I feel like we need to do something for these people,” Jad Abumrad, creator and producer of the hit WNYC show “Radiolab,” says to his co-host, Robert Krulwich, as they sit in the back of a big black SUV. “They get to hang out with each other and they get to meet us, which I guess is okay, but what we’re asking them to do is the most mindless thing ever.”
Abumrad and Krulwich are on their way to the Draft Barn in Gowanus, where their most ardent fans are already busy stuffing batteries and LED lights into small plastic bags. The props will be crucial to the deep-space-simulating climax of Abumrad and Krulwich’s live show, “In the Dark.” But the fans don’t know that yet. All they know is that they’re going to meet Jad and Robert.
“Radiolab” is a Big Questions show that wrestles with science and philosophy (“Where is that part that is ‘me’?”) through a mix of Mulder-and-Scully banter, expert interviews, and vivid sound effects. It’s downloaded 2 million times a month and ranks third among iTunes’ most popular podcasts. Last year, it won a Peabody Award, and Abumrad got a MacArthur “genius” grant. But the 80 people who have come to the Draft Barn for an “LED party” (and the dozens who were turned away) might best capture the phenomenon the show has become. Still, Abumrad jokes, there’s room for improvement. At the premiere of the Ira Glass–produced movie Sleepwalk With Me the night before, he’d found himself amid “the most disconcertingly fabulous group of humanity.” Turning to Krulwich, he adds, “Ira’s fans are much better-looking than our fans, but I take that as a point of pride.”
Abumrad, 39, and Krulwich, 64, met in late 2002, when Abumrad was doing “odd jobs” at WNYC and Krulwich was well-established as an authoritative—and eccentric—broadcast voice. Abumrad, the earnest up-and-comer, had written some pledge-drive copy for Krulwich to recite on the air. “He ripped it up and threw it over his head,” Abumrad says. “Then he turned around and wrote up this weird, nonsensical thing involving alien abductions and oil tycoons. I was like, ‘Who is this dude?’ ” Three years later, they were co-hosts.
Arriving at the Draft Barn, the pair go their separate ways. Krulwich, a natural raconteur, disappears into the crowd. Abumrad pauses at the bar. “I’m an only child, and when you’re here, you’ve got to be that guy,” he says as he sizes up the long wooden tables of twenty- and thirtysomething fans. “I need a beer.”
At the first table Abumrad visits, he talks shop with the guy behind the fifth-ranked entry in the last “Radiolab” remix contest. At the next, there’s a fan named Cesar who has just given a ted talk; this is his second bag-stuffing event. Abumrad, tipsy on IPA, then decides to set up two middle-school teachers he’s just met. “My role in tonight’s situation is not Jad from ‘Radiolab,’ ” he announces. “I’m the matchmaker.”
Meanwhile, Krulwich is holding court at a big booth, regaling six silently nodding fans with tales of his childhood in an early-sixties picture-book version of Manhattan. There was a game called “move the adults,” in which he and an army of precocious 13-year-olds clad in khakis and blazers marched through the midtown offices of Tammany Hall. “People who wanted favors or wanted to be judges used to loiter in this long corridor, and we told them they had to wait somewhere else,” Krulwich says. “After every single adult was out of that corridor, we went home.” A woman asks, “Can I get your autograph?”
Abumrad is being summoned (“Hey Jad, come sit with us!”) to a table where a guy hits him up for radio-producing advice. “There are surprises that will happen, and if they don’t happen, you’re not putting yourself out there,” Abumrad counsels. A woman sitting next to him reveals she’s just left a job in the porn industry. Now very much Jad from “Radiolab,” he says, “You’re going to have to talk about this for the next hour.”
After another 90 minutes of posing for iPhone photos and talking up the fans, Abumrad and Krulwich reunite on the sidewalk outside the bar. “Every time I leave these things, it’s like a hangover even before it’s over,” Abumrad sighs. Krulwich lets out a big belly laugh and says, “Some of our fans are even as good-looking as the Ira ones.” This story appeared in the July, 30, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.