How RadioLab turns science into compelling stories
Communicating scientific ideas is one of the most challenging tasks for journalists, filmmakers, and storytellers. One of the few to get it right is the team at WNYC’s award-winning show RadioLab. In this interview, Senior Producer Soren Wheeler explains how they do it, and unpacks the narrative structure behind one of his favourite stories.
First of all, tell us a little bit about your role in the team and how you came to work on the show.
I came to the show as an unpaid intern about five and a half years ago, straight out of a masters program in science writing. At the time, the staff was just [host] Jad Abrumbrad, Ellen Horne, and Lulu Miller (and Robert, of course). They were just starting to work on an episode called “Deception” and, in between my normal intern duties, I pitched two segments that ended up making it into the show. After that I think I sort of shamed them into paying me.
These days, we have a staff of 10 (plus Robert), and I play a lot of different roles. Like everyone, sometimes I’m a reporter, and I definitely spend a lot of time working in Pro Tools (our editing software) at every stage of the process.
But essentially I play what at a magazine would be called a Managing Editor role, worrying about shaping the episodes and stories we have coming up, editing stories that our producers are working on, and guiding Jad and Robert’s narration and conversations.
What are the big challenges with trying to communicate complex and scientific ideas? People often cite ‘audience attention’ as being one of them, but what is it about science that is so challenging?
Unfortunately, science coverage often begins with a question most people wouldn’t think to ask or a situation most people don’t care about or, worse, a word that they don’t understand. So I think most fundamental problem is right at the beginning, in getting people to even bother to listen.
Most people start with the point of view that science is boring and difficult to understand. So if you say “hey, here’s some science” …you’ve probably already lost a good proportion of the audience. You might as well tell them that they have to sit in class for the next hour. If you’re already interested, that might sound great. If you’re not, forget it.
Of course science can be dry, difficult, demanding … it’s often very abstract, wrapped in statistics and dense language, full of careful qualifications. Part of the process of science is to remove human emotion from the investigation.
But really, at the bottom, I think there’s a very common feeling that science is only done or understood by smarty-pants boring people…and if you try to understand it, they’ll probably just laugh at you for not being smart enough.
In some way, we are consciously trying to address each one of these things.
What role does narrative structure play in making these ideas engaging for listeners?
It does everything. It allows you to start you in a place people care about and understand, it gives an emotional arc for the ideas to hang on … it motivates questions, and it makes the ideas applicable to real life.
How important is story and topic selection? Would you set out to make a piece about any random topic which interests you (and then try to make it engaging), or do you only select a topic because you are confident it will work on air?
For us, story selection is the key. We aren’t a news outlet, we are looking for stories that have some timeless, enduring quality. Usually we start with a story we love and develop questions and thoughts and new stories around that. Of course, we also fall in love with certain ideas and hunt for a way to make them engaging, but that is often a much harder way to eventually get to a show in the end.
If it’s the latter, what makes a bad story? What ideas do you turn down?
We look for stories that surprise us and lead us to a new way of thinking about things or a new way of seeing something. We look for stories that make familiar things feel strange, or strange things feel familiar. It’s hard to say what makes a bad story, but you know it when you hear it, if for whatever reasons, it simply doesn’t move you, emotionally or intellectually.
One of the trademark devices of RadioLab is the fast and overlapping conversation between Jad and Robert — what purpose does this play?
I think the editing style comes out of a tension between a desire for two things: a feeling of natural conversation and the need to keep things moving, keep people engaged and seduced.
In the end, I think the editing plays a sort of musical role, it creates rhythms and beats … but it also keeps the action moving forward in a way that a single voice can’t.
You’ve kindly picked out a piece you produced from the show — “A Very Lucky Wind” and aside from being a brilliant listen, it’s got loads of narrative things going on. Just briefly, talk us through the thinking that went into telling this story the way you did.
Well…oddly enough in this case, we just started with something we were interested in that we had no idea how to make work on the air and, worse than that, the thing we were interested in was a word, “stochasticity”.
Of course, we knew that chance and randomness and coincidence was a rich area to plumb but we really did start sort of blind on that one.
So the first thing was to go looking for a human story, a narrative. So I basically started looking for as many coincidence stories I as could, and stopped at the one that I found truly arresting. And that was the story of the two Lauras and the balloon.
After that, it’s a pretty simple structure really: the story motivates a question, Jad and Robert go on a search, that search is an emotional arc for them as they find new things out, and then it lands on a new way of reflecting on the original story.
One of my favourite things you do is play with time. Once or twice you ‘rewind the tape’ to re-examine a moment, which then leads to a big reveal, like Jad and Robert getting the seven tails in a row. In effect you’re withholding information the first time to bring it in later on — why?
Storytelling is all about building and releasing tension. Sometimes you just want to keep moving in one spot, but you need some information later on, and sometimes a piece of information will have a bigger impact at a later point.
Also, it’s just fun to be non-linear. And, maybe more importantly, it better reflects real conversations and storytelling.
An instinct for many factual storytellers and journalists is to tell a story in a linear way, in order to make it understandable. Are we missing a trick by not weaving a more complicated narrative with more twists and turns?
Retrospectively you could divide the 21 minute story into three acts: the balloon story, the coin toss and the statistician. Is that intentional or is it just how it came together?
The structure of the tell is always highly intentional…and in most cases we try several different structures, sit back and listen, make changes, rinse and repeat…
But I’d split it up differently…Act I is the balloon story, which is really a question, Act II is Jad and Robert’s journey trying to answer that question, and Act III is back to the balloon story, now with an answer, trying to think about how to think about it.
How have you learned to craft stories the way you do and what has been your biggest influence as a storyteller?
Like probably everyone, I learned how to tell stories by telling them, over and over, to friends, to family, at parties, at work…If you happen to be one of those people who gets a rush out of being the centre of attention, then you learn how to milk that for everything it’s worth. You watch how people react, when they laugh, when they lean forward…then the next time you tell the story, you shift things a bit, underline something a little, etc.
So if you have the joy of telling stories, then I guess the way you learn is by doing it over and over and over (in particular, by telling one story over and over and over and noticing how different versions of it have different effects).
Other than that, I’d say the biggest influences on me would be the group of people I went to graduate school with and the team at Radiolab. Telling stories with a team of people recreates that repetition of telling, because you tell it to the group, they react, you rewrite it, tell it again, watch them react, etc. Or you listen to other people in the group tell stories, and think about how their telling is affecting you. So you get to be a teller and a listener at different times and you start to notice rhythms and structures that work and ones that don’t.
This interview first appeared in Issue #1 of Inside The Story Magazine.