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DNA Analysis Illuminates the History of Man

The latest techniques in DNA analysis have opened a window on the history of human evolution. Nicholas Wade, a science reporter for The New York Times, chronicles this new avenue of science in his book Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors.

This interview was originally broadcast on April 19, 2006.


Other segments from the episode on May 25, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 25, 2007: Interview with Nicholas Wade; Interview with Marc Lawrence; Interview with Dick Dale.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: The New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade talks
about his book "Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of
Our Ancestors"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave DAVIES, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

With advances in genetic research, scientists are learning more about our
primate ancestors and how these creatures evolved physically and socially into
the humans that came to populate the earth. It now seems likely the
Neanderthals of Europe were not our ancestors, but a separate species that may
have battled with and been exterminated by the earliest humans, and there are
new clues about when humans invented language and what it may have sounded
like. Those are some of the topics explored by my guest, New York Times
science writer Nicholas Wade. I spoke to him last year about his book "Before
the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors." It's now out in

When one considers the typical view of human evolution, we're all familiar
with the encyclopedia book picture of the little tadpole in the water that
becomes, you know, an amphibian--a fish--and then an amphibian and then some
kind of land-based creature and then an ape and then eventually we have the
erect walking human beings. You present a very different picture of human
evolution, and it appears that if you go back, say 100,000 years ago, there
was not one but actually many different species of creatures walking around
the earth who looked something like us, right?

Mr. NICHOLAS WADE (Science Writer, The New York Times): Well, that's right.
There are cells--we had attained our modern form by 100,000 years ago. We
looked more or less as we do now, although our behavior was very different.
And besides us, there were the Neanderthals, who are archaic humans who had
escaped from Africa many several hundred thousands of years before. They were
in Europe. And there was also Homo erectus, another archaic species that
occupied most of Asia.

DAVIES: Now, the Neanderthals have become part of common lore. They're often
used to describe, you know, frat boy behavior, for example. But they were an
actual species that went extinct like the dinosaurs, in effect, right? Tell
us about these creatures, who were--I don't know whether to call them humans
or apes--the Neanderthals, those that occupied Europe, what did they look
like? How did they behave? What kind of society did they have?

Mr. WADE: Well, they are definitely regarded as human. Their Latin name is
Homo neanderthalis. There were sort of recognizably human. I find it though
definitely Neanderthals sat down next to you in a subway car, you would move
to a different car, whereas if a modern human of 50,000 years ago sat down
next to you, you might just move a few seats away. I think Neanderthals were
very frightening to our ancestors. They were very heavily muscled. They were
adapted to the cold of the earth, which was then in the grip of the last Ice
Age. They had sophisticated weapons, and they probably battled modern humans
evolving in Africa up in that continent for many thousands of years. Because
we were not better than they militarily, and we could not fight our way out of
the exits from Africa--the principal exits, which were occupied by the

DAVIES: The Neanderthals, you said, had weapons. What kind of weapons?

Mr. WADE: Well, we know they had stone-tipped spears. They almost certainly
did not have bows and arrows. They probably had a very simple social
organization. There's a fierce debate as to whether or not they had language.
Very possibly they didn't. And it was the acquisition of language by our
ancestors, in Africa, that enabled a higher level of social organization and
the means to eventually overcome the Neanderthals.

DAVIES: But no modern human is descended from a Neanderthal. They became
extinct, right?

Mr. WADE: That is correct. It's been a sort of long-standing debate as to
whether or not Neanderthals sort of mated with modern humans, which was
unresolved really until genetic testing, and then we were able to look at
the--people were able to recover mitochondrial DNA from the type specimen of
the Neanderthals, the first Neanderthal skull found in the Neander valley in
Germany. And that mitochondrial DNA proved to be so different from all modern
human mitochondrial DNA that it showed that the Neanderthals had diverged away
from our line a couple of hundred thousand years ago. This does not exclude
the possibility that some Neanderthal genes--perhaps those that were useful in
adapting to the cold--did get into the human line. But that has not been
proved as yet. I think you can say though, as a general rule, that few, if
any, Neanderthal genes survived in the modern human line, and the
Neanderthals, in effect, did go extinct.

DAVIES: Now there were, as we've said, several erect walking human-like
species around the globe. And the ones which--from which we are descended--I
guess the anatomically modern humans--were in a part of northeast Africa
before they were able to escape the African continent and spread throughout
the globe, but you said--if I've read this--if I have this right--it's
believed that they once shrank to as few as 5,000 people; and had that tribe
not survived, the world today would not be populated with cities, farms,
villages, anything. Right?

Mr. WADE: Well, that is correct, and if there were farms and cities, it
would be some other species occupying them, not ourselves. Of course,
archaeologists have found no trace of this ancestral modern human population.
So the estimate of their numbers comes purely from genetics, and by the amount
of variation in the genome you can make guesses as to population size. So the
geneticists' guess has been far lower than you might have expected. At first
they thought 10,000; now their sort of ballpark figure is about 5,000 people.
So it was from that tiny population that the whole world is descended.

