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Full transcript: Radiolab co-host Jad Abumrad on Recode Media

The new season of More Perfect, a spinoff show from Radiolab, began airing Oct. 2.

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Jad Abumrad, creator of WNYC’s Radiolab and More Perfect, looks through a lightbulb WNYC

On a recent episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Jad Abumrad, the co-host of WNYC Studios' hit show Radiolab, talked about how he was getting “restless” a couple years ago, and so dispatched his team to find interesting stories from the judicial system. The result is More Perfect, a show that centers on stories about the Supreme Court.

You can read some of the highlights from the interview here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Media on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.


Peter Kafka: Hello. This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me. I’m part of the Vox Media podcast network. I’m not at Vox Media today. I’m at WNYC about a mile north, if you’re following the geography. I’m here with the man described as “podcasting royalty” by the New York Times, Jad Abumrad. Did I get the name correct?

Jad Abumrad: Yes. Yes.

Yes? You don’t sound convinced.

No. Say it one more time. Do it one more time.

Jad.

Yeah, that part you got.

Abumrad.

Abumrad. Yeah.

Good.

You were 80 percent. I’ll give you 80.

All right. I felt reasonably confident.

I’ll give you a B+.

In addition to having an awesome name, you are the co-host of Radiolab. You are the executive producer of a new show — well, the second season of a new show — called More Perfect.

Indeed.

Certified genius by the MacArthur Foundation.

So-called.

Brooklyn dad. What else? What are the other honorifics?

Just a dude.

Dude.

A guy who likes to, I don’t know ...

Make stuff.

Make stuff, yeah.

Composer.

Composer. Yeah, I do write some music.

I’m here specifically to talk to you about More Perfect, because that should be launching within days of the time you hear this podcast, part of a broader conversation.

I know. Can you hear my nerves singing?

You seem reasonably calm.

They’re singing right now.

You are taking precious minutes away from finishing that to talk to me, so thank you for your time.

No, it’s my pleasure.

More Perfect is a series made in the style of your Radiolab podcast, which I think many of you will have heard because 1.5 million people listen to pods at the Radiolab.

Yeah.

What’s the number?

I think that’s probably in the zone. As you probably know, the numbers are a tricky thing.

It’s a lot of people.

A lot of people. Let’s just say a lot of people.

A lot of people listen to Radiolab. More Perfect is kind of a spinoff of that. It is specifically about ...

It’s specifically about taking the Radiolab approach and applying it to stories and people that land in front of the Supreme Court.

Specifically about the Supreme Court? I think more broadly, right, it’s about the legal system?

Yeah, it’s about the legal system. I mean, the court itself, I got to be honest, do I actually care who these justices are at the end of the day and what their ... Yeah, I care a little bit, but really what I care about is that this is the place where the arguments go. All of the stuff that we argue about lands at that court, and I like the arguments. I like thinking really hard and hearing these amazing stories that teach me something about the country, you know?

You could have picked any topic to do a Radiolab spinoff. Was this something that you’ve always wanted to get to, or did you have 20 different topics and you land on the Supreme Court?

No, this was ... I’ll tell you how it happened. Do you want the long?

Please, yeah. We’ve got the time.

Do you want the long story or do you want the short story or ...

You’re the professional podcaster. You tell me.

Okay, I’ll see if I can split the difference. Basically 2013, I think, I was making Radiolab with the team. I was getting kind of restless. I felt like we were doing the same stories a lot. I mean, each story was different, obviously, but we were in the same neighborhood of like science meets philosophy, wonder thing, that whole thing. I was wanting for us to branch out. I asked the team of producers like, “Hey, here’s a crazy idea. Go look at the Supreme Court docket. Pick a case. Make one phone call, and then report back. Let’s see what we get.”

One of the producers on staff at that time, Tim Howard, who has since gone off and is working on an awesome podcast called Reply All, he went off and found this case called Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, which was on the surface this kind of mundane — well, that’s not the right word — sort of ordinary custody battle, where it’s like you had a couple fighting with a biological dad over a 2-year-old girl. It’s the kind of thing that maybe you would see on “Judge Judy” or something. But this particular custody battle somehow got to these massive existential questions about Native American sovereignty and the history of kids being abducted off of Native American reservations. It was everything you want as a storyteller, right? You want this tiny little thing, like these people who are just like super small and human-sized, but they contain the world. It was like the universe in a blade of grass, in a way.

