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Jad Abumrad on Talking with Humans

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Alex Chambers:  It's Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers, and we're in the midst of our spring membership campaign, so we have a special episode for you this week. We're not running a whole show on the radio, so this one's going to be shorter. But, if you're a regular public radio listener, I think you might be excited about who's on this week, which you probably already know because you've clicked on this episode.

Alex Chambers:  Jad Abumrad is the founder of the smash hit public radio show and podcast, Radiolab. Radiolab exploded what narrative audio could sound like. He and his co-host, Robert Krulwich, made a show that was smart and fast-paced, with incredibly detailed sound design, as much musical composition as it is journalism. At first, Radiolab brought us fascinating human stories and insights from researchers, mainly about science, how the world works, how our bodies work. Listeners often left with the feeling of wonder. At a certain point, Jad shifted his focus to society and politics. He started a spin-off series on the Supreme Court, called More Perfect. Then, in 2019, he did a series called Dolly Parton’s America, which is essentially asking the question; in a time of such incredible political division, what is one thing we can all be excited about? Dolly was the answer.

Alex Chambers:  Along the way he won a MacArthur Genius Award, and the show won two Peabodys. He also built a team of some of the best radio makers in the business, so, when he handed off the reins in 2022, Radiolab could go on, and continue to evolve.

Alex Chambers:  Jad is coming to the Indiana University campus as a Patten lecturer next week. We had a chance to talk before his visit, here's our conversation.

Alex Chambers:  What I'd actually like to talk about is interviewing. I know, when you come to campus you're going to be talking about interviewing and manhole covers, indoor plumbing.

Jad Abumrad:  [LAUGHS] Yeah, it's not really about that, but yeah.

Alex Chambers:  I think interviewing is an interesting thing to be thinking about beyond just the fact that we are both radio producers, and it's the main tool of our trade, and that, you and I have been been teaching podcasting for a long time now. It was early in teaching that I realized that, like the title of that talk you're going to do, How to Talk to a Human, needed to be the basic thing in the course I was teaching.

Alex Chambers:  When I started to see these college students interviewing each other in class, it was harder to do than I realized. It was hard for me too, actually, when I younger and I feel like getting older has helped to a certain degree; I mean, there's always growth to be had there. Also, interviewing is bigger than just podcasting and radio, it's key for being able to interact with people in the world. I'm hoping our conversation can also move into some of these bigger questions about society.

Alex Chambers:  I wanted to start with, that I'm really curious about actually, is in a recent TV preview you did for this talk, you talked about how, at the end of your time at Radiolab, you were feeling you were having trouble getting to these good spots in interviews, that you used to be able to do. I wonder if you could talk about that? I'm curious, was it that you had gotten too good at them? Were you burnt out? Did you lose some of the beginner's mind? Where do you think that was coming from?

Jad Abumrad:  Definitely not that I was too good at it.

Jad Abumrad:  To be completely honest, I've always had difficulty interviewing people. I should say, it's not a natural thing for me. As an introverted, only child, I'm happy to spend days without speaking to people. As with most introverts, you get locked in your own brain that actually it feels like a gift to be able to finally talk to somebody, but it's always an incredible exertion. Initially, one of the reasons I loved doing the job was that it forced me out of my own head, and forced me to talk to people.

Jad Abumrad:  Over the years I built a certain comfort level. I also happened to work with Robert Krulwich for a long period of that, and he's a very forward, energetic interviewer. He crowds all the spaces and jumps in a lot and interrupts in interviews. I like to sit back a little bit more in conversations, so it was fun to pair with him. I think so much of my interviewing style was developed in tandem with him. Then he left and I was running the team solo for a long while, and then the pandemic happened. The pandemic, I think, sent all of us into a deep awkwardness.

