When the host of This American Life, one of the best radio broadcasts currently on air, writes a 4,600-word love letter to your radio show, then you must be good. In Radiolab: An Appreciation, Glass explains, in vivid detail, how Radiolab eschews the typical conventions of radio storytelling, investing massive time resources in producing genre-bending segments, composing radio scores from scratch, and digging up powerful anecdotes that instill a sense of wonder in the show’s listeners:
Sometimes the results astound me with their complexity and deftness. I heard an episode last week – it’s the one they call“Cities” – where in four minutes (starting seven-and-a-half minutes into the show) Jad recreates a science experiment with his own listeners all over the world – Mumbai, Jerusalem, Buenos Aires, Thailand, Liberia, Oslo, Dublin, Copenhagen, Moscow. Each of the listeners lays out a string on the sidewalk in his or her city and takes a stopwatch and counts the speed of footsteps while recording audio of the footsteps. The sheer velocity of this short segment is part of the fun. We jump from person to person and city to city – plus the old 60′s tune “These Boots are Made for Walking” which is reconfigured beat by beat for this purpose – plus Jad explaining the steps of the experiment – plus the scientist who did the original research – plus, a nice touch, a computer-generated voice to read the results. All leading to this intriguing idea about how each city has its own measurable walking speed, which can be shown to exist through direct measurement. And leading to this more novelistic (or maybe it’s just more stoner-ish) thought: Who’s beating the drum? Who sets the walking speed?
It’s a crazy tour de force of radio production, all the more impressive when you think of the difficulty of organizing a dozen people all over the globe and making them get the right kind of audio, and then sifting down what must’ve been 12 or 15 hours of sound to a compelling, funny, utterly original bit of radio that only lasted four minutes. I don’t know any other radio show that would’ve been able to execute the whole thing that fast. I don’t think I could’ve. For one thing, after all that work, you usually make a much bigger deal out of the whole “We reached out to you! All over the globe!” thing. All that effort and trouble, you drag it out for way more than four minutes on the air. But that’s not how they roll on Radiolab. They invented this insanely concise, entertaining way to tell that story, and they have no problem hurtling through it quickly.