And you said, “That’s a show”?

I was like, “Holy moly. That’s a great story.”

Had you done an exercise with other topics? Had you said, “Go find me a battle and tell me a story about it”?

No, this was the first time that I sort of prescribed something. Usually it’s like, “What do you got?” And then people bring whatever it is they’re interested in. This was the first time where I was like, “Go there and look at that.” Then when it worked, I thought, “Oh my God, let’s do that again.” We did like three or four more at Radiolab, just over the course of a few years, and then finally I was like, “Let’s just make this its own thing,” because there’s so many of these cases. If you peel away the legality stuff, you get down to the personal layers, and then you get down to the cultural layers and the political layers and the historical layers. They’re just so rich. They’re so interesting. Every story — well, not every one — kind of leads you to that thing. I was like, “This needs to be its own spinoff.”

So that was Season One?

Yes.

And Season Two is ...

Season Two is minutes away.

Anything radically different or are you more of the same? “We liked the last time. We’re going to do more of these.”

A little bit more of the same, but this season is I just think ... Okay, let me just ... For context, last season we did six episodes, I believe. It was really just a proof of concept, like, “Can we do this? Will people want to listen to it?” We didn’t know. It worked out well enough. We were like, “Okay, let’s do it again, and this time, it’s just like for real. This is like for real, for real.” It’s a bigger season, bigger stories, way more contemporary. I feel like the crazy world that is America right now is very much present in every single story, like the travel ban, police brutality, all of the big issues.

Right, so you feel that consciously that the era we’re in now heightens the importance of talking about the Supreme Court and the law and how that works in America.

Yeah, I do feel that urgency. I mean, we’re not doing news stories. It isn’t that classic news peg kind of thing, but I do feel like every story I tell has to somehow teach me something about this moment.

I felt that. I was listening to one of last season’s shows this week, and there’s a line there, a riff there, about how the Supreme Court can prescribe law, but it only works if it’s actually upheld by a whole line of various people. Eventually, what actually enforces the Supreme Court ruling is boots on the ground.

Yeah.

I thought, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to be thinking about that in the next few years.”

Oh, for real, yeah. Yeah, no, it’s interesting. I mean, the Supreme Court doesn’t have an army. They don’t have a police force. I believe they have marshals, but they don’t really do much.

You could ask Louise Mensch about that.

Yeah. Was it Andrew Jackson who famously said ... I forget what it was he said. I don’t know if he actually said it and I can’t even remember the quote, but he basically told the Supreme Court to go to hell. He was like, “Okay, you can make whatever rulings you want to.” Yeah, the power of the court is always an interesting topic, especially in these times.

The last line of the last episode of the last season is, I wrote it down, “I think we’re fucked, but maybe not.”

Yeah.

Have you revisited that one since?

You know, it’s funny, that was ...

And that was last summer.

That was the last line of a story that Sean Rameswaram did about basically discrimination, racial discrimination, in jury selection. Yeah, it was a funny thing. We kept debating whether to keep that in or not, but I was just like, “Man, that is just the best. That’s like the best moment in that story. It’s so real.” We had to keep it in.

I mean, do I still think we’re fucked? Does he still think we’re fucked? Here’s what I’ll say. Let me give you the politic answer. Personally, I wake up sometimes and I read the newspaper, and I think, “Yeah, we’re fucked.” But the benefit of doing this kind of reporting, doing really any deep dive into any Supreme Court case, is that every case in a kind of a hypertext-y way takes you back in time. You realize that we were fucked always in some way.

It’s been a fraud for a long time.

Yeah. You go back to the ’70s, and we were a lot more fucked than we are now, I think, I would argue. Things have always been crazy. I mean, it’s really easy to see this moment as being singularly crazy, singularly bad. I don’t think it is. I think actually there have been other moments. I mean, you look at the discourse that was present at the very founding of our country. You had Thomas Jefferson calling John Adams “His Rotundity.” They would call each other fat. That was their discourse, right, at the very beginning.

Yup.

When you hear Trump saying things like that, it doesn’t ... When you know that, it doesn’t sound so crazy or so different.

I got to go to a Supreme Court hearing once. It was one of the coolest things I’ve done. I knew this going in, but until you’re there, you can’t really figure out what that means. You can’t bring electronics in there.

