Jan 28, 2022

The First Radiolab

Jad started Radiolab roughly 20 years ago. And now he is stepping aside from hosting and producing the show to replenish, to think, to rock in his chair and be with his kids and wife, and maybe make some music. The news has been all over twitter and there’s a letter from Jad and our hosts Latif and Lulu on the website. But in this episode, Jad talks through his decision to leave and the future of the show with Lulu and Latif. And then, as a parting gift, we play him the very first episode of Radiolab (“The Radio Lab” as he called it then). He tells us about biking the CDs over the Brooklyn bridge just before the show was supposed to air, reading the news and weather between segments, and then we just sit back together and listen to where it all began.

Jad, for those of us who have been radically changed by the thing you put out into the world, we are both sad to lose you in our ears and endlessly grateful for what you’ve given us.

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists

[RADIOLAB INTRO]

JAD ABUMRAD: That sounds great. I’ll say the thing. You guys know what I’m going to say cus I’ve already said it. I probably won’t cry this time. 

LATIF NASSER: We can make you cry at something you…

LULU MILLER: Yeah, we can make you cry…

JAD: Oh shit. What -- what is it…

JAD: Hey Jad here. A couple days ago I sat down with Lulu and Latif because I had something I wanted to tell everybody.

LULU: Yeah.

LATIF: Yeah, do a rough like...

LULU: Get yourself in the mood.

LATIF: Yeah.

JAD: Okay. Well, so everybody – hello, everybody. This is Jad. I have – I would say I'm just going to start the year with some big news. But actually, we're already into the year. But what is time, really, these days? I have some news that I'd like to share. I – it's almost 20 years ago, roughly that I started Radiolab. And it has grown and grown and become this incredibly vibrant, amazing team of people. And for a while now, I've been wondering to myself, when would be the right time for me to step aside as host? And allow this thing that I've created to evolve into its next chapter. And I think that time is now. So I've decided to step aside is hosted Radiolab. My last episode will be on your story, Lulu, coming up in the middle of next month. You guys know that you'll never completely get rid of me. I'll be around and plan to take long walks with all of you in Fort Greene Park, or at least the Brooklyn contingent. And I plan to support you guys however I can. But this – you know, other founders have gone through this. And I sort of looked at how various people have dealt with this. But like, this feels to me like a natural step. Everybody here at the team has worked so hard to establish this group. And it really is the most beautiful, talented collection of people I can imagine. And this team, you guys in particular, along with Soren and Suzie and Pat and Dylan and everybody, you guys are poised to take the show to new places. And it just felt like this is the moment for me to kind of do anything in my power to allow that to happen. And I just can't wait to be a listener and to just experience what you guys make along with everybody else.

LULU: Can I just say like, when – when you told everybody, the moment you told the whole team, there was this pause. And then there was just all this really authentic gratitude and this sense of people being happy for you. Like not happy that you won't be around because we love your edits, and we love your like grumpy comments to have us take an idea further and past the first thought and everything. But I think there was just this sense of like, this man deserves to unfurl a little.

JAD: I don't know. I don't know. We'll see...

LATIF: Maybe – maybe just to articulate a question that maybe is on people's minds – I don't know. Are you about to – did you just sign a contract where – with some giant company for kajillions of dollars to go make a new thing or something?

JAD: No, the real answer is: No. No. I'm – I'm just gonna take a minute to recharge and sort of look around. That's the honest answer. And it felt like – like I mean, I just want to say this as loudly as I can, like so many of the stories that I have loved on Radiolab in the past, God year, two years, have happened with very little involvement for me. And so it just – I feel so comfortable walking away now. And I needed to feel that. I needed to know that this was in such good hands. And that's one of the reasons that made so much sense to me to bring the two of you on. You both are like these hybrid humans. You are of Radiolab and that we've been working together forever. And we share a powerfully a sense – a sensibility. But at the same time you are radically, fiercely your own people and you make decisions I wouldn't make and I end up loving it. It's that sort of sense of like, knowing where you're coming from but also my inability to imagine where you will go. That's what makes me excited for you guys to – you know, in partnership with Soren and Suzie and the whole crew, to take the show into the future. So peace out. [laughter] Good luck.

LULU: Byeeeee...

LATIF: See ya. Wouldn't want to be ya...

JAD: No, no, no, no. I...

LATIF: Basically, is what you're trying to say...

JAD: No. I've just, I love you guys to death and my heart will always be with the show.

LATIF: I mean, first of all, we love you too. But also, there's no way you won't always be at the heart of this show in some way. Like, you know, the way we do things, the way you sort of impressed on every one of us on the team, you know, we're always just going to push the show to do unexpected things, to go to sort of very intimate places, to be, you know, just so ambitious. Like those things more than any topics or set of voices, like, that's what's in this show's DNA.

LULU: Yeah, totally. And for me, I just want to continue the tradition of always making shows that take you somewhere. They take you up into the stars with a laser or they take you into the mind of someone erasing memories in real time, or right up to a canvas, painter Joe, and you hear that swash. Like I'm being shaken awake and I'm being taken somewhere. And then I come back with that slight glow of a, of a visit. You know, like I've been elsewhere, but it's of this world.

JAD: Yeah.

LULU: So we'll make sure we keep doing that. And just looking at what we already have on deck. Like we have so many treats in store. The very next thing we're going to play after this, that's a one that's going to take you somewhere beautiful, that's a pine scented psychedelic listening experience about something that actually takes place here on Earth.

JAD: Yeah, totally. I mean that, that feels like the beating heart of what we've always tried to do. And in terms of both of you continuing to do that, I can't even stress how little I worry about that. And I'm really excited. The thing that actually makes me – it keeps me from being sad, and just whips me into happy – is to think, Well, I'm not gonna know what's gonna come in the feed. And that's gonna be really exciting. That moment when I see something show up, and I don't know what it is and I experienced it like everybody else. I'm just going to be so excited. I can't wait to give myself that gift.

LATIF: Yeah. And we're, we're very honored to give it to you.

LULU: Truly. But we do have – we do have a thing to play today. Should we turn to that now?

LATIF: Yeah.

JAD: Yeah, I haven't actually, I'm so in the dark about this. What – what are we doing?

LATIF: Purposefully.

LULU: Okay, so – well, we were thinking about what to play...

LULU: Reached out to, reached out to the archives.

JAD: Oh no.

LATIF: We went...

LULU: We went into the dusty archives of WNYC.

JAD: Oh God.

LULU: The very first Radiolab ever, which was...

JAD: Oh my God...

LULU: Do you remember what this was an episode about?

JAD: Unfortunately, I do remember.

LATIF: Oh no...

JAD: It was called First, I think, right?

LULU: It was called First.

JAD: It was called First. And...

LULU: Have you listened back to it?

JAD: Well, a couple years ago, Ellen and Soren dug it up. And I heard just a tiny piece of it. But I don't think anybody has heard this, which was by design.

LULU: Well, we are going to change wildly.

JAD: You're actually going to play it?

LATIF: It's really good!...

LULU: It's – Yeah....

JAD: You're gonna play it?

LULU: The whole – the whole first hour.

JAD: Because here's – here's something else you guys don't know.

LULU: Mm-hmm.

JAD: So it was a three hour show...

LATIF: Hmmm.

JAD: Which meant three CDs. And in between the CDs, I would actually do the weather.

LULU: Really?

JAD: Yeah...

LATIF: Ohhhh.

JAD: I would do like the weather and the news. So basically – so here's what would happen. So I – in the basement of this house, that I'm talking to you from, I would create the show. And you know, this will not surprise you. I would work right up until the deadline.

LATIF: Yeah.

JAD: Shows on Sunday night at 8pm, I'd be still like bouncing it Sunday at 7:15. And then I would get the CDs throw in my bag and I would bike down Flatbush onto the Brooklyn Bridge. And I would like rocket over the Brooklyn Bridge as fast as I could. And I would run up there and I would like throw the CDs and hit play. And...

LATIF: What time would you have been doing that bike ride?

JAD: It was 8 to 11 Sunday nights.

LATIF: Alright.

JAD: And it was on the AM.

LATIF: Yeah.

JAD: So you know how WNYC has an AM and an FM.

LATIF: Oh, I didn't know it was AM.

JAD: Yeah. I did...

LULU: So you're trying to like super like low AM...

JAD: The AM signal was so weak. [laughter] Especially that time of night.

LATIF: That's funny...

JAD: And I was like, Oh, this is so low stakes. Nobody could – nobody can even hear this show. So that was it for about a, about a year. That's what people heard.

LULU: Okay, we're gonna listen to him. I'm going to attempt – [mouth clicks] Hold on. Okay,

“FIRST” JAD: Every radio producer has this idealized image in their head of you. [MUSIC IN] Maybe you're sitting on the couch, drinking coffee, staring out the window. Maybe you're the person who's driving and you pull over to really concentrate on a story. Whatever the case, that image in the radio producer's brain of you, the listener, it's why they make this stuff. It's a lonely thing. You know, they don't get paid much. They lug around these heavy recorders and mics. And they look, frankly, silly in those headphones, they have to wear it, but it doesn't matter as long as you are there to listen to what they make. WNYC is about to embark on an experiment. We're calling it The Radiolab.

