Oct 28, 2022

The Weather Report

Meteorologists are as common as the clouds these days. Rolling onto the airwaves at morning, noon and night they tell us what to wear and where to plan our picnics. They’re local celebrities with an outsized influence. But in the 1940s, there was really only one of them: Irving P. Krick. He was suave and dapper, with the charm of a sunbeam and the boldness of a thunderclap. He was a salesman who turned the weather into a product.

Today, listen to the story of Krick and his descendants, a crew of profit prophets who have found fame and fortune staring at the sky and seeing the future. We follow them from the bloody beaches of World War II to the climate changed coasts of today, exploring their impact and predicting what they’ll mean in our wackier weather world. 

Special Thanks:
Special thanks to Xandra Clark, Homa Sarabi, Santi Dharmawan, Francisco Alvarez, Maureen O’Leary and everyone at NOAA, Shimon Elkabetz, Jack Neff, Joe Pennington, Brad Colman, Morgan Yarker, Megan Walker, Eric Bramford, Jay Cohen and Irving Krick Jr for supplying us with tons of great archival footage and audio.


Episode Credits:

Reported by Simon Adler and Annie McEwen
Produced by Annie McEwen and Simon Adler
Sound & Music by Simon Adler and Annie McEwen and Jeremy Bloom
Mixing help from Arianne Wack
Fact-checking by Diane Kelly
Edited by Soren Wheeler



If you’re curious to know more about the history of weather forecasting, go check out Kris Harper’s book Weather by the Numbers.


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Leadership support for Radiolab’s science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation Initiative, and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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LULU MILLER: Hi, I'm Lulu Miller.

LATIF NASSER: I'm Latif Nasser.

LULU: This is Radiolab.

LATIF: And today, we find out whether ...

LULU: Weather!

LATIF: ... the future of our society is best off in the hands of government science done for the public good ...

LULU: Or big business out to make a buck.

LATIF: Comes to us from reporters Simon Adler and Annie McEwen.

SIMON ADLER: Okay, the only thing I'm gonna ask Annie is that you stay, like, right up on your mic.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Yeah, okay Simon. Not a problem.

SIMON: Okay. So we're here to talk to you guys about the thing you talk about when you don't know what else to talk about, which is the weather.

LULU: [laughs] The weather.

LATIF: That's cute.

LULU: That's great.

SIMON: But while talking about the weather might be the smallest of small talk, we're gonna start with a story where it was anything but. It's early June, 1944.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Adolf Hitler: [speaking German]]

SIMON: World War II is raging.

[NEWS CLIP: ... Allied naval forces.]

SIMON: And the Allies ...

KRIS HARPER: They're getting ready for Operation Overlord, which is the D-Day landing.

SIMON: The largest invasion in human history.

KRIS HARPER: And, not to put too fine a point on it, they were dealing with really crappy weather.

SIMON: Big swells, strong winds.


SIMON: This, by the way, is meteorologist and historian Kris Harper.

KRIS HARPER: Professor at the University of Copenhagen.

SIMON: And she says the weather was so bad that Eisenhower was concerned they might not be able to do the invasion at all.


LULU: Hmm.

SIMON: Are we gonna have to postpone this by two weeks? If we have to postpone this by two weeks or a month then, like, we've amassed all of these troops. Like, the element of surprise goes out the window.

LATIF: Right.


KRIS HARPER: And so Eisenhower needed to know when there would be some calm periods, some breaks so that they could go ahead and make the landing.

SIMON: He needed a forecast.

KRIS HARPER: And I mean, there were only a handful of meteorologists in the military.

SIMON: And so he grabbed who he could get: this tall dapper man, Irving P. Crick.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Irving Crick: Eisenhower needed a forecast out a week in advance in order to do this. And ...]

SIMON: This is him in an old TV interview. And in it, sporting this white shock of hair, hunched over a desk covered with weather maps ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Irving Crick: Here's the maps from the 5th and 6th of June, 1944.]

SIMON: ... he says he was told to make this impossibly high-stakes forecast.

LATIF: Literally life and death. Like, if the waves are too big, one of those boats is gonna capsize and all those people are gonna drown.

SIMON: Right.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Irving Crick: [laughs] And of course he said, "Now if you guys are right, we'll all be heroes, but if it's a bust, we'll all be privates."]

SIMON: And eventually ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Irving Crick: We told Ike he could go on this day.]

[NEWS CLIP: Weather report: early June 6, there will be a brief break in bad weather.]

SIMON: June 6, 1944.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Eisenhower gives the order: okay, wilco.]

SIMON: And when that date arrived ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: At dawn, the Channel is the scene of the greatest armada ever assembled.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, interviewer: What kind of a day was it?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Irving Crick: Well, it was a day in which every element of the combat team—the amphibious forces, the gliders, the bombers, everyone could operate. And it was bad up around Calais where the Germans thought we were gonna land, which was good because the Germans and their forecasters said we would not come. They were fooled, and didn't send reinforcements to Normandy until it was too late and told Rommel he could ...]

KRIS HARPER: It turned out okay.

SIMON: Thank God.


SIMON: And of course, this victory became a huge news story.

[NEWS CLIP: Allied forces have succeeded in their initial landings in France.]

[NEWS CLIP: The plans for the invasion were more complex than any before.]

SIMON: And our man Crick ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Imagine being the man who had to come up with the D-Day forecast.]

SIMON: ... he became this hero.

[NEWS CLIP: Dr. Crick successfully picked June 6.]

[NEWS CLIP: Dr. Crick, the man who predicted D-Day.]

LULU: Gosh, go Irving!

SIMON: Yes. But only sort of.

KRIS HARPER: This is—this is where the issue came in.

SIMON: Like, to be clear, where Crick was getting all the credit, there were multiple teams of meteorologists who worked on this with him.

KRIS HARPER: Two British teams and an American team.

SIMON: Okay.

KRIS HARPER: And in fact, Crick's forecast was overridden by these other guys who pushed it off for a couple of days.


KRIS HARPER: Oh! Yeah, right.