Right.

You’re taking notes on paper. Then there’s no cameras in there.

Uh-uh.

No one’s broadcasting this live. There’s sound recordings, but no one’s ever really going to listen to them. Does the fact that this is sort of happening ... It’s in public and obviously the deliberations are private, but does the fact that so much of this is sort of happening offstage give you guys a lot more freedom?

Yeah. There’s a way in which ... I think that’s partially so. I mean, there is the Oyez recorded archives which mean you can hear all the oral arguments from ...

Yeah, I was listening to Thurgood Marshall like, “Oh, that’s what he sounds like.”

Yeah, I know.

It was fascinating.

I know. You can hear things. I think 1956 or 1957 is the cutoff. You miss a lot of those early ones, but to a certain degree, I do think it’s not so much that it isn’t recorded, but that a lot of times these ...

It’s not in view.

It’s not in view, and it’s not somehow intellectually in view. A lot of times, when these lawyers get in front of the court, they’re having super-technical arguments about things like standing or jurisdictional things that you and I don’t maybe quite care about. But those arguments are the tip of the iceberg, and they’re always resting on top of a much bigger argument that is shot through the history of this country. You have liberty there. You can move from the actual argument they’re having to the argument that you want to have, that their argument rests upon. A lot of the times, we go into the court, and then you’re hearing the lawyer, rah rah rah, and then he said ... and then he said ... Then suddenly the music kicks in, and you’re like, “To really understand what they’re talking about, let’s go back in time.” Then the music kind of takes you. You have that kind of liberty.

Yeah, it’s great. I’ll endorse it a few more times, but you guys should go listen to this. It’s great. It comes from Radiolab. It comes from Jad. You’ll love it. We’re going to take a super-quick break. We’re going to hear a word from our sponsor, TransferWise. Be right back with Jad.

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We’re back here with Jad. He’s talking about Radiolab, More Perfect, your entire life’s history. I was looking at some clips and I was expecting to find you — because you’re an old radio guy, lineage in radio. I was expecting to see something from you saying something along the lines of, “There’s no difference between podcasting and what I was doing in radio. They’re literally the same product.” You said something radically different. You said, “Thank God for podcasting. What I do would not work on radio.” I was surprised to read that.

Yeah. I mean, I think it’s kind of true. We are both always, you know?

Right. You started in radio. This is a radio program.

Yeah, it has radio in the name. I started firmly in radio, and then podcasting came along. I was like, “Thank God,” because I would regularly have the experience ... I mean, my first love is radio, but I would regularly have the experience where I’d listen to something I made on the radio, and I would realize, “Oh, Jesus, God, why are you putting in so many sounds, Jad? There’s too many layers. There’s too many things happening.”

You’re talking specifically about the kind of show you make where it’s so dense with audio.

It’s so dense, and it’s so embroidered, or it was more so back in the day than it is now. Something about that wouldn’t work on the radio, because none of it’s on demand. It’s all just sort of happening. If you turn away for a second, you miss something. The show would move at a certain pace that was frankly hard to listen to on the radio.

When podcasting came along, suddenly Radiolab just made a hell of a lot more sense. It was on this device, and you could put it deep into your ear canals. It was just you and the person listening. The sounds and the textures and all the stuff that we were sweating about suddenly made a lot more sense. People could have a much more intimate connection to it. If they missed something, they could hit stop. They could go back. Just some of the technology opened up a new way of listening that made way more sense for Radiolab.

That’s really interesting. I always think of the difference in podcasting being it’s on-demand, and you just get to it when you want, and the form is the same. I used to love This American Life back when I was listening to it on a crappy radio in Minneapolis, and I love it now on an iPhone. It’s the same thing. The important part is the distribution and when you can get to it. But you’re saying literally the experience of listening to it is qualitatively different.

I think so. I think it’s way different. Well, not way different. I think that when you’re listening to a podcast, it’s just you and that person. The intimacy is something we always talk about in radio, and I think that is true, but so often the actual experience of listening to the radio is that you’re here, the radio is about eight feet away, and there’s kids running in between you and the radio.

Dishes.

You’re sort of in and you’re out. It’s sort of a companion, and then you’re listening to it directly. Then you sort of lose sight of it. Radiolab doesn’t work very well in that environment.

