Podcaster Jad Abumrad gave the 8th College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Lecture at the Mandell Theater April 25.
Abumrad, founder and co-host of the popular podcast “Radiolab,” put on a presentation called “The Miracle of Plumbing,” enhancing his storytelling abilities with photography, graphical art, music and other sounds.
Before Abumrad came on stage, Donna Murasko, dean of the college, commended the informative nature of the college’s distinguished speakers.
“From that very first lecture it was clear that this was indeed what we as a college and what Drexel University needed to celebrate intellectual curiosity. But even more than that, what I found in that first lecture was that the speakers we were bringing to campus not only made their topics accessible to us but every single one has made us think about that topic in a different perspective,” Murasko said.
Told in four different chapters, Abumrad’s story focused on his fall into disillusionment with his profession and eventual reconciliation through observation of the world around him and watching how others overcome difficult situations.
“About a year ago, I sort of hit a wall,” Abumrad said. “I couldn’t figure out what made it good anymore. Like I got into that place where I couldn’t identify with the ingredients or why they mattered.”
His story started off recounting a time he took a slight detour into a sculpting supplies store several streets away from his office in New York. Abumrad explained how this atypical diversion made him realize how much of the world he was missing.
“I remember walking out of the store, and everything was different. The air tasted differently in that moment. I remember looking down at a manhole cover, looking down and being like, ‘Indoor plumbing! There are pipes underneath the ground that extend into our house and whisk away our sh–. That’s a f—ing miracle!” Abumrad said.
After explaining his excitement from discovering a whole new world — a world that had been right around the corner the whole time — Abumrad talked about how after all the years of confining himself to one city block in Manhattan, he was ecstatic about all of the new things he could learn and see.
He then discussed how this lesson applied to his career overall, easing into the second part of the story where he described detaching himself from his job; taking a break from all of the excitement and noise to observe silence.
“I’m going to take maybe a six month break and I’m going to try and figure out what it is about what I do that makes what I do good when it’s good and not when it’s not, see if I can remember,” Abumrad said.
While Abumrad’s podcasts primarily use sounds and noises to extract emotions from the listener, he realized that silence could actually allow him to tell his stories more powerfully. Abumrad talked about how he finds a lot of the answers he’s looking for in a recording Tony Phillips, who used to be a producer for the BBC, did with Malcolm X’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz. Using an audio clip of the interview, Jad explained how Phillips got over Shabazz’ reluctance to talk on the subject of her father by just sitting in silence until Shabazz took control of the conversation and started to speak.
Using what he learned about silence from Phillips, Abumrad said that he now allows for this quiet to fill gaps in his podcast instead of lots of sounds and noises. With all of the information blasting us every minute, Abumrad believes that people these days are choosing to listen and understand rather than trying to talk over others or trying to get everyone’s attention with their opinions.
“I think culturally we are in one of those moments where a lot of us might choose that, to remain unmoving and just listen,” Abumrad said.
In the third chapter, which Abumrad named “Little Sh–,” he showed the audience why little details matter so much in stories. Calling these “periscope moments,” Abumrad stated that while small details may not depict something overtly, they can provide subtle hints to help uncover the big picture.
He said that these comments are unfiltered and provide a quick peek into the soul of the person talking, and in the end, they might reveal the real story. While most ideas are communicated through obviously stated sentences, in some situations, Abumrad said that there is usually something in the backdrop that tells the real story.
“I think part of being good in these situations is recognizing what it actually feels like to listen and to hear something that’s vague, that’s incomplete, and recognizing when there’s something more,” said Abumrad.
In the fourth chapter, the decrescendo of his journey, Abumrad tied all of the three previous chapters together by saying how the depth of his work changed; at last, he found new meaning in what he was doing. By looking at the world through a different lense, Abumrad believes he was able to navigate through the monotony of continuously doing the same work for nearly sixteen years. Additionally, he stated that his new world view helped him navigate through the rough political waters that were the 2016 election.
Using a story called “Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler, Abumrad equated his journey to that of the main character in the story. The premise of Butler’s story is that in a post-apocalyptic themed world, half of the population cannot speak and the other half of the population cannot read. This leads to severe misunderstanding between everyone because those who can speak do not have any way of understanding what they are saying and those who can read have no way of communicating their ideas.
In Butler’s story, the protagonist was able to find the silver lining and was ultimately able to find a happy ending. Abumrad says this is Butler “unconsciously writing herself back to hope.”
Abumrad used this story to remind himself that when you write or tell a story, all you can do is hope that you make ripples.