A Symphony of Sounds

The surprising storytelling powers of background noise

Flickr/Ed Uthman
Flickr/Ed Uthman


According to the artist David Salle, “a painting is everything that exists on its surface, and all of it matters.” If so, a podcast is every noise an episode makes, and every decibel plays a role. When it comes to a podcast like Radiolab, which is a farrago of sound, Salle’s quote offers an apt reminder to anyone who explores podcasts as a form of education: be on guard. Note how words and sounds interact to shape content. Otherwise, the podcast will grab you by the ears and do the listening for you.

Radiolab is a spectacle that invokes rare wonderment. You’d have to be a real crank to impugn the curiosity that hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich bring to their deeply reported material. (The podcast, do note, is a different production than a program by the same name aired on NPR.) Now in its 15th year, Radiolab explores topics ranging from hunting to gonads, plant intelligence to the history of football—basically anything and everything. But the bond linking each episode is the axiom that what we often assume to be true isn’t quite so simple.

One possible definition of an intellectual is someone who is comfortable with this kind of ambiguity. Think “no means no” when it comes to sexual consent? Three episodes called “In The No” might leave you less convinced. Think it’s a bad idea to harm wildlife? Episodes on harvesting horseshoe crabs for their blood (to test pharmaceuticals) and a Texas hunter who kills an endangered black rhino (and argues that trophy hunting aids wildlife conservation) could spark reconsideration. Think censorship is relatively straightforward? Just wait until you hear how many times Facebook’s censorship guidelines have been tested and rewritten.

Challenging conventional thought creates its own challenge. Radiolab operates through an often-bewildering integration of verbal and non-verbal expressions. This process—called “sound design”—arranges fragments of noise to create and enhance meaning. Radiolab minces the human voice into constituent parts and reconstructs it with jolts of non-human noise: music riffs, squeaks, ticks, and buzzes are all spliced into the mix. The overall effect—which masks a staggering amount of meticulous engineering—ranges from hyperkinetic to woozy to hypnotic. If the listener isn’t careful, the noise will swallow the ideas in an opera of auditory chaos.

Based on a “Talks at Google” interview with Abumrad, it’s clear that the hosts respect sound design’s intrinsic power to distort a podcast’s message. But, occasionally, they seem unable to kill their own melodic darlings. In one episode, the hosts challenge musicians to write songs about the Constitution’s 27 amendments in the style of the catchy “School House Rock” jingles. One of the show’s guests, a law professor getting into the spirit of the episode, floats the rather loony idea that the First Amendment reads like poetry. It’s a notion that probably shouldn’t be given too much credence, but before the listener has a chance to dismiss it, sound design arrives to rescue the idea from the oblivion it deserves, in the form of zippy lightbulb-going-off-in-the-brain music.

Every Radiolab show begins with a single sentence: “You’re listening to Radiolab from WNYC.” But here’s how it actually sounds:

“Uh, wait, you’re liss—okay … alright, okay, alright [cough], you’re liss [new voice intervenes] ening [new voice] to Radiolab [echo effect] … Radiolab from WNYC (with the “C” screamed by several voices).”

To me, this tactic always seemed gimmicky. But then I heard Abumrad answer a question during that Google interview. The interviewer asked about a hiatus he had recently taken. He responded:

“Un, yeah, I, uh, I, uh, yeah, I took four months off and … actually I’m just a week back, so, ah, the four, uh, uha, what did I do?—yeah, I uh, I uh, a lot of Bikram yoga, no, not at all.”

The rhythm of these two sentences struck me as more than coincidentally similar. Maybe it’s going too far to say that Abumrad was sound designing himself, his mind ricocheting with blips and bleeps, his “uh’s” and “yeah’s” biding time for some vagary of brilliance to become whole. Still, the parallel suggests that Abumrad’s frenetic and, at times, ingenious ways of considering reality are reflected in the show’s haphazard blending of noise and voice, a way to evoke hidden surprises behind the mundane.