[MUSIC OUT]

JAD: Oh my God.

LULU: Just need to pause right there. [laughter] On The Radiolab. I died.

[MUSIC IN]

“FIRST” JAD: And what we're going to do is take great documentary radio and stories of different sizes, and shapes, colors, from different places all over the planet, from different times even, and we're gonna mix it all together, like this....

[Mix of sounds]

“FIRST” JAD: A big brew of people and places but it'll take two hours and 59 minutes to get through all of it. And trust me, it sounds better that way. Jad Abumrad here. I'll be your – hmm, host is not the right word – curator. Guide maybe? How about DJ of documentary?

[MUSIC OUT]

JAD: Oh Jesus. [laughter]

LATIF: Love it...

LULU: This is DJ of docs...

JAD: Oh god. That is so corny.

LULU: I love it!

JAD: Ohh!

“FIRST” JAD: Since this right here is our first ever Radiolab. How about we string together a series of stories about firsts?

JAD: What do I say – what's the first thing I play?

LATIF: Oh....

LULU: It's amazing.

LATIF: It's – it was not what I expected at all.

LULU: It made me love you even more.

JAD: What is the – there was a...

LULU: Well? You'll hear it in just a second. Because here's what we're gonna do now. We are going to stop interrupting and just play that whole first hour exactly as it was. Because yes, it sounds different. The pace is way slower. The production is different. But you can clearly hear how maybe the most central thing to you, Jad, is so alive in this first night.

JAD: Hmm.

LULU: Which is that you're handing off the mic to other people. You want them to be the guides into worlds you couldn't otherwise reach. And that's something that's still so alive today. I know that we're going to carry that forward. So here we're gonna play it. We'll come back at the very end to ask you a few more questions.

JAD: Okay.

LULU: But without further ado, the first piece, the first episode on First.

“FIRST” JAD: Here's youth reporter, Arielle Adams. She brings us a story she aired on Blunt Radio in Maine about a traumatic first of hers.

ARIELLE ADAMS: My first memory of menstruation is the voice of my grandmother asking me if I'd started to menstruate. And since I hadn't, not to worry, it would come soon. Growing up, I always imagined I'd get my first period right in the middle of school. I pictured blood flowing out of my body, soaking through my white skirt and dripping onto the white classroom floor. I was not only petrified by this image, but the idea of being physically able to have a baby develop inside of me, wasn't too pleasant thought either. I got my period when I was 14-years-old. It was Christmas break of my eighth grade year and my family and my parents' close friends had traveled to Mexico. I don't remember how I felt during the days leading up to my first period. But I do remember exactly what happened when it came for the first time. We'd been traveling around Mexico all day, driving through remote villages and climbing Mayan ruins. One hot evening, halfway through our trip, I went to the bathroom, pull down my pants and there it was. Not having red but light in a brownish hue, for a second I didn't even know what it was. I walked outside of the bathroom and assessed the spectator situation. See, I didn't want my dad or my sister to know. But I had to tell my mom. She was excited and gave me the whole, "You're now a woman!" tampon pad speech and took me out to get some supplies. After about half an hour of wandering, my mom and I found a little convenient shop and quickly search for feminine products. When we couldn't find any, my mom approached the counter – remember this was Mexico – and in English, asked the rather matronly employee where pads were located. When it was clear the clerk was not bilingual, my mom began to use her hands and body pointing to me, simulating the flow of the menstrual cycle and demonstrating that I had my period. Immediately the woman took us to the aisle where the pads were located. Putting the pad on for the first time was a demeaning experience. Five inches thick and 12 inches long. Honestly, who invented these things? My final days of Mexico were punctuated by the joys of a four pound weight in my underwear and the knowledge that was now a woman. I had expected to feel different about myself, but I really didn't. Getting my period wasn't a monumental experience of my adolescence, it was just a big hassle. And a letdown. But let's not leave it at this. Half of the world's population does have a first period story. So here are a few more.

[MUSIC IN]

[MUSIC: Girl, you'll be a woman soon...]

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: First time I got my period, I called up – this was before it happened, this was during the day – and I called up this girl to go mountain biking. And we went. And the terrain was pretty rough. It was rough terrain. And [laughs] – so the terrain was rough. And we were riding along.

ARIELLE ADAMS: How rough was it?

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: It was really rough terrain. There were rocks and sticks and things. And so I'm riding along, it was a hot summer's day. And I hit this like rock blog thing. And I fall into the bar, and it hurt like a bitch. And I thought that I broke my pubic bone, which is, you know, where the bones meet in the front. And it was killing me. And I was like, [laughs] this hurts a lot. And, you know, I probably got a bruise. I didn't look that closely. But anyway – so, you know, it hurt. And I was like, Wow, I wonder, I wonder what's gonna happen? So I went home after we – you know, I continue mountain biking, because I'm tough. And so I got home later and I was playing a little Super Mario and I was like, I think I'm gonna go upstairs to the bathroom. And then I'm like, Whoa, I'm bleeding. And I thought it's because I broke my pubic bone. But actually, the next day, it turned out that I had my first period. [MUSIC: Girl, you'll be a woman soon...]

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: It was three days before summer vacation of seventh grade. And I remember I was wearing one of my favorite dresses, and I came home from school. And my stomach had been feeling really funny all day. So, well, I discovered the little surprise. MUSIC: Girl, you'll be a woman soon...

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: It was the summer after fifth grade and I was at summer camp. And I don't really remember where it was, but it was somewhere in the middle of nowhere. And I got my period. And like my mom had always talked to me about it like, so I knew what I was supposed to do. But I was so freaked out because I was like, away from my mom. And I was so homesick as it was and I didn't know what to do. And so I spent like two weeks like in total like, horrification – if that's a word. And I would like write letters to my mom be like, Please let me come home, please. This is horrible! And like, it just – it was so bad. And like, my best friend was at camp with me. But I just for some reason,, and I still don't know why, I just wouldn't talk to her about it. And I didn't end up telling her for like, three years. I had gotten my period that summer at summer camp.

ARIELLE ADAMS: So how did you get any sort of supplies?

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: I had to like – I don't even remember. I think I ended up like stealing stuff from my best friend and then like, like getting stuff from the health department or you know, from – at the, at the camp or whatever. But I just remember it was so bad. And I came home and I told my mom and I was like crying. And she was like, Oh, da-da-da-da-da! And she never sent me back to summer camp after that. [laughs]

[MUSIC: You’ll be a woman.]

LINDSAY: Like I was in Student Council, right, and like I – my stomach's starting to hurt. And I was like, it feels really weird, like I'm cramping or something. And then Vanessa's like, "Lindsay, you probably have your period." And I was like, "No I don't!" Because I was like 13. And, and so then I went home and had my period and then I was like, "Oh my God. Yay! Now I'm a girl."

ARIELLE ADAMS: You were excited that you got your period?

LINDSAY: Yeah, cus now I'm a woman.

ARIELLE ADAMS: What did your mom say to you?

LINDSAY: My mom was like, "Oh my little girl's growing up!" [laughs]

[MUSIC: Girl, you'll be a woman soon...]

BECCA: Well beginning the night before it really started to happen, I had a really long rehearsal for a Portland Stage Company play. And our costumes were white shorts and white dresses. So I'm thinking, "Alright, I'll survive, everything will be okay." And I made it through that. Nothing big happened, nothing stained any of the dresses or the shorts. Went home, got into bed. And I knew it was coming. I knew. But I refused to put on a sanitary napkin. I was like, this is not happening to me. I woke up the next morning at 7:45 covered in my own blood. I was petrified. I started to cry and got in the shower and I was like, "Mommy?" And she told my father, and my father told his best friend, so by the time I went to school that day, everybody knew.

ARIELLE ADAMS: What, what were people saying to you?

BECCA: "Congratulations Becca. Now you're a woman." I didn't want to be a woman. No, no. I was 13. I was not ready and I refused to acknowledge it was happening.

[MUSIC: You'll be a woman...]

ARIELLE ADAMS: Wait, just tell me about the story. What happened? Just tell me detail by detail.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: I have no idea. Really. I passed out.

ARIELLE ADAMS: You like, looked in your underwear and passed out?

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: No. [laughter] No, I just it made me sick. So I passed out.

[MUSIC: Girl, you'll be a woman soon...]

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: It was on the last day of seventh grade. And my parents were away and I was staying with my aunt . And I went over to sleep over at my friend's house and I had it there . And then I had to go home, go to my aunt's house and tell her and I'm not really close with my aunt so it was kind of weird. Then my uncle took me out shopping for pads. [laughs]

ARIELLE ADAMS: Was that really weird?

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Yeah. Yeah, cus he's like my step uncle. He's not my real uncle. So.

ARIELLE ADAMS: Why didn't your aunt take you out?

