How RadioLab turns science into compelling stories

Image © Adam Westbrook

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.

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?

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?

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?

If it’s the latter, what makes a bad story? What ideas do you turn down?

One of the trademark devices of RadioLab is the fast and overlapping conversation between Jad and Robert — what purpose does this play?

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.

“A very lucky wind” RadioLab 2009

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.

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?

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?

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?

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.

Video artist working at The New York Times. I write a weekly newsletter about visual storytelling and creativity.