But the ultimate evidence for Radiolab’s sound judgment is that the show knows when to silence the soundboard and let the human voice emerge unadorned. Nowhere is this choice more evident than during those “In The No” episodes. Although parts of this series were previously produced by Kaitlin Prest as part of her own podcast, Abumrad and Krulwich make an uncharacteristic choice in the way they present the clips from her show: they allow them to run in full and without interruption. Even the aural framework around the clips are subdued.

The raw drama of Prest’s audio documentation of her most intimate moments—and the nuanced exchanges of power underscoring them—is thus allowed to reveal more about sexual consent than the written word ever could. Prest’s recordings remind us that some conversations sound design themselves, with every pause and sigh and hiccup of noise saying as much as the words they support. Radiolab reminds us—sometimes with added noise and sometimes without—that every voice, no matter what story it tells, is always a few decibels away from something sublime.

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps

Peter Adamson, a professor of philosophy at King’s College London, opts for scope over depth in his doggedly comprehensive podcast about philosophical traditions from across the globe. After more than 300 episodes (released almost every week and usually no more than 25 minutes), Adamson has honed a minimalist approach so spare it borders on the monotonous. But thanks to its impressive inclusion of Islamic, Indian, Byzantine, and African philosophical systems, not to mention Adamson’s friendliness and penchant for synthesizing wildly disparate philosophical traditions, it rarely crosses the border into tedium.

One might think bells and whistles are required to muster a layperson’s enthusiasm for pre-Socratic metaphysics, the existential thought of Islam’s Mulla Sadrā, or the political philosophy of Nigeria’s Sokoto Caliphate. Not so. It’s part of this podcast’s mysterious charm that Adamson never justifies why we should spend our precious bandwidth on such far-flung and esoteric thinkers like Averroes, Al-Farabi, or Photius. He just leaves that question moot and flits from topic to topic, as if doing so were as necessary as breathing.

Chances are you’ll find yourself 100 episodes in and a little bit addicted to Adamson’s weekly breath of fresh air, wondering how you ever managed to live a meaningful life without being edified by Xeno’s paradox or Anaxogoras’ theory of mixture. (For those wanting more philosophical depth, at least for questions that arise from Western intellectual traditions, the Elucidations podcast, out of the University of Chicago, would be a good place to delve deeper.)

Entitled Opinions (about Life and Literature)

There are more than half a million podcasts. Since 2005, Robert Harrison, a professor of literature at Stanford, has been producing what is almost certainly the most intellectually rigorous of them. The show’s standard format is an hour-long, free-ranging conversation with a deeply cerebral guest. Harrison has attracted some of the world’s most prominent minds to his show (Francis Fukuyama, Peter Sloterdijk, René Girard, Richard Rorty), as well as academic superstars (Alice Kaplan, Andrea Nightingale, Sarah Churchwell, David Lummus) and famous writers (Marilynne Robinson, Orhan Pamuk, Colm Tóibín).

Essential to Harrison’s approach to literature and life is the belief that “life seeps into and saturates the kind of literature that we want to read.” Lamenting that he was trained in graduate school to think that a text refers only to “its own textuality,” Harrison electrifies his podcast with an infectious personal passion for a breadth of creative expression that he discusses with masterly ease. His enthusiastic rebellion against the insularity of New Criticism is fueled by references to Dante and The Doors, artists who reappear throughout his podcasts as pivotal influences on Harrison’s infectious sense of wonderment.

His special interest in the mystical leavens his occasional monologues with the thrill of intellectual excitement. In one especially revealing episode, Harrison discusses The Great Gatsby with literature professor Sarah Churchwell. Harrison’s off-hand mention of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “sacramental investigation” prompts Churchwell to elaborate on the “Catholic mystical aura” running through the novel. Suddenly, you have what every reader craves: a new way to read an old book.

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James McWilliams is an historian at Texas State University. He's currently at work on a book on the art and literature of the American South. He lives in Austin, Texas.


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