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Because she had to go to work. [laughs]

ARIELLE ADAMS: So what do you feel like? What do you feel like when you're going around with your uncle like trying – Because you didn't know what you were doing, right? Did you know what to pick?

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: No, I had no idea. So we just pick the cheapest kind. [laughs]

[MUSIC: Girl, you'll be a woman soon...]

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Well, it was the fall of my eighth grade year. And it was the day before my championship meet for cross country. And I went to the bathroom after practice and I was like, "Oh my god, what is that?" I thought there's something wrong with me. And I was like, "I can't believe it. I think I just started my periods. So I went home. My mom was like, "Oh my God." Blah, blah, blah. She's like, "Here, take this pad." And it was like seven inches thick and like ten feet long. So I was like, Okay. So the next day, I had to wear that and like, you know, when you first get your period, you don't bleed that much at all, so like there was really no point me wearing it. So I had this huge pad on and I had to wear like these running shorts and tried to run my race and I was like wobbling across the track. It was so awful. And like, my period was irregular for a long time. So like it didn't really bother me, but my mom insisted that I wear these really big fat pads all the time and it was so awful and so uncomfortable. [MUSIC: Girl, you'll be a woman soon...]

ARIELLE ADAMS: For Blunt, this is Arielle Adams.

[MUSIC: Girl, you'll be a woman...]

“FIRST” JAD: That piece was called What's That In My Underwear?: First Period Stories. It was produced by Arielle Adams from Blunt Radio in Maine. We were turned on to it by our buddies at Third Coast audio festival in Chicago. That site is filled with new voices and cool stories, so check them out at thirdcoastfestival.org. As for Arielle, here's what she would like New Yorkers to know about her. Let's see – I am reading now. She likes hot chocolate, fat beats and a stimulating conversation. We can at least give her some fat beats.

[MUSIC IN]

LN: Okay, we're gonna take a quick break. When we come back, we're gonna play the rest of the first ever hour of Radiolab. Quick warning for when we come back, there are two more stories still to go. The last one – the last 15 minutes of the hour has some pretty explicit discussion of the dark thoughts that go along with mental illness. May not be right for you or your kids. But we'll be back in just a second.

[MUSIC OUT]

LATIF: Okay, we're back with the second part of the first ever episode of Radiolab.

JAD: Jad Abumrad here. This is WNYC's first ever Radiolab. Version one we'll call it. We actually have a lot more youth voices sprinkled throughout the show. So here's one right now. This next story is a first but not in subject matter. At the time this documentary originally aired on All Things Considered, there had been other radio pieces done about inner city youth, probably a whole bunch, but none quite like this one. Story is told by the people who are the story, LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman. The other person to be aware of is Dave Isay, the producer. Dave hired Leland and Lloyd as public radio reporters to document their lives for a week as they grew up too fast in a rough neighborhood in Chicago. This was in 1993. Both were 13 they decided to call their documentary Ghetto Life: 101.

LEALAN JONES: Good morning day one. Walking to school. Leaving out the door. [dog barking] This is my dog Ferocious. You know why he got that the name if you hear him bark. [dog barking]

[MUSIC IN]

LEALAN JONES: I see to ghetto every day, walking to school. Guys standing on the corner, burning a fire. Be here at summertime, wintertime, spring, fall. Every day. The drink in their hand probably some White Port, Willie P, Jack Daniels, E&J. I live here. This is home.

LLOYD NEWMAN: What's up, Emmie?

LEALAN JONES: Sup, Doo Foo? This is my walk to every day. So take me on a new journey with my life. Yes, my life. Yeah.

LEALAN JONES: My name's LeAlan Jones and I'm 13 years old. I live in the house just outside the Ida. B. Wells projects. My best friend Lloyd Newman lives in the Ida Bs. This is our story. Everyone knows I pick up Lloyd on the way to school. That we were ready to work.

 

LEALAN JONES: Start with our tape recorders and microphones. Got Tom Brokaw. Look, we like Tom Brokaw. You got the Tom Brokaw look, nigga, sit down.

SIBLING: I can too! I can too. I said I can too!

LLOYD NEWMAN: This is Lloyd Newman and I'm 14 years old. I live with my brothers and sisters in the Ida B. Wells project.

LEALAN JONES: Let me describe Lloyd. Lloyd is short. He weighs about 75 pounds. I have an inch between my fingers when I put it around his wrist. Got a head like a Martian. [laughs]

LLOYD NEWMAN: Alright, now let me tell about LeAlan. His belly take up his whole body. [laughter]

LEALAN JONES: Like you're head take up yours. [laughter] We been friends since first grade.

LLOYD NEWMAN: That's seven years.

LEALAN JONES: Man, seven years of our life together.

STUDENTS: Como on Booboo!

STUDENTS: United states of America...

LEALAN JONES: Our first stop today is Donoghue Elementary School. We're both in eighth grade.

STUDENTS: Under God, Indivisible...

LEALAN JONES: It's right across from Lloyd's house in the projects.

  1. FORD: Be seated. No!

STUDENT: Good Morning Vietnam.

LEALAN JONES: Monday morning at 8:30. Kinda rowdy in the morning.

  1. FORD: Torrence Hinton, absent. LeShawn Hunt, absent. Terry Johnson, absent.

LEALAN JONES: That's Ms. Ford, our homeroom teacher. We give her a hard time.

  1. FORD: Fellas! Would you please shout your mouths...

LEALAN JONES: Sometimes we learn. Most of the time it's just too rowdy to learn.

  1. FORD: I can support myself! I can buy the things I want to because I learned to use my brain. Now let’s try working on yours. [laughter] Okay, the sheets that…

LLOYD NEWMAN: LeAlan and I interviewed our principal, Mrs. Tolson, about working at a school like Donoghue.

LEALAN JONES: Is it hard being a teacher in this neighborhood?

MRS. TOLSON: Yes, yes. It's difficult. Not so much because the children are really any different. It's difficult because of the publicity that surrounds the area. And you don't believe that we believe you're smart.

LEALAN JONES: But sometimes, there's no denying we're smart.

LLOYD NEWMAN: After school, day one. Me and LeAlan head downtown with our tape recorder.

LEALAN JONES: On the bus, someone tells us that there are professional basketball players staying at the Hyatt Regency. So, being top notch reporters, we head to the hotel to check it out.

LEALAN JONES: You hear the nice music they're playing?

LLOYD NEWMAN: Yeah. We’re gonna come…

LEALAN JONES: A few minutes later, we scammed our way up to the 20th floor.

LLOYD NEWMAN: That's where we found Dale Ellis...

LEALAN JONES: Hello.

LLOYD NEWMAN: A guard with the San Antonio Spurs. He let us interview him in his room.

LLOYD NEWMAN: Yeah, I'm from Ida B. Wells. What part – what part of the United States are you from?

DALE ELLIS: Atlanta – actually Marietta. I'm 29 minutes north of Atlanta.

LEALAN JONES: I know that play for the Sonics and you won the three point contest. What are some of your greatest achievements in life?

DALE ELLIS: Well, you know, the biggest achievement, I think, is just being here for one.

LEALAN JONES: We chilled out with Dale for about fifteen, twenty minutes. It was cool.

DALE ELLIS: Math was always my favorite subject. It was always my favorite subject.

LEALAN JONES: Thank you. Can I have your autograph? [laughter]

DALE ELLIS: Good to see you. It was good to see you.

LEALAN JONES: [whispers] Goddamn. That was Dale Ellis. That was Dale Ellis, man.

LLOYD NEWMAN: That was Dale Ellis, thank you.

LEALAN JONES: Dale Ellis, for the San Antonio Spurs.

LLOYD NEWMAN: We can stop for a while now…

LEALAN JONES: After we finished with Dale Ellis, Lloyd and I figured we did enough for our first day as reporters.

LEALAN JONES: Man, I'm tired.

LLOYD NEWMAN: Who ain't tired? I think I'm about to have a back-stroke carrying this stuff on my back!

LEALAN JONES: Okay, I'll be talking to you guys later. I'm out.

LEALAN JONES: My house, day two.

[Kids playing]

LLOYD NEWMAN: LeAlan lives just a block away from me in an old house on Oakwood Boulevard. There are three houses attached to the side of his.

LEALAN JONES: One of them's burned, and two of theem just abandoned. And one of them, it leans over and keeps moving our house over to the side. When it gets cold outside, it get cold in here. When it rain, the rain coming in. Whatever nature do, this house do. I'm in my front room now.

LEALAN JONES: How you doin', Toochie?

TOOCHIE: Okay.

LEALAN JONES: That's my mother. Everyone calls her Toochie.

LEALAN JONES: Say hello, Jeri.

JERI: Hello.

LEALAN JONES: My little sister, Jeri.

LEALAN JONES: I'm walking up the stairs.

LLOYD NEWMAN: LeAlan's grandma and grandpa live on the second floor of the house up a rickety flight of steps.

LEALAN JONES: Listen. [creaking] That shows you how rickety they are.

LEALAN JONES: My grandmother moved into this house in 1937. Her name is June Marie Jones. I interviewed her in her room.