Yeah, there’s a whole thing in my house where sometimes we’ll have the radio on. Then often if I want to listen to a podcast, you put the headphones in. You realize you can’t really do that when there’s people in your family around you with an expectation that if you’re in the same room, you could talk to them.

Totally. Totally.

You listen to this by yourself. You find a quiet room or a loud subway car and listen.

Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

That’s great. I think of the stuff that you do as being broadly similar to a lot of stuff that comes out of public radio and WNYC, and then specifically a little different. We’re talking about the density of sound and that layering you do. I want to talk about the part that’s similar. This American Life, what you do, you mentioned your producer went off to Reply All over at Gimlet. They all have sort of similar aesthetic where they’re produced pieces created by, I’m assuming, people who are on the liberal, progressive end of the spectrum, with the assumption that’s who’s listening to them. They all sort of break the fourth wall in various places. Where did that aesthetic ... Can you point to where that came from? Because I don’t see that particular aesthetic as dominant. When I watch a documentary, I don’t often see the director pull aside and go, “Here’s what we’re trying to do,” or there’s some crosstalk about a scene they were trying to get.

That’s a good question. I’ll start moving my mouth ...

Yeah, go for it.

... and my brain’ll catch up. That’s interesting. Yeah, no, I do think that all of the public radio refugee podcasts do have similar DNA in that we’re all trying to tell those really super narrative, surprising, character-driven stories where there’s some transformation moment. We’re all interested in music. I feel like we’re all sort of like the offspring of This American Life in some fundamental way. It’s funny. It’s like you can even pull it back even farther. I think he was the offspring of Jean Shepherd and those kinds of guys who were doing sort of narrative storytelling, personal storytelling. When I say he, I mean Ira.

Yeah. That’s Ira Glass.

Yeah, exactly. I would say there’s a kind of a lineage that goes back even farther than Ira Glass that we’re all drawing from. I mean, maybe we’re all politically of a like mind. That’s probably more true than I would like it to be. I think authenticity and transparency are baked into this kind of podcasting. That fourth wall thing is about reminding yourself and reminding the people you’re talking to, “We all know what’s happening here. You know.”

I love it, but I can’t imagine that it would work as well in another form. I do like a David Foster Wallace thing with multiple footnotes, and he’s talking to the reader at the same time. A little of that goes a long way, but you guys do it week after week and it doesn’t seem like shtick.

Yeah, it’s funny. It’s like one of the most cliched ways in which we open the show. It happens, I would say, 20 percent of the time you hear the sound of people sitting down and getting ready ...

Yeah, “We are putting on a show.”

“Okay, here, let’s get the mic ready.” You do all the artifacts, right? Again, it’s just a way of reminding yourself and your people that this is all artificial. On some fundamental way, the only way to be real is to be clear about the artifice. We all know what we’re doing is fake, so let’s get past that and get to somewhere real. It’s a little bit that, I’d say.

Then one of the things that distinguishes you is this dense sort of ... “Wall of sound” is not the right term, but I’m going to use it as shorthand.

Maybe we’re the Phil Spector of podcasts.

Don’t shoot me, please. Where did that come from? Did you say from the get-go, “I want to make this intensely dense, rich thing with a bunch of different sound” going in, or did you come to that?

I don’t know. That part of it for me was there from the beginning. I don’t know. That’s a good question. I listen to a lot of music. I went to music school. I remember getting super, super into really big, thunderous, cacophonous music. I love that sense of just saturating the entire oral space. I don’t know. Somehow that just appealed to me. We also studied Bach. Sorry, this is going to sound highfalutin, but this is actually literally what I was doing in music school. I was studying Bach counterpoint.

I’m nodding. I’ve heard of Bach.

When you study the music theory of it, the whole thing is that you have four voices. There are some very rigorous rules as to how the voices can move in relation to each other. When one voice goes up, the baritone has to go down. When the alto goes here, the tenor goes here. It’s like math, basically. I loved that. I found that really appealing. It’s I think why some people like crossword puzzles.

I loved trying to write these little Bach querelles, or like faux Bach querelles. For me, when I got to radio, I really liked the editing process for the same reason. You had eight voices, and they were telling one story. You had to find a way to have eight concurrent lines weaving in and out of each other to create fluid speech. It felt to me a little bit like what I was doing in music school. There’s just something deeply pleasing to me about that.

