The App: Radiolab
The Device: iPhone 4
The Price: $2.99
The Basics: Radiolab is one of the best radio shows (and podcasts) ever recorded, probably second only to This American Life. With an emphasis on science and technology (and the people behind them), the show tells stories of the extraordinary and the mundane, exploring how the world works and how people work with the world. The show has lofty goals and it frequently reaches them, delivering hours of audio “edutainment” that are just plain remarkable. The This American Life app has been a mainstay on my phone for some time, so when the Radiolab app launched recently, it was love at first sight. Just having this show on immediate hand was going to be worth the three bucks. But how is the app itself?
The Review: One thing is immediately clear the moment you open the Radiolab app: this is not only one of the best looking apps of all time, it is an app that is trying something completely different than anything else before it. I have never seen an app that looks and functions like this and it is stunning.
The Radiolab can be a little disorienting at first, mainly because it doesn’t have a menu. That’s right: this is an app without a traditional main page and no list of options. The app is driven entirely by navigating a environment that houses all of the app’s functions. I found this frustrating at first, but once I got used to exploring the app (and making use of the subtle but handy navigation bar on the side of the screen), it was an absolute pleasure to use.
The first page finds places you behind a desk, a radio and lamp in the foreground before you. Slide your finger up the screen a little and the window will open. Slide a little more and you’ll pass through the window and into the countryside, a landscape filled with characters and detail. You control your speed yourself and you can get to other parts of the app nearly instantly or you can take your time and enjoy the sights, so to speak. Swipe far enough, and you’ll hit an urban environment, where you have access to every episode of Radiolab, every full episode, short or video special made since 2007. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to browse this list (unlike the This American Life apps, which lets you browse by various contributors and other criteria). This is one of the few places where the non-traditional format works against the app.
If you scroll past the episode archive, the app takes you into the sky. Clicking on a flying billboard will take you to Radiolab’s website. Eventually, high amongst the clouds, you’ll hit the next section, where you can participate in the production of Radiolab by recording sound effects or taking pictures of objects that they will need for future episodes. This wonderful option bridges the gap between listener and show in a way that listening through the traditional methods cannot accomplish.
Finally, when you’ve reached outer space, you land on the last section of the app: an archive of all of the show’s written content, dozens of essays and articles from over the years of the show’s existence. Like the rest of the app, this section is gorgeously animated and a joy to explore, but not being able to do more in-depth searches for specific articles is a bit of a problem.
Ultimately, I wish the individual sections of the Radiolab app offered more specific options and yes, there were times when I found myself longing for the streamlined, traditional menus of the This American Life app. However, I can’t be annoyed by this app. I don’t want to linger on these problems. The Radiolab app looks like no app I’ve seen before. It functions like no app I’ve ever seen before. It’s a genuine inspiration and proof that app design is still in its infancy…there is so much we can do with this medium.
The Grade: A