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Making the Hippo Dance

Tuesday, September 09, 2008 - 01:10 AM

Hippos Hippos (wwarby/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

We play some never-released tape from the vault, and reveal a bit about what techniques we used to try and make it sing.


Earlier this year, Jad and Robert visited the Koshland Science Museum in Washington D.C. to give listeners a behind-the-scenes look at Radiolab. The question here is just how far can you go in the name of making an idea clear? What's allowed? Is music allowed? Are sound effects allowed? What helps? What hurts?

Also, if you enjoyed this conversation, you may want to check out the other Radiolab process talks, like this one at Oberlin College in the spring and another last fall at the Apple store in New York. And if you didn't enjoy...don't worry--new Radiolab shows are coming soon!


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Comments [43]

Gowoon Kim from NYC

This podcast "Making the Hippo Dance", which I manage to miss somehow until today (I've been a fairly regular listener for 4+ yrs now) pretty much summarizes WHY I love RadioLab.

You talk about science with a really compelling story. The storytelling part of the production really draws me in and while I would zone out while reading/listening to a complex scientific theory on my own, your show manage to get me engaged for hours. I feel like your podcast/shows are the only bright spot during my work hours, keeping me alert and laugh occasionally.

Thank you for the wonderful show and always looking forward to the next episode!

Jul. 13 2012 12:38 AM
Catherine C from Tampa, FL

I love everything about radiolab, i laugh just by hearing you laugh! Listening to all the background sound clips, my imagination hits the ground running making me feel like i'm on the adventure with you, it totally makes the show 3 dimensional!! Thank you

Apr. 05 2012 09:38 AM

I am a new listener (about a year) and you guys have single-handedly saved my life. I have gotten to the point where I lost so much hope in anything this life has to offer. You have sparked my curiosity and unknowingly encouraged me to give it another try. Thank you. I am so happy to have Radiolab in my life. You make me smile and I have not done that in such a long time.

Apr. 08 2011 08:09 AM

I've been listening to and enjoying Radio Lab for several months now and I didn't realize, until I listened to this episode, that it is often about science. I went through years of school avoiding science desperately, and here you have me enjoying it! How sneaky! Anyway, I love the podcast and I think you guys do amazing work.

Jun. 18 2010 12:15 PM
Jeff Schmidt

I had been told about Radio Lab some time ago but hadn't given it a real listen until over this past holiday.

Now I'm totally drawn in! I'm hooked.

What can I say - this is an incredible RADIO show!

Rather than present ideas in a dry and straight forward manner - you guys really take advantage of the FULL range of the radio medium by embracing the creative use of SOUND at the service of story telling. Its the way modern radio should sound.

The sound design on this show is unique, compelling, tasteful and very well done. It pushes the storytelling forward. It's an absolute joy for me to listen to.

I also think it's time for a new intro. But not because I found it objectionable. I've listened to your skills evolve over the course of the show and I'm excited to hear what you come up with next!

I so appreciate what you guys do.

I'm clicking the support button after I hit submit on this comment.


Jan. 31 2009 02:40 AM

You guys are an inspiration.

I create exhibits for museums and face many of the same issues (especially the charge of dumbing down vs. the requirement to make meaningful). My range of media options is much wider (objects, images, text, video, interactives, live interpreters, live animals, multi-screen object theaters, and so on) but I can't top your ability to tell a story. Radio (sound) is so much more engaging--when used creatively--because because by turning off our eyes it requires us to engage our imaginations. Thank you.

By the way, do you have any job openings?

Dec. 18 2008 01:36 PM

I love the analogy of the dancing hippo. Question: Do you think this format would have been possible before digital editing - i.e. with tape machines?

Nov. 03 2008 05:13 PM

In contrast to what Ralph said above, I think one of the keys to your success is that you DO break in and say what you think and explain what the booktalk meant... I love This American Life, but this is a different show, and one of the best things is hearing when Jad and Robert disagree about something. I think having one host explaining things to the other is a great way to keep the show grounded and (usually) a good way of summarizing info without talking down to the audience. By the way, I love the sound effects--even the ones that are a little over the top, like when you have the neurons talking and freaking out in that segment about the Rite of Spring. I think it's great that your show makes me think AND laugh!