SIMON: Yeah, he didn't get the forecast right. But when reporters would ask him about it ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Irving Crick: The regular weather service, both in this country and in England, did not feel confident in that type situation.]

SIMON: ... he'd take credit.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Irving Crick: They couldn't forecast beyond two days, really. And one storm after another coming across the Atlantic and needing a week, they simply didn't want Eisenhower to take that risk.]


LULU: Irving!

LATIF: Oh, man.

LULU: That feels unnecessary.

KRIS HARPER: Yeah, it was really bad. But this wasn't odd.

SIMON: Kris says long before World War II, Crick had a reputation for pushing the ethical boundaries. I mean, back in the 1930s when he was working at Caltech, he got a phone call, and it was the producers of Gone With the Wind. And they said, "Hey, we need to burn down the city of Atlanta."

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Gone With the Wind: What's that?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Gone With the Wind: Our gallant lads must have set fire to the warehouses near the depot.]

SIMON: "We can't have big, gale-force winds coming in. Like, what's the best day we can film this?"

LULU: Huh.


SIMON: And so, you know, he gave them a forecast.

KRIS HARPER: Which is not inherently bad. If you want to do forecasts for Hollywood, super. But he made this forecast on university time with US Weather Bureau equipment and got paid for that.


KRIS HARPER: You know, like, you just don't go there.

SIMON: It could piss a lot of people off with that one.

KRIS HARPER: Yeah, you just don't go there.

SIMON: And so while these two famous forecasts ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Conditions had to be just right for the burning of Atlanta.]

SIMON: ... made him sort of a star in the eyes of the public ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Dr. Irving Crick, the most successful weatherman in the world.]

KRIS HARPER: The hottest thing in meteorological history.

SIMON: ... professionally, it was a very different story.

KRIS HARPER: After D-Day, most meteorologists didn't want to be necessarily associated with Crick. And so the president of Caltech was so embarrassed by the whole thing. And so he just completely shut down the entire meteorology department.

LULU: So buddy needs another place to take his skills.

SIMON: Yeah.

LATIF: Not feeling so bad for him, but ...

SIMON: Yeah. Yeah.

LULU: At all.

SIMON: I don't think we need to feel bad for him. He sort of made his bed and is now lying in it.

LATIF: Yeah.

SIMON: And because what he did next—well, it shook meteorology and changed our relationship to the weather in ways we're just beginning to fully feel today.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Howard McNeil: Crick was—Crick was clever.]

SIMON: This is meteorologist Howard McNeil. He was a contemporary of Crick's.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Howard McNeil: Yeah, he was a very charismatic individual, and he was his own man.]

SIMON: And so, Howard says, after Crick got fired, he was basically like "[bleep] you! If you don't want me, I don't want you. And in fact, I don't need you. Because you know what I got? I got fame! And that thing I did for Gone With the Wind, providing a personalized forecast and getting paid for it? Like, I'll just do that.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Howard McNeil: A private weather service. And in those days, that was a pretty radical thought.]

SIMON: And so Crick started his own company, this sort of shadow weather bureau, hiring people like Howard ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Howard McNeil: Yeah, I went to work for Crick.]

SIMON: ... and offering forecasts to anyone who would pay. And before long ...

KRIS HARPER: Business was booming for him.

[NEWS CLIP: Thanks to his talent, Crick's list of clients reads like a world atlas.]

[NEWS CLIP: His work has brought praise from a host of private clients.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Irving Crick: We were doing all this consulting work for the motion picture studios and the power companies and agriculture ...]

SIMON: Wanting to avoid costly rescheduling or delays, farmers hired him to tell them when to water.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Quiet on the set!]

SIMON: Film crews hired him to tell them when to film.

KRIS HARPER: Civil engineers working on bridges. Construction people.

SIMON: Builders when to build.

[NEWS CLIP: In the US, Canada, Europe and North Africa.]

SIMON: To help his retail clients ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertising jingle: K-Mart is your saving store.]

SIMON: ... he did things like direct shipments of umbrellas to stores where it would be raining, and sunblock shipments to places where it'd be sunny. He even dabbled in marketing. I mean, in a matter of years, the guy did what no one thought was quite possible, which was he turned the weather into this product.

LULU: Wow!

ANNIE: Crick! Crick! Crick! Crick! Crick! Are we on his side now? We're still not liking him?

LULU: No! No! I'm less on his side.

SIMON: Well, you're not alone.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Kris Harper: Okay, do you remember anything about what the meteorological community's view was of Crick?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Edward Lorenz: Well, they just didn't like the idea of selling them.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Kris Harper: Mm-hmm.]

SIMON: Kris Harper actually interviewed a bunch of meteorologists from back then about this very thing. Meteorologists like ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Edward Lorenz: Here it is: 1970.]

SIMON: ... Edward Lorenz here.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Kris Harper: So part of the concern was that he was selling the forecasts?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Edward Lorenz: Yes. People didn't always admit this, but this is what they held against him.]

SIMON: And as he explained to Kris, up until this point ...

KRIS HARPER: I mean, the US government was meteorology in the United States. And they were totally focused on the public good and the public good and keeping people safe.

SIMON: But Crick, you know, he was doing it for profit, which sometimes meant stretching the truth.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, interviewer: Okay, I think we're ready.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Irving Crick: All right. Okay.]

SIMON: Like here in this TV interview.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, interviewer: Okay, doctor. First question is, just for those who don't know, commercially what can you offer a client in terms of long-range weather?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Irving Crick: Well, we can offer them temperature and precipitation far out into the future. Sometimes for years in advance.]

LULU: Whoa!

LATIF: Okay.

SIMON: Yeah, he claimed he could forecast a year out.

LULU: [laughs]

SIMON: Which even today, if you ask a meteorologist they'll tell you it just isn't possible.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Irving Crick: Now the way we've discerned it is unique because we don't make a theory and then try to fit nature to our theory. I learned this 50 years ago in studying with Einstein. He said, "Don't try to ..."]

LATIF: Einstein?

