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.

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?

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?

“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.

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?

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?

How have you learned to craft stories the way you do and what has been your biggest influence as a storyteller?

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