Soundscaping TED Talks: A Q&A with Guy Raz, the new host of TED Radio Hour

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Guy-Raz-mainWhen TED Radio Hour premieres on Friday, March 1st, a new — but familiar — voice will be manning the mic. Guy Raz, the former host of Weekend All Things Considered and the creator of Three-Minute Fiction, is the new host of the show, which is returning for its second season after being named Best New Audio Podcast of 2012 by iTunes the first time around. Raz brings with him years of radio experience — he started as an NPR intern in 1997, and worked his way through the ranks, spending six years as an international correspondent before landing at Weekend All Things Considered.

We called Raz in his office to talk about what’s new with TED Radio Hour, and about his deep love of pop music.

What will feel different about TED Radio Hour this season?

In short, everything. The core of the show is the same — it’s TED Talks. But what’s changed is the way we’re using sound and music and soundscapes. The first season was a different show — really good at finding awesome TED content and bringing on amazing TED speakers. Now we’re taking the opportunity to experiment, even radically experiment, with the way we deliver not just NPR content but TED content. It will still be mind-blowing — but even more so, enhanced with music and an experiential quality. We want to somehow replicate that feeling you get at TED. You actually feel it in your soul, right? We can get pretty close to that through this radio program.

So what’s your vision of how people will experience the show?

My “Barbie Dream House” vision of what a listener would be doing: you’re walking down the street, you would have your headphones on and you experience this show in a full 360-degree way. It’s designed to come and grab you and pull you in and take you on a journey. I know it sounds sort of new age-y and hokey — but that’s what it’s supposed to do. And we’re so excited about it. The first three shows are done and we just love them. We hope that people love them too.

Our goal is basically two things with every show: first, we want the person listening to somehow be changed every time they hear the show. That doesn’t mean that all of a sudden they become a Buddhist and move to Bhutan, right? It means that they will see something different about the world. It might be that they think about insanity in a totally different way, or they think about the stars in a different way. Second: we want to create a new way of telling stories on the radio. It’s this incredible opportunity for NPR because we’re this news organization with a huge following, and we’re respected. And TED is this huge thing that people are just obsessed with. Everywhere I go, I say I work for NPR and people say, “Oh my God! I love NPR. What do you do there?” And I say, “Well, I’m working on this new partnership with TED,” and they say, “Oh my God! I love TED!” There aren’t that many things in America that elicit that kind of response from people. It’s just incredible that we’ve got all these talented people on both ends of this thing.

I’m curious — what’s the one episode this season that you can’t wait to air?

The second episode. I love the first one, but the second one to me was such an incredible personal journey. It’s called “Peering Into Space” and it’s about the wonders of the skies above us. I wasn’t ever super interested in astrophysics but the way that Brian Greene can talk about it and the way that Jill Tarter: Join the SETI search Jill Tarter: Join the SETI search Jill Tarter can just create such a sense of wonder about what might be out there and the way that Phil Plait can talk about asteroids in this way that makes you really think about what’s right above us. I think people who haven’t taken the time to look at the stars recently are going to be amazed by what they hear. You look out at the brightest star in the sky — which is Polaris — and it’s eight and a half years ago. You are looking at the past in real time. That idea to me is so beautiful.

In that show, we tell the story about how the expansion of the universe was discovered — through Brian Greene’s TED Talk and also through Brian’s conversation with me. Then it pivots 180-degrees. All of a sudden, it’s 1998 and two research teams discover that the expansion is happening faster — it’s not slowing down. And this completely revolutionizes physics. Brian tells the story in his TED Talk, so we hear lots of his talk, but then [for the show] we found two scientists, Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess and interviewed them. We use really interesting production techniques to bounce back and forth. That episode to me is about this universal sense of wonder and I can’t wait to hear that on the air. It’s totally changed my world. Even the way I look at the stars — it makes me think about how small we are, how small our lives are and problems are.

What else is in the works?

Cameron Russell: Looks aren't everything. Believe me, I'm a model. Cameron Russell: Looks aren't everything. Believe me, I'm a model. So we’ll do 30 shows this season. Right now we’ve got eight episodes in production. We’re looking at things like beauty — with Cameron Russell, Dan Dennett and Nancy Etcoff. We’re looking at violence with Phil Zimbardo and Steven Pinker. We’re looking at the question of whether we will need humans with Andrew McAfee, Cynthia Breazeal, Sherry Turkle. We’re going to do a show with Julian Treasure with sounds and music. The possibilities are infinite because there is so much amazing TED content. What we do is try to find a connecting thread between three or four TED speakers and then bring them together. Each show is a carefully thought-through hour. It can take, really, many weeks to put together an episode of the show but we hope that people will Julian Treasure: 5 ways to listen better Julian Treasure: 5 ways to listen better hear something that they’ll find inspiring, interesting, entertaining, even educational.

What’s your secret skill?

My secret skill is that I’m an incredible, unbelievable judge of pop music. I knew Carly Rae Jepsen was going to be awesome two weeks before she hit number one. I liked Taylor Swift before anyone else did. I love pop music. I’ve been an NPR reporter my whole life, going overseas and interviewing politicians and prime ministers and stuff, and this is my secret thing. Of course I like indie music and I love classical music and I listen to a lot of jazz, but no one in my peer group ever wants to admit that they listen to pop music and I think it’s a shame because it’s great now. We’re in this amazing time. I would say that right now, we are living in a pop music renaissance. I mean, “Scream & Shout,” the collaboration with Britney Spears and Will.I.Am — that song’s amazing — and electronic dance music folks like Calvin Harris and David Guetta working with Rihanna — it’s just awesome. Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z, “Suit & Tie?” What’s happening is so interesting to me. So my secret skill is being able to identify awesome pop music.

What’s something that’s ignored when it comes to radio shows?

Silence. It sometimes is a really effective thing in radio. It’s like a car coming to a screeching halt and it just stops.

What are some of the things you’re most looking forward to at TED2013?

Taylor Wilson: Yup, I built a nuclear fusion reactor Taylor Wilson: Yup, I built a nuclear fusion reactor Where do I begin? I’m going to need an intravenous feed of 5-Hour Energy to do everything that I want to do. I don’t know when I’m going to sleep. I’m really looking forward to hearing from Jared Diamond, Elon Musk, Bono and that kid who built the nuclear reactor in his bedroom. I’m also just really excited to experience that community because TED has built something that hasn’t been replicated. It’s something that everybody I know who goes or has been can’t quite articulate — they can only really say, “You know, you just have to experience it.” There’s so much energy and innovative thinking and inspiring ideas. I’m just really excited to be in that environment.