SIMON: Yeah.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Irving Crick: Just you watch nature and let nature tell you what it's doing, and then you'll have the answers." And that's basically what we've done.]

SIMON: And just for the record, Crick may have bumped into Einstein once or twice at Caltech, but he certainly didn't study with him. Like, profit got involved, and he was no longer just a scientist.

KRIS HARPER: He's—he's a—he's a salesman is what he is.

SIMON: And ironically, all of the data he was using to make these forecasts, to make this money, it was all government data. And yet, for reasons that remain sort of unknowable, the man seemed to have a vendetta against the very institution providing it to him.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Howard McNeil: In fact, Crick basically, he told me privately one time, he said, "I'd like to close down the National Weather Service. That's what my goal is, to close them down and have it all turned over to private enterprise."]

LATIF: Whoa!

LULU: Come on! [laughs] That's so ...

LATIF: That's a super villain thing to say.

LULU: Yeah. [laughs] Wow!

LATIF: And then he cackled maniacally after he said it every time, I don't know.

SIMON: [laughs]

LULU: Clap of thunder.

LATIF: Yeah. Yeah. Right, exactly. Then lightning.

SIMON: Now Crick kept making forecasts up until his death, and his company is actually still around today. But of course, you know, he didn't manage to take down government weather.

ANNIE: Well, it's hot as balls.

SIMON: And thank goodness.

SIMON: Where are we?

ANNIE: We are at the weather palace of the United States of America.

SIMON: Weather ... [laughs] And it is a palace!

SIMON: Because I gotta say, like, in the years since Crick, government weather has become maybe our best ...

SIMON: It's a glass building that has ...

SIMON: ... maybe our only remaining example of a true marriage between government serving the public good and the highest levels of science.

ANNIE: Hello!

JORDAN GERTH: Good morning.

SIMON: And so to see this up close, we went to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—NOAA—to meet some of the people who pull this off every day.

ANNIE: What do you have on your tie here?

JORDAN GERTH: This is the Earth and weather satellites.

ANNIE: And did you wear it for us? Or do you wear something like this every day?

JORDAN GERTH: Uh, I mix it up, yeah. I like to—I like to show a little bit of weather in my attire. I don't have my lightning socks on today.

ANNIE: Oh, you didn't wear your lightning socks today?

JORDAN GERTH: No, I try to find something ...

SIMON: And hanging out with these folks like meteorologist Jordan Gerth here ...

JORDAN GERTH: My actual title is Leveraged Observations Lead.


JORDAN GERTH: [laughs]

SIMON: ... it was clear that weather forecasting is this incredible triumph of data capture and analysis.

JORDAN GERTH: Weather data are the basis of prediction. So we collect so many different kinds of observations that the amount of data that comes in is absolutely enormous. It's just—it's the best big-data problem that I think we have on this planet.

SIMON: So yeah, let's—let's talk about that for a minute. How many observations will—will you all be taking in this day?

JORDAN GERTH: Innumerable amount. Billions.

SIMON: Billions!

JORDAN GERTH: Yeah, billions.

SIMON: 6.3 billion. This stuff gets fed into computer models and lands on the desks of scientists like ...

IAN RUSSELL: I'm constantly switching between different surface observations ...

SIMON: Ian Russell and Allison Santorelli.

ALLISON SANTORELLI: Yeah, so I'm working on fronts in the medium-range period, which …

SIMON: Who blend that data with other data.

JESSICA CHIARI: During that period that I'm forecasting for.

SIMON: Compare it to historical data.

ALEX LAMARIS: There's Jason. He's working on ocean prediction.

ANNIE: That's Jason.

SIMON: And simply put, synthesize it into the forecast that you and I get for free everyday.

LULU: All of this so that we can decide whether to wear a light coat or a heavy coat.

SIMON: Exactly. [laughs] And also ...

[NEWS CLIP: The National Weather Service in Indianapolis has issued a tornado warning for ...]

SIMON: ... you know, prepare for the worst. I mean, these forecasts and these warnings save an untold number of lives each year which, you know, in our divided times is sort of strangely unifying. Like, NOAA is equally looking out for all of us. And nobody's like, "You know, those Democrats! They've been putting their finger on the scale and saying it's gonna rain."

LULU: Or it's hotter! Or, like, whatever.

SIMON: Yes. Like, everyone's basically like, "Oh, okay. I'm gonna plan using this information that the government has provided to me."

LATIF: It does feel neutral.

SIMON: Yes. People by and large trust them.

LATIF: Yeah.

SIMON: But—yes, here's the but—we're now in a moment in time where the government's scientific dominance when it comes to the weather, and this view of weather forecasting as a public good, these are both under threat. And in a sense, Irving Crick's dream is finally coming to fruition.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: Minor changes in weather can trigger major business impact.]

SIMON: I mean, private weather forecasting is currently a $17-billion a year industry in the US.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: You can use weather forecasts to improve customer service.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: Embed weather into your business for deep ...]

SIMON: With one report saying there are as many as 45,000 different companies involved. 45,000 Irving P. Cricks.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: Take control of tomorrow today.]

SIMON: And on our trip to visit NOAA ...

[GPS audio: In a quarter mile, you will arrive at your destination.]

ANNIE: Oh, where are we going?

SIMON: We are going to ...

SIMON: ... we actually drove out to meet one of them.

ANNIE: Oh, there he is. This dude waving at us.


ANNIE: Hello.

SIMON: This is Annie.

DON BERCHOFF: Hi, Annie. How are you?

ANNIE: Good to meet you. Good. How are you?

DON BERCHOFF: Good to see you.

SIMON: This silver-haired, always smiling guy by the name of Don Berchoff.

DON BERCHOFF: CEO of TruWeather Solutions. They call me the Weather Don in the business.

MAN: He is the Weather Don.

SIMON: [laughs]

ANNIE: That's so great!

DON BERCHOFF: They do, right? I mean—yeah.

ANNIE: Are you wearing socks with umbrellas on them?


SIMON: Before starting TruWeather Solutions, Don was kind of a big deal inside the National Weather Service.