DAVIES: And it was around 50,000 years ago that this small population of
humans got out of Africa in, I guess, what one could call an Exodus story.
What prompted them to move?

Mr. WADE: We don't know what prompted them to move. It's only a matter of
speculation, but presumably there was an advantage in seeking novelty, in
seeking new territory. It's probable that the ancestral human population was
very--it may not have been a single population. It may have been divided into
little warring groups constantly at war with each other, as is often found,
for example, in Australia or New Guinea or where tribal peoples occupy large
areas. I think this is the sort of--is the nature of human existence, to
split up into small groups like a tribe that is territorial, that defends its
own territory and attacks its neighbors. So you can imagine if that were the
case 50,000 years ago, it would be great to escape from the fight and go and
find new unoccupied territory. So on that supposition, people would always
have been trying to escape from Africa, but the odds were so stacked against
them that only one small group succeeded.

DAVIES: Now, what about the early humans who did not join the migration out
of Africa? Did some remain behind, and are they linguistically connected in
any way to some of the tribes in Africa?

Mr. WADE: Yes. Of course, some people did remain behind and the
human--although one can speak of an exodus from Africa, one shouldn't forget
that much of the--in fact, most of the human family at that time remained
within Africa. Now, our ancestor population was probably emerged somewhere in
northeast Africa, maybe within the boundaries of modern Ethiopia. And so the
exodus took a small portion of that population outside to the Arabian
Peninsula and India. But the bulk of it would have remained in Ethiopia, but
gradually started to spread southward and westward and to colonize the rest of
Africa, just as their relatives were colonizing the rest of the world.

DAVIES: Now, people have spoken about the "click-speaking" people in parts of
Africa. I mean, it's a language which is really very distinct from Bantu and
some of the other languages. Is it believed that this might be farther up the
linguistic tree and closer to the original language that our ancestors may
have spoken tens of thousands of years ago?

Mr. WADE: Yes, there are intriguing signs that the clicks, at least, are
very ancient. And the main evidence for that is that the 30 or so click
languages that survive today, most were spoken in southern Africa by the Sam,
but there are few--there are two that are spoken way north in Tanzania by
people called the Hadza and the Sandawe. And these languages are completely
different from the click languages of South Africa in every respect except
they're clicks. So this was for a long time a great puzzle to linguists, that
the languages should be so different and apparently unrelated until the
geneticists came along and shared that there was the same difference in the
genetics of the Hadza and the Sam people. And their genetics show that they
diverged very early, on the earliest branches of the human tree that you can
reconstruct from mitochondrial DNA.

DAVIES: So you have in effect these two groups of African living hundreds--I
guess, even thousands of miles apart--who are linguistically and genetically
different from the people around them but linguistically and genetically
linked to each other, suggesting that they're survivors of this very, very
early branch of the human tree.

Mr. WADE: That is correct. And another interesting thing is that clicks,
they're quite hard to do. You can do a single click, like when you say
(clicking sound) to a child. But it's very hard to do a double click which
several of these languages have. So it looks like--once you have clicks, you
can lose them, but it is very hard to see anyone sort of inventing a click
from scratch. So if that's the case, if clicks have only been lost and not
gained, then they must be of great antiquity.

DAVIES: Do we know when language began?

Mr. WADE: The best guess is that language began about 50,000 years ago,
although it had probably been evolving for some time before that, but at least
we think it reached its sort of modern form about that time.

DAVIES: And do we believe that all of the world's languages today are
descended from a single root language?

Mr. WADE: This is a reasonable hypothesis, simply because if you assume that
modern language was an identifying quality of that ancestral human
population--which, as you mentioned, was only 5,000 people--and if they also
lived reasonably close to each other, close enough to trade and have other
interactions, it's a reasonable assumption that they spoke a single language,
or even if there were sort of more than one language that the others might
have fallen extinct when humans entered that bottleneck of just 5,000 people.

DAVIES: New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: We are speaking with New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade.
His new book is called "Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our

Now, I want to go a little bit farther back in prehistory. Before the
anatomically modern humans were there, say two to three million years ago,
when some of our primate ancestors were much more like chimpanzees and then
something happened that caused some of these ape-like creatures living in
trees to evolve in a direction that created us. And one of the things that
seems may have been pivotal was the decision to eat meat, or the beginning of
carnivorous practices as opposed to simply eating, you know, vegetation. Why
was that meaningful in the development of modern human anatomy?

Mr. WADE: Well, it was part of a complex of pressures forcing our evolution,
one of which was that our brain was getting larger, and probably the reason
was that our societies were becoming more complex, and the main reason why you
need a larger brain is to interact with other members of your own species and
learn how to survive in a primate and early human society. And this would
have placed a constant demand each generation on people who had greater
cognitive capacity--greater computing power, if you like. But the brain is a
very greedy consumer of oxygen, and you need to have a more efficient way of
getting your nutrition than chomping through mounds of vegetation, which is
essentially what our primate cousins, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, do. So
it seems to be that meat eating and an increase in the size of the human
cranium, as assessed by fossil skulls--and also the invention of the first
fossil tools, were all sort of bound together in evolutionary nexus. And the
first fossil tools, the old ones--complex--occurs at about the same time as we
see the beginning of the expansion of the human cranium.

