My close friends know me to be a total public radio podcast obsessive. It started out innocently enough: an episode of This American Life or a quick update from Lake Wobegon. But then I turned to Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, the occasional clip of Fresh Air, and even All Songs Considered from time to time. It transformed commuting into a joyous time filled with knowledge, humor, and other exulted pursuits of humanity. And for a long time, I thought there could be nothing greater in the world than This American Life. I like stories, ponderous ambient music, and the dulcet tones of Ira Glass’ voice. It was akin to pure happiness to me. Until I found WNYC’s Radio Lab.
Regular radio listeners will assure you that there hasn’t been a lot of technological advancement in radio since Tesla. And whoever figured out that smooshing a box of cornstarch sounded like walking in the snow. The limitations of the media are profound, at best. You’ve got yourself some information to transmit and only one mode of transmitting it. And even then, you can’t use the absence of the mode because you really just can’t have silence on the radio. It’s something of a feat to have such top notch art expressed only through constant sound.
Radio Lab’s format is not unlike a science-themed This American Life. Each episode has a main theme or question, and then, through stories, interviews, and traditional reporting, seeks to resolve the theme or answer the question. There was a recent episode on Space which, if possible, managed to convey the enormity of our infinitesimalness. This is a difficult feeling to digest while walking to work. Additionally, I spent an entire segment of the show covered in goosebumps as this woman was telling the story of how she worked on a project to record the essence of life on Earth onto a gold record with a shelf life of one billion years to shoot into space on the statistically near-impossible chance that some other life form might pick it up and listen to it and know that there was once this civilization that wanted to communicate. Ugh. Also, she was in love at the time and recorded her biofeedback, kind of secretly hoping the aliens would be able to translate that, too.
But in addition to really amazing content, I think the sound engineering is the best I’ve ever heard on the radio. The layering of sound and the ingenuity of incorporating different sources makes it really exciting and stimulating to listen to. Now, admittedly, I’ve watched very little TV in the past, oh, five years. It’s possible my senses are slightly more sensitive than a normal person’s. It is fascinating though.
Radio Lab – Available as a free weekly podcast on iTunes