DON BERCHOFF: I was the science and technology director. I had a $130-million dollar budget. My job was to find the best science, the best technology, and try to integrate it into operations.

SIMON: Anyhow, we met up with him at a drone range—this big open field where people can test their unmanned aircraft.

ANNIE: Okay, we're gonna see this drone. And there's Don with his drone.

SIMON: And the reason we were there was actually to see one of his.

SIMON: Look at this thing. Okay. Can I pick this thing up?

DON BERCHOFF: Yeah, go ahead.

SIMON: It was all black, weighed about five pounds.

DON BERCHOFF: It's very light.

SIMON: Looked a lot like a curling stone with a bunch of propellers attached to it.

DON BERCHOFF: It's science quality, measures temperature, wind, pressure. It's fully automated. It's amazing.

SIMON: And this little drone, it represents a huge shift that's underway. Because while Crick had to rely on the government for data, Don with a fleet of these drones and other devices is beginning to collect and sell his own.

DON BERCHOFF: Yeah, we've never had this kind of data before.

SIMON: Okay, so we were at NOAA, and they were saying 6.3-billion observations every day.


SIMON: How is this gonna make a dent in that?

DON BERCHOFF: Well, maybe what NOAA didn't tell you is that we have a data void below 5,000 feet. The satellites do very well at detecting wind and moisture and things like that above that level, but below that level, the only thing we have today to measure temperatures and winds and pressure is weather balloons. It's ridiculous!

SIMON: Yeah. Turns out the government's best way to collect atmospheric observations is still launching balloons up into the sky twice a day.

DON BERCHOFF: So having something like this going up every 90 minutes and giving you data, it's gonna be the game-changer. But it's not just this that's gonna help us.

SIMON: Next, Don walked us over to this mini-fridge-sized device with a eyeball looking mirror on the top of it.

DON BERCHOFF: This is just basically a laser that pops straight up and looks up in the sky.

SIMON: So right here out of the eye, pew!

DON BERCHOFF: Yeah, and can see particulate matter moving.

SIMON: Like raindrops? Or ...

DON BERCHOFF: No, no. Dirt. Dust. And then it computes the winds from the movement of those particles and tells us what the winds are doing up to 800 feet at 10 layers. It gives us a 10-layer wind measurement. Again, we don't have that data today.

SIMON: And why—why are you doing this, and why isn't NOAA doing this?

DON BERCHOFF: You really want me to answer that question?

SIMON: Yeah, of course I do.

DON BERCHOFF: All right. So something like this is very difficult to get into the budget because it requires resources. And I'm not sure it's necessary to meet their mission.

SIMON: Don says the government's goal is to make big national forecasts. And to do that, there are better things for them to spend their money on. But companies, obviously, they have very different goals and therefore need very different kinds of data.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: Walmart's super inflation-buster sale blasts through the inflation barrier with big discount savings on hundreds ...]

SIMON: I mean just as one example of what these companies are up to, several years back, Walmart came out and explained that cross-referencing their weather and sales data, they found that clouds and wind influenced the beef people buy. Meaning if it's hot, cloudy and windy ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: I want a cut that's tender, that's juicy and that's aged just right.]

SIMON: … for some reason, people tend to buy steaks.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: All-natural steaks from Walmart.]

SIMON: But the minute those clouds go away and the winds lessen, people want burgers. And knowing this, Walmart is serving you different digital ads based on the weather at your zip code. I mean, companies are beginning to use weather data to guide their business in the same way Facebook and Google use user data. And Don says for lots of these companies, the government's data? It's just not what they're looking for. It's not precise enough.

DON BERCHOFF: So we're actually gonna bring precision to the game.

SIMON: Said like a true salesman.

DON BERCHOFF: No! Spoken like a true scientist. No, I'm a scientist. I'm not selling you here, I'm telling you. I know that we can do better.

SIMON: Now Don's quick to point out that his data, it could be used to help improve government forecasts.

DON BERCHOFF: NOAA is gonna want to buy this data, and I talked to the Weather Service the other day about this. I'm not trying to hide it. Because when you combine these types of observations with the government data, put it into our models, now you're gonna have unimaginable knowledge of what's happening.

SIMON: But just because Don's willing to share doesn't mean that every company's going to be so open. And so while any company out there can get all of the government’s data for free, there's no promise that the government or you or I or any government agency is going to have access to their data.

DON BERCHOFF: You got it. There are commercial data sets that the government may not be getting. And so at some point, there's gonna be a company here that's gonna outperform the government forecasts. And at that point, you know, what's the future of government weather?

SIMON: Or more pointedly, you know, what's the future of how we use the weather to make decisions?

DAN SLAGAN: You know, we just started working with cities as well. The city of Hoboken is an example.

SIMON: Lastly here, this is Dan Slagan. He's the CMO of a commercial forecasting company called Tomorrow.io. Like Don's company, they are collecting their own data.

DAN SLAGAN: We take into account both public and private data sets.

SIMON: They're launching a satellite later this year, and they're doing crazy things like looking at the way a cell phone signal drops between towers, because they found they can figure out rainfall from that.

LATIF: That's so weird!

LULU: Wow!

ANNIE: Yeah.

SIMON: Anyhow, he says Hoboken hired them to provide information that the Weather Service just couldn't.

DAN SLAGAN: They first started working with us to cut costs around specifically winter snow and icing operations. So just meaning how many trucks do we need to send out? How much salt do we need to deploy?

SIMON: And while snow removal is harmless enough ...

DAN SLAGAN: With climate change, every single city, every single government, every single country is going to need a climate security and climate resiliency plan.

SIMON: In other words, as the weather gets less predictable and more impactful, cities are going to have to make all sorts of tough decisions about what building permits to give, where to draw new flood plains and where to put new cooling centers.

DAN SLAGAN: Right now, we're seeing cities start to understand that you can really use us to make all these types of decisions. So the need for what we're doing is only gonna become bigger, and the approach that we've taken, we really expect—expect to be the—the source of truth for weather for the world.