Oct. 28 2008 10:07 PM

I love the way you use sound effects to tell stories. This is ground-breaking radio, for sure. Like artistic reality tv, you "show" instead of tell - people introduce themselves by saying their name for sound check, you let them speak and intrigue you before didactically telling us who they are (if you ever tell us, it often doesn't matter!) I don't think it really dumbs things down, it makes it a much richer experience! Didactic journalism may not be dumbed-down, but it's "dumbening" - makes you feel dumb in the disability sense - gives you no voice to respond. Sorry this is rambling, I didn't really think this through but I had to respond when I thought you might be doubting all the extra work you're putting in with sounds. Your show is my favorite form of entertainment - and I learn something!

Oct. 23 2008 01:40 PM
Ralph Ogden

Not sure where else to leave this comment, but in a recent "mini" show (Maybe it was this one in fact: 'Making the Hipp Dance'), you discussed how difficult it was to relay complex scientific principles to a radio audience and how you struggled to find a balance between fairly representing the concepts versus keeping the show entertaining and engaging.

And that inspired me to suggest something I've wanted to share with you guys for a while. First, I love the show and always recommend it to friends and family. But, and I hope you won't take this the wrong way, but I think your greatest problem is that Robert Krowlich needs to not say a good 70-80% of the things he says. It's just very distracting. Listen to This American Life or the Moth series. Notice how the moderator sit back and let the subjects and stories run the show. Your role should be in the editing studio afterwards - not front and center all the time. The sound effects are fine and you don't dumb it down too much (though you get pretty close sometimes).

Frankly your best shows are those in which Jad is alone for whatever reason. I'm sorry and I don't mean to be hurtful. I think Robert has a great voice for radio. This just isn't a good format for someone so eager to chuckle at himself every five seconds.

Anyway - my two cents. -Ralph Ogden

Oct. 17 2008 08:12 AM
barb lhota

I love your show! It reminds me of the best teachers/professors I had in school. You are inspiring, curious yourselves and present the material so that no-one feels left out. You tell a story with each topic, which helps me remember and ponder these ideas for weeks. Many times I talk about the concepts you present at dinner with friends. The conversation always proves to be a lively. As a playwright in a big family of science/math types (and many teachers) I'm not the quickest to grasp all minor details of science/math theories, but I do understand the abstracted and I do know that your enthusiasm and storytelling keeps me coming back again and again. One day I wouldn't be surprised if I use the seeds of one of your topics in one of my plays. Please keep the sounds coming. I found the effects in the fire fly sequence haunting asI could completely imagine the scene. Hey, it’s radio—exploit the sound.

Oct. 16 2008 01:47 PM
Dave Kliman

I absolutely LOVE your show, and I ADORE the way you take dry material and really make it accessible and exciting.

I was a 4.0 student in school because i TRICKED myself into thinking every single thing i was learning was emotionally EXCITING.

I have used your morality episode on many occasions to demonstrate how politicians can frame an issue in a certain way so as to target your chimp brain and force you to take their side.

Of course it would be really cool if you looked at that yourself, but the bottom line is that I have often referred people to your show, to various episodes, to really explain various different subjects.

you have done a better job than most anybody at making sense of this very complicated world we live in, and I hope you will continue and that you will really help us all sink our teeth into what's out there.

as for your opening sequence, you're creative, and i'm sure you can make something fun that continues to match the original style you have created. personally i'm not sure if i think its a good idea to mess with success though.

Sep. 22 2008 12:17 PM

People don't laugh on the subway in ny. You could do almost anything and people would just look away, ignore it, or silently bare witness. If you do something interesting yet socially acceptable (ie play music, dance, be a show essentially) that's sometimes different. But anything weird or outside of normal behavior is not acknowledged. Everyone is too trained to easily go into their own little blocked off world. It's cool everyone played along though - too bad it still ruined your test although the results I don't think would be different. Other places I think you could succeed though.

Sep. 19 2008 02:01 AM

I'm a physicist who has never acted much older than his shoe size when it comes to curiosity, Radio Lab is delightful as it brings that childlike curiosity to a larger audience. The two of you are fantastic. I struggle with explaining concepts to those who don't have graduate physics or math degrees and have a bit of success, but it is difficult. I've even teamed up with a professional beach volleyball player to make some of the points

More power to you. This is radio at its best!

Sep. 18 2008 06:55 PM

I always feel a pang of sadness whenever I start listening to a new Radio Lab show. It isn't because I dislike the content, or am worried that I will run into subjects that will be over my head, but rather it is because I know that when I start listening, in a half hour or an hour's time, the show will be over.

Such a fantastic show, thank you so much for it.

Sep. 17 2008 06:02 PM

As a Video and TV teacher and someone that worked in the film business, I love the great production value you guys bring to your show. It really does work and makes your message much clearer. And your show makes me think, pause and reflect, I actually do learn something, from every show. I have tried to encourage some of my co-teachers in the science department to take a listen - to no avail yet - but I'm going to keep on working on them. Your doing some excellent work, keep it going.

