Since its start in the early 2000s, WNYC’s Radiolab has captured the imaginations of millions of listeners, telling stories that are both scientifically rigorous and deeply human. There are a number of radio shows and podcasts about science, but Radiolab is unique for the way it mixes inquisitive storytelling with experimental sound design. The result is a show with an energy unlike that of any other program.
This energy is built in large part by Radiolab’s two co-hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. For over 15 years, the pair have shared a charismatic chemistry that is essential to delivering the show’s consistent pleasures. But this last December, Krulwich announced that he would be stepping down from his role at Radiolab, noting his desire to move onto other projects. These include an upcoming documentary, an interactive project on global warming, and playing grandpa to his two young grandchildren.
As part of Krulwich’s sendoff, Radiolab recently released “The Bobbys,” a special episode dedicated to Krulwich and his career’s many highlights. It’s a beautiful episode and a must-listen for any fan of Radiolab. But one episode can’t reflect on everything, so here we want to touch further on the extent of Krulwich’s reach and influence.
It can be easy for longtime journalists to lose a sense of joy about their work, but Krulwich never seems to. Whether he’s investigating why we can’t walk in straight lines while blindfolded or the origin of the eel, his voice always exudes a genuine curiosity that compels us to listen. In a 2011 profile of Radiolab, he was described as someone who “reminds you of your favorite college professor, full-blown and voluble, unable to go more than four minutes without making everyone in the room laugh.” And on episode after episode, make us laugh is exactly what Krulwich did.
Being understood is essential to Robert Krulwich’s work. In a commencement speech he gave at the California Institute of Technology in 2017, Krulwich offered a comparison between the work of Isaac Newton and Galileo.
Both were immensely important men to science, but they differed in how they approached the common man. Newton wrote about intrinsic truths such as the laws of gravity but did so in a dense Latin text that was difficult to understand. Galileo, however, wrote out his ideas about whether the sun was the center of the solar system as a shared dialogue between three fellows. And it was written in Italian, the common language of Galileo’s day. To Krulwich’s mind, that simple framing mechanism was a game-changer:
“Because Galileo’s book was so easy to read and such a page turner, it so threatened the established order that Galileo, as you know, was put under a house arrest. And it wasn’t just his science that was alarming. I think it was the power of his storytelling. That’s what made him extra dangerous. Because stories have this power. People like them.”
Keeping stories approachable and understandable is central to Krulwich’s reporting. When he found a fascinating story exploring how octopuses blended into their environments, the news cycle at that time was focused on Saddam Hussein. Krulwich’s boss wanted more stories about Hussein, so in a creative compromise, Krulwich did a story on an octopus named Saddam.
It’s become more apparent than ever that the news cycle never stops. But staying connected often means missing the things that are evergreen or truly unique to our world. Through Radiolab, Abumrad and Krulwich offered us a chance to step back from the news and look at the world through a new lens. In a speech he’s given more than a few times, Abumrad has spoken of how, at a period of time when inspiration failed to strike him, visiting a sculpture workshop gave him the chance to step away from his work and see the world through a curious lens once again.
While visiting that workshop offered a new perspective to Abrumrad, Radiolab is often that catalyst to its fans. Every story and conversation lets us learn about something beyond ourselves that might help us reconsider what is essential. And Krulwich has played a part in doing that throughout the show’s entirety.
With Radiolab, Krulwich helped make science more accessible, introduced us to things we could never imagine, and offered a break from the immediate world around us. Above all, his storytelling helped us become better. And for that, we are thankful.
Christopher Hutton is a freelance writer from Indiana. They are currently studying for their Master’s Degree in sociology at Ball State University.