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What it’s like to get a $500,000 phone call from the MacArthur ‘Genius’ Awards

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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!”

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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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