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Jad Abumrad – Radio Killed the Video Star

Who would have guessed that, in 2012, radio could rival video as a medium for communicating complex scientific and mathematical concepts? 

What’s the Big Idea?

Chances are you’d have been laughed out of the offices of most Hollywood producers if, a year ago, you had suggested that a silent movie could win five academy awards, three Golden Globes, and seven BAFTAs. But that’s exactly what happened in 2012: to date, the Artist, a lighthearted French silent comedy about the birth of “talkies,” has won fifteen major awards and grossed over $118 million worldwide.

Citizen Kane, it was not. The Artist  is a romantic romp with all the philosophical depth of, say, Cats. What’s astonishing, though, is the film’s ability to captivate not in spite of the fact – but because nobody’s talking. Without a screenwriter to walk you through the developing narrative, you find yourself attentive in a heightened way to visual and auditory details. To the musical score. To little sight gags the directors have planted in the background.

Rumors of the death of this or that technology at the hands of something shiny and new are often greatly exaggerated. While it’s true that investors and industry tend to follow innovation, turning older media (like LPs) into collectors items, new tools rarely replace their predecessors completely. Bicycles have advantages (exercise, easy parking) that cars do not. The living history of your personal bookshelf is a fundamentally different thing from an alphabetized Kindle menu.

Take radio, too. Who would have guessed that, in 2012, radio could rival, and in some ways beat both “chalk & talk” and video as a medium for communicating complex scientific and mathematical concepts? Yet Radiolab, WNYC’s brilliant, nationally syndicated public radio show created and co-hosted by Jad Abumrad, does exactly that. Abumrad says that radio’s unique storytelling power has to do both with the inherent complexity of the human voice and the strange intimacy of hearing it through your headphones or speakers, talking directly to you.

What’s the Significance?

Everybody knows that things are changing fast these days. But a healthy skepticism is in order with respect to the perpetual hype machine that warns: “adopt technology x or be left behind!” By all means, get on Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, and any other channel you have the time, inclination, and/or motive to explore. But when you’ve got an urgent message to communicate to the world, consider your unique talent as a storyteller – is it your voice? your words? your PowerPoint jujitsu? Then put yourself in the shoes of the recipient. Imagine what it feels like to receive this message from you as a tweet, a live talk, a 300 page tome, or a blog post.

For Abumrad, the goal is to lead listeners to those moments of wonder you experience as a kid in grade school, when you’re understanding something really big for the first time. With his composer’s ear and the unique properties of radio, a sound-only medium has been the ideal creative playspace. It has enabled him to invent an entirely new form of storytelling – one that incorporates 21st century technology, but derives its power from the oldest communications technology known to man – the human voice.

Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter

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