'Radiolab' brings cool back to radio using emerging, traditional platforms

Published: Thursday, April 26 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Jad Abumrad, left, and Robert Krulwich host 'Radiolab,' a popular NPR science program.

Courtesy of Wnyc, Courtesy of Wnyc

Salt Lake City — On a recent balmy weeknight, two New York City radio icons sit on opposite ends of a large stage during a sold-out live performance in front of 1,500 people.

Flanked only by a microphone stand, Robert Krulwich uses both hands to hold up his three-ring binder with production notes and a script. The 64-year-old Krulwich — a Columbia Law School grad whose résumé includes stints as Rolling Stone magazine's Washington bureau chief and a television correspondent for ABC's "Nightline" news program — looks like a professor in his blue blazer, button-down shirt and plain Levi's.

In contrast to Krulwich's simple setup, Jad Abumrad sits at the controls of what amounts to a powerful sound studio.

Not only does he have a MacBook Pro up and running, but Abumrad, 38, is also operating an audio interface box that allows him to create custom sound effects on the fly. His ear for sound and attention to sonic detail are carry-overs from his previous career as a music composer.

As co-hosts of the acclaimed science program "Radiolab," produced by radio station WNYC and distributed by NPR, Krulwich and Abumrad are in Utah for a special performance of their new live episode, "In the Dark," which examines a trio of topics sharing themes of light and sight: the evolution of the human eyeball, what it means to be blind and what outer space looks like to an astronaut.

After winning a prestigious 2010 Peabody Award, and with every episode of "Radiolab" reaching nearly three million listeners, Krulwich and Abumrad are certified rock stars in the radio business.

Their generational difference and distinct professional backgrounds combine to create an opposites-attract synergy that not only positions the show on the front lines of NPR's quest to innovate how Americans interact with audio programming, but also endears "Radiolab" to millions of educated listeners. And perhaps most notably, "Radiolab" is proof positive in an ever-shifting media landscape that high-quality storytelling and educational content can still succeed.

Traditional radio fades away

It wasn't so long ago when radio and its hard-copy alternatives, cassettes and compact discs, comprised the entirety of audio programming options for most Americans. But as data from the Pew Research Center's recent "State of the News Media" annual report indicates, history could very well end up viewing 2011 as a tipping point in the ongoing shift away from old paradigms: "38 percent of Americans now listen to audio on digital devices each week, and that is projected to double by 2015, while interest in traditional radio … is on the decline."

NPR understands all too well the ongoing erosion of traditional radio — after all, in 2010 National Public Radio officially changed its name to NPR in order to excise "radio" from the company's handle.

And moving forward, NPR is actively strategizing toward becoming a dominant force in emerging audio markets.

"We need to reach an audience in ways convenient and accessible to them in emerging and traditional platforms," NPR CEO Gary Knell tweeted on Dec. 1.

Each hour-long episode of "Radiolab" consists of three or more segments loosely connected by a common, science-based topic.

The program reaches 2.8 million listeners: one million on traditional radio, and another 1.8 million via podcast. Those numbers are not insignificant, but when taking into account that the programming NPR distributes nets 26.8 million listeners every week, it's clear that "Radiolab" is not a game-changer for NPR solely on the basis of its listenership.

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