Wait, U.S.. You're listening to Radiolab Radio from WNYC. This is Radiolab, I'm Jad Abumrad. Today, a little something different. I was invited to give a TED talk a few months ago. It's out today. And it's sort of a personal talk for me. It's about my life as a journalist. And I also think it helps explain a little bit of the journey that Radiolab has been on for the last decade or so. So wanna play the audio of that talk here in the podcast?
I mean, obviously, it is a video in its native format, and you should definitely check out the video because, you know, with Kovar, there was no TED conference this year, which actually meant for me.
I got to work with this amazing video artist friend of mine, Mac Primo, and we sort of reimagined the entire form of a TED talk in that video soup. He is incredible. See you. You can watch the talk. But in the meantime, we'll listen to it here because. I think it says something about how I personally and how we as a show are trying to kind of approach this complicated moment. So here it is. I want to tell you about my search for purpose as a journalist and how Dolly Parton helped me figure it out.
So I've been telling audio stories for about 20 years, first on the radio and then in podcast. And when I started the radio show Radiolab in 2002, here was the quintessential story move we would do. We'd bring on somebody.
It's one of the most hypnotic and spellbinding spectacles in nature because you have to keep in mind it is absolutely silent, like this guy, mathematician Steve Strogatz.
And he would paint a picture.
Picture it. There's a riverbank in Thailand in the remote part of the jungle. You're in a canoe slipping down the river. There's no sound of anything. Maybe the occasional, you know, exotic jungle bird or something.
So you're in this imaginary canoe with Steve. And in the air all around, you are millions of fireflies. And what you see is sort of a randomized starry night effect because all the fireflies are blinking at different rates, which is what you expect.
But according to Steve, in this one place, for reasons no scientists can fully explain.
With thousands of lights on and then off, all sync, now it's around this time that I would generally bring in the beautiful music, as I just did, and you'd start to get that warm feeling, a feeling that we know from science kind of localizes in your head and chest and spreads through your body.
So that feeling of wonder. From 2002 to 2010, I did hundreds of these stories. Science see neuroscience, very heady, brainy stories that would always resolve into that feeling of wonder. And I began to see that as my job, to lead people to moments of wonder what that sounded like was.
Wow. Wow, that's amazing. Wow. But I began to get kind of tired of these stories being partially as a repetition.
I remember there was a day I was sitting at the computer making the sound of a neuron, you know, takes some white noise, chop it up. Very easy sound to make. I remember thinking I have made this sound 25 times, but it was more than that.
It was there was a familiar path to these stories. You walk the path of truth, which is made of science, and you get to wonder now.
I love science. Don't get me wrong. My parents emigrated from a war torn country, came to America in science. For them was like more their identity than anything else. And I inherited that from them. But there was something about that simple movement from science to wonder that just started to feel wrong to me.
Like, guess that the only path a story can take.
Round 2012, I ran into a bunch of different stories that made me think No.
One story in particular where we interviewed a guy who described chemical weapons being used against him and his fellow villagers in the mountains of Laos. Western scientists went there, measured for chemical weapons, didn't find any. We interviewed the man about this. He said the scientists were wrong. We said, but they tested. He said, I don't care. I know what happened to me. And we went back and forth and back and forth and make a long story short.
The interview ended in tears.
I felt. I felt horrible, like hammering at a scientific truth.
When someone has suffered that wasn't gonna heal anything.
And maybe I was relying too much on science to find the truth. And it really did feel at that moment that there are a lot of truth in the room and we were only looking at one of them. So I thought I gonna get better at this. And so for the next eight years, I committed myself to doing stories where you heard truth collide. We did stories about the politics of cancer. You heard the perspective of survivors and perpetrators whose narratives clouded stories about race.
Black men are systematically eliminated from juries. And yet the rules that try and prevent that from happening only make things worse. Stories about counterterrorism, Guantanamo detainees, stories where everything is disputed. All you can do is struggle to try and make sense.
And the struggle kind of became the point. I began to think maybe that's my job, to lead people to moments of struggle.
Here's what that sounded like. But I see I like I, I well. So like. I mean, you know, that sigh right there.
I wanted to hear that sound in every single story because that sound is kind of our current moment.