LULU: Wow! It's that thing. It's like you add—I mean, you have the, you know, US Weather Bureau, and that just feels like civic goodness, we'll collect, we'll report, we'll be in it together to help each other, and then you add this sort of market incentive and it just evolves the technology so much quicker.

SIMON: Totally. And I mean, returning to Crick once more, like, despite his faults, the guy was forecasting with a computer before the weather service, and you could argue pushed government weather into the computer age. But with this speed and innovation comes less equity, right?

LULU: Yup.


LULU: Yeah.

SIMON: I mean, what happens when two cities next to each other have to figure out where to put flood walls, and one of them can afford a company with proprietary data and one can't? I mean, it appears the weather, this thing we've all had equal access to, is beginning to fracture so that the more money you've got, the better the predictions you can get and the better you can plan and prepare. And this is happening right as summers are getting hotter, as hurricanes are getting stronger, as rain and thunderstorms are getting more intense. So the timing isn't great for all of this to be happening is what I would argue.

LATIF: That's—that's a very good point

LULU: Hmm.


ANNIE: So you can take a minute to think about all that, but when we come back, Simon and I dive into a particular place where profit-driven weather prediction might just be the thing—the only thing—that can help us face a changing world.

LATIF: And we'll get to that right after a quick break.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: There is a continual battle going on between warm air moving up from the tropics and cold air coming down from the Arctic. A weather front is where the two air masses meet. The cold air plows in under the warm air and throws it up to where it's cooler. That, in turn, causes it to lose its moisture as rain or snow. That, very simply, is the process of weather—different fronts and pressure patterns creating every kind of weather imaginable.]

[LISTENER: Hi, this is Mara Bethebel from Oregon, and I just wanted to tell you about Radiolab's newsletter. Every Wednesday morning, the team at Radiolab sends essays about stuff they can't stop thinking about, staff recommendations and other fun surprises. My favorite part of the newsletter so far was Robert Krulwich's video called "Engine Trouble." They write about so many things: dogs that talk, empathy in animals, sad bug body parts. Plus staff picks are so cool. Maria Paz Gutiérrez has the best playlists. And they'd love to hear from us. They ask us questions, we get to share our art, stories and feedback. Sign up now—it's free! Go to Radiolab.org/newsletter to subscribe and check it out.]


LULU: All right. Lulu.

LATIF: Latif.

LULU: Radiolab. We are back. Before the break, we witnessed a parade of salesmen trying to make a buck off the wind and rain. And now we're gonna hear a story about a for-profit prophet who just might be our best hope for the future.

LATIF: Thanks so much for that, Lulu. And of course, for that story, we're gonna swivel to the weather desk where our crack team of forecasters, Simon Adler and Annie McEwen, will take it from here.

ANNIE: All right-y. So for this next part, we're gonna leave behind Crick and Gone With the Wind, and turn to something that is perhaps more worthy ...

KAREN CLARK: Yeah, definitely.

ANNIE: ... of the silver screen.

ANNIE: Wait, who would play you? Who do you want to play you?

KAREN CLARK: Oh, I don't know. I mean, Sandra Bullock. I'd take her.

ANNIE: Okay.

ANNIE: This is Karen.

KAREN CLARK: Karen Clark.

ANNIE: Playing herself.

KAREN CLARK: Yes. [laughs]

ANNIE: And the scene opens in 1987 London, England, in a large, high-ceilinged, wood-paneled room.

KAREN CLARK: It was called the—it's still the Lloyd's library.

ANNIE: She's at a place called Lloyd's.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Lloyd's of London.]

ANNIE: The oldest insurance marketplace in the world.

KAREN CLARK: Very successful, very prestigious.

ANNIE: And so rich they even insure insurance companies. It's called "reinsurance."

[ARCHIVE CLIP: For risk-taking is their business.]

ANNIE: These are the big dogs of the insurance industry. And 150 of them in well-tailored suits are taking their seats.

KAREN CLARK: They were all men, very proper British men. I don't even know if women were allowed in Lloyd's at the time. [laughs]

ANNIE: Oh, really?

KAREN CLARK: Probably they were. Probably they were. But you didn't see many women there, except for the administrative help.

ANNIE: And Karen, who is young and American and a woman makes her way to the front of the room.

KAREN CLARK: I was seven months pregnant at the time.

ANNIE: Whoa!

KAREN CLARK: Waddling around, setting up this computer, which I don't know if you know what a Compaq computer is, but a portable computer. You kind of had to wheel it in.

ANNIE: [laughs] Stretching the definition of portable.

KAREN CLARK: Yes, exactly.

ANNIE: And she was there to give a presentation on a kind of tool that she had just built.

KAREN CLARK: My hurricane model.

ANNIE: The world's very first predictive hurricane computer model.

LATIF: Whoa!

LULU: Ooh!

ANNIE: She showed them how, by gathering all this scientific data on past hurricanes and plugging it into a computer, she was able to generate ...

KAREN CLARK: A very large catalog of potential future events.

ANNIE: A list of possible hurricanes on the horizon. She then showed them if she slammed those possible future hurricanes into some properties, say on the eastern coast of the United States, she could prove that ...

KAREN CLARK: The loss potential was much higher than insurance companies thought.

ANNIE: The insurance safety net was far too small to cover the damage that she was there to tell them was coming. And that meant all those men sitting in that room were going to lose money—a lot of money.


LULU: Wait. Question. Question.

ANNIE: Mm-hmm?

LULU: Is she sniffing out climate change?

ANNIE: Well, she's not quite sniffing out climate change. Like, this is the mid-1980s, so it's a little early to be on top of that. It's more like she thought that she could offer something that government services could not. Like, the government was letting people know if a hurricane was on its way, but they were not forecasting out 10, 20, 30 years in terms of what hurricanes could look like. And Karen figured that that's exactly what the insurance industry really needs. But when she finished her presentation, instead of a flurry of excitement ...

KAREN CLARK: It was very silent. I don't think there were any questions.

ANNIE: No questions?

KAREN CLARK: No questions. But they were very polite, you know, very respectful.

SIMON: Is it because they thought you were wrong, or the model was wrong? Or what—why weren't they more interested?

