There is a pause as papers are shuffled and mental gears turn. “What else do we have?” Horne asks.

“We have the snake who plays dead,” Abumrad says.

When his colleagues have trouble recalling the image, Abumrad reminds them of his visit to his home state of Tennessee, where a wrangler showed him how, with a rooster hand puppet, he gets a snake to play dead. “He vomits, he shits himself, and he flips over and lets his tongue hang out,” Abumrad says. “And then if you step back about three feet, he goes like this…” (He imitates the snake stealing a glance to see if the coast is clear.) Horne and Krulwich burst out laughing.

There is general agreement that a “quick hit” of the snake, even without the aid of visuals, could enliven a show that threatens to become too cerebral. It illustrates deception in the primeval animal sense, and that could make for good radio.

The snake also makes a natural segue into a discussion about a show on zoos. Krulwich holds forth on the subject with conviction. “In rich countries,” he says, “zoos are a sign of power.” Rather than attesting to a commitment to wildlife conservation, he says, “zoos are like a parking lot for the almost-dead.” He pushes the conversation in the direction of zoo-as-metaphor-for-unpleasant-things.

“So you’re interested in the cover-up?” Horne asks.

“I’m interested in what I smell, but I don’t know yet what it is,” Krulwich responds.

Following their noses led Krulwich and Abumrad to forge a collaboration—both on and off the air—that projects the easy intimacy and “instinct to provoke” of a long-term marriage. They record the show sitting 15 feet away from each other, separated by glass. But their parallel experiences—separated by 25 years—draw them together.

Both logged hours at WOBC, the Oberlin radio station. Krulwich, a history major during the turbulent late ’60s, half-jokes that he “abducted Simon and Garfunkel after posing as their chauffeur and driving them to a house on Morgan Street” for an interview. (Simon held forth about his creative process, but a still sheepish Krulwich has never gone back and listened to the tape.) Abumrad recalls being “more producer-oriented” at WOBC, though he occasionally filled in for friends who had shows in the wee hours, playing house music and hip-hop.

They met several years ago, when Abumrad, a young quasi-intern at WNYC, was making a promo for the station in the form of a testimonial from Krulwich, who, aside from being a broadcasting notable, grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, attended Columbia Law School before realizing his true calling, and is about as New York as they come.

“I gave him the text I’d prepared, and he threw it out and turned around to his keyboard, wrote for 30 seconds, and came up with this bizarre little promo,” Abumrad remembers.

The creative sparks during that promo outing led to a series of breakfast meetings—“long, two-hour breakfasts, where we’d just talk about stuff,” as Krulwich puts it. The two discovered that they had both left Oberlin and found work at the same small New York-area station, WBAI. Many more commonalities emerged, especially as Abumrad moved into reporting and documentary hosting. His The Ring and I, an insouciant-yet-thoughtful examination of the Wagner opus, has distinct Krulwichian overtones. “I finally said, ‘You’re doing the same thing I did, only 25 years later,’” Krulwich says. “And what struck me is that Jad has an intense appreciation of the musicality of life. I heard the Ring piece and thought, this guy is good. I mean, really good. I’d never heard people do those beats, stretch vowels out in the middle of words. So I said, ‘I want to glom onto you like a parasite!’”

For Abumrad, who double-majored in composition and creative writing, teaming with Krulwich requires the same give-and-take that musicians employ when playing a duet.

As the pair contemplates how their Oberlin experiences conditioned them for Radio Lab, they pause to tally up the considerable number of graduates who have gone on to work in public radio.

“Why do you think there are so many of us doing it?” Krulwich asks.

“We just need to find a way to be heard,” Abumrad offers.

“There’s that,” comes the reply. “But there’s also a state of wonder that you exist in as a journalist. You just keep learning, learning, learning, and then when you figure it out, you find that you need to throw yourself off a different cliff.”

The mention of that quest reminds Abumrad of a sound cue, “the most important sound we use. It’s the sound of knocking on a door. That’s what the show’s about: knocking on doors.”

Dade Hayes is a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly and co-author of Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office Became a National Obsession.

Next Page >>