LEALAN JONES: This is still day two. It's 12:06. Hello?

JUNE MARIE JONES: Hello. [Laugher]

LEALAN JONES: What we gonna talk about?

JUNE MARIE JONES: We gonna talk about the neighborhood.

LEALAN JONES: How it changed and everything.

JUNE MARIE JONES: Yeah.

LEALAN JONES: How do you think it changed?

JUNE MARIE JONES: For the worse. When we first came in the area there were no projects, there were all homes. And at one time we had nice hotels where different movie stars would come in and stay.

LEALAN JONES: How – when you start seeing major change in the neighborhood?

JUNE MARIE JONES: It wasn't all of a sudden. It happened gradually, day by day, year by year. You could see the change when people would move out, or maybe the original owner would pass and their families didn't want the buildings, and they would just go down.

LEALAN JONES: My grandma raised eight kids in this house. Her two oldest boys died. Now she has six kids.

JUNE MARIE JONES: I have three boys and three girls. They all spoiled rotten.

LEALAN JONES: Aww. [laughs]

JUNE MARIE JONES: And so are the grandchildren and especially you.

LEALAN JONES: Get you! [laughter]

LEALAN JONES: What type of child was I when I was little – When I was a whining child?

JUNE MARIE JONES: No, you was a nice little red headed boy with the blue eyes.

LEALAN JONES: I had blue eyes or brown?

JUNE MARIE JONES: They were blue. They were lighter when you were young. And your hair was lighter. And it would turn white in the summer and darker in the fall.

LEALAN JONES: Well, how was I named?

JUNE MARIE JONES: You got your name from your two oldest uncles. Oldest boy's name was Alan, and the second boy, that you’re named, was Eric Lee. And your mother made the two names – your name out of the two names.

LEALAN JONES: Why she didn't name me no common name? Why my name have to be sentimental?

JUNE MARIE JONES: Because you're different. Your name is different and you're different.

LEALAN JONES: My name is LeAlan Marvin Jones.

JUNE MARIE JONES: And she gave you the "Marvin"…

LEALAN JONES: For Marvin Gaye…

JUNE MARIE JONES: Marvin Gaye because she liked to hear him sing.

LEALAN JONES: My name is sentimental.

JUNE MARIE JONES: Yeah, your name is special and you're a special person, too.

LEALAN JONES: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

LEALAN JONES: Compared to other people who live in this neighborhood, my grandma says she’s had it easy.

JUNE MARIE JONES: I think I been blessed cus things could have been a whole lot worse than they have been.

LEALAN JONES: But she has had her share of troubles. The kinds of things you see in every family around here. My grandmother had one son who was murdered. She has another son who's addicted to drugs and is in and out of jail. Her grandson, my cousin Jermaine, came down with leukemia when he was six. He was cured, but the medication left him learning disabled. It upset his mother so much that she started drinking. Now he lives here with my grandmother. Sleeps in her bed.

LEALAN JONES: How old are you?

JERMAINE: I'm eleven. I'll be twelve this year.

LEALAN JONES: What do you think about your mother?

JERMAINE: She okay.

LEALAN JONES: You love her?

JERMAINE: Yeah. When she not drinking I love her. If she start drinking, I don't.

[MUSIC IN]

LEALAN JONES: Me, my mother and my little sister all stay downstairs in the front room. I sleep on the couch. My mother and sister sleep on a mattress on the floor. Even though my mother lives with us, my grandmother also has custody of me and my sisters because of my mother's mental illness. This is my mother, Toochie.

TOOCHIE: I been on medication, off and on, since 1977.

LEALAN JONES: She's okay now, but she's had a lot of problems in the past. It's upsetting to see her when she sick.

TOOCHIE: One time, I had went downstairs. And it's a long story, but I started seeing shadows on the porch, on back porch when I used to look out the window at night. And it looked like Ronald Reagan and he was talking to my grandmother. And I was hearing voices. And the voices told me to run, to get butt naked. I had did that before, too – taking my clothes off.

LEALAN JONES: What type voice are these? Are they a man voice or a female voice or just a voice?

TOOCHIE: Just a regular old voice up there.

[MUSIC OUT]

LEALAN JONES: Who is my father?

TOOCHIE: Your father is a fellow named Toby Flipper. He say he know you exist. He seen you when you was about two. And I ain't seen him since.

LEALAN JONES: What do you think happened to him?

TOOCHIE: He probably dead.

LEALAN JONES: Thank you.

TOOCHIE: Okay.

LEALAN JONES: Lloyd lives about two blocks from my house in the Ida B. Wells Projects. The Ida Bs are made up of about 3,000 units. Most of them are low-rise houses. A lot of them are in miserable conditions.

LLOYD NEWMAN: Now we’re walking in the Ida B. Wells, which is 50% houses are boarded up. Now we're going into my house. We're knocking on the door. [knocks] Kicking on the door. [kicks] I hope she hurry up and open it.

[MUSIC IN]

LLOYD NEWMAN: Now we walking into my house.

LEALAN JONES: Lloyd house is kind of messed up. There's lots of roaches creeping around. The toilet's been stopped up off and on for years. The place is always noisy. Lloyd's mother died two years ago from drinking. His father is also an alcoholic. So Lloyd's two older sisters have been bringing him up since then. Lloyd's sister Sophia was the closest to their mother.

LLOYD NEWMAN: How did you react to it when you heard that she died?

SOPHIA: I was very upset. I just thought my life wasn't worth living. I wanted to die too. I just thought we wasn't going to make it without her. But I see that we made it. And I'm very proud of us.

LLOYD NEWMAN: Do you think it's hard bringing us up at the age of 20?

SOPHIA: Well, I'll be twenty this year, I'm nineteen. But sometimes you all give us a tough time, but I love having y’all as my brothers and sisters.

LEALAN JONES: All together there are four boys and three girls living in the house. Lloyd's sister is bringing them all up on a $500 a month welfare check. It isn't easy.

CHILL: My name is Michael Murray.

LLOYD’S BROTHER: His name is "Chilly Mac." He's at the liquor store.

LEALAN JONES: Almost every day, Lloyd's father visits the house. His name is Michael Murray but everyone calls him Chill.

CHILL: They gave me that name. I used to shoot pool, I used to hustle. Any kind of way I could get some money.

LEALAN JONES: When he come over, he's almost always drunk. And the kids make fun of him. Like today, they’re asking him to spell "food."

SISTER’S FRIEND: Spell "food."

CHILL: L-O-O-F . . . L-O-O-F.

LEALAN JONES: L-O-O-F?

SISTER’S FRIEND: Don’t know how to spell. F-O-O-D.

SOPHIA: Wait – what did you spell? We said spell "food." What you eat.

CHILL: Oh, food.

SOPHIA: Yeah.

CHILL: What you eat?

SISTER’S FRIEND: Yeah, buddy boy, spell food.

CHILL: L-O-O-F? [laughter]

LLOYD NEWMAN: I asked my father, Chill, what his best memories of my mother are.

CHILL: Me and her have fun, putting our feet in the water together. We were sober then. But once we started getting high, them memories gone. They gone.

LLOYD NEWMAN: Why are you drinking?

CHILL: I don't understand why I'm drinking.

LLOYD NEWMAN: Do you think you’re going to stop?

CHILL: Yeah, I'm going to rehab and take care of myself.

LLOYD NEWMAN: What do you drink?

CHILL: I drink about two or three pints of wine a day. But it ain't helping me, it's only killing me. Don't people understand it’s destroying you?

LLOYD NEWMAN: If it's destroying you, why do you still drink it then?

CHILL: That's why I got to go into rehab, because I don't want to destroy my family. Cus I want my family.

LLOYD NEWMAN: Do you think you've been a good father?

CHILL: Yes, I have. To the best capability I could.

LLOYD NEWMAN: I have no further questions.

[Sounds of card game]

LLOYD NEWMAN: I ain’t see nothing, man!

LEALAN JONES: Every Friday evening at Lloyd's house, a bunch of people come over to play cards, mostly Lloyd's sisters’ friends. Usually the game lasts all night. I left at about 11:30 or 12:00.

[MUSIC IN]

LEALAN JONES: I met up with Lloyd the next morning.

LEALAN JONES: Hi. How the card game go last night?

LLOYD NEWMAN: I won all the money! It was 80 dollars!

LEALAN JONES: Jeepers, how you be winning all the time?!

LLOYD NEWMAN: I don't cheat, which everybody think I do. But I'm hooked now – once I start I can't stop.

[MUSIC OUT]

LEALAN JONES: Man, what you want for breakfast? Since you buying.

[MUSIC IN]

LLOYD NEWMAN: I took LeAlan to Johnson's restaurant on 39th Street for breakfast.

WAITER: Alright, what else?

LEALAN JONES: Since Lloyd had $80, we ordered everything on the menu.

LEALAN JONES: Then with the omelet, I want the hash browns and grits.

[MUSIC IN]

WAITER: Okay. Now what about this French toast?

