The story of how Radiolab spun off a brilliant show on the Supreme Court

Jad Abumrad and his More Perfect team. Photo by Bo Jacober / Courtesy WNYC Studios

It was 2012 and Jad Abumrad was getting restless.

About a decade earlier, Abumrad, an aspiring composer who had forged a circuitous path into the radio industry, had been given a three-hour time slot on Sunday nights to host a show for New York public radio station WNYC. What started as a program that stitched together already-existing radio documentaries eventually developed its own voice and incorporated more and more original content. In 2003, Abumrad interviewed Robert Krulwich, a public radio veteran and ABC News science correspondent, and the engendered friendship that emerged in the wake of this interview led to Krulwich joining the show as co-host. By 2005, the modern day incarnation of Radiolab was producing several episodes a year.

For its first few years, Radiolab was strictly a science-themed show and developed a fervent fan base by, I would argue, inventing a new form of storytelling. As one profiler put it, “Abumrad has made a career of reinterpreting what we think we know.” With its original scoring (Abumrad figured out a way to leverage his compositional background after all), tight editing, and the unique approach of introducing every revelation via informal conversations between Abumrad and Krulwich, Radiolab was able to consistently evoke a sense of wonder that couldn’t be matched by most other science journalism. In a 2011 appreciation, This American Life host Ira Glass argued that “Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich have digested all the storytelling and production tricks of everyone in public radio before them, invented some slick moves of their own, and ended up creating the rarest thing you can create in any medium: a new aesthetic.” The show, Glass wrote, was “calibrated and machined like an expensive handmade watch.”

Millions agreed. By 2012, the show had amassed a devoted podcast listenership and was carried by hundreds of local public radio stations. A year earlier it had won its first Peabody Award, and Abumrad was surprised one day by a call out of the blue informing him that he’d won a MacArthur “genius” grant.

And yet despite this continued success, Abumrad was thinking about how he could take Radiolab beyond its science purview. “I was getting kind of restless,” he said in a recent podcast interview. “I felt like we were doing the same stories a lot — I mean, each story was different, but we were in the same neighborhood of science-meets-philosophy/wonder, that kind of thing.” He told Radiolab’s team to “look at the [Supreme Court] docket for that year, pick a case, make a few calls, it was sort of an experiment.” Reporter Tim Howard came back to him with the story that became an episode titled “Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl.”

I recently re-listened to the episode, and it struck me that it contains all the hallmarks that originally drew me to Radiolab in the first place. It starts off with a simplistic, one-sided rendering of a dispute over whether two loving parents can keep their adopted baby girl, and, as the listener, I quickly find myself feeling outraged at the idea of that baby being stripped of her caretakers so she could be placed in the home of a father who had seemingly abandoned her. But just as my position on the matter starts to harden, Radiolab, led and narrated in this instance by Howard, begins peeling away at the outer layers of the case — the layers reported on by most of the mainstream media — and beneath them we’re introduced to a much more nuanced view of the decision, one that takes into account the suffering of Native American families at the hands of overzealous social workers and the anguish of a father who may not have understood the ramifications of signing away his custody rights. The episode refuses to allow us to form a black and white worldview and neither side emerges as the villain.

In other words, it captured perfectly the very reason the Supreme Court fascinates us so much as a country.

Abumrad was hooked. His team pursued more legal stories over the next few years, including one, titled “60 Words,” that won the show its second Peabody Award. Eventually, he met with New York Public Radio CEO Laura Walker and discussed the idea of creating a Radiolab spin-off podcast focused solely on the Supreme Court. And she went for it.

That’s how Abumrad ended up at breakfast with Suzie Lechtenberg to discuss an executive producer role for the new show. Lechtenberg got her start in radio as a receptionist at Los Angeles NPR affiliate KPCC. “I was trying to get my foot in the door and it was famously competitive to get jobs in public radio when I started,” she told me. After two years of pitching ideas and helping out with production and research with some of the local shows, she got her first big break, securing a job as producer for an American Public Media show called Weekend America. “It was a weekly magazine show that was two hours long, which is actually kind of this luxurious amount of time to be able to fill a show,” she said. “It was almost like this beautiful journalistic playground to make content every week.”

After that, Lechtenberg had a stint at Marketplace before she landed a job working on Freakonomics, the WNYC show hosted by Stephen Dubner. At the time of her breakfast with Abumrad, she was an executive producer for the show. “I had been at Freakonomics for five years, and I was ready to try something new,” she told me. “When this opportunity arose to work with Jad I kind of jumped at it because I wanted to collaborate with him, and luckily the timing worked out.”

At first, the team for this new project was small. A Radiolab producer named Kelsey Padgett joined Abumrad and Lechtenberg, and the three discussed the scope of the show and how it would approach such an august and secretive institution. “We knew it wasn’t going to be a breaking news show so we had to figure out how to handle Supreme Court cases that were timely,” said Lechtenberg. “We had to figure out what we were and what we were not.”

The format they settled on eventually became More Perfect, a show that was officially branded as a spin-off of Radiolab and even written up in The New York Times. That first season consisted of five original episodes and also re-ran “Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl” with new updates to the story.

