something new, the experience is paired with a mix of nerves, fear and doubt. Jad Abumrad is familiar with the feeling, one he calls “gut churn.” And when the co-host/producer of Radiolab—a radio program “about curiosity” created at New York’s WNYC and broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations—visits Laxson Auditorium (Saturday, March 3), he’ll bring a multimedia presentation about that awful feeling when negativity intersects with a creative surge. It turns out, it’s there for reason.

“Periodic negative feelings are valuable, because it forces the part of your brain that’s really happy and delusional to put up or shut up,” Abumrad said during a recent phone interview. “It pushes you past your first few ideas until you get to something really interesting. That’s not something I’m just making up; there’s been some really interesting research that’s borne this out. I genuinely feel like bad feelings, as long as you don’t get stuck, can be extremely useful. There’s a reason they’re there.”

The topic is just the sort of thing that would be featured on the wildly successful Radiolab, which has captured the imaginations of its more than a million weekly listeners with inventively edited conversations on philosophical and scientific ideas. The show has earned a couple of Peabody Awards, and Abumrad’s work on the program also led to him receiving a MacArthur Fellowship (Genius Grant) in 2011. Of course, none of that came together overnight.

Abumrad grew up in Nashville. Fascinated by electronic music, he spent most of his time alone scoring imaginary films in his room. After graduating from Oberlin with degrees in creative writing and music composition, Abumrad aimed to compose for real movies. A few years later, he switched his focus to radio. In 2002, he began the early stages of Radiolab, a show that challenged the traditional radio format with hard edits and a unique soundtrack of noises and samples (a manipulated sound clip of a clinked coffee mug, for one small example). Much to Abumrad’s surprise, it took off.

“It’s a bit mysterious to me that it’s even successful, because for most of the life cycle of this thing it was just me in a dark room making a radio show for pretty much no one,” Abumrad said. “Then it began to sort of tiptoe out. Around 2011, suddenly with podcasting becoming a thing, it just got an audience. I’m still perplexed by that. I can’t say there was any strategy on our part; it was just like every story we threw ourselves into it, to do something a little unusual just to keep ourselves interested. I always looked at This American Life. I felt we were chasing them but not even remotely second place. [I’ve] been suffering from a very long-running inferiority complex, so it’s all felt surprising to me.”

Over the last few years, Abumrad’s taken on a couple side projects: a Supreme Court-related podcast called More Perfect, and the solo “Gut Churn” lecture.

“This is a talk I’ve been sort of honing—I monkey with it pretty much every five minutes. It’s my own personal story of getting into what I do now, and [how] scary and confusing that was for me personally. It’s the story of Radiolab and how it came into the world, and again that story is how do you make something when you don’t exactly know what you’re trying to make? On the third level, it’s kind of [a] storytelling clinic. And on a fourth level, it’s a real prismatic look at different ways to think about not knowing what you’re doing. I look at it from the perspective of psychotherapy, from Cherokee belief systems, from poker, from theoretical biology, from evolutionary psychology—all of these ways of seeing this thing.”