There are two kinds of people in the world: people who love Radiolab and people who loathe it. The popular public-radio show is nominally about science, but it’s really more about storytelling, curiosity, and the two-steps-forward-one-step-back repartee of its hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. It’s also (in)famous for Abumrad’s heavily embroidered sound design (which earned him a MacArthur "genius grant"). Plenty of radio shows have smartphone apps that bundle their audio content, but when I heard that Radiolab was offering one, I knew they’d have to do something special with it. The results will delight Radiolab lovers and irritate Radiolab haters for exactly the same reasons—in other words, it embodies the feel of the show just about perfectly.
Popular apps like Instagram and Clear aim to create a liquid, transparent user experience by submerging interface "chrome" as much as possible. Radiolab’s app does the opposite: instead of a clean pane of buttons or content, it presents a Wes-Andersonian scene with a vintage radio and mod drafting lamp tastefully arranged in front of a window peering out onto a meadow made of paper-cutouts.
Tapping on some of these elements invokes a cute bit of animation or weird sound effect, but in order to get to any actual content, you have to swipe downwards, which rockets you "through" the window, over the paper-cutout meadow (and a cow wearing a "Pledge Now" banner), into a New York cityscape, finally landing on a more normal-looking menu of audio episodes. Accessing the other features of the app (including a "Make" section and a repository of blog posts) requires further pseudo-3D "zooming" through more of these artsy dioramas.
"In the same way that we sound-design the radio program to conjure its own world, we designed this app to be 'a place’ that you can literally explore," Abumrad tells Co.Design. "The app had to embody the spirit of the show, with a sense of whimsy and adventure woven into the design and the code."
I count myself as a Radiolab lover, and even I found this navigation scheme to be a little much. Thankfully, you can tap a round Radiolab icon from anywhere in the app to invoke a more traditional "quick menu" for jumping instantly between features. "In the early stages, the novel design of the app got in the way of basic usability," Abumrad admits. "So we worked with [design firm] 1 Trick Pony and [developers at] PRX to refine the user interface so that everything was in the right balance."
The "Make" section of the app is where the "Radiolab vibe" shines through much more organically. the show has cleverly incorporated user-generated audio from its listeners for years (most notably in its on-air credits, which are recited by guests and listeners leaving messages on Radiolab’s answering machine). The "Make" section invites users of the app to complete simple "assignments", like "Send us a photo of your favorite color" or "Record the sound of a cheering crowd." The app doesn’t explain what these snippets will be used for, which is exactly what makes them irresistible. I immediately sent in a snapshot of my green raincoat, secretly hoping to see it turn up somewhere in a future episode or video.
"The idea is that listeners can use these tools to join the process [of making the show]," Abumrad explains. "Eventually, as we mature the tools, maybe they’ll turn the recorder and camera on others and begin to operate as satellite Radiolab journalists. We’ve tried a few crowd-sourcing experiments in the last year, and it’s made for great radio. Our listeners are insane, in the best way. So I’m looking forward to taking those experiments farther."
To its credit, the Radiolab app doesn’t try to appeal to everyone with bland, safe choices. It’s emphatically "itself," take it or leave it—just like the show. That may mean that this app won’t do much to draw new listeners in as much as provide current fans with another means of getting their fix. If you’re a hater, you won’t be downloading this app in the first place. But if you’re a Radiolab lover, you’ll probably be in heaven.