In order to form a ‘More Perfect’ union…

Jad Abumrad’s newest show is the cure for America’s historical amnesia

Jad Abumrad
Amy Pearl / WNYC Studios

If you’ve ever heard Ira Glass talk about his relationship with the radio, you’ve heard him tell a story of being in love with it practically from the womb. A lot of radio greats tell that story.

But that isn’t Jad Abumrad’s story.

The creator of Radiolab — and more recently its Supreme Court-centric spin-off, More Perfect — went to Oberlin College for creative writing and music composition, but out of college, by his account, he was “kind of failing at both.”

“My girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, said, ‘Try radio. It’s kind of like both, but neither,’” Abumrad says from his office at WNYC, the place that’s been his professional home for more than 15 years now.

He had zero experience, zero sense of what radio could be, and no designs to be a journalist. But it seemed like the profession came looking for him. First he covered news, learning the ropes at WBAI on Wall Street (where he worked with “a bunch of leftover lefties from previous eras, right in the middle of financial hell”), then doing some small freelance work for NPR before finally wandering into the old offices of WNYC, where fate would then gently direct him toward his Radiolab-partner-in-crime, Robert Krulwich.

In the beginning, Radiolab was “kind of a lark,” this experimental three-hour block of science stories and oddities every Sunday night. And because it was something that no one, including Abumrad, thought would be around for very long, Abumrad set about doing odd jobs around the station to sort of justify his existence. One of those odd jobs was making promotional spots with each of the personalities who’d signed on to help out with WNYC’s financial independence campaign.

Krulwich was the last promo Abumrad made.

“And he was just so weird. He was a complete kook,” Abumrad says. “I remember I handed him this really boring thing to read and he refused to read it, and so he sat down and rewrote some weird promo involving oil tycoons and alien cults or something and I was like, who is this guy?”

They found out they’d both gone to Oberlin, they’d both worked at WBAI, and they’d both — kind of, sort of — worked at NPR, just 25 years apart. They started having breakfast once a month for a year or so, Krulwich offering advice about Radiolab (Krulwich was working in television at the time), before he finally asked if Abumrad wanted to do some work together on the show.

It started with early Sunday morning experiments Abumrad would work into the show — a three-hour show, mind you — just five- and 10-minute bits that grew until Krulwich was there for 20 minutes, half an hour and then suddenly he was there all the time.

“Like everything with Radiolab, it was kind of long and slow and ambling, but in the end it kind of made sense.”

And then Abumrad wandered off the reservation.

“Something Robert and I share: there’s always a sense of OK, we did that, that worked, now let’s fuck it up, let’s try something we don’t know how to do,” he says. “I was deep in the throes of that feeling in 2012 because we were doing a lot of these quasi-science stories and I remember having this thought that if I have to sound-design another fucking neuron snapping I’m going to throw myself out the window. I was really restless, so I just decided let’s do an experiment.” 

A self-proclaimed Supreme Court idiot, Abumrad decided he’d learn more — it certainly sounded pretty interesting (and confusing) when Nina Totenberg reported on it.

He gave the Radiolab team an assignment: go make one or two phone calls on a handful of current Supreme Court cases and see what comes up.

What came up was Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, a custody battle over a two-year-old girl between her white adoptive parents and her Cherokee biological father that dovetailed into massive questions about Native American sovereignty.

“How do you get from there to here? How do you get from this little girl to these 500 sovereign nations? How does that work?” Abumrad says. “The story behind it is fascinating; it touched on history, it touched on politics, it touched on law. I was really struck by how this is everything you want as a storyteller: You want some tiny-sized human drama, and what could be more tiny and precious and human than a 2-year-old girl and two sets of parents that are deeply in love with her and at war over her future — what’s more human than that? And inside of that is this massive set of ideas. It’s kind of this Whitman-esque universe in a blade of grass sort of thing.”

It struck Abumrad that every Supreme Court case has this inherent humanity and infinite reach.

“It’s this tiny little case of a person just living their life and they run smack into this massive thing.”

The experiment with court cases and legal foundations went on in an ad hoc way on Radiolab for a couple of years right around the time This American Life was launching its first spin-off (the wildly engrossing Serial, which was not to be outdone by its captivating successor, S-Town). It seemed like the time for “half-assing” it was over, and More Perfect was born in 2016.

The show runs on a crew of 10, three of them legal counselors to help the editorial team avoid saying “anything stupid.” Their editorial meetings cover the big cases that are coming up in the next term, but also the big trends that are happening in the Supreme Court — the swings left and right, even the relationships between justices — and the cases that are moving through the lower courts.

“I’m always thinking to myself, what of these actually takes me out of the court? At the end of the day I don’t actually care about the court, I don’t care about the justices,” Abumrad says. “To me, this is just the place where people come to argue about America, the arguments that can take us out of the court and back in time, that can take us into people’s lives, take us to places where I’m genuinely conflicted and don’t know how to feel.”

And over and over More Perfect delivers stories that are more mesmerizing and multi-faceted than anyone could believe possible from American legal proceedings. They tell the story of this nation, of its quirks and foibles and missteps and triumphs and flat-out failures. On more than one occasion it’s brought me to tears. It is, without a doubt, more edifying than anything any (at least most) high school or college civics class could ever hope to achieve, and it does it all by focusing on humanity more than the law.

But make no mistake; the law is there, fully explained and developed in a way that even the layest of the lay can comprehend, supported by history lessons that remind us history is not really a thing of the past, particularly where the law is involved. It lives and breathes and directs our day-to-day lives and influences what is yet to come.

Episodes often touch on multiple court cases in the pursuit of teasing apart a broader issue, like the constitutionality of affirmative action, what “cruel and unusual” really means, the line between free speech and hate speech, or how the Commerce Clause affects nearly every law in the nation.

In the first of two episodes called “American Pendulum,” the 1944 case Korematsu v. United States details the Supreme Court’s shocking — at least by today’s standards — decision to uphold Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. The episode aired in the earliest days of President Trump’s Executive Order 13769. You probably call it the Muslim ban.

Korematsu could very easily feel like history,” Abumrad says. “Like, oh, that was stupid, back when we were stupid. But as we’re making that story the Muslim ban is happening and Japanese-Americans are mobilizing to fight the Muslim ban because they see in the Muslim ban something that stems directly from their experience. This shit that you thought was gone isn’t gone.”

This kind of historical amnesia is an American epidemic, a sickness brought on by the fever of constant forward-thinking that only a country as young as America can have.

“American Pendulum II” examines racism, looking back on Dred Scott v. Sandford, the case in which Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney wrote in his decision that black men “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”  The episode captures the families of Justice Taney and Dred Scott meeting for the first time, all the while Confederate statues around the nation were coming down.

“This stuff is never gone. There’s a way that whatever it is that’s happening in this country, which to me feels bigger than Trump, is…  is… ” Abumrad pauses and searches for the words.

“It’s somehow like a kind of uranium that we’re all drawing power from and also getting poisoned from and it makes the stories we want to tell all that more urgent and interesting because we’re all so desperate to understand what’s happening now.”

The third season of More Perfect will continue to make sense of the confusion, to inoculate Americans with slivers of the past in order to protect us from repeating those mistakes.  Abumrad says the show is taking on a whole new approach that won’t sound “at all like what we’ve done before.” Of course he can’t say anymore now, but the reveal is sure to be worth the wait.