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Gut Churn, and the freedom to not know what you’re doing

August 6, 2012

Jad Abumrad, co-creator and host of the sublime Radiolab, wrote recently about how the science-and-everything-else show got its start. It was an amorphous thing – Mikel Ellcessor, the program director at WNYC, wanted Jad to put together a show to fill a one-hour slot on Sunday nights, and it could be about whatever Jad wanted. Mikel added, presumably unhelpfully: “Just make it different.” And one final thing, which Mikel didn’t mention until 2 days before launch – he wanted Jad to host it.

So Jad is freaking out about what type of show to put together, and what type of host he wants to be. And Mikel is freaking out because (a) he doesn’t know how to sell the concept to his higher-ups when the show could be about anything (or nothing), and (b) he barely has the budget to pay Jad for said show.

Gulp.

But the thing is, that feeling of dread – Mikel calls it “gut churn” – wasn’t just a kick-in-the-pants to spur Jad to move quickly. It also helped define Radiolab. It’s the thing that’s made it unique. Here’s Jad:

So anyhow, I can’t exactly explain the existential dread except to say two things.

A) I don’t think it’s that unusual. I smell it on a lot of people I work with.

B) The dread might be the cost of freedom.
Kierkegaard talked about it this way: a man stands on the edge of a cliff and looks down at all the possibilities of his life. He reflects on all the things he could become. He knows he has to jump (i.e. make a choice). But he also knows that if he jumps, he’ll have to live within the boundaries of that one choice. So the man feels exhilaration but also an intense dread, what Kgard called “the dizziness of freedom.”

So gut churn is double edged. It’s impending death but it’s also the thing we all want: profound freedom.

Anyhow, my own dizziness/churn began the moment Mikel told me I’d have to host this thing. The word “host” unleashed a hornet’s nest of questions.

Am I a journalist? So should I be formal?
Chatty? Personal?

How personal is too personal?
What stories are my stories?
What music is my music?

In other words:

Who am I?

And the progression of Jad’s wildly entertaining, still broadly-defined show has been largely about digging into the answers to those questions. Personal questions, through stories about what’s happening out there, everywhere.

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