LLOYD NEWMAN: I want the French toast with sausages.

LEALAN JONES: And I want the juice.

WAITER: Hold on a minute, just hold on.

LEALAN JONES: Man, that was one good breakfast.

WAITER: French toast with bacon…

LLOYD NEWMAN: We just now got through eating at Johnson's Restaurant.

LEALAN JONES: I ate twelve French toasts, two omelets.

LLOYD NEWMAN: LeAlan ate the whole store up!

LEALAN JONES: Ooh man, I could eat again. My stomach starting to get hungry.

LLOYD NEWMAN: That's all we do is eat, man. To tell the truth ain't it. Eat and talk. Let's get on the bus man.

LEALAN JONES: We take bus rides whenever Lloyd wins playing cards, or if either I have a little money or us gets a little money.

LLOYD NEWMAN: Just ride to the end of the line.

LEALAN JONES: Take a break from everyday life in the ghetto.

LLOYD NEWMAN: There go – There go the bus.

LEALAN JONES: Yeah. Let's go, let's go, let's go! Let's go!

LLOYD NEWMAN: Hold that bus! Hold the bus! Hold that bus, please!

[Sound of getting on bus and paying fare.]

LEALAN JONES: On the bus. We just sit at the back, look out the window, and trip out.

LEALAN JONES: What's your favorite food? Breakfast food, lunch food or dinner?

LLOYD NEWMAN: Dinner food.

LEALAN JONES: This is what I be doing G…

[MUSIC IN]

LEALAN JONES: When we on the bus we talk about anything and everything.

LEALAN JONES: I don't see how them Chinese people go to school seven days out of a week.

[MUSIC OUT]

LEALAN JONES: Man, there's a couple of billion oriental people.

LLOYD NEWMAN: "Oriental." Don't you spell that "O-R-I-E-N-T-A-L?"

LEALAN JONES: Think that's right.

LLOYD NEWMAN: Cus that's the name of the Ramen Noodle. Don’t you know the noodles that we be eating?

LEALAN JONES: Yeah, I love them. Oriental noodles – I be tearing them off when I be hungry I just…

[MUSIC IN]

LEALAN JONES: When a nice looking female gets on the bus, we like to let her know we there.

LEALAN JONES: Hey girl, he say he like you. He say you attractive. He say it's just that animal magnetism that just attracts him. Man, he say he love you.

LLOYD NEWMAN: Uh uh – I just love you! I – I just love you. [laughter]

[MUSIC IN]

LEALAN JONES: We just like to act the fool on the bus. Get some attention.

[MUSIC OUT]

LEALAN JONES: [bus honking] We almost hit a car. Whew, that car came out. We almost hit it. I think we did. Or no, we didn't.

LLOYD NEWMAN: If we would have had an accident, you think we would have gotten hurt?

LEALAN JONES: I would have faked it. I would have sued. Like, “My neck hurt. I can't move. Man, I can't move my neck." [laughter] "My nose broke, ohh."

LLOYD NEWMAN: Would you rather have a rubber nose or a plastic nose? I ain't talking about the kind like Michael Jackson.

LEALAN JONES: A rubber nose, because if I have a fight and they hit me it just bounce right off. When they hit me in my nose, just bounce right off and hit them in the face.

[MUSIC IN]

[MUSIC OUT]

TONY: I was over there for about 15 minutes, know what I’m saying?...

LEALAN JONES: When I got home from our bus ride on Sunday afternoon, I found out that in the morning, while we were eating breakfast, my cousin Tony got jumped by one of the gangs in the neighborhood. They beat him up so bad they put him in the hospital. He wouldn't let me interview him, but I recorded him while he told his friend on the phone what happened.

TONY: I'm out homes, you know what I’m saying? I'm breathing and everything but – I can hear everything. But, you know what I’m saying, I ain't woke.

LEALAN JONES: Tony's saying that they beat him up until they knocked him unconscious. Then they hit him a couple more times in the mouth. That woke him up, and he got away. He says it's just a blessing that he made it back home.

TONY: It's just a blessing. It’s just a blessing that I made it back home.

LEALAN JONES: This is where the drive by took place last year, where the El Rukns shot down some folks right in this area where we walking now. It’s a little…

LLOYD NEWMAN: Gangs and violence are just a way of life in this neighborhood.

LEALAN JONES: And now we see the Fort, where the Fort used to stand.

LEALAN JONES: Just a block from my house is a big vacant lot. That's where the Fort used to be. An old movie theater that was the headquarters of the El Rukns street gang until the city tore it down.

LEALAN JONES: We standing on the grounds now. You still see the caution police barrier.

LEALAN JONES: We’re just in eighth grade, but a lot of the kids we grew up with already joined the gangs. When we were walking around the neighborhood, we spied our friend Gary selling drugs.

LEALAN JONES: Gary! Slow up, man!

LLOYD NEWMAN: LeAlan asked him what he thought he was going to be doing in ten years, since he already dropped out of school.

GARY: I ain't gonna be alive ten years, because selling drugs and shit they gonna pop my ass.

LLOYD NEWMAN: He says he won't be alive in ten years, because with his selling drugs, someone's gonna shoot him before that.

LEALAN JONES: I don't know why some kids just give up hope, and others, like me and Lloyd, hold on. Maybe it’s just that both me and Lloyd have at least one strong person in our families to watch over us.

LLOYD NEWMAN: But, no matter what the situation, every kid who lives in this neighborhood has to grow up fast.

LEALAN JONES: When I was nine, I knew where drugs came from. When I was 10, I seen my first automatic weapon. A Glock Nine, two clips.

LLOYD NEWMAN: I seen all kinds of guns, .44, .22.

LEALAN JONES: Techs…

LLOYD NEWMAN: Techs. I saw rifles.

LEALAN JONES: Mac 10, Mac 11. Everything.

LLOYD NEWMAN: Living around here. You hear shooting all the time.

LEALAN JONES: Like Vietnam sometimes. You might hear booka-booka. Silent. I remember one time I was over at my Auntie house spending the night. We playing Super Nintendo. I hear this lady: "I heard you been looking for me, nigger." Then she just – boom boom boom boom. She let off about eight shots. Then I heard the other gun fire off. And we were just still there playing there like nothing happened. And then Vietnam, them people came back crazy. I live in Vietnam, so what you think I'm gonna be if I live in it and they just went and visited? Living around here, man, it's depressing. Man, it's depressing.

[MUSIC IN]

LEALAN JONES: It's not a normal childhood by any means.

[MUSIC OUT]

LEALAN JONES: Now we walking towards the lake front.

LEALAN JONES: Sometimes, when we bored, nothing else to do, we get on the bridge which goes over Lake Shore Drive and we drop rocks on the cars below. Try to crack they windshields. And then run.

LLOYD NEWMAN: Mini-vans are one of our favorite targets.

LEALAN JONES: That's a brother in there. Hit the white blazer.

LLOYD NEWMAN: Where?

LEALAN JONES: The white blazer. Throw it now!

LEALAN JONES: You just driving your car and – poom! We just hit the car. I don't care about them people. Most of them going to the suburbs.

LLOYD NEWMAN: You be bored you do anything.

LEALAN JONES: Just to have some fun.

LEALAN JONES: Lloyd, come on, let's start running. [breathing heavy]

LEALAN JONES: All I know is I bust your windshield and you got an insurance claim – I don't care about them people.

LEALAN JONES: Boy you didn't think I was going to do it, did you? It popped all the way back up.

[MUSIC IN]

[MUSIC OUT]

[MUSIC IN]

LEALAN JONES: It definitely ain’t easy growing up in the ghetto. So far me and Lloyd are okay. But it's always tough to stay out of trouble in this environment. The poverty, the drugs, the pressures, the tragedies – it gets to people.

LLOYD NEWMAN: You never who’s gonna get in trouble or when they just gonna give up. Like LeAlan's sister, Janell.

[Sound of TV]

LLOYD NEWMAN: We’re back at LeAlan's house.

LEALAN JONES: My sister back here asleep in her room. What time you got in this morning?

JANELL: [inaudible]

LEALAN JONES: You stupid! When the last time you been to school?

LEALAN JONES: My older sister, Janell. When she was my age, thirteen, she was an honor student. She won the spelling bee. She was the salutatorian of her class. Then when she hit fourteen, she started buggin' out. Hanging around with the wrong crowd. Staying out all night. Stopped going to school.

LLOYD NEWMAN: The week before we did our recording, Janell almost died. She drank too much and had to be rushed to the hospital.

LEALAN JONES: Can I interview you?

JANELL: No.

LEALAN JONES: Come on. Janell, tell me about yourself.

JANELL: Well, I'm very energetic. I like to have a lot of fun.

LEALAN JONES: Like to drink a lot.

JANELL: No, I don't.

LEALAN JONES: Yes, you do. You smoke marijuana?

JANELL: No, I don't.

LEALAN JONES: Yes, you do. Tell the truth!

JANELL: No, I don’t.

LEALAN JONES: You're seventeen.

JANELL: Yes.

LEALAN JONES: Have a child.