Jad Abumrad:  It was something about, maybe that pandemic hangover and managing a team of people and where you're having really tough conversations about everything in 2020, and should always talk about, that created extra awkwardness. I just found myself around that time doing interviews and it wasn't clicking. I would have these conversations with people and I'd prepare for them and do all my research, but the thing you want to have happen in a conversation where you just have a natural chemistry, a moment or sense of warmth grow between two people, just wasn't really happening.

Jad Abumrad:  I would do interviews sometimes where I could feel myself watching myself do an interview. Like, 'oh this is the point where I say this, and then they say that, and then I say, "really?"'.

Alex Chambers:  It feels like that's maybe a meta meta moment. I feel, when you're doing an interview for a production you're always listening to yourself do it anyway. Because you're listening for the beats and you need to figure out what's next.

Jad Abumrad:  Absolutely, you're almost living in two times in a way, because you're having the conversation in the present, but you're also editing it in the future. You're like, "ooh, my future self is going to want this and this, or want me to say that." So, you're kind of like in two time flows.

Alex Chambers:  What you're describing was a third level of predicting, oh, this is where I make that move.

Jad Abumrad:  Yeah, exactly. It was the choreography, like when two people are dancing and stepping on each others toes, and they're somehow not. It felt like somehow my inner sense of rhythm or choreography had gotten thrown off, and I was just doing a lot of interviews where it was just okay, but not great. As a result of that, I started asking some of my friends in the business, "what's your method? Not like when you sit down to do an interview, but before, how do you move yourself through the paces? Do you meditate? What do you all do?"

Jad Abumrad:  I started asking journalists that, and we are all pretty boring and do the same thing. I ended up talking to therapists about how they do it in therapy and they're all different kinds and they all have different schools, so that was interesting. Then I ended up actually broadening and talking to sales people, because sales people do a lot of interviews, or they have to listen. Here we're moving away from the traditional broadcast interview to more like conversation. I started talking to conflict mediators, hostage negotiators that kind of thing. I just got really interested in the idea that people who have to have conversations for a living, how do they do it, and what can I steal from all of them? What moves, what tricks, in an attempt to re-formulate my own way of doing it.

Jad Abumrad:  This also happened to be when I was transitioning away from Radiolab and handing the show off. I was having larger questions about what are the kinds of stories and interviews I want to be doing in this next phase. It felt like a good time to take stock.

Alex Chambers:  Because it was not going to be Radiolab stories, like some whole, who knows.

Jad Abumrad:  Right. It was a moment to reflect on what it was I was doing for the previous 20 years. Like, if I was going on a trip, do I want to put into the suitcase. I was packing, is kind of how I felt. The How to Talk to a Human talk, is really bigger than that for me. At this point I've done maybe 60, 70 interviews with different interviewers, maybe one day I'll write a book, I don't know. That effort came out of this questioning that I was having.

Alex Chambers:  You've moved over to Vanderbilt, doing some teaching. Did it also come out of that?

Jad Abumrad:  Yeah, it ended up being that. When I shifted to Vanderbilt, I've been there about two years, some of the first lectures I gave were about interviewing. I was, and am still, very much in the process of this inquiry. I'm learning as I teach a little bit. The fun part about teaching is it forces you to have to get straight on what you think. It's been a great motivator, "oh, I have to go talk to these students about conversation." You're right, what you said at the beginning, this is something that is especially important right now if you're in your 20s and you're born into this hellscape of social media where we're all expected to have opinions and, yet, if we have the wrong opinions we're shouted at. It feels to me that inter-personal stakes are higher for kids right now.

Alex Chambers:  Absolutely. I taught high school for a little while and was teaching 12 years ago, and even then, my students were acknowledging, "we don't know how to talk to each other, we just text each other all the time." Now I have a teenager and it feels like they don't really talk directly to people that much.

Jad Abumrad:  Yeah. It's funny, I had that issue when I was a kid, too. I feel like we maybe unfairly malign this generation when it's actually been an issue all along. I just think it's exacerbated now because there are so many ways to avoid conversation.

Alex Chambers:  Right.