Right. We live in a world where truth is no longer just a set of facts to be captured, become a process. It's gone from being a noun to being a verb.
But how do you end that story? Like what literally kept happening as we'd be, you know, telling a story. Cruising along to view viewpoints in conflict. You get to the end and it's just like now missing. I sit in.
What do you see? How do you in that story? You can't just like happily ever after it, because that doesn't feel real at the same time. If you just leave people in that stuck place. Like, why did I just listen to that? It felt like there had to be another move. There had to be a way beyond the struggle.
And this is what brings me to Dollie or St. Delhi, as we like to call her in the south. Want to tell you about one little glimmer of an epiphany that I had.
Doing a nine part series called Dolly Parton's America last year was a bit of a departure for me, but I just had this intuition that Dolly could help me figure out this ending problem. And here was the basic intuition. You go to a Dolly concert, you see men and trucker hats standing next to men in drag, Democrats standing next to Republican women holding hands. Every different kind of person smash together. All of these people that we are told should hate each other.
Ah, they're singing together. She somehow carved out this unique space in America. I wanted to know, how does she do that? So I interviewed Dolly. Twelve times two separate continents. She started every interview this way.
Ask me whatever you let me tell you what I want to hear.
She is undeniably a force of nature. But the problem that I ran into is that I had chosen a conceit for this series that my soul had had trouble with.
Dolly sings a lot about the South. If you go through her discography, you will hear song after song about Tennessee.
Tennessee. Tennessee mountain home, Tennessee mountain memories. Now, I grew up in Tennessee and I felt no nostalgia for that place.
I was the scrawny Arab kid who came from the place that invented suicide bombing.
I spent a lot of time in my room. And when I left Nashville, I left.
I remember being at Dollywood, standing in front of a replica replica of her Tennessee Marlin home. People all around me were crying.
This is a this is a sad. Why are you crying?
I couldn't understand why they were so emotional, especially given my relationship to the South. And I started to honestly have panic attacks about I'm not the right person for this project.
But then. Twist of fate, we meet this guy, Brian Seaver, dallies nephew and bodyguard.
And on a whim, he drives producer Sheema only einai out of Dollywood, round the back side of the mountains, up the mountains, 20 minutes down a narrow dirt road through giant wooden gates to look right out a Game of Thrones and into the actual Tennessee mountain home.
But the real place, Val, the real Tennessee mountain, and I'm going to score this part with Viognier because you understand in Tennessee law, this is like hallowed ground, the Tennessee mountain home. So I remember standing there on the grass next to the Pigeon River, butterflies doing loop de loops in the air. And I had my own moment of wonder. Dolly's Tennessee mountain home. Looks exactly like my dad's home in the mountains of Lebanon. Her house looks just like the place that he left and that simple bit of layering led me to have a conversation with him that I'd never had before.
But the pain he felt leaving his home and how he hears that and all his music. Then I had a conversation with Dolly where she described her songs as migration, music, even that classic song, Tennessee Mountain Home, if you would listen to it.
Sit in the front row. Joan has summer afternoon. In a straight back, chair on two legs leaned against the wall. It's about trying to capture a moment that, you know, is already gone. But if you can paint it vividly, maybe you can freeze it in place, almost like an resine trapped between past and present. That is the immigrant experience. And that simple thought led me to a million conversations, started talking to musicologists about country music as a whole.
This genre that I've always felt, so having nothing to do with where I came from, is actually made up of instruments and musical styles that came directly from the Middle East. In fact, there were trade routes that ran from what is now Lebanon right up into the mountains of east Tennessee.
I can honestly say standing there looking at her home was the first time I felt like I'm a Tennesseean. That is honestly true. And this wasn't a one time thing.
I mean, over and over again, she would force me beyond the simple categories I had constructed for the world.
I remember talking with her about her seven year partnership with Puerto Wagner 1967. She joins this band. He is the biggest thing in country music. She is a backup singer, a nobody. Within a short time, she gets huge. He gets jealous. He then sues her for three million dollars when she tries to leave.
Now, it would be really easy to see Puerto Wagner as like a tight, classic patriarchal jackass trying to hold her back. But anytime I would suggest that tour, like, come on, this is a guy I mean, you see it in the videos, too.