KAREN CLARK: Well, you know, they were already reinsuring hurricane risk in the US, and they thought they knew it very well because they had been making a lot of money. In the 1970s and in the early 1980s, there were no major hurricanes to hit. Especially a major populated area in the US. So, you know, when it came to hurricane risk, they were already the smartest people on the planet, of course.

ANNIE: But that was not gonna last. So we're gonna zoom ahead here to 1992. By this time, Karen has started her own company.

LULU: And she has a five year old at home.

ANNIE: Yeah. Almost five. And she's got also two other kids, so she's got three kids now.

LULU: Okay. And she's doing the thing, she's doing computer modeling.

ANNIE: Yes. She has about 30 clients. She helps them price insurance, offers day-of-loss estimates whenever there's a hurricane. And her clients are using her model, but rather than letting it guide their decisions, they're sort of just using it as one data point of many. In other words, they were not really taking it seriously.


[NEWS CLIP: 45 mile-an-hour winds now. Not very high.]

ANNIE: Which brings us to a Friday afternoon in late August.

KAREN CLARK: There was a tropical storm out there named Andrew.

LULU: Oh! Okay.

[NEWS CLIP: The system to the north. It's this one up here.]

KAREN CLARK: It was pretty far out. And nobody was really worried about it.

[NEWS CLIP: Coming up in just a few minutes, Kelly and Jerry.]

[NEWS CLIP: And speaking of Andrew, you can't help but wonder how the prince is reacting to the latest royal ruckus.]

KAREN CLARK: Everybody thought it was just gonna be a nice weekend.

ANNIE: But ...

[NEWS CLIP: Eight minutes after six, the first tropical storm of the season getting stronger, not weaker.]

ANNIE: ... very quickly ...

[NEWS CLIP: And probably it's going to get even stronger.]

ANNIE: ... that changed.

KAREN CLARK: And by 11:00 am on Sunday morning ...

[NEWS CLIP: The full fury of Hurricane Andrew continues to head toward the Southeast coast of Florida. Good evening or good morning, I guess.]

KAREN CLARK: It was a cat four ...

[NEWS CLIP: A hurricane watch is now in effect for South Florida.]

ANNIE: An absolutely enormous hurricane ...

KAREN CLARK: ... headed directly for Miami.

[NEWS CLIP: People, stop driving. It's not safe to be driving on these streets anymore. It is starting to rock and roll out here.]

[NEWS CLIP: The power just went out throughout all of this Allandale area.]

[NEWS CLIP: It is a big hurricane.]

[NEWS CLIP: The ocean has begun to invade the land over here.]

[NEWS CLIP: The absolutely most intense part of the storm right now is coming ashore. Get to that interior closet, get your family in there.]

[NEWS CLIP: We understand right now we can perhaps get the first look at what's going on up in the air from Sky 4. Rod Pierce, are you with us right now?]

[NEWS CLIP: Yes I am. We're gonna look—show you some of the devastation down here at the Dadeland Trailer Park ...]

ANNIE: The destruction that Andrew left behind was completely staggering.

[NEWS CLIP: This is about 8:30 this morning. Oh my goodness! And this is their view of their bedroom.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Danny Miller: This place looks bad. It looks like Hiroshima.]

[NEWS CLIP: Tell me what you see.]

ANNIE: 65 people died, thousands and thousands of people lost everything.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: Kids were saying "Mommy, what happened? Why is God doing this to us?" And my husband was holding the roof. Everything fell off. This is terrible. I wish I never go through this again.]

ANNIE: And while it was obvious to everyone that Andrew had been a big one, shortly after the storm made landfall, Karen knew that as soon as possible, her clients were gonna need to know ...

KAREN CLARK: How much is the total damage going to be?

ANNIE: What is the storm's price tag? And so that same morning ...

KAREN CLARK: Very early we came into the office ...

ANNIE: They turned on the lights and fired up the computer model. They wouldn't know the true extent of the damage for months, and the numbers, of course, were still flowing in, so that meant that ...

KAREN CLARK: We had to run as fast as possible as many scenarios as possible.

ANNIE: They plugged into the model estimates on where it made landfall, peak wind, size, as well as an estimate of all the values of all the properties that had been hit.

KAREN CLARK: The homes and the businesses.

ANNIE: People's things, people's lives that had been in Andrew's path. And they'd run the model. and then ...

KAREN CLARK: Change the parameters, rerun the model.

ANNIE: ... tweaking it and running it.

KAREN CLARK: Let's look at the uncertainties.

ANNIE: Suit jackets had been taken off.

KAREN CLARK: Let's run it again.

ANNIE: Sleeves had been rolled up.

KAREN CLARK: Does that look right? I don't know.

ANNIE: Coffee had been spilled.

KAREN CLARK: It was pretty frantic.

ANNIE: But because it was 1992 ...

ANNIE: Was there one computer? Are you all on computers with headsets? Like ...

KAREN CLARK: No, I—we didn't have headsets at the time. [laughs] I don't think headsets even existed. Yeah, we just had one major computer and it was a Sun SPARC server. It had 16 meg of RAM and one gig of hard disk. But that's what we were running it on, so it was more like agitated waiting for the computer to spit out a number.

ANNIE: And the computer's getting really hot.

KAREN CLARK: [laughs] Yeah. Yes, yes, yes, it was.

ANNIE: The fan is whirring.


ANNIE: But finally ...


ANNIE: They had their number. And then they just kind of sat there staring at it, asking each other ...

KAREN CLARK: "Could that be right?"

ANNIE: Because up until this very moment ...

KAREN CLARK: The largest loss to date had been Hugo in '89, and that was only $4 billion.

ANNIE: And their model was currently telling them that Andrew's price tag ...

KAREN CLARK: Could exceed $13 billion.

SIMON: Jesus!

ANNIE: Whoa!

ANNIE: That's three times higher than any hurricane ever.

SIMON: If you're right and this thing costs $13 billion, what would that actually mean for them?

KAREN CLARK: That they had been dramatically underestimating the risk, and they had been dramatically underpricing their product.