Jad Abumrad:  There was only so many ways we could do that when we were a kid.

Alex Chambers:  Yeah, actually to connect to your friends you still had to talk on the phone.

Jad Abumrad:  Yeah, you did. I remember calling the person and asking them out, and it was terrifying. There were all these rights of passage that involved actual face to face communication.

Alex Chambers:  This isn't something you and I have to figure out, but it makes me curious, what are those rights of passage now? Is there a terror about sending the emoji that asks a person out or something ?

Jad Abumrad:  I don't know. It's funny. I think about this often with texting. I guess it's like any mediated form of communication. You can say things on text that you wouldn't say face to face.

Alex Chambers:  It's true.

Jad Abumrad:  I don't think that's always a good thing. There is an anonymity to this, and I think if you're a marginalized person that can be a good thing, but I think if you're just trying to get through the day and talk to somebody? I see how my 14 year old behaves and, I don't know, it's just different I guess. I won't qualify it.

Alex Chambers:  I did have two thoughts related to that. It was about the texting and social media; I think there's the fact that it's more mediated, so that lowers certain stakes. But, especially in social media versus texting, there's also the higher stakes of saying something wrong, and then getting attacked.

Jad Abumrad:  One of the things that has been fun for me, or really interesting at Vanderbilt is, at every college campus, there is a lot of conversation about, how do we encourage civil discourse and all that kind of stuff? I'm actually on a Steering Committee at Vanderbilt called Dialog Vanderbilt, and we're always trying to program stuff that addresses this. But, it's really scary to me that if you ask students, there have been surveys done, "what are you most afraid of?" it's not the big mob, the undifferentiated abstract mob online. It's that, "I'm going to say something and my fellow students are going to call me out on social media."

Alex Chambers:  Like I'm going to say something out loud in a room and then they're going to call me out on social media.

Jad Abumrad:  Yes, and then I'm going to get called out on social media by those same people. That makes me a little sad, because you're actually in a room together, you could just yell at each other, it's healthier. Just stay in the room and yell. There is something about that that makes me feel for those kids.

Alex Chambers:  What are some of the things you've figured out that maybe you're hoping to bring to those kids?

Jad Abumrad:  There are different useful concepts that I've stumbled into that I find really useful. Firstly, there's all kinds of social science research about where you sit in relation to somebody else that I've been finding really useful. A simple move for me that's made a big difference is thinking about triangles rather than face to face, which is almost like a rectangle, our shoulders create a rectangle. Thinking of triangulating to a third point, which is where you sit at almost a right angle to somebody rather than facing them dead on. Our culture sort of privileges this idea of face to face communication, like just really lock eyes. That is great if someone is having a really difficult time with something and they need your full attention, but often that kind of face to face is too direct.

Jad Abumrad:  I've certainly had the experience in interviews where you lose yourself in an interview because the person kind of overpowers you. I remember interviewing Dolly Parton and she was so charismatic that I could barely get a question in. I remember, in subsequent interviews, I very naturally decided to sit at a right angle to her. So, I've been thinking a bit about the ways we oriented space and how that enables certain kinds of conversations.

Alex Chambers:  I feel like that also maybe answers why driving in a car is a good place to have a good conversation, or maybe an intense conversation because you're orientated not facing each other.

Jad Abumrad:  No, because you're side to side. I had a good female friend tell me that she was jealous of male friendships, because males often talk when they're walking side to side. Women often talk face to face, and that can be so exhausting. I don't know if this is true, but it was kind of interesting. It could be like, a gender thing here.

Alex Chambers:  Oh, that's so interesting.