Doesn’t anyone ever pull you aside and say, “That’s great that you like this, and it’s great that this is your equivalent of a crossword puzzle. It’s a lot of work.”

Oh, sure, yeah.

Doing what we’re doing takes a little bit of work. I had to take the subway up here to talk to you. But to do a reported piece, right, that’s a lot of work to just do standard reporting. Then you add audio on top of it, and then to edit it. On top of that, to add all this additional audio production that you like to do and — it’s kind of the signature of the show. But you could do it without, right? Wouldn’t it be easier?

Yeah, it would be easier, sure, but it’s ...

But it’s not you.

Yeah, there’s some way in which I feel like that’s my voice now on some level. It’s almost not even a choice anymore. It’s just how I speak. I speak with an ear for how it’s going to be edited and composed later. To your point, as I’ve grown older and I’ve gotten a little less excited about staying up till 3:00 a.m., we do do less now. We do a lot less. Now the emphasis is more on the stories and the journalism and finding new takes, and putting a lot of the effort into the actual reporting and hoping that the production can keep pace.

When you’re asking your listeners for money at the top of the show or some of the shows, you say, “Look, this could cost $100,000 per episode to put this together. It can take more than a year to report and edit this stuff.” Has the degree of difficulty in the reporting increased over time as you’ve gotten more ambitious?

Yeah, very much so. Very much so. Yeah, it is not unusual for stories to go over a year and to involve like ... I mean, a lot of times, it seems weird to say this, but a lot of times you’re doing 10 interviews before you actually figure out what the story is. There’s this headless chicken phase you’re going through just to even get to the starting line. Then a lot of times, you’re having to not just do one interview. Like if I’m interviewing you for a story, I need to interview four other people to make sure I can in a sense understand where you land in the context.

It just gives me hives thinking about it.

It gives me hives, too.

Because doing the version of reporting I do where I call someone up and talk to them, and I might go through that same sort of expending energy, and I think the story is this way but actually it turns out this, and now I’ve got to fact-check that, and I’ve got to rip the whole thing up, that’s a ton of work. But I don’t have to worry about recording it and making sure I got the sound and making sure it’s done in the right time and stitching it all together. Boy, you sound like you’ve got a tough job. You seem remarkably calm.

Yeah. No, it definitely gives me hives too, but I share the hives now with a big team. We all carry each other. Yeah, I recognize that’s a rare thing in our business. It’s rare to be able to have a larger team that works on these stories for over a year. That is increasingly what it takes to do the kind of thing that we’re doing.

You’ve got a big audience. Do you think that if you made stuff that was simpler, if it was less produced, that you’d have a bigger audience? Do you ever think about trying to reach beyond sort of the blue state archipelago that you and I are in?

Oh, yeah, for sure. Yeah, absolutely. One of the thoughts that I’ve been having a lot with More Perfect particularly is I want to increasingly follow these stories into the world a little bit more.

What does that mean?

We put it out there. We’re essentially kind of broadcasting, but podcasting is a different ... I hate the word podcasting, but we’re essentially just sort of throwing out into the ether and hoping it lands, right? As an example, in this next season of More Perfect, we’re doing a big, long, historical, quadruple layer cake on the Second Amendment. You’re hearing voices from all across the political spectrum on that. For me, it’s important to do that story not just because it’s a great story, which it is, but it’s to start a conversation.

Increasingly, I’m interested in hearing that conversation after we do the story. With More Perfect, we’re doing a lot of live events now, live debates, because I think it’s important to stand in a room and hear people actually argue and take these ideas and pull them in and pull them apart.

So you’ll have two people debating on stage. Do you think the audience is split, or do you think the audience is kind of all the way over on one side to begin with and probably is going to stay there?

Look, the thing that’s interesting about even something like the Second Amendment is if you take the blue staters and you’re like, “Where are you on the Second Amendment?” they’re all going to go to one side. But there’s a way in which you can tell the story of the Second Amendment which complicates things even for them.

You can take any issue, and if you really think about it and force people to identify with the other side, you can move a room from one side to the other. We’ve done live events at More Perfect on censorship on social media or eminent domain where people start one way, and you see them migrate because there are good arguments on both sides.

I remember going to a live taping of This American Life. It was right after the 2004 election. It’s hard to remember now, but there was a sense of shock then that Bush had won. It seemed catastrophic. I remember it was I guess somewhere in New York, and Ira was addressing all of us. It was kind of therapy. He was saying, “Look, I know ...”

