WNYC radio host earns McArthur genius grant


Jad Abumrad, host of a WNYC-FM radio programming that explores scientific and philosophical topics, thought he was the recipient of a typical spam scam when he received an email informing him he was one of 22 McArthur Fellows for 2011. The honor comes with a five-year $500K grant.

According to WNYC Radio’s own report, his first thought was, “I was like, is this some Nigerian scam or something?” After some teasing from McArthur’s Daniel J. Socolow, Abumrad realized the award was the real deal, and since then the challenge has been to honor his pledge of confidentiality.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation released a bio of Abumrad to illustrate its reason for selecting him. “Jad Abumrad is a radio host and producer whose engaging audio explorations of scientific and philosophical questions captivate listeners and bring to broadcast journalism a distinctive new aesthetic. As co-host and producer of the nationally syndicated program Radiolab, Abumrad employs his background as a composer to orchestrate dialogue, music, and sound effects into compelling documentaries that draw listeners into investigations of otherwise intimidating topics, such as the nature of numbers, the evolution of altruism, or the science of emergent phenomena within ant colonies and other complex systems.”

The foundation expressed praise for the recipient’s conversational style, his ability to mimic the scientific process within his program, and his use of humor.

After describing a handful of Abumrad’s topics, McArthur concluded, “With these and many other Radiolab shows, accessible as radio broadcasts and as podcasts, Abumrad is inspiring boundless curiosity within a new generation of listeners and experimenting with sound to find ever more effective and entertaining ways to explain ideas and tell a story.”

RBR-TVBR observation: This is a feather in the cap for radio in general – it underscores the “theater of the mind” theory, shows that it can be taken to a very high plane of human thought, and serves as a reminder to all radio broadcasters to keep the special magic of audio-only content in mind in both programming and commercial messaging.