JANELL: Yes.

LEALAN JONES: How old were you when you had this child?

JANELL: Fifteen.

LEALAN JONES: Let me see. How many close friends of yours have got killed through the years?

JANELL: I don't know. I can't count all of them. It’s been a lot though.

LEALAN JONES: You think it's around fifty?

JANELL: I don't think it's that many.

LEALAN JONES: It’s around thirty or forty?

JANELL: Probably somewhere in that area. Maybe a little less than thirty.

LEALAN JONES: Do you know who killed or murdered these people?

JANELL: I know who killed some of them.

LEALAN JONES: Like who?

JANELL: Like Veal.

LEALAN JONES: Who killed him?

JANELL: I ain't gonna tell you who killed Veal.

LEALAN JONES: Who else?

JANELL: I know who killed Slick.

LEALAN JONES: Who?

JANELL: I don't want to tell you that either.

LEALAN JONES: Who else?

JANELL: Cheesy.

LEALAN JONES: Who did – who killed him?

JANELL: I ain't gonna tell you that either.

LEALAN JONES: Thank you.

[MUSIC IN]

LEALAN JONES: My grandma sleeps across the hall from my sister, where she keeps an eye on Janell and all the rest of us. She's been through a lot in this house. She spent a lot of years worrying about her children, and now she has to worry about her grandkids. But she's a strong woman. Sometimes I think about what might happen to the family if my grandmother dies. A lot of times I’ve had dreams that she died. And when I wake up, I run upstairs to make sure that she's still there. I get onto the bed with her and my grandfather and talk about all kinds of things. Like what my granddad was like before he had all his strokes.

JUNE MARIE JONES: He was wild, liked to stay out in the street all the time.

LEALAN JONES: He over there batting his eyes.

JUNE MARIE JONES: Yeah.

LEALAN JONES: He acting like he sleeping. I see those eyes going, trying to find out what you thought about him.

JUNE MARIE JONES: He go to work all day, and stay out in the street all night

LEALAN JONES: Didn't he work at the cow company?

JUNE MARIE JONES: Stock yards, he worked at the stock yards as a lugger. He would carry the cows on his back.

LEALAN JONES: A cow weigh 1500 pounds!

JUNE MARIE JONES: He lug it. He’d carry half of it and put it up on the hook.

LEALAN JONES: How you carry them cows, granddad? How you didn't get squashed?

GRANDDAD: Carry the half of the cow.

LEALAN JONES: How?

GRANDDAD: On your back.

LEALAN JONES: That's why we all got strong backbones, huh?

GRANDDAD: Yup.

LEALAN JONES: My grandmother says she gets her strength to carry on, her wisdom, from the Bible. She loves gospel music. And of all the song she knows, the one she loves the most is called One Day at a Time.

LEALAN JONES: Could you please sing that song for us?

JUNE MARIE JONES: With my voice all messed up?

LEALAN JONES: Do it. One, two. One, two, three . . .

JUNE MARIE JONES: [sings] Do you remember when you walked among men? Well Jesus you know, if you lookin' below, it's worse now than then. They're pushing and shoving. They're crowding my mind. Lord, for my sake, teach me to take one day at a time. One day at a time, sweet Jesus, that's all I'm asking of you. So help me today, show me the way, one day at a time. Oh I’m hoarse.

LEALAN JONES: She was hoarse but she still can blow. Thank you.

[MUSIC IN]

LEALAN JONES: This is LeAlan Jones.

LLOYD NEWMAN: And Lloyd Newman.

LEALAN JONES: Peace out.

LLOYD NEWMAN: Peace out. No goodbye. No..

LEALAN JONES: What’s the…?

LLOYD NEWMAN: As-Salaam-Alaikum.

LEALAN JONES: As-Salaam-Alaikum.

LLOYD NEWMAN: As-Salaam-Alaikum. See ya'.

LEALAN JONES: And wouldn't want to be ya'.

LLOYD NEWMAN: Peace out, I'm outta here.

LEALAN JONES: Peace out.

[MUSIC OUT]

“FIRST”JAD: You know how theater people always talk about the fourth wall? That invisible barrier between audience and performer? Ghetto Life 101 breaks down the fourth wall. Don't you think? LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman, they basically come into your home and hang out with you. And Isay's work in general is very visual. It's like a movie. Except, better. You know, you don't even have to imagine the images, they just pop into your head. The story was produced by Dave Isay, as I said, and it won a Peabody Award, and basically created this whole sub genre of docs, which we now called diaries. I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. WNYC's weekly experiment in documentary sound. To recap, we're smack in the middle of a journey through a series of stories about firsts. What is the first image that comes to mind when you think of electroshock therapy? Torture? One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? Clear your brain of those thoughts, because in this next story, you're going to meet a guy who feels very differently about electroconvulsive therapy, as it's commonly called. He says it saved his life. You'll hear tape of him during an ECT treatment. That might be a first. The piece is produced by Dan Collison. And it's narrated by Rob McGruder. This is his story.

ROB MCGRUDER: Sometimes it comes without any warning, or wake up, and it's just there. Like a dense fog that's descended on me during the night. One day, I'm fine. And the next day, I'm severely depressed. I feel like I'm hanging on the edge of a cliff. There doesn't seem to be any way of pulling myself back up to safety. And it gets harder and harder to hold on. I have impulses telling me to end it all. I have bipolar disorder. I've attempted suicide three times and have thought about it more times than I can count. I've been in and out of mental hospitals more than a dozen times. I've been homeless and I've lived in shelters and on the streets. I've been arrested for vagrancy, have lost jobs and I've had two marriages fail all because of my mental illness. I'm 45 years old and as I speak, I'm doing pretty well. My wife and I have moved into a new apartment on Chicago's west side. And I'm starting to think about working again. Last winter, I was hit hard by another severe depression. It took many months to come out of it. The fact that I'm speaking to you at all is a victory of sorts. I'm going to tell you how I got to this point. The story begins about a year ago.

ROB MCGRUDER: Yeah, this is Friday, the – I have no idea what the date is today. Or no, today's Thursday, tomorrow's Friday. I guess I'm a little confused. I haven't worked since Tuesday, when this really kind of got started. Mostly I've just been laying around feeling completely awful. The depression is just taken over again, like it does. And they're just weird kind of thoughts that pop into my head, "Well, I could do this," or, you know, "I could drive the van into a, you know, a railroad pile on it, you know, high speed." That kind of thing. I'm gonna have an ECT treatment tomorrow. And I'm glad I have something that at least in the past has worked and I hope will work this time. Because I was so suicidal. That it was I've got to – this is like the last thing I'm holding onto.

NURSE: Eugene? Recovery Unit, Euguene?

ROB MCGRUDER: The next morning, I wake up early and ride the L down to the University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital where I check in to the outpatient surgery center.

NURSE: I gotta ask you, how tall are you?

ROB MCGRUDER: 6'3".NURSE: 6'3". How much do you weigh?

ROB MCGRUDER: 305.

NURSE: 305.

ROB MCGRUDER: I've been through all this before, so I know the routine.

NURSE: How old?

ROB MCGRUDER: 45

ROB MCGRUDER: I change into a hospital gown...

NURSE: Got any allergies?

ROB MCGRUDER: And a nurse inserts an IV needle in the back of my hand.

ROB MCGRUDER: Ah.

ROB MCGRUDER: For me, it's probably the most painful part of the whole procedure.

NURSE: Mm-hmm.

ROB MCGRUDER: My psychiatrist Dr. Jack Krasuski, who will be administering my ECT today, drops by the prep room to have me sign the consent form and see how I'm doing.

JACK KRASUSKI: His pattern is one of some people slowly kind of slide down like a gentle slope into a depression. But for Rob it's, it's almost more like a cliff. You know, he'll just kind of feel it coming on and within a day or two, he can be severely depressed. And, you know, just be overwhelmed with suicidal thoughts and impulses, you know, unable to kind of get his mind off of them. He'd be high suicide risk. And that could develop very quickly over a day or two.

NURSE: You ready?

ROB MCGRUDER: Yeah.

ROB MCGRUDER: Then I'm wheeled on a gurney into the ECT treatment room. The staff all know me by now.

NURSE: So how's the baby?

ROB MCGRUDER: Getting bigger. He's hardly a baby anymore.

NURSE: Really?

ROB MCGRUDER: The room is unassuming, small and cramped, barely enough space for me and Dr. Kwasuski and his team: a resident, a nurse and two anesthesiologists who immediately start working on me.

JACK KRASUSKI: We attach electrodes and cephalographic leads to the person's head so that we are able to monitor the brainwaves before, during and after the procedure.

ROB MCGRUDER: This all used to be a little scary, but after so many treatments, I'm pretty relaxed. Although there are still some things I get nervous about.

ROB MCGRUDER: Couple of things. Getting the mouthpiece set in correctly is really important.

ROB MCGRUDER: The mouthpiece prevents me from biting my tongue during the procedure. During an ECT treatment at another hospital years ago, the mouthpiece wasn't positioned correctly and I ended up needing several stitches in my tongue.

