Radio Active
A burgeoning public radio program displays a distinctly Oberlin personality.

It doesn’t get much more Oberlin than this.

Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, two Oberlin alumni a generation apart, stand before an overflow crowd of 200 at an Apple store in New York’s trendy SoHo neighborhood. They’re here to promote their new public radio program, Radio Lab. Only they’re not shilling the way most radio hosts shill, by signing copies of a blustery new bestseller or pressing flesh with the “honk-if-you-agree-with-me” set. Instead, they’re meta-promoting, showcasing their show by deconstructing the very nature of sound—analyzing its physical properties, debating its manipulation by broadcasters, and explaining how it enters the brain.

Abumrad ’95 mans a Macintosh computer that beams a blue-tinted graph onto the store’s concrete wall. He slides a mouse back and forth over the graph, which depicts digital “grains of sound” that comprise a single sentence spoken by a Stanford professor they’ve interviewed for an upcoming segment about music and language—“Sound is a kind of touch at a distance.” The mouse movement causes the woman’s voice to play in a super-distended fashion, so that the ch part in touch is drawn out over many staccato seconds.

Krulwich ’69, who has spent three decades making dense scientific, economic, and technological news engagingly coherent for ABC, PBS, and NPR, attacks the graph with the avidity of a first-year science student. He jabs a finger toward the graph’s peaks and valleys and queries his partner, in his trademark baritone boom, “Why is it so ragged? Why does it sound like a machine gun?”

Abumrad responds, “I’m using a technique called ‘scrubbing the tape,’ which sounds a bit like a DJ scratching. It allows me to isolate each tiny component of her speech.” He likens the sound fragments to the pixels in a TV screen. “That whole section there is the T in touch.” Marvels Krulwich, “I’ve never been this deep in a consonant before.”

Nor have most listeners. Radio Lab, which recently ended its second season and has aired on more than 50 stations in major markets such as Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco, explores the unexpected collisions between science and culture. Each hour-long program revolves around a theme—stress, morality, space, time—attacking it from all angles, aiming to surprise and disarm listeners who might otherwise fend off discussions of physics, astronomy, or biology.

One recent segment wove together all of the following into a mesmerizing 20 minutes: the melodies of mothers’ speech; how new sounds cause chemical reactions in the brain; and how chemistry may explain a 1913 riot during the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The segment concluded with a provocative debate between the co-hosts about whether it’s a good or bad thing that Americans’ collective brain has adjusted so completely to Stravinsky’s dissonant work that it merited Mickey Mouse treatment in Disney’s Fantasia. (For the record, Krulwich: bad, Abumrad: good.)

“There’s a very Oberlin spirit to this endeavor,” says Abumrad. “It’s an idealistic show. It feels like an extension of conversations I used to have at Oberlin. There’s a playfulness that connects it to college. I hope that’s not just regression.”

Adds Krulwich, “Even when we disagree, we agree on so much, and that’s a very Oberlin thing. We agree that being in a state of wonder, to be wide-awake, is a very pleasant place to be. Some-thing near the center of the school teaches you that.”

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