Robert Krulwich is a host of the show Radiolab, but he’s also a blogger, having written many posts over the years for National Public Radio. I’m delighted to welcome Robert to Phenomena, which is host to his new blog, “Curiously Krulwich.”
(Full disclosure: I’ve known Robert for a long time. We first met to hunt for autumn leaves in my neighborhood. And we’ve carried on a long-running conversation on a variety of topics such as whether parasites are terrible or awesome. Spoiler alert: they are awesome.)
To celebrate Robert’s arrival, I asked him a few questions about his blogging experiences:
You started out in television, then headed into radio. How did blogs make their way into your creative stream?
Like anything in life, first you hear a strange word, blog, and you wonder “What could that mean?” It sounds like something you’d find on a tugboat. Then, knocking around the web, I bumped into a few, and the ones I bumped into six years ago were gorgeously written, dazzlingly illustrated (bldgblog by Geoff Manaugh, Jason Kottke’s daily roundup at Kottke.org, Information is Beautiful from David McCandless, LoverofBeauty from I don’t know who, he never tells), each one wildly different from the other, yet all of them classy, dangerous, totally new to me, and I thought, how do I get in on this? I have story ideas all the time. I like to draw. I like to write. The fact that NPR (where I was at the time) is a radio network, and isn’t exactly into eyeball products, being more into ears, was no problem. They have a website and they let me launch a science based, sometimes meandering blog, Krulwich Wonders, where I wrote about history, animals, plants, puzzles, math, chemistry, music, art — and found a delightful audience of crabby, over-informed, sometimes charming, sometimes maddening readers who loved telling me how wrong I was or how right I was, while mailing me ideas that kept me going many times a week. It was so much fun. One time I even got a note from astronaut Neil Armstrong when I wondered out loud why he didn’t wander a larger patch of the moon when he visited up there. Here’s why, he barked back, sending me a long, fascinating letter that gave me goosebumps. So how’d I fall into blogging? I fell very, very happily, and when NPR downsized last year and let me go, I felt a little empty inside and wanted a new place to do it. This, I am happy to announce, is the place.
Does blogging feel the same as what you do on RadioLab, or does it feel like a different way to express yourself?
Well, the conversational tone is the same. I want to sound like myself. I don’t want what I do to be too studied, too formal, or too packaged. I want to sound like some guy who sits next to you on a train and turns out to be a good storyteller, and to your surprise (and, I’m hoping, delight) isn’t a bore. That’s how I try to be on the radio. That’s how I’ll try to be here. But, of course, there’s an obvious difference. On the radio (or the podcast) I’m playing with sound, and the thrill is to invent into your ear (which I do with my “genius” pal, Jad). On my blog, I’m playing with your eye. Every post I do is intentionally visual; it features something to look at; sometimes a video, sometimes a series of drawings, sometimes a photo, sometimes something I devise with friends that’s interactive and let’s you play with an idea. The important thing is that both Radiolab and the blog are designed to spill something you didn’t know into your head as intelligibly and as joyously and as carefully as I know how. That’s the goal; to make you learn something you didn’t think you needed or cared to know, but whoosh! Now you know it. That’s what I like to do.
You work in lots of artwork into your blog posts. What’s the process behind that? Do the artists come to you with ideas, or do you ask them to visualize something you want to write about?
I wish I had artists. When I started “Krulwich Wonders,” I did. I had a little budget and could hire people to help me. But those were the early days when managers were given play money to launch these adventures. The play period has long since ended and now I’m down to me, my box of colored pencils, my desk top scanner and an eraser. I can still call friends, and I do, and I will, but mostly I sit there thinking about, oh, I don’t know, “snail sex,” and I end up looking up pictures of snails, trying to find their genitalia (not the easiest thing to do if you’re not a snail) and sitting at my desk drawing one lopsided snail after another until, eventually, I get the thing right plausibly snaily enough and anatomically correct enough to publish. Then if my wife happens by, sees the drawing, and says, “Oh, what a nice pineapple,” I start over.
The ideas, by the way, come from whatever it is I’m wondering about.
What’s your favorite blog post so far? (Disclosure: my favorite is the one you wrote about the giant insects that were rediscovered on a remote island.)
Thanks, I liked that one too. But if I had to choose, I’d nominate one I wrote about why bees love hexagons, which you can find here. Or another about bees being totally and mysteriously absent from a cornfield, or this short meditation on absolutely nothing. And, oh yes, a dance I posted that still makes me so happy I use it like alchohol whenever I’m gloomy. It’s here.
What’s your plan for blogging from here on out?
To try things I’ve never tried before. To scare myself. To experiment with newfangled gifs, loops, slo-mo photography, and, if I dare, watercolor. To go wherever my curiosity takes me, and to take you (that’s right, I’m whispering in your ear, Carl Zimmer, you who know everything I know several weeks before I do), even you are coming with me.
My bags are packed.
Originally published June 3, 2015. Copyright 2015 Carl Zimmer.