Jad Abumrad:  Thinking about orientation and bodies in space has been really interesting to me. One of the other things that I find super helpful is this thing called looping. This is something that comes out of conflict mediation. There are different versions of this, but basically it's very simply, you say a thing, I listen to what you say. I try to take the most important thing I heard you say and I'm going to say it back to you. In a way, it's a kind of mirroring. At the end I say, "did I get that right?" I love this technique, again social science is very clear on this, we're really bad at getting in each other's heads. Not only bad, we wildly overestimate our ability to get in one another's heads. There are any number of ways to demonstrate this, you can show people facial expressions and ask them, "what is this person feeling?". We think we're really good at this, but we're actually not so good.

Jad Abumrad:  You can ask people to take surveys of, "what does their spouse like to eat? What kind of movies does their partner enjoy watching?". People think they're going to be great at this, they're going to get 15 out of 20 and, typically, they get four or five out of 20 right. We wildly overestimate our ability to get in each other's heads, and when we talk to each other very often we're projecting onto a person and then relating to those projections. So, we're very much not having a conversation. I like this looping because it really forces you to slow down and say, "okay you said that thing. I think I heard you say this, is that right?", then you give the person chance to correct you if not. It can be an excruciating conversation, because you have to go very slowly, but it forces you to really try to understand what someone is saying by creating a constant audit.

Jad Abumrad:  So, I tell my students that. If you're really in a conflict moment, just slow down and make sure you are hearing what they are intending before you have a response."

Alex Chambers:  It does seem like being able to articulate what the other person said feels like most important in a high stakes conversation. You don't necessarily need to do it if you're-- well I guess you probably do if you're talking about where to go for dinner, too.

Jad Abumrad:  Yes, exactly. I think it's also, what does it mean to understand someone? What does it mean to feel heard? If you feel heard by me, I think what that means is that I am able to state the problems that you are living in language that you would find familiar. It's the ability to take what you say and say it in such a way that you would say, "yes, that's it." In that way, it's very simple. If you want to make somebody feel heard, really listen to them and then say back to them what they just said in language that they would sign off on. It's like the rudiment of understanding.

Alex Chambers:  As someone who got into radio more recently, that was one of the reasons I was excited to get into radio. I'd come out of academia, did a Ph.D. where I was writing just for other academics about these high theory concepts in the humanities. Then I got into radio and I was like, oh, the point is to talk in a way that other people are going to understand.

Jad Abumrad:  Which is not always an easy sell in academia. A lot of people in academia, particularly in the humanities unfortunately, equate talking in a way that people understand with somehow a lesser form of communication.

Alex Chambers:  Not seeming as smart. We could go into a whole theory about that. This might be a bigger question than we can get to, but it's something I was curious to hear you think about for a minute, which is more about storytelling. There might be a connection to communicating, to being able to say things that mean things to other people and that make them feel like their experience is being understood. It has to do with the rise of story and the ways that, I think some people have argued right now, our culture is very storified. So much of the information we get is through narrative. Whether it's narrative podcasts, social media, TED Talks, or whatever. I've thinking and talking with a radio friend of mine about whether that expectation makes the more boring parts of life experience harder to engage with. I don't mean like folding laundry; "we can listen to a podcast while we fold laundry." But, whether it's science. Whether there's hard science concepts that we should be thinking about that we can't really fit into a story. Or political organizing, where we need to make changes in policies, and I get bored by policy because it's not exciting enough like a good story.

Jad Abumrad:  It's not anecdotal, yeah.

Alex Chambers:  I wonder if you have any thoughts on how you're thinking about story these days in relation to the challenges in society.

Jad Abumrad:  I think you're right. The world doesn't exist in story form. I think, for me, you talk to a historian, they'll tell you we love to tell these pretty little stories about history and how this happened and this happened and then finally this happened. Really, it's so much more complex. This sort of visual diagram of cause and effect is something more like an absolute, crazy scatter plot. Everything was happening at once, and somebody in retrospect was like, "let me come back and draw a nice neat border through the splatter and say this is the beginning, this is the middle, that's the end." There is something that's like a distorting about stories, and we take the inherent chaos of life and we make it nice and neat and ordered.