Sep. 16 2008 01:44 AM

If you're still looking for feedback about the show on dancing hippos, i can tell you that what you're doing is working great. I download the podcasts and Radio Lab is the best podcast on my Ipod. I look forward to each new show. to answer your question about the firefly show... yes, what you do makes it better. The effects, the bird, the voices help take you there, then the music really promotes the wonder of what's in the story. The timing is perfect. I have always appreciated those little add ins and for the most part they are done well. Don't change a thing. There are plenty of dry, slow moving, fact packed podcasts available for anyone that wants them. I wish some of them would invest in a good mic. I sat in my truck and laughed my ass off out loud as I listened to how Robert and Jad were fooled on the train during their laughter experiment...! I just encourage you to continue with your vision for Radio Lab, i'd say you're right on track!

Sep. 15 2008 07:55 PM

I just want to say the laughing thing really works. People will laugh if you start to laugh with nothing funny. When I was in high school we would play a laughing game. What we would do was just start laughing, really fake laughs, laughs that are not funny but just laughing. One by one we would do this and sooner than later we would start to laugh. Really laugh, belly shaking laughs that we couldn't stop. Our fake laughing that didn't mean anything but soon it would be real laughing and would make other people laugh even if they weren't involved. It was a great time!

Sep. 15 2008 02:06 PM

Love the show and particularly enjoyed this behind the scenes look. Occasionally the sound effects seem overdone to me, but they are so perfectly executed most of the time that I wouldn't want you to ever deliberately scale back.

The one exception is the intro which I absolutely cannot stand. I literally pull the headphones out of my ears when I know the W...N...Y...C... bit is about to start. Just thinking about it now makes my stomach turn. I always just thought it was me, but I was ecstatic to hear it's a common complaint and that you might be changing things soon. Please do so and make one of my favorite podcasts even better!

Sep. 15 2008 03:38 AM

Contrary to most opinions posted here, I really like the opening! Oh, and like someone else mentioned, I too thought it was strange that a show dedicated to getting audience feedback, left little actual time for it.

Sep. 14 2008 06:24 PM

I always thought the opening theme did not reflect the quality of the show. Go ahead and change it. Now, onto the show!

The initial premise of the show was to get feedback on your radio dilemma of presenting dry, high minded ideas into an easily digestible radio friendly format. You spent 99% of the time explaining what you do with only a few minutes to capture audience feedback. Remains me of when a manager asks for employee feedback and spends the rest of the time talking about his/her ideas. Sigh...

Radio Lab is interesting to me because it takes the technical stuff which I like and gives it that "radio theatre of the mind" quality through the richness of sound. Yes, you can over do it with too many sound effects and that's the rub. Achieve balance. As you said, " the eyes!"

Looking forward to the next season.

Sep. 14 2008 07:46 AM

Don't, DO NOT, change the opening. What can I say, I'm attached to it.

Sep. 13 2008 10:07 AM

I am an oldster and love the show. I just discovered your shows a few months go. The integration of voices, interviews, music and sound effects is wonderful. As in life, folks who have no complaints will not weigh in about your intro. I like it.

Sep. 12 2008 11:38 PM

Yes, you simplify. That is a good thing. When my kids were little they learned not to ask me questions because I would start the answer with, "Everything is made of atoms, and..."
You simplify, and you leave out important details, but you clarify the point. In the story of C. Elegans, you make it clear that there is a gene that normally limits its lifespan. That is amazing. How it does that is harder, and may fade from memory with time, but that core idea will remain.
There is a recent series of books called "Head First..." that uses a variety of methods to help teach technical subjects (like XHMTL with CSS, C++, or statistics) including cartoons, interviews with inanimate objects, puzzles, and more. These books remind me of RadioLab.
Sure, there is more to science, but first, you have to get people to see the wonder. You also educate non-scientists who think it is all boring equations.
The interaction between Jad and Robert is an important element.

Laughter on the train: You stopped too soon. It would take over a minute to overcome social resistance. George Carlin once appeared on a show and came on stage and said nothing for three minutes. By the end the audience was howling.
In India there is a laughing club as a form of Yoga.
If you have kids you know they are funny. I believe laughter is a diversion from criticizing our children for misunderstanding. All humor involves mistakes and double meanings.

Sep. 12 2008 10:24 PM
Audita Sum

I like the intro a lot, actually.

Sep. 11 2008 05:25 PM
Audita Sum

Oh Jebus; the Krebs Cycle.