I was there for that.

“I know this is shocking, but Kerry was also a terrible candidate. We’re going to get through this.” It very much felt like therapy, but also we were a tribe, right?

Yeah.

I thought, “This is great,” but it also kind of — to me, if I thought about it afterwards, kind of explains part of the problem here. We all know the way we think and view, or we think we view these ideas. Probably we should be more exposed to people from Michigan who thought that gay marriage was a terrible thing.

Totally. Yeah, no, I think that’s exactly right.

They Might Be Giants, do you remember that? They played live.

Was that 2000? You know, I think I went to ...

Oh, no, no, no. I’m sorry. I’ve conflated those two, but I definitely remember the post-Kerry one.

Yeah, I went to one in 2000 which was the Bush v. Gore. I think I was four years ahead of you. Same scenario. It was like Ira was onstage at his desk, and the entire tribe of New Yorkers, liberal New Yorkers, were just in a state of despair. He was talking. Yeah, so same thing, four years later.

Speaking of politics, you guys did an episode about 4chan and Shia LaBeouf and an art installation project he’d done. You took it down.

Yeah.

Why did you take it down? This was a few months ago, right, or a month ago?

A few months ago, yeah. We took it down just because we got some pushback from folks that ... I’m all for getting ... We’ve done a lot of episodes where people have criticized us and it’s been fine, but there was a way in which, at that moment, seeing what was happening in Charlottesville, because it was crazy bad timing too. We put out an episode that basically said that ... It took a slightly moral relativistic view of 4channers trolling Shia LaBeouf. Then suddenly to see what was happening in Charlottesville unfold right as the episode was going out and to see the grief, we just didn’t want to add to that.

Right, so Shia LaBeouf had made an anti-Trump performance art project. 4chan, which nominally is ... Well, not nominally. It started off certainly as apolitical, but has become sort of Trumpian and there’s a loud Trumpian voice that’s arisen there in the last year. Do you think it’s just because of Charlottesville, because you released it that month, that if you’d released it a month earlier or a month from now, it would have been okay?

I think if we’d released it a month earlier, we would have gotten some criticism of being insensitive, and how could you feature these people in the way you did? I would have been fine with that criticism, but there was a way in which I didn’t want to get even near what was happening in Charlottesville. It felt like if we were adding to that in any way, that felt wrong to me.

Is that the only time you’ve had to pull an episode down?

I believe so.

Because I would figure you would get grief from time to time, but I would also think, boy, you spend a lot of time on any one of these things” — we’re talking about more than a year — that it wouldn’t be like something you’d sort of casually slap together and then have to regret after the moment.

Yeah. Honestly, that one we didn’t spend a lot of time on. That was one of the ones we didn’t. Yeah, honestly, I don’t know if it was the right decision or not. It’s the decision we felt like we had to make at that moment, but yeah, yeah, it wasn’t my happiest moment. I’ll be honest.

Well, let’s do something that’s happier. Like I mentioned before, you’re a MacArthur genius recipient. Genius is the ...

You’re going to give me whiplash going from that to that.

Up, down, back, forth. I think most people who are listening to this know what a MacArthur Genius Grant is or a vague idea of it is, but basically they give you a pile of money. They say, “Do whatever you want with it for five years. We love the work you’re doing.” They don’t tell you in advance you’re in the running for this, right?

No. No, it was a total out of the blue thing.

What happens on the day you find out you get a MacArthur Genius Grant?

I got a call from a ... I was in the airport. I had just lost my wallet. My luggage hadn’t come through. I get a call from a guy. I forget his name. First, he sent me an email with no subject line that said, “Please call me.” I remember thinking, “Oh, this is some Nigerian scam thing.” Then I did end up talking to him while trying to find my luggage. It was the shortest phone call I’ve ever ... He said, “Congratulations. You’ll never hear from me again,” and that was true. Then suddenly, he confirmed the address, confirmed a few things about my title, and then basically I was off the phone in, I don’t know, two minutes. It was really weird. It was like being somehow visited by some weird Masonic ...

What is your first reaction? Is it, “I’m being pranked,” or ...

I had that reaction a little bit. I don’t know.

