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On an ordinary day in 2011, Radiolab co-host Jad Abumrad was in the airport when he got a phone call informing him he’d won a $500,000 grant.
“I’d just lost my wallet and my luggage hadn’t come through,” Abumrad recalled on Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “And I get a call from a guy, I forget his name — first he sent me an email with no subject line that said, ‘Please call me,’ and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is some kind of Nigerian scam thing.’”
But Abumrad called the mystery man anyway, while looking for his luggage. Being informed that he had won a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation — commonly referred to as a “Genius Grant” — took all of two minutes.
“It was the shortest phone call ever,” he added. “He said, ‘Congratulations. You’ll never hear from me again.’ And that was true!”
Abumrad called the whole process “really weird, like being visited by some Masonic.” That’s partly because MacArthur does not inform winners that they are being considered for the grants — it just tells them that they have won them, a couple months before the public finds out.
“For weeks after that, I was like, ‘Did that actually happen?’” Abumrad said. “A letter arrived a couple days later and then I was like, ‘Okay, I think this is actually a real thing.’”
The foundation does not attach any strings to the money it pays out to recipients in “heavily taxed” installments, which was $500,000 in 2011.
“I figured out that, mathematically, what made sense for me was to put most of it towards my kids’ education, and then to take a big chunk of it and build a semi-soundproof room in my house, so that I can record the show from there, on occasion, and be near the kids,” he said. “It’s awesome, but when you really do the math, it’s not life-changing money at any given time.”
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