ANNIE: This is what she'd been trying to tell her clients all along: they'd not been charging people enough money for their insurance, and therefore they wouldn't have enough money on hand for what she was arguing would be ...

KAREN CLARK: A much bigger loss than they thought. [laughs]

ANNIE: Karen and her team faxed out that giant number ...

KAREN CLARK: And within 30 minutes the phones started ringing off the hook.

ANNIE: Karen's clients in London and New York refused to believe that number, saying things like ...

KAREN CLARK: "A few mobile homes and an air force base. How much can it be?"

ANNIE: And ...

KAREN CLARK: "I'll bet you five quid it won't be more than $6 billion." We were getting so much skepticism.

ANNIE: At least, that's the kind of reaction she was getting from guys in suits leaning back in office chairs. But on the ground ...


ANNIE: ... it was a different story.

DANNY MILLER: It was unbelievable. It was just hard to fathom what had happened.

ANNIE: This is Danny Miller.

DANNY MILLER: And I've been in the insurance industry right at 31 years now.

ANNIE: In '92, Danny was a loss adjuster, and three weeks after Andrew hit, he was down in the wreckage of South Florida.

DANNY MILLER: Street signs were blown away. There were no landmarks.

ANNIE: Just trying to do his best to actually find the properties.

DANNY MILLER: Trying to reach policy holders, figure out how to get some cash into people's hands that need it.

ANNIE: And every night when he went back to his hotel, all the people sitting around the dinner table with him had been out working in the field all day too.

DANNY MILLER: You had a bunch of electrical workers there, you had a bunch of insurance adjusters and some military folks. And you would cook out and you would make the best of it.

SIMON: What was the dinner table conversation like?

DANNY MILLER: I listened. I was younger at the time, and talking to adjusters that have been in this business a lot longer than I had. And they would talk about the losses. They would, you know, talk about, you know, the number of claims. I think it was north of 700,000.

SIMON: Were you getting a sense from these other adjusters that financially this was bigger than anything they had been involved with before?

DANNY MILLER: Yeah, absolutely no doubt, Simon. I didn't mean to cut you off there. But yeah, from day one you knew that it was bigger than anything that the insurance industry has—had ever dealt with before. You know, it was evident that it was going to change the industry.

[NEWS CLIP: This—this is total devastation here at Tamiami Airport.]

ANNIE: When the total damage in dollar form finally came in, Karen had been right.

KAREN CLARK: It actually turned out to be $15 billion.

[NEWS CLIP: There is not a roof to be found in this neighborhood.]

KAREN CLARK: And kind of overnight, people realized the homeowners and the business insurance had been woefully underpriced.

ANNIE: And those insurance companies were in big trouble.

DANNY MILLER: A couple of carriers that we work for became insolvent during Andrew. You know, bankrupt. They just basically went out of business.

ANNIE: For some insurance providers, there was just no coming back from Andrew.

DANNY MILLER: Some of the guys were more experienced and they would talk about kind of watch the assignments you were getting, right? Because you didn't want to work for free, and you didn't want to work for pennies on the dollar.

SIMON: And you heard about that happening? Or people you had worked for that had happened to?

DANNY MILLER: Yeah, I mean water cooler talk, you know?

ANNIE: And the ones that didn't totally go under started to realize that they were gonna have to start charging a lot more. However, those companies, along with worrying about their profits, also had to deal with the government, the state government. And to these insurance companies, the government was saying "No way."

KAREN CLARK: You can't charge whatever price you want.

ANNIE: How were the people supposed to afford insurance?

KAREN CLARK: And obviously, the insurance regulators in Florida wanted to tamp down increases to the consumers.

ANNIE: And so a lot of these homeowner and property insurance companies just left.

KAREN CLARK: To this day, most of them have not returned.

ANNIE: And this all meant that when the dust of Andrew had settled, there were over half a million homes along the coast of the Florida that could not find insurance. And you could argue that while that is hard, maybe it's for the best. Maybe people shouldn't be building there. Maybe it doesn't make any sense. But this is where the Florida government steps in again, because people want to build there. And politicians want to give people what they want. And so ...

DANNY MILLER: You know, you had citizens stand up.

ANNIE: ... the Florida legislature gets together and they create what becomes known as Citizens Property Insurance.

DANNY MILLER: That became the largest insurer in the state of Florida.

KAREN CLARK: A state-run insurance company which formed to ensure any homeowners that aren't able to get cover in the private market.

ANNIE: And they charge far less than the private insurance companies.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: If you're in South Florida, and you can get citizens' coverage at 30 to 40 percent less than the private market, you're gonna do that.]

ANNIE: And since Andrew and Citizens Property Insurance, that coast has kept on booming.

KAREN CLARK: There was just a vast accumulation in the Tri-County area, which has continued to grow.

LATIF: And this government thing is underwriting all of it?

SIMON: Correct.

LATIF: Wow! It's crazy to take a bet that you know is gonna lose.

ANNIE: Right. And, you know, it's obvious that it's not just an economic bet they're taking, because when a hurricane rips its way along the Florida coast, along with all those buildings and properties, it's also destroying lives—people in harm's way.

[NEWS CLIP: Robin, good morning. As you can see, the sun has come up here in Naples, and it's our first real view of the destruction, the devastation left behind at Hurricane Irma.]

[NEWS CLIP: Extremely powerful and extremely dangerous, Hurricane Katrina ...]

[NEWS CLIP: ... National Hurricane Center. Charlie heads toward the Florida west coast.]

ANNIE: Since Andrew, there have been about 50—that's five-zero—hurricanes or tropical storms that have caused damage to property or loss of life in Florida.

[NEWS CLIP: Hurricane Wilma barrels down on the Gulf Coast of Florida.]

[NEWS CLIP: Hurricane Ian, the strongest September hurricane to strike the Gulf Coast in more than 50 years. The extent of the damage ...]

ANNIE: And they now know that climate change is warming the oceans and making the sea levels higher. And for hurricanes, that means bigger, stronger, more destructive storms plowing into more and more heavily built-up coastlines and the people who live there.