I seriously love what you guys do with the podcast. The music is very important. I do appreciate the craftmanship.

Sep. 11 2008 05:19 PM

I found Radio Lab by accident about a year ago, and have downloaded every podcast since. I love it. You make the most mundane topics seem so much more fun and human.

My favorite is "Musical Speech". I was very entrigued with the EMI segment. As a digital artist, I get very much the same reaction to my artwork, that some people got to the EMI compositions, that is, "It's fake" because I use computers in aid of creating my art. I've sent that episode to a few people who and told them to put ME in the place of the composer, and maybe they'd realize that even though I use pixels instead of paint, that I have to have the talent and artistic know-how to beginwith, just as the composer had to be a musician. Just like the composer, the artistry comes after the composition. . . he took the EMI compositions at face, and humanized them, added the neuance and the dynamics and made them 'music'. I take the computer generated pixels and models and go from there, adding the same sort of elements of light and shadow and depth . . .

Just thought I'd share how your show inspired me to be proud of what I do, instead of apologetic.

Oh, and about the intro, that slowed down W N YYY CCCccc makes me want to bite through steel.



Sep. 11 2008 12:46 PM
Miss Suzy

I am a radio show freak. I listen to old radio shows from the 1940's for fun, and collect when I can. During segments of my work, I am able to listen to Radiolab and there is something about working intently at the computer on certain types of tasks that enables me to completely tune in to your show as if I were hypnotized. I LOVE it. I am sending your site out to my friends and relatives whenever I can, and I have a few of my older children listening, too. Please don't stop. You are the show I would make if I could make a radio show.

Sep. 11 2008 12:35 PM
CJ Leach

PS Hippos Are Deadly

Wikipedia Entry on Hippos

Hippos attack humans and boats.[41] Steve Irwin, who used to toy with crocodiles for fun, considered a five-minute sequence crossing a river filled with hippos to be the most dangerous thing he ever filmed.[42] The Discovery Channel recently broadcast footage of a hippo eating a wildebeest. The hippo first pushed two crocodiles out of its way with its gigantic snout to get to the wildebeest; the crocodiles put up no resistance at all. A park ranger in Africa recently sprinted over a hundred yards to survive a hippo attack. [43]

Sep. 11 2008 11:27 AM
CJ Leach

I love the sound effects, the streamed modified noises, and character noises that depict complex ideas. I have watched and listened to so many scientific programs and lectures from colleges, documentarians, and television shows and I have never come across any show like radio lab. Matter of fact, to put this in perspective with the scope of my comparison I should let you know that I listen to at least 10 hours of radio a day and many days 16 hours. From Rush to Diane Rehm, talk radio to ITunes U, and This American Life short documentaries to log John Grisham Novels I absorb them all daily. I have a job where I can automate my brain to do many of the tasks while having another part of my brain listening intently to the shows. However, most radio does not paint a picture with their words and the few that do stop at just the story. You take it a step further, you add the stimuli that would come with such a story to put me there and put color in the picture. I have returned to many of your episodes over and over again, because they are so rich. Don’t stop, keep doing what you are doing. By the way Zoe Keating is my new favorite artist and when I hear her music I get the same intense feeling I got from listening to the War of the World Episode, pure captivation.

Sep. 11 2008 11:18 AM

Don't worry about the playing with sound -- I think Jad said it right in his Third Coast and Apple Store sessions -- the music and the sounds are around the meanings of the speech, framing it, punctuating it more clearly, and coming from it.

I've never noticed the sounds push in a direction that the interviewee or science didn't (seem) to be going.

The Bad Science Blog has an insight into how radio is great, basically. And it's in the context of a BBC Radio 4 show on Placebo. A show clearly influenced by Radio Lab's own.

Radio Lab is great and will be missed whenever it ends, but it's influence, I believe and hope, is spreading.