NURSE: You got him there Felix?

NURSE: Yep.

NURSE: Good jaw thrust?

ROB MCGRUDER: I've also found that taking in a whole lot of oxygen just before the treatment prevents memory loss and post treatment headaches. Memory loss is one of the major side effects of ECT patients have lost as many as two years of their memory after receiving an ECT treatment. So when the oxygen mask is placed over my mouth, I begin to take a series of deep breaths.

NURSE: Hyperventilating pretty good there.

ROB MCGRUDER: I'm given a general anesthetic through my IV followed by a muscle relaxant.

NURSE: Robert this is – this stings and you know that.

JACK KRASUSKI: So the point of these agents is to have them be asleep. And then the muscles relax and prevents their body from moving because when a person has a seizure, those discharges from the brain cause the body to converse and move. And if that is not control, the person could hurt themselves. There's – there could be a lot of very strong movement and very strong muscle contractions. And before the use of these kind of agents, you know, the – like compression fractures of the spine or even broken limbs were, I wouldn't say common, but you know they did occur.

NURSE: You got 140 as such. That much?

NURSE: Yes.

ROB MCGRUDER: I'm completely unconscious. Now as the drugs work through my body. A blood pressure cuff around my right ankle prevents the muscle relaxant from reaching my foot. This allows Dr. Krasuski to observe the muscle contractions in my foot to determine if the procedure is working

NURSE: Okay?

NURSE: Yep. [beeping]

ROB MCGRUDER: A few feet from my head, a device that looks like a home stereo system sits atop a red Craftsman tool cart. It's the ECT machine or Thymatron box, said to be the Cadillac of electroshock devices. On the front panel are five knobs, including one that controls the voltage and the yellow button labeled "treatment."

NURSE: Okay. Got him?

ROB MCGRUDER: Two cables come out of the back attached to two paddles that look like they're from an old crank telephone handset. The resident smears globs of conducting jelly on the stainless steel cups on the end of each paddle, the electrodes, and places one paddle on each of my temples.

NURSE: Alrighty.

ROB MCGRUDER: Then Dr. Krasuski gives the okay. And the resident standing at his side presses the yellow treatment button.

JACK KRASUSKI: Ready?

NURSE: Mm-hmm.

JACK KRASUSKI: And there's a brief electrical discharge, which can last an average one or two seconds. The total amount of current that is given is usually less than one amp, point eight of an amp. [beeps]

ROB MCGRUDER: I'm not aware of anything at this point. But I'm told that when the electricity passes through my head, my body tenses and my face grimaces. My right foot, the one with the blood pressure cuff twitches, which means the electrical charge has caused a seizure.

JACK KRASUSKI: And the whole point of the procedures to induce a seizure that lasts between 20 and 40 seconds. And we'd like to have at least about a 30 second EEG seizure.

ROB MCGRUDER: This seizure lasts 34 seconds. No one's certain way inducing a seizure with an electrical charge makes severely depressed people like me feel better. There are plenty of theories. One is that a seizure changes the level of chemicals in the brain. Another is that it causes a shift in the body's hormonal system. Some have compared ECT to a reset button on a computer or, an even cruder analogy, that it's like banging the side of a fuzzy TV set to clear the picture.

JACK KRASUSKI: After that, we're pretty much finished with the procedure and then we give the person a few minutes, usually takes a few minutes for them to get over the muscle relaxing so that they can start breathing on their own and also to start waking up from the anesthetic. And usually that does occur within, certainly within five to ten minutes after the ECT stimulus is given.

NURSE: Robert!

ROB MCGRUDER: Huh?

NURSE: We're all done, okay? You wakin' up? [coughing]

ROB MCGRUDER: The coughing is actually a good sign because it means the anesthesia and muscle relaxing are wearing off and I'm beginning to breathe on my own again. The whole procedure takes about 20 minutes. Once it's over, I'm wheeled into the recovery room where I sleep for about an hour.

NURSE: Robert?

ROB MCGRUDER: Yeah.

NURSE: It's time to go home.

ROB MCGRUDER: Oh, okay.

ROB MCGRUDER: I wake up feeling groggy, but a whole lot better than when I checked in.

NURSE: That's pretty good.

ROB MCGRUDER: Mm-hmm.

JACK KRASUSKI: Historically for Rob, you know, it does tend to work and the single treatment can really make them feel better quite quickly. So our plan is just to do another one next week to kind of consolidate any gains that, you know, we expect him to have. [phone ringing]

ROB MCGRUDER: Just ready to go home and go to sleep. I'm just glad I have something like this that makes me feel better.

ROB MCGRUDER: That weekend, I take it easy. The following Monday, three days after my ECT I feel good enough to go into work. I'm a licensed clinical counselor at a mental health agency on Chicago's South Side. But I'm at work for just an hour or so before I'm sent home and told to set up an appointment with my boss. I suspect I'm about to be let go. Two days later, my suspicions are confirmed. On Wednesday, I'm fired. My boss says I've fallen too far behind in my paperwork. Two days after that I show up at the hospital for my next ECT treatment.

NURSE: Phyliss to recovery room please. Phyliss.

ROB MCGRUDER: Let's see, today is Friday the – I have no idea. Let's see Wednesday was – so today's gotta be the 16th. And I'm feeling more than a bit rough. I've never been dismissed from a job before. So that was kind of a real negative experience that kind of brought me down. I was starting to do better. You know it's a difficult thing to accept if I wasn't depressed.

NURSE: Mr. McGruder I'm just going to clean off your forehead.

ROB MCGRUDER: The ECT team gets me ready and I do my part and hyperventilate using the oxygen mask

NURSE: Deep breath.

ROB MCGRUDER: After getting the anesthesia and muscle relaxant, I drift off to sleep.

JACK KRASUSKI: Okay, let's put this pipe block in and go ahead. And now we're applying the treatment. [beeping] Okay? You're all done.

ROB MCGRUDER: This time the seizure causes my arms to fly straight up like a football referee signaling a touchdown. I don't feel anything. But when I come to I'm a little more disoriented than usual.

ROB MCGRUDER: Something's not right. I don't know if it's not ready or what the deal is. But I feel a little confused. I'm not sure.

ROB MCGRUDER: Typically, I feel better after an ECT treatment but this time I continue to feel confused and still very depressed. This lasts for several days. I'm exhausted all the time and have no concentration. All I can do is just lie around. We live at my wife's grandmother's apartment, which is a mess. And I have no energy to help clean things up. The Department of Children and Family Services, DCFS, is concerned about our living situation and is even threatening to take our kids away unless things improve. My wife Angela and I have a 15-month-old baby and Angela has four other kids. I'm completely overwhelmed and go to see Dr. Krasuski.

JACK KRASUSKI: You look like you're looking down. What's been going on?

ROB MCGRUDER: Yeah, ever since Friday I've not been feeling well. It started from when I woke up from the last treatment., I didn't feel right. I don't know if it's issues particular to the treatment itself or if it's just, you know, the stress of everything that I'm coping with.

ROB MCGRUDER: Dr. Krasuski tells me that everything seemed to go okay with the latest ECT. The seizure was the right length and the oxygen level indicated that I was hyperventilated, which normally prevents confusion and headaches. We talked for a while and agree to continue my weekly ECTs.

JACK KRASUSKI: You're gonna get better, Rob. This was just a lot of stuff, a lot of stuff. It overwhelmed your emotional resources. But I'm confident you know, you'll be ready to go back to work and you're going to enjoy it and you're going to feel ready. You're going to be raring to go. But you're right to give yourself some time right now. All right? All right. Good to see. I'll see you in three days.

ROB MCGRUDER: Okay.

JACK KRASUSKI: All right.

ROB MCGRUDER: Dr. Krasuski has helped me through a lot of ups and downs. He's 40 years old and has been administering ECT regularly for the past four years. He became a believer after his first two ECT patients came out of severe long term depressions.

JACK KRASUSKI: The response rate is really, you know, the highest out of any treatment we have in psychiatry. For people who have a severe form of depression, a 60, or 70% will respond to medication treatment, that still leaves a huge percentage and huge total number of people who will not respond. And out of those people, 50%, 50% of patients who failed multiple medication trials will still have a substantial response from the ECT.

ROB MCGRUDER: Dr. Krasuski has always been clear about the possible side effects: the memory loss, the confusion, even a real though very slight risk of death. He's also clear about the risks of doing nothing for his patients.

JACK KRASUSKI: You know, I can sit there with them and suffer along with them and feel terrible that there's no way I can help them where I can go ahead and accept the risks for myself and – you know, have them accept the risks for themselves that is entail with the treatment for the possibility of getting better. And so many of them do get better and so many get better, you know, so fully that I think it would just be, you know, almost criminal if this procedure was not made available.

ROB MCGRUDER: The average course of treatment in the United States is 11 ECTs. After six treatments, I remain stuck in sort of a fog. Not severely depressed, but not ready to go back to work or do much of anything. So Dr. Krasuski recommends a more intensive treatment course. Three ECTs a week for the next two weeks. The goal is to try to break through the fog.

