As longtime friends, “Radiolab” creator and former host Jad Abumrad and “This American Life” host Ira Glass have had countless conversations — off the air. But when the pair of public radio icons come to the Emerson Colonial Theatre Saturday, fans should expect a more immersive experience from the expert storytellers.
While the event will take a look back at their careers, Abumrad and Glass want to draw audiences deeper into their stories using audio and video clips, as well as original music. Blending their styles, they hope to create a “new form” that goes beyond “just two guys chatting.”
“It’s chatting in a sort of hyperdimensional way where you have access to video clips and various things, and they can be inserted very improvisationally in the middle of a conversation,” says Abumrad. “It is gesturing at a new form that is neither stage schtick nor stage conversation. There’s a third point on that triangle that’s been fun trying to find.”
Ahead of their Boston show, Abumrad spoke about working with Glass, the future of podcasting, and mentoring the next generation of storytellers.
Q. Where did the idea for doing a live event come from?
A. Ira and I have been having breakfast for years. When “Radiolab” was first being discovered, he put us on before anyone knew about us. We were just constantly in conversation, but we never thought about doing anything on a stage. Truth be told, I don’t exactly know where the idea came from, but it’s been really fun. I’m very much in the Ira Glass school of storytelling but have a different way of doing things, so it’s fun to explore those differences.
Q. Coming from the world of radio, how did you adjust to telling stories for the stage?
A. It took me a minute to get comfortable being onstage. I remember the first time I ever did a stage show, it was at the Fitzgerald Theater in Minnesota. I was in a fetal position under a desk before we went out. I was like, “I’m going to die. I’m literally going to step on that stage and I’m going to fall over and have a stroke.” That’s how unnatural standing on a stage felt to me at that point in my career. Every time I do it, there is still this terror, but now that is outweighed by the creative possibilities.
When we’re doing podcasts, it’s all about painting pictures in people’s minds using words, sounds, and music. But it’s fun to play with visuals now. In the four tours we did with “Radiolab,” it started out as two stools on a stage. Fast forward, we were doing live mixing with video artists and a full band and giant, 40-foot dinosaur puppets coming in and out of the action. We just started experimenting with how theatrical we can make this. I still take that sense of experimentation into these kinds of things.
Q. Looking back on your career, what story left the biggest impact on you?
A. The first thing that comes to mind is a story we did called “Finding Emilie.” It was the story of these two young kids in New York, both went to Cooper Union as art students. One day, she bikes to the studio and gets hit by a truck. She loses her vision, can’t hear, and seems to be in a coma. It’s the story of her boyfriend at the time, Alan, almost in an Anne Sullivan-Hellen Keller sort of way, trying to draw her out of that darkness.
Somehow, we got to the story as it was unfolding. She was still in the hospital. As we were recording, he was trying to convince the doctors that she was in there. He was finger spelling on her palm to ask her questions. It’s still one of the most powerful and intense stories that we ever made. I ended up staying in touch with Emilie and her mom. She’s really flourished and gone on to have a pretty amazing art career. It was one of the few times where the story moved me on such a deep level that I really stayed in touch with them and continue to.
Q. What excites you — and scares you — about the future of podcasting and telling stories through audio?
A. What’s really surprised me is just the sheer number and kinds of podcasts. As much as I can get cynical about podcasting, it’s still pretty amazing to me that a person can make a thing in their bedroom with just a few hundred dollars’ worth of equipment. The fact that there are no gatekeepers, that is still amazing to me.
On the flip side of things, it is really distressing to me that, if you look at a show like “This American Life” or “Radiolab,” no one would ever make those shows now. The economic downward pressure of podcasting is that so you can’t really have big teams anymore. There’s only a few places that are doing deep-dive journalism. It’s all getting pushed down to, like, celebrities talking to their friends, and that’s a little bit of a bummer to me. I want deep-dive journalism to have a home and, increasingly, all the homes are getting burnt down.
Q. AI is on a lot of people’s minds. How do you view its impact, particularly on podcasting?
A. One of the main tools that we all use now to make podcasts is an incredible program called Descript. It has AI baked in. You can basically use AI to generate a voice that is like you or any of your guests. As a producer, that makes it so wonderfully convenient, but it also freaks me out a little bit that I can simply type in a sentence and make me or my guest say whatever I want. It’s really easy for me to see the downsides.
At the same time, I think recently there was an AI initiative to try and analyze all the various permutations of protein construction and folding. That’s going to change humanity and make a lot of people’s lives better. So I don’t think you can just say that it’s a disaster. But I am stuck somewhere in the middle.
Q. You recently started teaching at Vanderbilt and are set to launch a podcasting institute. Are you excited to mentor a new generation of storytellers?
A. It’s been really fun. The podcasting institute, as it was announced, is actually going to be closer to a media lab where students and I can experiment with story forms to try and make people’s lives better. The students of today are so much smarter than my cohort of students was when we were coming up. It’s really inspiring to work with young people. It’s funny, just thinking about Ira and, to a lesser extent, what I did at “Radiolab.” That language of storytelling is almost part of their way of thinking now. They understand how to tell a story in a way that’s kind of shocking to me. It’s been a trip.
A CONVERSATION WITH IRA GLASS AND JAD ABUMRAD
At Emerson Colonial Theatre. Sept. 30 at 8 p.m. Tickets $29-$124. emersoncolonialtheatre.com
Interview was edited and condensed.