Unconventional Thinking

Over at Transom, a site showcasing interesting things going on in public radio, Ira Glass explains what makes Radiolab such a terrific program, which is kind of like having Ted Williams explain to you what makes Joe DiMaggio a great hitter. Here he is talking about a one-minute introduction to a segment on the program, particularly the way the co-hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, talk to each other:

All this banter also helps them solve a storytelling problem that would come up for anyone trying to tell the story of the two Laura Buxtons. Consider: the entire point of this story is how completely amazingly incredible the coincidence is that both girls are named Laura Buxton (other coincidences and the mathematical likelihood of these coincidences follow). For the story to work, the listener really needs to feel the incredibleness of the coincidence. The more he or she feels that, the more punch the whole thing will have. So rather than have Jad narrate the story like any normal public radio reporter – go from script to quote to script to quote – the theater of having another co-host in there muttering at first "it better get better than this" and then exclaiming "No!" and finally "Is this for real?" sells the incredibleness way more effectively. This is a trick the Planet Money team is using all the time. Having two narrators lets them express amazement, underline what’s funny, manipulate the pacing, pause on a difficult idea and bring up opposing arguments in a very graceful way.

Of course, if you're not listening to Radiolab, you're missing out (you can fix that here). One of the things the program demonstrates is that the conventions of a medium (radio) and a genre within that medium (NPR documentaries, science programs) are not written in stone, no matter how used to them we get. Because Abumrad and Krulwich have a deep understanding of those conventions, they can modify and subvert them just enough to produce something compelling and surprising without it being so avant-garde that it turns off listeners who are quite happy with All Things Considered.

Every medium and genre, from TV news to blogs, has conventions that are very hard to break away from. For instance, about 99 percent of magazines follow a particular format: short, easy-to-digest pieces in the front (called the "front of the book"), followed by somewhere between around three and six larger feature pieces in the middle, winding up with a few shorter pieces in the back (the "back of the book"). Magazine editors have good reasons why they believe that particular flow makes for pleasurable reading, but it's also difficult to change because readers have become so used to their magazines being organized that way.

There's nothing inherently wrong with medium and genre conventions, and undoing them doesn't in and of itself make you a genius. We like a certain amount of order and predictability in what we're reading, listening to, or watching. That's why it takes such skill and subtlety to tinker with those conventions successfully.