Gut churn: Jad Abumrad and the creative process

Jad Abumrad presented at Ardrey Auditorium in Flagstaff April 9. Photo by Sara Krug.

This article was originally published April 14, 2016 in The Lumberjack.

Every creative person encounters the struggle of discovering one’s voice. For Jad Abumrad, co-creator and producer of WNYC’s popular podcast, RadioLab, his voice is especially important as it has become recognizable to listeners across the country.

Jad Abumrad presented at Ardrey Auditorium April 9 to a crowd of veteran podcast fans, radio buffs and those simply hoping to learn something about storytelling.

Everyone listened attentively as Abumrad described the sometimes difficult, but ultimately rewarding, creative process. While RadioLab attracts nearly ten million listeners per month, Abumrad assured the audience that he still regularly experiences obstacles like mental blocks, harsh criticism and self-doubt, despite airing the show for 13 years.

Abumrad calls this process of overcoming negative emotions “gut churn,” which lends to the name of the event.

“Gut churn can be described by the crappy, queasy space you have to swim through when making things,” Abumrad said. To illustrate this, he played an actual recording of his stomach noises for the audience. Instead of succumbing to negativity, he encourages seeing it as proof you are doing your job well.

Abumrad also acknowledged the difficulty of accepting creative criticism — especially when hours, days, or months were put into making a single piece. Essentially, perfecting a work of art — whether it is visual, written, audio — takes patience.

“Surround yourself with people you trust and who can tell you [your work] sucks,” Abumrad said, in a storytelling workshop preceding the event. “It’s always hard when you’ve done your best, but it’s not good yet. It’s never easy to get negative feedback.”

Part of what makes Radiolab unique, is Abumrad’s humility — he is figuring tough questions out, right alongside the listener. In this podcast, there is no omniscient, all-knowing reporter voice, bestowing information upon the populace.

Abumrad sees cooperation between himself and the audience necessary for the success of his show.

“It’s a coauthorship — I’m kind of painting the picture, but you’re holding the brush. So it’s empathetic in that way,” Abumrad said.

The topics discussed in the podcast range from why we blink, to what a rainbow looks like to different animals, to what it is like to be on a debate team. Most days, Radiolab is only behind NPR’s This American Life in popularity, and spends roughly an hour exploring some of the strangest questions, resulting in some unexpected answers.

“Radiolab is pretty amazing in the way it tells stories. I am often educated about things I never even knew I was interested in,” said the event’s promoter, Matt Ziegler. “I think Radiolab’s unique style is the reason they are the second most popular podcast and the reason they were awarded the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award.”

Abumrad narrates this process of discovery with the help of musical composition made possible by his extensive background in music, sound effects, excerpts from interviews and additional commentary by Robert Krulwich, the second half of the creative brainpower behind Radiolab. Krulwich and Abumrad’s voices balance each other out, with Krulwich being, in Abumrad’s words, “pure anarchy in human form,” while Abumrad is “hyper-constructed.”

Audrey and Ian Isley drove from Prescott to attend Gut Churn. They listen to Radiolab to help pass the time on road trips.

“We can listen to podcasts on our own time,” Ian said. “You can listen to it on your phone, in your car, anywhere.”

While the Isleys did not know exactly what to expect from the event, they were eager to learn more about one of the people behind Radiolab. They described often recommending the show to their friends because of the diversity of topics, but also the approachability.

In an age where stories are restrained to sound clips and 3-minute segments on T.V., it seems counterintuitive for podcasts to experience the recent growth in popularity they have. Reasons vary, but Abumrad thinks he knows why they are increasingly paid attention to.

“Spiritually, we want to go deep with stories, in a way that we didn’t 5 years ago,” Abumrad said. He commented on a waning interest in reality T.V., and more of a draw to complex dramas like Broadchurch or The Americans.

Possibly, this desire for thought-provoking material has altered the radio waves too.

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