Jad Abumrad:  There are all kind of ways to mitigate against that, where it's clear to people that stories aren't true. The form of a story isn't inherently better or worse than what existed previous. I have a lot of the same frustrations that you have, or that you and your friend are pointing at, particularly when it comes to science writing. There was for a long time a popular science template that would happen, like, "here is a study, here is a lesson. Here's a study, here's a lesson." It felt like a very easy story form. TED Talks for a while had that easy to follow template. The form itself is carrying some weight that feels maybe distorting, is the only word I can think of.

Alex Chambers:  That feels right.

Jad Abumrad:  I also find that I have trouble sometimes processing it unless it has that shape. It seems to me that the story shape is fundamentally just a way for us to hold information, because it doesn't go into my brain unless it's story shaped. Has anyone been able to think about statistics in a way that feels vivid without putting it first into a story? I refuse to think that that's actually possible. The limitations of the story are true, but it might just be how we process information. The history of narrative is that stories used to be very simple, and then somewhere around Hill Street Blues, way back in the day, stories became much more fractured and interwoven.

Jad Abumrad:  I think our story shapes now are very sophisticated, so it's about having much more sophisticated stories and also just the recognition that no one story contains the truth. You have to have a million stories in order to even approximate what's true.

Alex Chambers:  I guess I would say a million story forms as well. Like, not just a million voices in one story form.

Jad Abumrad:  Yeah. I would subscribe to that.

Alex Chambers:  Okay.

Alex Chambers:  Jad, thank you so much.

Jad Abumrad:  Absolutely.

Alex Chambers:  Okay, appreciate it.

Jad Abumrad:  Bye.

Alex Chambers:  Bye bye.

Alex Chambers:  That's it for the show this week. If you value what we do here on Inner States, now is a great time to show your support. As I mentioned at the beginning, we're in the midst of our spring membership campaign. You can give us a call at 800-662-3311 or go to our membership website at That's, and let us know what you think.

Alex Chambers:  Alright, as always your quick moment of slow radio is coming up. But first the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with Avi Forrest. Our social media master is Jillian Blackburn.

We get support from Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, LuAnn Johnson, Sam Schemenauer, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is Eric Bolstridge. Our theme song and interstitial music is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar.

Alex Chambers:  Alright time for that found sound.

Alex Chambers:  That was the miracle of indoor plumbing which, yes, is the name of one of the talks Jad will be giving here in Bloomington. It's not actually about faucets, though. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks, as always, for listening.

Jad Abumrad

Radiolab founder Jad Abumrad (Cubie King)

Jad Abumrad is the founder of the smash hit public radio show and podcast Radiolab. Radiolab exploded what narrative audio could sound like. Jad and his co-host Robert Krulwich made a show that was smart, and fast-paced, with incredibly detailed sound design - as much musical composition as it is journalism. At first, Radiolab brought us fascinating human stories and insights from researchers, mainly at the intersection of science and philosophy. The explosed how our bodies work through episodes about sleep and stress, and how the world works, through cities and space capsules. Listeners often left with feeling of wonder. At a certain point, Jad shifted his focus to society and politics. He started a spin-off series on the Supreme Court, called More Perfect. Then, in 2019, he did a series called Dolly Parton’s America, which asks: in a time of incredibly political division, what is one thing we can all get excited about? Dolly is the answer. Along the way he won a MacArthur Genius Award, and the show won two Peabody Awards. He also built a team of some of the best radio makers in the business, and when he handed off the reins in 2022, the show could go on, and continue to evolve.

Jad is coming to the Indiana University campus through IU's Patten Foundation and College Arts and Humanities Institute the first week of April. We had a chance to talk before his visit. Jad has said that by the end of his time at Radiolab, he felt like he was doing interviews, preparing, having done all his research, and they weren’t clicking. He wasn’t getting to that natural chemistry. So he started interviewing interviewers. Not just journalists. Therapists. Conflict mediators. Salespeople. And he learned some things. That’s what we talk about here.

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