Cornell prepped Horne for radio success
For 12 years, Ellen Horne ’95 produced Radiolab, a program that examines big questions in science, philosophy, and the human experience through compelling audio storytelling. In 2003 Horne joined forces with Radiolab host Jad Abumrad to build Radiolab into a Peabody Award-winning podcast airing on 500+ public radio stations. Horne led Radiolab’s strategic development and directed Radiolab’s live stage shows. At WNYC, Horne worked on The Takeaway, On The Media, and Freakonomics Radio, and also hosted the Mad Men Pre-Game Show. Prior to her career in radio, Horne was a development director for coral reef conservation. In September 2015 Horne became executive producer for Audible. In this role she will launch new shows in Audible’s effort to push the boundaries of spoken-word entertainment.
Q: Radiolab approaches topics in unusual ways. What’s the strangest thing you’ve learned while working on the program?
A: The theory that nearly every dinosaur on the planet died in a 2-hour period 65 million years ago was one thing that dropped my jaw every time we told the story in our 29 performances of the Apocalyptical live show. The freaky mind-control powers of many parasites still creeps me out. The entire Placebo episode blew my mind. Strangest? That still probably has to go to the theory of relativity. Old news, but it still makes me feel like the fabric of reality is thinner and more pliable than one’s ego can possibly ever accept.
Q: What’s the most important thing you learned at Cornell?
A: Cornell prepared me for the quick, intense, deep dives into information that one does in journalism. The block plan is a test of the principals of a liberal arts education: that the process of learning is the goal, not the content. I wasn’t so sure that was the best way to learn at the time. In my final semester of college, I was a special student of theology at Georgetown University. I thought it would give me more time to evolve my thinking in religion classes—I always felt like I didn’t have enough time and that by the end of the block I was just getting into the swing of things. So, I tested this hypothesis and it was a total failure. I couldn’t believe how much time was wasted in reviewing what we’d already done, or just ordinary business. It felt like even my most challenging class was by no means as intellectually satisfying as a Cornell class. I think it’s hard for me to let go, but it’s not just an emotional weakness. I believe if you are honest with yourself, you understand you are always a novice. There is always more to learn.
Q: If you could go back and tell your 20-year-old self one thing, what would it be?
A: It’s gonna be fine. Your career anxiety is a good thing. It’s like adrenaline before going on stage—that energy is going to give you focus. It might not feel great but it will fuel you, and it’ll deliver you to good things. Sure—worry—but take steps. Don’t let the worry paralyze you. Try things. Make mistakes. Move forward. But don’t panic. That’s counterproductive. Effort, communication, and resourcefulness are gonna be your compass points. If you could pretty please spend a little more time figuring out how to get in the habit of exercising that’d be awesome. Oh yeah, one more thing: you are totally gonna fall in love someday with an amazing man who loves you, and have a family and everything. Don’t be silly. That stuff works out just fine too.
Q: What qualities do you most admire in others?
A: Enthusiasm. And collaborative spirit. I love people who throw absurd amounts of energy at making things more awesome and over-the-top-ly fantastic. People who know that creative acts come with no guarantee, but the work of invention provides its own satisfaction.