Most of the More Perfect staff members weren’t necessarily experts on the Supreme Court (though they did bring on lawyer and legal blogger Elie Mystal as a contributing legal editor), and Lechtenberg told me that they sourced many of the stories from their own reading and research. “Just to give you a specific case,” she said, “in the first season we did an episode called ‘The Political Thicket’ about this Supreme Court justice who struggled with mental illness, and that one came from a footnote in Wikipedia.” She had been browsing an article on redistricting, and in one of the sections on landmark cases she noticed an asterisk next to the name of Justice Charles Evans Whittaker. “I went down to the footnote, and it said he left the court because of mental health issues and didn’t return. And I was like, huh, that’s interesting, I wonder what happened there? And that kind of led me into this dark hole of research about this man who really hadn’t been written about that much.”    

The first season of More Perfect is just as much a work of skill and precision as anything that has come out of Radiolab. In stories on topics ranging from racist jury selections to the very case in which the court asserted its own Constitutional authority, More Perfect captured why many of these outcomes served as lightning rods that pit ideologies and entire cultures against each other. “A lot of times when these lawyers get in front of the court, they’re having super technical arguments like standing or jurisdictional things that you and I don’t quite care about,” Abumrad said in an interview. “But those arguments are like the tip of the iceberg and they’re always resting on a much bigger argument that is, like, shot through the history of this country.”

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Lechtenberg explained that the show’s success hinged on their ability to identify the characters behind these cases. “We were trying to find, I guess, the humanity in the stories and really identify what the heartbeat is and what people will gravitate to,” she said. They were aided, in part, by Oyez, a legal archive that maintains the recordings of all Supreme Court arguments stretching back to the 1950s. And when possible, reporters tracked down the actual subjects of these cases. One of the turning points in “Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl” is when Tim Howard, against all odds and several rejections, finally gets the baby’s biological father, Dusten Brown, to sit down for an interview.

After the first season ended, I and probably quite a few others wondered if there’d ever be a second (in at least one episode Abumrad referred to it as a “miniseries”), but Lechtenberg told me the decision to pursue another season was made before they had even wrapped up the first; they started production for it almost immediately. “We did a post mortem right when first season ended when it was still fresh in all of our minds of what we liked and what we didn’t like and what we wanted to keep,” she said. They homed in on the idea that every story needs to get outside of the courtroom and into the real world. “In season one we had that moment in the very first episode we put out, the ‘Cruel and Unusual’ episode, where we sent a reporter out in the UK to this driving school in London where a guy is distributing drugs for lethal injection in the United States. It’s just this electric moment of tape and journalism and we knew we had to have these moments that feel electric in season two.”

Justice Antonin Scalia had recently passed away, and, faced with the prospect of 4 – 4 decisions that wouldn’t provide much closure, the More Perfect team decided to focus on cases that people might think they know a lot about but aren’t widely understood. They also wanted to tackle some of the most horrendous decisions the court has made.

This week, the podcast launched the first three of what could ultimately be up to 15 episodes for the second season. The first episode, released Sunday, reported on the Korematsu v. United States decision, the one that allowed for the internment of Japanese American citizens during WWII. It’s a case that most Americans recognize, however vaguely, as being a stain on U.S. history, but few Americans have heard the haunting voice of Fred Korematsu, nor have they realized that, in bringing the case forward, he was ostracized by the very Japanese American community for whom he was fighting.

In spotlighting cases that, for most listeners, had previously lacked any depth or emotional resonance, More Perfect is filling blind spots in our own historical knowledge. “I think Jad’s real mission was to come up with civics education about a branch of government that we should know more about,” said Lechtenberg. “And when we were originally starting this show we were looking at some Pew research that found something like three-fourths of Americans can’t name a single Supreme Court justice, and that was just really depressing for us.” (I wasn’t able to track down said Pew report, but I did find one that reported only 28 percent of Americans could identify John Roberts as the chief justice). Lechtenberg said she was heartened to learn that teachers and professors were playing episodes of More Perfect in high school and college classrooms.

Which led me to wonder: why stop at the Supreme Court? I remember listening to an interview with Abumrad in which he stated he was never particularly that interested in science, it’s just that scientists were the ones asking the most interesting questions. Radiolab isn’t Radiolab because it covers science; it’s Radiolab because it upends everything we thought we knew about a subject and leaves us in awe of a world that looks just a bit different than it did when we started listening to the episode.

So I was happy to come across an interview Abumrad did with The Guardian where he contemplated a future in which the Radiolab aesthetic could be applied to all sorts of subjects. “I’m interested to see where we can expand this thing,” he said, “and if it can go from being a show to being an ecosystem – like a terrain where lots of little fiefdoms all live in the world called Radiolab, but are actually a bunch of separate projects. I sort of see that as our future, something closer to a network.”

In Ira Glass’s 2011 appreciation of Radiolab, he wrote that “I find it comforting that this level of excellence is so labor intensive that they only can make ten full shows a year … If they could do an hour of this every week, I think I’d have to quit radio. What would be the point of continuing? How could anyone compete with that?”

With Abumrad and his team putting out ever more content on a growing list of subjects across an entire network of shows, Glass, whom many consider to be the godfather of modern radio storytelling, might not be able to take comfort for much longer. It turns out the “expensive handmade watch” that is Radiolab might be scalable after all.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com