Sep. 11 2008 06:55 AM
Damon Lisch

Hi guys,
I’m a geneticist at U.C. Berkeley. Needless to say, I love your program. You are very, very good at what you do. You, more than most people, probably appreciate that even as our society becomes more and more dependent on science and technology, we become more ignorant of it. I guess that makes sense, since the more sophisticated our analysis and exploitation of the natural world becomes, the more difficult it becomes to understand. The more difficult it becomes to understand, the less anyone who isn’t a scientist wants to even try. Plus it’s kind of scary. And that is where you come in. You personalize the information, you make it concrete. You make stories and narratives that let the listeners in. When you talk about scientific fields that I’m not familiar with, you enlighten me. So. Happy, happy scientist gives you rave reviews.
Here’s what I’ve been worrying about. How dumb should we get? How far will you follow the downward trend? You guys are talented, and not doubt you will be able to educate and entertain your audience not matter how ignorant and lazy they become. Yes, I know. Provacative. But, really. The better you are at what you do, the more people will be convinced that they really don’t have to work to understand science. Or politics. Or anything else. I’m funded by the National Science Foundation, and I have a kid in middle school, so I’ve heard the mantra of “relevance” many times. We need to connect to the audience, to market our ideas, to make everthing as easy as possible for our audience to understand. What if we had the same expectation of politics? Maybe we do. But maybe we shouldn’t. What if we as citizens actually have an obligation to try to understand complicated ideas? What if our kids in school should actually have to learn things that are hard to grasp?
It seems to me that we have turned learning, and citizenship, into consumerism. Think about it. We are bathed in a culture that wants to sell us something by making everything easy. In that kind of culture, everything must be marketed. Palatable. Simple. No one has to be made to deal with anything difficult, or complicated. But what is the cost? What if you guys had an agenda? How easy would it be for you to lead us to whatever conclusion you wanted? The problem I see is that some things, some ideas, some actions are actually hard. They take time and effort. How do we deal with that?

Sep. 10 2008 09:04 PM

It's Oberlin College, not Oberlin University. As alums, Jad and Robert might want you to get that one right.

Otherwise, thanks for the podcast!

Sep. 10 2008 05:26 PM

My Dearest Radio Lab,

I have been sick in bed for several days now which has been good for only one reason: I've been able to catch up on Radio Lab.

I just listened to this piece and it really made me smile. I found it very enjoyable to learn about hows and whys of radio lab.

Also, I truly enjoyed the subway prank. I started laughing so hard that my laughter threw me into fits of cougher (with more laughs in the middle).

Thanks for making me smile while I'm sick and for bringing science to masses...

Sep. 10 2008 05:15 PM

• Love the show -
• Love Daniel's idea to have public submissions for the intro.
• I do like the sound effects - but often they are OVER THE TOP in my opinion. Sometimes the engineer gets caught up in trying to be fancy.

Sep. 10 2008 04:27 PM

I love the bleeps, I LOVE the bleeps :)

The sound effects draw me in. I'm already pretty drawn in with the subject matter but I'm enveloped in the sound effects. Possibly it's vaguely womb like ;-) It is lovely though.

I know the intro off pretty much by heart now... poke around on WNYC... compliance solutions for mid market... and then the real intro, which I'll miss if you change it, but there's always the archive.

Sep. 10 2008 03:36 PM
Bryan J Busch

Very mollified to hear eleven failures at an attempt to make people laugh simply by laughing. That man's claim had been bothering me.

Sep. 10 2008 12:44 PM

I don't think your show dumbs things down too much. It is true, that sometimes I know a little bit more about some of the topics than what you are revealing to us. I think of the show as more of an entertaining overview of some otherwise unaccessible heavy Science stuff. I appreciate that you allow me to enjoy and comprehend Science, without actually having to be a Scientist.

As for the intro, I like it. If you must change it, perhaps refine it instead of completely throwing it out.

Sep. 10 2008 11:49 AM

The first time I heard radiolab, I was sitting in my car waiting on my pizza. The show instantly caught my attention and I put off eating until it had finished.

It is the production quality of this show that makes it different and better than any other science program I know of. Where the other shows inform, this one also entertains. I look forward to another season.

Sep. 09 2008 10:26 PM

For a year now, I've been chasing Radiolab around the internet and listening like a lunatic. It was true love.

It didn't occur to me until this episode that Radiolab is a science show. I mean, it's obvious now, but what does that say about the show? What does that say about me?

Sep. 09 2008 08:57 PM

3 things.
1. Amazing show. I submit that it is everything that you hope it is. Fun, accessable, informative, awe inspiring, and entertaining.
2. Open the intro up for public submissions.

Sep. 09 2008 07:31 PM
Cody Jones

The production of this show is what's so appealing to me. I absolutely love all the subtle quirks and nuances in spliced into the show. They are what really helps me to dive right in and get a complete listening experience.
Thanks, keep up the fantastic work!

Sep. 09 2008 12:12 PM

My attention was caught by the guy who asked about the intro to the show. That intro delighted me the fist few times I heard it, then not so much.
You're right Jad, it's time for a new one.

Your show entertains and astonishes me on a regular basis. I cannot imagine any input would make it better.

Thanks, and keep them coming!

Sep. 09 2008 10:29 AM

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