He's got his arm around you. There's a there's a power thing happening for sure.
Well, it's more complicated than that. It's just I mean, just think about he had had this show for years. He had he didn't need me to have his hit show. He wasn't expecting me to be all I was either.
I was a serious entertainer.
He didn't know that. He he didn't know how many dreams I had.
In fact, she kept telling me, don't bring your stupid way of seeing the world into my story, because that's not what it was. Yeah, there was power, but that's not all there was. You can't summarize this. All right, just to zoom out. What do I make of this? Well, I think there's something in here that clue a way forward. As journalists, we love difference. We love to fetishize difference. But increasingly in this confusing world, we need to be the bridge between those differences.
But how do you do that? I think for me now, the answer is simple. You interrogate those differences, you hold them for as long as you can until like up on that mountain.
Something happens, something reveals itself. Story cannot end indifference. It's got to end in revelation. Coming back from that trip on the mountain. Friend of mine gave me a book that gave this whole idea a name in psychotherapy. There's this idea called The Third, which essentially goes like this.
Typically, we think of ourselves as these autonomous units.
I do something to you. You do something to me.
But according to this theory, when two people come together and really commit to seeing each other in that mutual act of recognition, they actually make something new, a new entity that is their relationship.
You can think of Dali's concerts as sort of a cultural third space.
The way she sees all the different parts of her audience, the way they see her creates the spiritual architecture of that space.
And I think now that is my calling. But as a journalist, as a storyteller, as just an American living in a country struggling to hold, every story I tell has got to find the third. That place where are the things we hold is different resolve themselves into something new. So there it is. You can watch the video version of that at tedd dot com. The audio was also shared on TED Talks Daily, where they post a new idea every weekday.
As I mentioned, the video's worth checking out.
It was shot, edited and animated in three very long days by an incredible video artist, Mac Primo. His daughter, Frieda, was the grip, the dolly grip, which I which does not refer to Dolly Parton. It refers to the technical term for somebody who operates a camera or something. I don't really know.
I just work in audio. But she was the only crew on the set. And together they put together a really cool video, which you can see at Ted dot com. Definitely check it out anyhow. Don't go away. I have one more thing to talk to you about after the break.
This is intricate metal from the border town of Laredo, Texas. Radiolab is supported in part by the offered P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at W w w dot Sloan dot org.
Hey, it's Chad again. This is Radiolab. So, OK, what you just heard was my story. That's how I think about my journalism. And in many ways, it is the story of how Radiolab has evolved over the years.
You guys have heard the show evolve. We have been doing it for 17 years. Crazy to say out loud. But 17 years. And if you've been listening for some of that time, you've heard us do a million stories, stumble, sometimes grow from it, but always strive to do our most ambitious work.
And right now, I feel like that is something we all as journalists have to commit to. This is the moment to do the best work of our lives. And that is what we're trying to do here. And we need your help in order to do it. And let me make one thing clear, this show is is not just me. There's an entire team now of people who work alongside me, Sakari, Racial, Kucik, Bethel, Hopp Tay, Becca Bresler, who makes the trains run on time here.
Molly Webster, Tracy Hunt, Simon Adler doing reporting on Neatest Mon Facebook. Any mckewon with the story of that octopus at the bottom of the ocean? Matt Kielty bringing the cataclysms sentences arean whack, mixing every single piece of dialogue that you hear saw Dylan past. Susie, lots of the other other Latife. David Gable making sure the bills get paid bills for studio space, equipment, research, fact checking. In other words, making the show requires a lot of people and it is not cheap.
And that is where we turn to you. We need your support. Radiolab has listeners supported and we know. We definitely know times are tough right now, but if you are in a position to give a position to stand up and declare the things that you want to protect, we hope you will choose us. And we hope you'll make a donation. That is directly how we pay for the work that we do here. Please visit Radiolab dot org or text the word Radiolab.
No spaces to the number seven oh one oh one. That's Radiolab to seven oh one oh one. We'll text you right back with a link where you can make a very fast, very easy donation in support of this show. Thank you so much. We'll be back next week with a new episode. I'm Jad Abumrad signing off.