Because again, there’s no ... It’s not like you have a buddy and you’re up for tenure, and they’re telling you, “This is probably going to happen but officially I can’t tell you that.” This is out of the blue, right?

Out of the blue. They tell you months before it’s announced. For weeks after that, I was like, “Did that actually happen?” It didn’t feel real to me.

Do you try to fact-check it? Does this guy exist? Is this the real one? Do you call the MacArthur Foundation office?

I didn’t fact-check it, but then a letter arrived a couple of days later. Then I was like, “Okay, I think this is actually a real thing.”

Again, it’s a big sum. It’s like $600,000, and there’s no restrictions on it.

Yeah, I think it was 500 at the time I got it, no restrictions.

It’s a lot of money.

Lot of money.

As I said, this is in recognition of the work you’re doing. “Go do more of it.”

Yeah, go do more of it. They don’t tell you anything else. It was trippy. I have to be honest. I mean, it’s amazing. It’s like this incredible gift, but it threw me for a while.

Do you reach out to other MacArthur Foundation recipients and say, “What do you do?”

Well, I did the math, and it turns out ... You get a certain amount per year, which is heavily taxed, which is still amazing, but then the money seems a whole lot less at that point.

Sure.

I kind of figured out that mathematically, what made sense for me was to put most of it toward my kids’ education, and then to take a big chunk of it and build a semi-soundproof room in my house so that I can record the show from there on occasion and be near the kids.

Is it akin to winning the lottery, or I guess what winning the lottery is like, where people come out of the woodwork and, “Congratulations, and oh, by the way, I’ve got something you might be interested in investing in or supporting,” or, “You owe me for pizza”?

That would happen here and there, but no, not really, because I could say to them what I just said to you which is like, “Actually, it’s not like that much money.”

That’s a very New York answer.

It’s awesome, but when you really do the math, it’s not life-changing money at any given time.

Beyond jackasses like me asking you about the money, you’re the same guy.

Yeah, pretty much.

You took a four-month break last year?

I did. Yeah.

Was it just, “I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s a lot of work”? Was there a consideration that maybe you wouldn’t come back, or you were always going to come back?

I think I was always going to come back. I knew I couldn’t come back doing it the way I was doing it. I took a break. I had been working on Radiolab for 13 years at that point, 14 years. I had just launched More Perfect. Doing them both together was maybe not the healthiest thing in the world. I just kind of hit a wall after that. I was like, “I need to just take a beat to think about what’s next and to think about how I engage this thing.” I came back super committed to both projects, but knowing that I have to just work in a slightly different way with the team and be less involved in some areas, more involved in others.

That’s a pretty hard thing to pull off for someone in your mid-40s, right?

Yeah, mid-40s.

You don’t usually make big changes in the way you live at that point in your life.

Are you being sarcastic?

No. I mean, I know, people have a heart attack, and they say ...

No, I was thinking like mid-life crisis ...

Yeah, but that’s you buy a car, right?

Right. Right.

You have an affair. You don’t actually change your person. If you’re the kind of person who thought it made sense to run two podcasts simultaneously, you’re probably that same person.

Yeah.

Are you?

No, I am. I am, but it’s also like I grew up working in a certain way. I started Radiolab, and it was just me in a dark, damp room for years. You grow up working in a certain way at that point. You do everything, top to bottom. Then the show grows and more people get added. You can’t keep working in that same way. I’ve always been kind of a control freak. I just needed to learn how to be slightly ... It’s a different relationship to the work.

How’s it going?

It’s going good. It’s going better. It’s a process. Especially on the Radiolab side, I’m working with people who’ve been doing it for a long time. I just recognize that I need to make space for them as much as they need to make space for me. I’m a little bit more of a boss now than I ever thought I’d be, a little bit less of a doer than I used to be.

Whenever I engage in boss-hood, I find it more stressful than ...

Oh, I hate it. I fucking hate it, but it’s a necessary evil, I think.

All right. Well, you seem to be holding up pretty well. Again, you guys, launching a new podcast imminently, and you’ve been very generous with your time here. I will let you get back to it.

Cool. Well, this has been a real pleasure.

Thanks, Jad. Thanks for your time. Thanks to WNYC for letting us record here. Again, you want to go listen to Radiolab whenever you can find it, More Perfect launching early October, days from now.

October 2nd, yeah.


This article originally appeared on Recode.net.