JACK KRASUSKI: Okay, good. I'm gonna press and hold. [beeping] Okay. [beeping] Really went great. No complications. And we'll see, you know, I guess the proof of the pudding is in the eating and the proof the ECT is in how Rob will feel. [beeping]

ROB MCGRUDER: The intensive ECTs make me a little more tired and forgetful. I'm losing my keys and having trouble concentrating. But the depression does start to lift.

ROB MCGRUDER: I think I've kind of turned the corner this week. And I'm finally, you know, starting to see a little bit of head above water. My activity level is still a little on the low side. But at least I'm starting to get a feel motivated to do more.

ROB MCGRUDER: For the next two months, I have ECTs once or twice a week with an occasional break. I continue to improve. I'm able to concentrate for longer periods of time. I can read a book, for example. Still, I'm not jumping back into things too quickly. I'm afraid if I try to do too much now I'll take another downturn. Life with all its responsibilities doesn't stop though. My monthly Social Security disability check doesn't stretch very far, so I'm forced to apply for public aid. That sends me into a tailspin. And for a couple of days the suicidal thoughts return. Meanwhile, the bills keep piling up. And our van is about to be repossessed.

JACK KRASUSKI: I think it's inaccurate to think that when someone is depressed and then recovers, that all sudden everything kind of falls into place. It often doesn't. A person's life has just been very disrupted. And you know, just kind of kind of daily routines of life that kind of drive, motivation, energy doesn't necessarily like just come flooding back in the absence of the symptoms. It takes often like specific focus intervention to kind of get – to help a person get back in the swing of things. So I think that's kind of the, the point we're at right now.

ROB MCGRUDER: In May, I returned to what's called maintenance ECT, weekly or bi-weekly treatments. The goal is to manage the stress and to prevent the mood swings and the psychotic and suicidal thoughts from returning. They don't. And I continue to feel better. But just when I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, I take another hit.

JACK KRASUSKI: So Rob, how you doing?

ROB MCGRUDER: Well, it's been quite a two weeks. Last Tuesday, DCFS took our kids, all of them.

JACK KRASUSKI: That's terrible blow. How are you and Angela coping?

ROB MCGRUDER: We're holding up.

ROB MCGRUDER: As we feared the Department of Children and Family Services ruled we haven't done enough to clean up the apartment and that we are unfit parents. Our baby, who's now 17 months, and Angela's four other kids have been placed in foster care.

JACK KRASUSKI: What's the – what's the kind of future hold for you, Angela and the kids?

ROB MCGRUDER: Well, Angela, and I've got to get into a new apartment because the current apartment is just not acceptable.

JACK KRASUSKI: Hmm.

ROB MCGRUDER: My anxiety level is very high and I'm having trouble sleeping. After three years on the wagon, I've even thought about drinking again.

JACK KRASUSKI: This is a high risk time for you, for relapse in alcohol and relapse into depression. And when anxiety level is that high, I think this is all kind of a sign that things aren't going in the right direction.

ROB MCGRUDER: Dr. Krasuski recommends returning to a more active course of ECT treatment, twice a week for at least a couple weeks. That's fine with me. But the DCFS caseworker seems to have a different idea.

ROB MCGRUDER: Her first comments to me when she came over to introduce herself to me, or to say that I see you're getting ECT and you may want to consider not doing that anymore. And she was very negative about it ECT. I don't know to what extent she would hold up reintegration of the family because of those beliefs. But it was the first thing out of her mouth when she introduced herself to me. So it must be something she's significantly concerned with.

JACK KRASUSKI: You know, it's really not her place to be suggesting to my patient what the right treatment ought to be. It's, it's really – I just think it's inappropriate for her to be saying, you know. I think you and I are both clear that your function doesn't decrease when you get ECT. It decreases when you're depressed, when you're anxious, and you don't get it right.

ROB MCGRUDER: As a person with chronic mental illness, I'm used to being discriminated against. Having ECT just adds to that stigma. I've lost friends, jobs, and now I've been labeled an unfit parent. The fact is severe depression is a disability. But it's a disability that can be managed. For me, the most effective way to manage it, perhaps the only way, is with ECT. [beeping]

ROB MCGRUDER: It was last February when I was hit with this latest bout of severe depression. Now, more than 30 ECTs later, I'm finally feeling like my old self. The depression has lifted and my energy and concentration have returned. I've started doing some computer consulting work. Angela and I have moved into a new apartment. And we've begun the difficult process of trying to get our children back.

JACK KRASUSKI: Okay. Very good so far. [beeping]

ROB MCGRUDER: I've never completely out of the woods. It's possible that I'll wake up one day and feel as though I can't go on. Considering the alternatives, ECT is not a difficult choice. And who knows, maybe there will be other choices one day, after all, over the last couple of decades new medications and better counseling have helped people cope with severe depression in ways that weren't possible even a few years ago. So much has happened in my lifetime, maybe something other than ECT will be developed that can help me and others like me. But until that day comes ECT is there when I need it. [MUSIC IN]

“FIRST” JAD: That was Rob McGruder telling his own story. Dan Collison produced that documentary. Gary Covino was the editor. It was made possible by grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. Dan Collison has made, I don't know the exact number, but at least 30 documentaries. Check him out on his website at www.dcproductions.com. I think you'll find his work has an amazing empathy. I'm Jad Abumrad. This is WNYC's Radiolab. Before we move on to the next chunk, let's shake off that last piece. It was great. Maybe a little depressing? A little funk please. [MUSIC IN]

LULU: [inaudible] you're right – that you're like Sunday night baby. The windows are open.

JAD: Oh gosh. Oh my God...

LULU: We got another concoction. I love that Jad! I want to thank that Jad.

JAD: He was trying his best.

LATIF: Like I bet there's so many people out there who were like you were then. Like you were a kid you had like, like some experience but not a lot. But you had big ambitions. You have big dreams. Like what do you say to that – shat do you say to that Jad now?

JAD: I almost feel like that's a different – it's so hard to know what to say to the people who are like Jad was then because the then and the now are so different. Right?

LATIF: Yeah.

JAD: At that point, when I started doing the thing, no one really listened. And there wasn't – the stakes were super low. And they – so they just left left me in a kind of benign neglected state for, I don't know, a year before anyone really heard me. Which is, it turns out, I mean, I hated it. I felt very like taken advantage of but actually it was what I needed. You know, I needed to just try stuff and to figure out how, how does one talk in a microphone? What kinds of stories are the stories that I want to play versus the stories other people play? For me, that was a whole year. I don't know if people now have the luxury of that year. I really don't. It's, in many ways, the exact opposite state of the world that. Now like, the podcasting industry is like a bunch of coked up worms, having a feeding frenzy on a carcass or something. [laughs] Like it's just a – it's a completely different reality.

LULU: What do you think, in the honor firsts, what do you think is the first thing you're gonna do when you're not – no longer here? On your first day beyond?

JAD: Gosh, I don't know. I feel like I should have a good sound bitey sort of answer, but I have actual honest answer.

LULU: Yeah. We want that one.

LATIF: What's that?

JAD: Well – you know, what would be the first thing? The first thing would probably be to take my kids to school, and then come back. And then, I'm working on a bunch of music. It's funny, in a way, it's inspired by a very early episode of Radiolab. I've been thinking back and reminiscing these days. And I was thinking back on one of the first episodes we made. And I'm not gonna tell you which one cus I kind of want to keep the concept a little bit sort of on the, on the DL for the moment. But I'm basically creating a series of very very long, slowly evolving music compositions, and I'll be putting that out soon.

LULU: That's cool!

JAD: So I'll be working on some music.

LULU: Do you think it'll be totally – is it wordless? Is it totally worless?

JAD: I think it's totally wordless. I am interested to try – Yeah, to go back to that. Because that was what – that was me before radio, and – I don't know. I'm not sure I'm done with that guy.

LULU: Would you be willing on our – to share a minute or two of that? Like, as a little...

JAD: Right now? Yeah, sure.

LULU: Give the...

JAD: Why not?

LULU: Listeners a little glimpse of...

JAD: A little, little billboard for an upcoming project...

LATIF: You haven't given enough Jad.

LULU: Yeah, we need more.

LATIF: We need more from you.

JAD: Yeah, alright. Sure.

[MUSIC IN]

JAD: Okay, I just want to say to the two of you, I love you guys dearly. I can't wait to listen to you, along with the rest of the people listening and I am just so honored to pass the baton.

LULU: Thanks, Jad.

LATIF: Yeah, thanks.

LULU: The Radiolab. We'll be back next week.

LATIF: And the week after that.

LULU: And the week after that.

LATIF: Stick around.

LULU: See you soon.

[UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, 

Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Adam Przybyl.]
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Okay. Nice job guys. Hey Jad, don't forget to return that mic. You know the address

[FARVI: HI this is Farvi calling from Portland, Oregon. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]

[JAD: Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.]

 

Copyright © 2021 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.

 

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.