Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Is Radiolab a Chautauqua?

Reading yesterday's post, after listening to the interview at The Sound of Young America and reading the article in New York Times, it occurs to me that what Radiolab is doing is exactly in the nature of the Chautauqua.  So for those who have not braved Pirsig, what exactly is a Chautauqua?

Robert Pirsig on Chautauquas:
"What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua—that’s the only name I can think of for it—like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer.  The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement.  Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep.  The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks."
Robert Pirsig, Zen And The Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance,  pg 7
What is not obvious from this short quote is to what thing or construction Pirsig was adapting the term Chautauqua.  Pirsig delivered a series of thought lectures that he contemplated during his motorcycle trip, and it was these mental lectures to which Pirsig assigned the term Chautauquas. 

So Radiolab?  Abumrad and Krulwich do not discuss the crap that you see on ET or even CNN.  They are discussing the big issues of science and philosophy, and what those issues mean to us.  There is an intentional permanence in the Radiolab episodes that contradicts Pirsig's observation of  radio pushing aside the Chautauqua.  Abumrad states that he edits an episode for the "fifth listen".  So yes, these things are aired on public radio, but they are intended for repetition through the use of the Internet.  Think about that for a moment...the fifth listen.  On the fifth listen, one will have invested four going on five hours on one of these episodes.  I can't imagine myself listening to all of them at that level of intensity, but I can the good ones (with perhaps some fast forwarding through the corney crap.)  

The more I contemplate the concept of Radiolab, the more respect that I am developing for what Abumrad and Krulwich are doing, despite my dislike for the theatrical horseshit--and I do dislike it, that is not simply me enjoying a good tantrum.  I listened to "Zoo" last night and there was about 2 to 3 minutes (I did not measure it) devoted to playing some stupid song that was instrumental to changing the name "zoological garden" to "zoo".  One bar would have been more than enough.  Yet the episode had a beautiful section on the guy who introduced "natural habitat" exhibits.  Their observations of when the gorillas were first released into an outdoor habitat after years of confinement in a concrete walled cage filled one with awe.  I should note that as well as the dumb sound effects that irritate me, Abumrad does employ excellent musical pieces to emphasize awe and wonder when they are in serious discussions.  

A fifth listen!  Is Abumrad out of his mind?  Who is going to listen to these things five times?  Going back to Pirsig's comment about the national consciousness running faster albeit not deeper, this was written in the early 70's before personal computers, before the Internet, before the "Googlization" of the modern mind that values speed and brevity.  FACT...BOOM...FACT...BOOM...FACT... So you got a guy almost 40 years ago observing that national consciousness runs fast but shallow, and now Abumrad is editing for a fifth listen!  Perhaps this is why Abumrad peppers these programs with weird sounds and minor jaunts off to the side of the subject.  Perhaps Abumrad is displaying a great genius for roping in Googlized minds and seducing them to spend an hour listening to something with far greater depth and importance than the latest BS from Hollywood, and perhaps his genius includes a propensity to draw the listener back for not only a second listen, but a third...fourth...and fifth listen.  He has seduced me, (despite pissing me off with needless silliness) and I don't believe that I am particularly Googlized.  I miss the gigantic long articles in The Atlantic from years ago.

So yes, I think that Radiolab may be a 21st century Chautauqua, crafted to grab a listener who is accustomed to a tempest of information blowing past their consciousness, and not only grabbing them for an hour, but fascinating them so that they will come back and listen again... and again.

All this talk of Chautauquas, there is still a Chautauqua Institution that presents lectures, plays, and concerts at their compound on Lake Chautauqua, New York.  You can review their calendar of presentations, reserve accommodations, and buy tickets at their website:  Chautauqua Institution.  I have been there, not the Institution per se, but on Lake Chautauqua boating.  It is a beautiful place.  

You can read more about the Chautauqua Institution at:

For more information on Robert Pirsig and Zen and The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance see:

Image Credits:

Zen & The Art... book cover:   Wikipedia

Chautauqua Institution:  Chautauqua Institution


  1. Interesting post, but alas I have no time or energy to listen to any radio shows for an hour........5th listen, maybe in the dead of winter. I barely get on the computer anymore. Too much outside work to do, but, I do not this time of year I would way much rather be outside than sitting in a building.
    But do keep up the posts... I enjoy your point of view and your "take" on things, issues....... I always try and read your work, although I may not always have the time and or energy to comment on it.

  2. VW Busman, I believe if I tried to live one day of your life, I would die from overwork. You are the workinest retired guy I have ever seen. Reading your blog exhausts me. So, yes, I understand

  3. RadioLab is both rational and romantic, that's why it so incredible.

  4. @ Anonymous

    Rational and romantic! Very good description! Indeed, it is a lovely mix of art and science. I have listened to all of the episodes (except the most very recent) once and now I am going back through and listening again. I wrote this about 3 months ago, and at the time did not have a full appreciation for the quality of Radiolab. The things that irritated me in the beginning, I no longer notice.

    Thank you for your comment, I really appreciate comments. Please stop back.