Look, I like Radiolab. Back in college, I loved Radiolab. One time, I drew a bath and listened to Radiolab in the dark. Did you need to know that? Maybe not. But here’s something you do need to know: Radiolab is really, really bad at navigating race.
Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich have a pretty fun dynamic. It was more fun before Jad had a baby and started saying everything was “Kind of…beautiful” all the time, but whatever. It’s easy to digest, focuses on entertaining and memorable topics, and makes you feel smarter without too much time invested. But the problem with Jad and Robert is they’re so interested and focused on the story they want to tell that they don’t stop to think about or respect much else.
This April, Radiolab put out a short piece that reminded me how clueless these dudes can be. A relatively fluffy story on hip-hop and who constitutes its arbiters. As told by 80 percent white people. Oh boy!
The piece embodies the problem I see with the show. But before we talk about it, we need to go back a year and a half, when Radiolab took heavy heat for the release of a short segment on “Yellow Rain.” The episode was a major turning point in my relationship with the show. It’s where I came to realize the Radiolab approach to stories has got serious problems.
Yellow Rain Is More Interesting Than Ethnic Cleansing
In 1975, the Hmong people of Laos and Vietnam had sided with America against their home countries’ communist governments, and were facing violent retribution for doing so. Nearly a quarter of all Hmong were killed. During this ethnic cleansing came explosions, artillery shells, low-flying planes, and a strange yellow rain. Many people fell ill, and their assumption was chemical warfare. This allegation was used by the US to further the Cold War, on the grounds that the Soviet Union had supplied Vietnam and Laos with chemical weapons in violation of the Geneva conventions.
This charge was put to the test in 1983, when Harvard researchers found that honeybee feces is bright yellow due to the pollen content, and flecks leaves and grass much like rain. It seemed clear to the team that the yellow rain was nothing more than a coincidence. Nevertheless, many Hmong stand by the story that they were the victims of chemical warfare.
Radiolab contacted Hmong author Kao Kalia Yang and her uncle Eng Yang to comment on the story. But over the course of the interview, it became clear that Jad and Robert were working a different angle from their subjects. Their story was on the nature of truth, and the Yangs, eager to tell the Hmong side of the story, had been invited on to demonstrate how wrong they were. Jad and Robert question the Yangs, asking if the rain always came with a plane, if people positively identified the rain as the cause of illness, working up to their point that “truth is…complicated.” When she realizes why she and her uncle are there, Ms. Yang breaks down and starts crying, and ends the interview after admonishing the hosts.
A point being made in their telling of the story is that the suffering of the Hmong people was used to further the selfish ends of the US and their allies in the fight against communism. But Radiolab, in its singular focus on producing the planned story, does the same thing. The suffering of the Hmong people, the painful story from Eng Yang and the ongoing persecution that even today is killing Hmong, was used to make some nebulous assertion about how what is “false” can still be the “truth” to some. What is most revolting about this is that Ms. Yang breaking down at their badgering is used as the ultimate proof to their point.
Listen to this episode:
Click here for Kao Kalia Yang’s account of her interactions with the Radiolab crew.
The Struggle of a White Boy to Have His Opinions on Hip-Hop Taken Seriously
This year, Radiolab decided to go whole hog on the race thing and talk about the role of race in hip-hop. Naturally, the piece follows the story of Peter Rosenberg, a white Jewish dude from the suburbs whose dream was to be a hip-hop DJ. The focus of this story annoys the shit out of me. In a show that really only uses hip-hop for jokey sound cues, their episode about the genre focuses on white people trying to find a place in its culture and direction.
Rosenberg has been a DJ for a long time, but he really hit it big when he dissed Nicki Minaj’s poppy single “Starships,” declaring it the most sell-out song in the history of hip-hop. A disconcertingly large amount of the episode is dedicated to Rosenberg’s rise to DJ-dom, but once it gets to the point, it focuses on the idea of who gets to decide what’s hip-hop and what isn’t. Rosenberg is undeniably a hip-hop head, but is he really a proper judge of where the genre should be going? Despite that being the theme of the episode, very little time or thought is put to the question.
Instead, most of the story is spent on people being mad about him having the audacity to comment. Of course, Rosenberg defends himself, and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad concedes that the way forward for hip-hop may be for everyone to participate. Nicki Minaj gets in a blistering take-down of the DJ, calling him out for targeting her, a black woman, as what’s wrong with hip-hop these days. However, this is fizzled by Rosenberg’s boasts about Nicki calling to ask his opinion on a new song. Her role in the story is “mad person who grudgingly accepts advice.”
The story calls to mind the discussion that took place earlier this year, sparked by Macklemore’s Grammy wins. Hip-hop really isn’t for white people. They can enjoy it, but things get dicey when they begin to participate and gain popular influence. Rosenberg calls himself a purist, but doesn’t acknowledge that one of the important aspects of hip-hop is that it’s by and for black people. As a genre, it’s an expression of the black experience. If white people are in a position to judge and dictate hip-hop, if the contributions and opinions of black people to their own genre are overridden, is that pure?
Radiolab spends its time not on pondering these factors, but on building up Rosenberg’s character and coming to the conclusion that we should give him a chance. Their protagonist is a white man who feels unwelcome by hip-hop. A man who of all people should know that hip-hop feels unwelcome in this world.
Like the “Yellow Rain” piece, the story Jad and Robert want to tell here completely shuts out the more important issues at play. Their simple, digestible approach is fun to listen to, but when it’s applied to issues people should care about, it’s not enjoyable at all. And why is it Radiolab picked this story, of all stories, to tell about hip-hop? What the fuck, Radiolab? Stick to stories about ants and why people love chocolate so much, would you?
Listen to this episode: