The Virtuoso of Multitasking

Head Full of Symphonies

What do you get when you combine a ragtime piano performer, classical symphonies, and a neuroscientist? A feat that pushes the boundaries of the human mind. Radiolab’s “A Head Full of Symphonies” left me breathless with its lush sounds and tight reporting. I have forever been enthralled by feats of fortitude and wit and this story does not disappoint.

With its signature rich sound effects and suspenseful narrative, Radiolab is at its finest. In this blogpost, I want to point out a technique in which Radiolab anticipates the audience’s questions. When the facts are laid out before us, the results are so unbelievable, they cause spontaneous expletives from Jad. Those expletives give the audience a feeling of “Yeah! I feel that way too!”

We are introduced first to Bob Milne who quickly turns from an unassuming man from Michigan to one of best ragtime players in the world.


He is deemed a national treasure by the Library of Congress not for what his fingers can do, but for what his mind contains. He has an intimate and emotional relationship to music, and slowly, listeners are able to glimpse how his brain processes music.

At one point in the piece when the researcher attempts to explain Bob’s unique talents, Jad asks, “Did he just say he can hear TWO symphonies in his head at one time?” an exclamation that echoes the audience’s potential incredulity to which Jessica Benko, the reporter, affirms to drive the point home. Jad also acts as an ambassador on the audience’s behalf to clarify any possible points of confusion. For example, instead of just accepting Bob’s talents, Jad asks, “Can he hear the entire symphony or just the melodies?” and “all in his head?” infusing the exchange with just the right amount of skepticism and gut reactions (“Huh!” and “I can’t believe this!”) that ultimately make the story not only compelling but relatable.

These short bursts of questions and requests for clarification force the neuroscientist and the reporter to slow down and repeat the most important details of the experiment. By anticipating what the audience would ask, listeners are increasingly invested while simultaneously becoming more familiar with the experiment’s finer points. The spurts of dialogue that interweave the reporter’s explanation also add a human touch to an otherwise dry and analytical scene.

The next time you’re producing a story and need to break down a technical or complex concept, try anticipating your audience’s questions, and interweaving dialogue that will slow the action down. These strategies will help clarify the technical details for your listeners, and will increase their investment in your story’s outcome.

Podcast: A Head Full of Symphonies

Produced by: Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich, Jessica Benko, and Mark Phillips at WYNC’s Radiolab 2013

Duration: 18 minutes

Article written by: Tina Tran on 2/24/2014

Deep Shapes for New Times: An Evening with Martin shaw and Tony Hoagland

Martin Shaw
Tony Hoagland
Martin Shaw Book
Tony Hoagland Book

Thursday, February 13, 2014
Cubberley Auditorium, Stanford University
Free, open to the public

“Myth,” says acclaimed storyteller Martin Shaw, “is not about a long time ago.” Created communally, over time, in full contact with the natural world, myth is instead a particular way of understanding ourselves and our world that offers new routes through the binds of the modern world.  “Poetry,” says acclaimed poet Tony Hoagland, “offers a clarifying force through its similar use of polymorphic and enduring images.”  Together, myth and poetry understand us in an uncommon way.  

In this very special evening, Shaw and Hoagland will weave myth and poetry to reveal how the deep shapes of their stories give us surprising ways for meeting the challenges of contemporary culture.  Alongside select stories and poems, they will talk about the mysterious wisdom retained in these forms and how they can help us overcome the constraints that our culture imposes on our imaginations.  Shaw and Hoagland will also read and discuss some of the translations of old Celtic poetry they have been collaborating on over the last two years.

Martin Shaw, PhD, is author of A Branch from the Lightning Tree and the forthcoming Snowy Tower: Parzival and the Wet Black Branch of Language.  He is a master storyteller and currently Visiting Lecturer in the Oral Communication Program at Stanford. 

Tony Hoagland is the author of four collections of poems, and winner of many prizes, including the Mark Twain Award for Humor in American Poetry. He teaches at the University of Houston and elsewhere.


Crises can take many shapes, from earthquakes, to chest pain… to a strange absence of strawberry blonde creatures in the forests of the Dominican Republic. In this show, four very different crises appear at four very different scales, affecting a person, a species, a city, and a human body. In each story, there is no emergency procedure, no obvious way out, and one person must make a choice: what are they going to save, and what are they going to sacrifice?

Host: Rosie la Puma

Producers: Rachel Hamburg and Will Rogers

Featuring: Meg Smaker, César Abril, Nicolás Corona, Simon Winchester, Julian Lozos

Release Date: 20 November 2013

Image via Wikimedia

Music used during transitions: Chuzausen, Gustav Landin


Intro story: Pixelated Apocalypse

Jackson Roach shows us an old arcade game called Missile Command, where in order to last as long as possible in a nuclear onslaught, sacrifices must be made.

Featuring: Jackson Roach

Music: deef, Christian Bjoerklund

Inspiration: This movie from Extra Credits on youtube

Image via flickr



Story 1: Put Some Gloves On, Let’s See What You’ve Got

Meg Smaker found herself in a crisis when she returned to the United States after six years in the Middle East. And when things got really bad, she decided to put on a pair of gloves and practice her overhand right.

Producer: Rachel Hamburg

Featuring: Meg Smaker

Music: Bosch Purvis, Podingon Bear, Broke for Free

Image via flickr



Story 2: Strawberry Blonde Forever

Some 76 million years ago, an asteroid wiped out three-quarters of the Earth’s plants and animals. The solenodon, a quirky, venomous mammal, lived through the impact.  But now, human activity on its small island is placing it in danger of extinction. To help it survive, an unlikely hero will have to put down his gun and pick up his guitar.

Producer: Laura Cussen

Featuring: César Abril, Nicolás Corona

Music: Chuzausen, Sunsearcher, Marco Raaphorst, Urbano A. Zafra, Lo Ka Ping, Nicolás Corona

Image via flickr



Story 3: Fighting Fire with Fire

San Francisco almost burned to the ground in 1906 after the big earthquake. Out of the chaos emerged General Frederick Funston, who decided to literally fight fire with fire. But did his risky plan save the city? This piece was originally produced by Generation Anthropocene producers Leslie Chang, Miles Traer, and Mike Osborne as part of the 24 hour Radio Race from KCRW’s independent producer project.

Producer: Leslie Chang

Featuring: Simon Winchester, Julian Lozos

Image via wikimedia



Story 4: The Cold Tub

Your body is pre-programmed to react to all sorts of extreme environments. Sometimes this means making sacrifices to protect what’s most important. Corey, a teaching assistant for a human physiology course, takes us through his experiences, showing how a crisis of the body has taught him to deal with a crisis of the mind.

Producer: Kate Nelson, Rachel Hamburg

Featuring: Corey

Music: Alright Lover, Deef, Gillicuddy, Augustus Bro & Gallery Six

Image courtesy of Kate Nelson



Bonus Story: Catch 311

On March 11th, 2011 Justine Beed was sitting in an English classroom outside of Tokyo, when the 9.0 Earthquake hit near Fukushima. This sound poem tries to capture part of that experience, the ensuing media storm, and the resilience of the Japanese people in the wake of being shaken to their core.

Music: Dexter Britain

Effects: Cello Loop, Time Transition, Earthquake Tremor, Siren, TV On Switch, Newsreel 1, Japanese Reaction to Earthquake, Breaking sound, Time Transition, Newsreel 2, TV Off and Blip Out, Hammer 1, Slow Beat

Image via flickr