‘Don’t Break It!’ The New Hosts of ‘Radiolab’ Remodel a Landmark

No one can accuse Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser — co-hosts of “Radiolab,” the venerable science-inflected, human-interest radio show and podcast — of lacking enthusiasm. In a room together, physically or virtually, they operate like a kind of perpetual motion machine, volleying inchoate thoughts and hypotheses with no apparent loss of momentum.

“We both have big golden retriever energy,” said Miller, wearing a black T-shirt that read “Fight Evil, Read Books.”

“It’s like the Monty Python thing,” offered Nasser, with an unruly cloud of black curls and clear eyeglasses. “Our first audience is each other.”

During a video interview one recent morning, Miller, who lives in Chicago, and Nasser, who lives in Los Angeles, were bursting with metaphors. The pair took on hosting duties at “Radiolab” a little over a year ago, when the show’s founder and animating force, Jad Abumrad, stepped down voluntarily after 20 years. Since then, they’ve wrestled with how to describe their version of the show, which, among other changes (even more science stories, an added dose of whimsy), they are working to make less hierarchical and more collective.

“We’re like a rat king, but a nice rat king,” Nasser volunteered. “Our tails have been tied together through fate and circumstance and we all have to scurry in the same direction.”

Miller looked skeptical.

“I like rats,” she replied diplomatically. “I love that they’re gnarly and unsung. But the problem with this metaphor is that rat kings die.”

A better comparison, Miller suggested, would be something more long-lasting.

“Like lichen: this group of fungi and algae that together can grow anywhere,” she said. “And guess how long it lives for, on average? Oh, just about 10,000 years.”

Longevity, and its opposite, are top of mind at “Radiolab” these days. Along with “This American Life” and “Fresh Air,” the show is one of the few standing giants of the radio era whose shadow still looms over the podcast landscape. Started as a one-man narrative audio experiment at WNYC in 2002, it now employs a staff of 22 that publishes about 50 episodes per year (around 25 new episodes and 25 reruns, alternating weekly), and has averaged 100 million cumulative downloads over each of the past two years, according to Dalia Dagher, a WNYC spokeswoman. It has generated multiple revered spinoff series, including “More Perfect” and “Dolly Parton’s America,” and earned two Peabody Awards (and — for Abumrad, in 2011 — a MacArthur “Genius” grant).

In a tumultuous period for the audio industry, with millions of active shows swirling ever-changing platforms and business models, “Radiolab” has managed to stay above the fray. Its listenership has remained constant since the host transition, Dagher said. And it is the rare podcast still capable of generating something like a broadly shared listening experience, as it did with a show last year about the hidden life of Helen Keller, or a series from the year before tracing the cultural history of cassette tapes.

Among Miller and Nasser’s ambitions is extending that legacy for another two decades. Almost in unison, they described their most sacred duty to the show in three words:

“Don’t break it!”

Under Abumrad, in partnership with his longtime foil and co-host, Robert Krulwich (who helped define the show in 2005 and retired in 2020), and the original executive producer, Ellen Horne (who left in 2015), “Radiolab” became a protean vessel for sound-rich, intellectually curious and emotionally engaged storytelling. It popularized several conventions of modern podcasting, including layered vocal tracks, cold opens (“Hey, can you hear me OK?”) and the “brain dump” episode format, in which a reporter walks a host through a story.

“It was revolutionary,” said Jay Allison, the founder of Transom.org and executive director of Atlantic Public Media. “We’re a sonic medium but a lot of times you wouldn’t have known it, listening to public radio. On ‘Radiolab,’ every second was built completely for the ears, considered like a note in a score.”

The new hosts are avowed disciples of the “Radiolab” doctrine. Miller, 39, joined the show as an intern in 2005 and later became its fourth staff member. She had been working as a woodworker’s assistant in Brooklyn when she was hooked by an episode on the science of emergence, in which a segment about synchronized swarms of Southeast Asian fireflies integrated an ethereal score and transporting sound design: the ripples of the lake, the song of the birds.

“It was like nothing I’d ever heard before,” she said. “I was like, What is that? I want to get inside of that.

Nasser, 37, wrote a cold pitch to the show in 2010 after hearing an episode about an epidemic of laughter in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), the subject of his doctoral dissertation at Harvard.

“There was profundity, but they were also making dumb jokes,” he said. “They were playing the whole emotional piano.”

Miller and Nasser have preserved the essence of the show while gently tinkering with its perspective. They first began co-hosting with Abumrad in 2020, more than a year before his departure, and have since held the mantle lightly; a recent two-part series, about an effort to smuggle abortion drugs into Ukraine, was hosted entirely by Molly Webster, a senior correspondent, and Gregory Warner, the host of “Rough Translation.” They have ventured into more fanciful territory, devoting one recent episode entirely to poetry, and another one to butts. And they plan to redouble the show’s commitment to science stories, including more that are focused on climate change. (In his last 10 years at “Radiolab,” and especially after the 2016 election, Abumrad steered more directly into cultural subjects where “truths collide.”)

“That’s where our sweet spots lie as reporters,” Nasser said.

A recent downturn in the advertising industry has tested the show financially. Late last month, WNYC said it would cancel “The Takeaway,” its long-running daily news show, citing industrywide “revenue headwinds” and a decline in audience.

WNYC declined to discuss revenue figures at “Radiolab,” which is primarily funded through a mix of sponsorships, grants and donations. But the company said the show has increased its donor pool by 37 percent since late 2021, when it introduced a Patreon-like membership program called “The Lab” that allows members access to commercial-free episodes, exclusive events and other perks. Andrew Golis, the chief content officer at WNYC, said there are no plans for budget or staff cuts at the show.

“‘Radiolab’ is both culturally impactful and really important to our business and our mission,” he said. “As challenging as this media environment is, I think mission-driven organizations that have members and foundations supporting their work are a lot better off than those that rely only on advertising.”

During a pitch meeting last month, the staff of “Radiolab” manifested Miller and Nasser’s collectivist lichen/rat-king ideal. A mosaic of more than 20 faces — of a variety of age, race and gender presentations — populated a Zoom session led by Soren Wheeler, the show’s executive editor. The group debated a roster of anonymously submitted story ideas (“Radiolab” typically plans shows up to six months in advance), most but not all of which were science-related.

A pitch about the Nazis’ little-known “Minister of Dance” met resistance.

“The history is fascinating, but I’m not quite sure why I care beyond that,” said Simon Adler, a senior producer.

But an idea about the rise of early puberty captivated the room.

“One possibility is environmental exposures, like plastics that seem to mimic estrogens,” offered Matt Kielty, a senior producer. “There’s so much fascinating biology there.”

One proposal, about a historian’s surprisingly hopeful investigation into philosophical arguments against suicide, put everyone in a reflective mood.

“That’s like a profound gift we could give to the world,” Nasser said, momentarily dumbstruck. “Let’s make that.”

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