[NEWS CLIP: Out on the Barrier Islands, if you're listening please heed this warning that if things get so bad out there, nobody is going to take a chance. Rescue services, the managers, emergency operation managers say they are not going to go on suicide missions out to folks on the Barrier Islands.]

ANNIE: And while the government's reactions seem to be ignoring that reality, the insurance companies are staring it right in the face.

DANNY MILLER: Yeah. I mean, the insurance industry, you're not going to a conference that does not talk about climate change. You know, it is an obstacle and a challenge that we're dealing with every day.

ANNIE: And after Andrew, Karen's model ...

KAREN CLARK: It really exploded and, you know, every reinsurer had to have it, and every insurance company had to have it. Then of course, it grew to other perils: earthquakes, tornadoes, hailstorms.

ANNIE: And Karen incorporates climate change data into a lot of her models. But whether or not they're effective ...

KAREN CLARK: At the end of the day, it is a political decision, really, that—you know, for example, like, wildfire in California, right now the California Department of Insurance, they won't allow the catastrophe models. For some reason, they don't want the catastrophe models. So, you know, it's ...

SIMON: Wait, what the hell is that about?

ANNIE: Yeah, what?

KAREN CLARK: Yeah. Because they're afraid that it's gonna make the premiums go up, but as a consequence, they have a huge availability problem. And they have the same problem after Andrew. They have a FAIR Plan, which is the state insurer of last resort, that's ballooning now because you can't get wildfire insurance in California.


SIMON: That's insane!

ANNIE: That's totally insane.

SIMON: It's like, let's put a blindfold on.

KAREN CLARK: Exactly. You know, it doesn't make sense.

SIMON: And just to be clear, California doesn't want that model to be run because then there would be hard numbers staring them in the face, much like yours with Hurricane Andrew ...

KAREN CLARK: [laughs] Well ...

SIMON: ... about how big the bag they might be holding would be, and therefore premiums have to go up, therefore everyday Californians need to pay an extra 50 bucks a month for their insurance. Is that—that's the idea?

KAREN CLARK: Well, I can't speak to their motivation, but we can hypothesize on it. And if that's your theory, I'm not gonna dispute it.

ANNIE: I just think it's weird. I mean, it just kind of swaps out public institutions and for-profit institutions in my head. I mean, I have this very simplified understanding of corporations as not thinking ahead, just getting what they want, leaving messes behind, you know? And I think of the government as trying to not do that. And it's just sort of interesting that in this case there's like a flip, and there's action happening, but it's happening—to simplify it—like, from the bad guys, you know?

KEITH SEITTER: [laughs] Well, and there's a little—there's a little bit of both on both sides there.

ANNIE: This is Director Emeritus for the American Meteorological Society Keith Seitter. And we ran all this by him—the story of Irving Crick, this insurance situation, and his take was oddly comforting?

KEITH SEITTER: You know, market forces, if you want to think in terms of a—of a market that doesn't care about people, or about—or any of those sorts of things, you have it be sort of a—a uncaring market, all by itself is going to try to drive us in the right direction. You know, renewable energy now is the cheapest way to make electricity, and so the economic drivers are not ones where we have to say "Oh, we have to—you know, we have to give up something to get electricity that's clean." Now it's—that's the cheapest way to get it. And that gives me optimism because that means that now the people who do not want to see us move in the directions we have to move are working against market forces. And it's hard to work against market forces for very long.

SIMON: Right.

KEITH SEITTER: And so even—if greed is on your side, then you've got a chance to move the ball a lot faster.

SIMON: I want greed on my side all the time.

ANNIE: Yeah, me too!


SIMON: Greed is like an incredible wind at one's back.


LULU: The road to Eden is paved with bad intentions. [laughs]

ANNIE: [laughs] Maybe sometimes.

SIMON: It's greed that got us into this problem. It's the exploitation of natural resources in the name of the almighty dollar that got us into this problem, and it's hard for me to imagine a way out that doesn't have those same characters at the forefront.

LATIF: Greed is green!

LULU: Greed is green! [laughs]

LATIF: This episode was reported by Simon Adler and Annie McEwen, produced by Simon Adler and Annie McEwen, with sound and music from Simon Adler and Annie McEwen. Mixing help from Arianne Wack and Jeremy Bloom.

LULU: Special thanks to Xandra Clark, Homa Sarabi, Santi Dharmawan, Francisco Alvarez at Convoy Inc., Maureen O'Leary and everyone at NOAA, Simon Elkabetz of Tomorrow.io ...

LATIF: ... Jack Neff, Joe Pennington, Brad Colman, Morgan Yarker, Megan Walker, Eric Bramford, Jay Cohen ...

LULU: ... and Irving Krick Jr. for supplying us with tons of great archival footage and audio.

LATIF: If you're curious to know more about the history of weather forecasting, go check out Kris Harper's book Weather by the Numbers.

LULU: Before we go, we wanted to let you know that we are working on an animated video with a very talented artist to illustrate this episode. It'll drop on YouTube in the next couple weeks, so keep an eye out on our social media profiles. We're @Radiolab on Twitter and Instagram, and you can also find us on Facebook.

LATIF: Also, for Butterfly and Mantis Shrimp members of The Lab, we will be hosting a live "Ask Me Anything" session about this episode with producer Simon Adler and a very special guest—the god of thunder, Thor!

LULU: Or Poseidon.

LATIF: [laughs]

LULU: Come and find out.

LATIF: Keep an eye on your inboxes for an exclusive invitation. If you'd like to take part, you can join The Lab at Radiolab.org/join if you aren't already a member. Cannot wait to see you there!

LULU: That'll do it for today's News at Nine. Stay safe out there.

LATIF: [laughs]

LULU: Bring your umbrella.

LATIF: Get your snow tires.

[LISTENER: 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, Akedi Foster-Keys, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Andrew Viñales. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Natalie Middleton.]

[LISTENER: Hi, I'm Erica in Yonkers. Leadership support for Radiolab's science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]




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