Peabody Award Winners of NPR: Throughline's Ramtin Arablouei & Rund Abdelfatah
Faces Of NPR showcases the people behind NPR--from the voices you hear every day on the radio to the ones who work outside of the recording studio. You'll find out about what they do and what they're inspired by on the daily. This week, we feature Rund Abdelfatah & Ramtin Arablouei, hosts of Throughline.
How do you feel about winning a Peabody Award, and why do you think it was the Afghanistan series in particular that won?
RUND: We're incredibly honored. Initially we were obviously surprised and excited and proud. One of the things that makes this series in particular a rewarding series to win is that it was such a team effort, and every single person on the team was involved in making it. And it was the culmination of months of work from the team. There was so much thought and care put into getting the stories right, and trying to get at this topic and this really important moment [the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan] in a different way, because we knew everybody was going to be talking about it. But one of the things that we always try to do on the show, which I think we did very successfully with this series, is that we were able to provide something unexpected for people who were getting a constant stream of news about Afghanistan, especially at that time during the withdrawal and in the lead-up to the withdrawal. That was really the product of a lot of hard work and care and research, and it represents what we try to do every single week on the show. What makes it particularly special for us is that it's sort of an encapsulation of what the show does best when it's at its best. It's for a topic that is close to our hearts. We're both from the Middle East and this conflict has defined so much of our lives growing up in this country and as the children of refugees, so to be able to give a perspective beyond just the images of the war-torn, embattled representation that we usually get about Afghanistan was really important to us.
RAMTIN: The series is really a celebration of Afghan history and culture as much as it is pointing out its history. We really wanted to put Afghanistan in a surprising place for many listeners, which is at the center of history – that throughout history, Afghanistan has played a really important role. It's playing an important role now as well, but it was playing an important role because it was at the center of power and at the center of a lot of the culturally dynamic things that were happening in Eurasia, basically in medieval times. And we wanted to bring to life its mythology, it's history. And it's at the center of the Persian-speaking world, which is a lot of countries in the Middle East and Central Asia. What was really nice about being rewarded for this series is, as Rund said, it is what we're all about as a show, offering a different perspective than what you might be getting in the news and using history to offer that perspective.
Since you spoke to both of you being from the Middle East, I want to know how much of your heritage and your background contributes to the stories you choose to cover and the perspective you use when you do cover those stories?
RAMTIN: We both grew up in similar kinds of backgrounds and families. I think some of the stuff is specific to our families, which is that you grew up in households where you know history and politics were always part of the conversation. I always repeat this because I really do believe it. Years ago I was in Iran and this taxi driver said to me, "People in the West never remember, people in the East never forget." And I do think there's some truth to that.
I'm Iranian and Rund is Palestinian, I think for both those countries, for very specific but also general reasons, history is alive. It's very important. You're taught from a young age to understand that how you are and who you are today is made up of all things that came before, all of your ancestors, all the things that happened to them. For good and for bad. And I think that is something that brought us together. Both specifically in our families, but also our backgrounds and that we have this shared interest around history and politics. It inspires the ethos and the philosophy behind the show. Then of course we cover those topics sometimes, including the Afghanistan series because we already have a keen interest in that. So I think it's a combination of those two things. The general philosophy and the influence of our backgrounds and philosophy of the show is always present.
You two co-host the show, so how important is your collaboration and your synergy with each other?
RUND: Well, the show really wouldn't exist without synergy. That brought us together and it has sustained us, especially in the early years. And honestly it was just a lot of the reason why the show kept going when we still weren't sure exactly what it was, as it was forming. As it was coming into being, it was just the enjoyment we had in making it and the strong belief that we shared that it needed to exist. This content needed to be out there and there needed to be these stories being told and more space for nuance just when it comes to any topic, to better make sense of so many things going on right now in our world. And that continues to sustain so much of what this show is about. It's just that we've expanded the circle now. Now we have a team that we are able to build with and create with.
I think the Afghanistan series is an example of that. It's an example of lots of different brains and perspectives coming together and shaping this really powerful perspective on a place that, I think for most Americans, is two-dimensional in the news. And I think what's been so great about being able to expand the team is that, Ramtin put it so well, just like we have our personal perspectives and our personal backgrounds that we bring to the work, other people on the team have their unique perspectives and backgrounds that are also being brought into the work. But that foundational glue that was there from the beginning, I think it's still very much what holds the whole thing together.
RAMTIN: I think we're like siblings, we're like best buds. I think that is what maintains the show. It's really hard to do this together and it's not possible if you don't love each other and respect each other and are able to be honest with each other and fight and get all the things that come with that kind of closeness. We made this together. At the beginning it was just the two of us doing every facet of the work and depending on each other 100 percent. So the closeness that we built is what made the show.
RUND: Yeah he's the third brother I never wanted.
Ramtin, in the beginning of your time at NPR, you were on a three week contract with How I Built This. In those three weeks, did you ever expect that you would end up here? What were you thinking in those three weeks about your experience with NPR?
RAMTIN: I had no idea. I didn't think I was going to be there for more than a month, max. And I saw Rund at some point in those first three weeks and I thought she was too cool for me to approach. But once we started talking, I knew she was cool. Rund sat adjacent from where I sat, and I didn't expect to become friends with her. I didn't expect to even continue to work on the show. She and I started working together on How I Built This. I didn't expect any of that to happen at the time. But I feel so grateful.
I really fell in love with NPR as an institution and with the people I worked with on How I Built This and TED Radio Hour. I really loved Guy Raz, and I really loved the other people we work with, and they became my friends and my social circle. I really loved coming to the office to hang out with them every single day as much as I liked the work. So that's what kept me at NPR. And then of course, once we started Throughline, that took things to another level. We probably started working on Throughline maybe six months into knowing each other. But those first six months were really driven by just my love for the people more than anything else. That is the truth, it was personal in that way.
So Rund, you started as an intern. As an intern, did you have any idea that this is the direction you wanted to go?
RUND: Oh no. I had lots of twists and turns before meeting Ramtin and starting Throughline together. Similarly, after my internship I was like, I want to stay here. I don't know what I'm going to end up doing here but I want to stay, and I'm going to find a way to stay. So I took whatever was available. That happened to be making promos for news magazines and fundraising promos. And then Serial happened and podcasting exploded. And I was like, "Never say no to anything." So anytime anyone needed help, I was like, "All right, I'll do it, I'll help with this podcast launch, or I'll work on this." And it was a lot of jumping in and getting to see up front lots of the podcasts that exist now, like Code Switch and NPR Politics podcast and Invisibilia. I was watching all of those shows and helping and in a lot of cases those shows get off the ground.
When I met Ramtin, we clicked as human beings, and then also intellectually we just were jibing. You only know someone for six months, and you're going to take a leap of faith like that together? It seems really wild now, honestly. But I think we just have that sort of combination of faith in one another and an instinct about one another, and knowing that NPR just attracts good people. We just had a sense that we had a good idea. We were a good fit together and that there was something there. To NPR's credit, NPR did give us the room to really start to develop what would become Throughline.
I want to know the creative autonomy or creative control that NPR allowed you. What did that look like?
RAMTIN: From the beginning, without really asking for permission necessarily, we just made the pilot because we wanted to do it and we had a lot of fun making it together. We were both just hungry to make something new and to have fun. I think it's that simple. Once we made it, we really were both like, "This is dope, this is great!" And from there, once NPR started to support us, honestly, editorially at least, we've had complete creative control and freedom. There have been times where we had little editorial tussles here and there, but never have they come down like, laying the hammer down on us. They've really been supportive. Once Anya Grundman, N'Jeri Eaton and the people in the programming division heard our show, they were really supportive.
RUND: Again, it's remarkable now, thinking back to the fact that we were both assistant producers. Production was our passion. In a lot of ways it still is our passion. It's why the show is so sound-rich and kind of experimental in its sound, because that was always underpinning it. But the fact that we were also given the chance to host, having never been on air, is a credit to NPR. With some help and support and time to grow our voices as hosts, we could do it. At first there were times when I doubted myself. Like I said before, I'm a more introverted kind of person. So I was like, "This is not for me." But to Ramtin's credit, even early on, he was like, "We're not going to hand over this idea that we had to someone else." And so we stuck with it and developed ourselves as hosts. And again, NPR allowed us the space to develop as hosts. And that was not necessarily the plan at the beginning. We just were like, let's just do it and figure out how to fill the holes later. And suddenly, we have a show on NPR and we're hosting it.
I really do thank the people that Ramtin mentioned, especially Anya Grundman, just to reiterate that they really took a chance on us. It just makes me really happy now to be recognized with something like the Peabody Award. Awards are not everything. They're not the only measure of success. But it means something to us, having started from this place of just really believing that these stories needed to be told, to have it be recognized in this way. It's just surreal.
And Rund, you just won a Gracie Award too. So it's really interesting to hear you say you didn't know you could host, because clearly you could, it was always in you. So shout out to you all for doing that.
RAMTIN: And I knew she could.
RUND: You knew.
RAMTIN: I knew first.
From its conception, what was your goal in creating Throughline? And do you feel like you have achieved that goal?
RAMTIN: We recognized in early conversations about making a show together, all the way back in 2015, that history isn't at the core of the way we teach our children. Neither of us were taught that way growing up in school – about how history connects two things happening today. It's almost like history is this faraway thing, that we don't need to think about it other than memorizing some dates. Often with news, whether it's on television or radio, there's a limited amount of time, you can only get into the context so much. So we felt like, if we're able to tell stories from history that are interesting, that are emotional, that are almost like emotional histories that explain what's happening in the world a little bit or give some context to what's happening, it may help infuse some of that into the discourse, because it's something that we always felt was missing. It certainly wasn't missing from our upbringings. History was always very much present. So I think in a lot of ways we're bringing our upbringings to that approach.
Now whether we succeeded or not, I don't know. That's going to be somewhere down the line. But do I feel like just making the show and getting to this point is success. I don't think either of us could have dreamed that the show would even get greenlit, let alone get recognized by these illustrious award organizations. I think at this point, Throughline is a success because we're being infused into mainstream news. So in that way, it does feel like we've succeeded.
RUND: And I would just add that those big markers of success, like the awards and being on the radar, those are all incredible. But sometimes the most rewarding things are just when you get an email from somebody who's like, "I saw myself in history," or "My parent was part of the story that you shed light on." When I was at the Gracie Awards last week, this group of high school women came up to me, and they were all the children of immigrants and from all different places. And they were there because they had shared their stories for a series. They said, "Throughline is a huge reason why I feel like my story matters and my family's story matters." Those moments also are a different kind of success. They just make you realize that person-to-person, human level, helping someone feel seen or helping shed light on stories that were in the dark for so long – that's what we also set out to do. To get that feedback to me is success too.
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