DAVIES: We also know that a change critical to developing modern civilization
was the invention of agriculture, because that allowed people to settle and
build permanent communities and store food. But you write that our
prehistorical ancestors had a major limitation to overcome before they could
settle and that was that they were really too aggressive to live together in
villages. Do we seem to have a genetic predisposition to warfare?

Mr. WADE: I think you can--I think it's reasonable to say that we do have a
genetic predisposition to warfare. It's not the controlling part of our
nature, but it's always there beneath the surface. But it's counterbalanced
by many other tendencies, including the more conciliatory instincts of trade
and exchange and reciprocity. But I think it is connected with the strange
fact you mentioned that it took us so long to settle down. We left Africa
50,000 years ago, but there's no sign of human settlements until 15,000 years
ago. So what was happening during those 35,000 years? Why did it take us so
long to realize that there were greater advantages in settling down in one
place rather than living as hunters and gatherers with no shelter or fixed

So it's reasonable to assume that, while we didn't settle down because we were
too fierce and aggressive to do so--if you settle down, you make yourself a
sitting target for anyone who's on the move; your best defense is to keep
moving. So maybe it required another evolutionary change in our behavior,
almost as significant as the early one that led to the perfection of language
50,000 years ago. Maybe it took another 35,000 years ago for us to develop a
more conciliatory version of human behavior that allowed us to settle down in
fixed groups large enough to resist attack and survive.

DAVIES: Now, one of the interesting differences between us and our primate
relatives is that, while most animals have fur or hair throughout their body,
we have relatively little hair--except for the spot on top of our head, which
grows regularly and causes us to kind of cut it and groom it and shape it in
modern times. Do we know why we began to grow this hair on our heads and when
that might have occurred?

Mr. WADE: We don't know for sure. There's a gene that seems to be involved
in controlling the hair cycle, and hence the length of hair, which is changed
in humans compared to its chimpanzee version, and this gene seems to have
changed about 100,000 years ago. So given the enormous social importance of
hair in human society as a sort of signalling system of caste and status and
emotional state, and given the attention that people all around the world
still pay to their hair, you can imagine that it evolved because it did
something useful for its owners to have continually growing hair. So I see it
as yet another social adaptation we made to the increasing complexity of our

DAVIES: What advantage would it give someone to have continually growing head

Mr. WADE: Well, presumably because you could signal information with it, and
this information was somehow of value in constructing your society and making
it more cohesive. I mean, it's easy to sort of spin just-so stories. We
don't exactly know what advantage it was that made this gene become
widespread. We can simply observe the gene did become widespread. So
presumably it was for some evolutionary reason which we can only speculate

DAVIES: Well, you know, chimpanzees love to groom each other, and I wonder if
people grooming their hairs and grooming each other's hair had some
interaction with a--you know, signalled a greater level of social interaction.

Mr. WADE: Oh, it may well have done. I mean, grooming is very important in
primate society, and you spend a great deal of time grooming people who are
important to you. If you are trying to rise to the top of the male chimp
hierarchy, you need to spend a lot of time grooming your social superiors so
as to form alliances that may enable you to overthrow them at one time. So it
may well be that this was the basis of interaction. I don't know if humans
groomed each other as much as other primates do. They have, of course, less

One of the theories of the origin of language is that when you could speak to
someone, you could do the--you could perform the grooming function much more
efficiently in far less time. And the need to groom all other members of a
primate community was a constraint that keeps monkey communities at about sort
of 15 individuals. They never grow more than that. Humans sort of broke that
constraint, and maybe it was, in part, because they'd switched from grooming
behavior to language as a grooming substitute.

DAVIES: Well, Nicholas Wade, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. WADE: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

DAVIES: New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade. His book "Before the
Dawn" is now out in paperback. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Marc Lawrence, director of the film "Music & Lyrics,"
on '80s inspirations for the film and his start in writing

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave DAVIES, filling in for Terry Gross.

Our guest Marc Lawrence wrote and directed the new movie "Music & Lyrics,"
which has just come out on DVD. "Music & Lyrics" is filled with in-jokes
about '80s pop. The film stars Hugh Grant as a washed-up '80s pop star who's
reduced to performing at amusement parks, and then an opportunity comes his
way. A Britney Spears-type teen star, who was his fan as a child, asks him to
write a song for her. If she likes it, she'll record it and debut it in a
duet with him. He's good at writing melodies, but doesn't write lyrics. In
the process of searching for a lyricist, he realizes that the woman who's just
started taking care of his plants seems to have a way with words, so he
recruits her to collaborate on the song. She's played by Drew Barrymore.
Several of the songs in the film were written by Adam Schlesinger of the band
Fountains of Wayne.

In this scene from "Music & Lyrics," Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore are in his
apartment trying to write the song.

(Soundbite from "Music & Lyrics")

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Ms. DREW BARRYMORE: And I don't think those chords are right.


Ms. BARRYMORE: It has to sound different than the verse.

Mr. GRANT: Well, what kind of difference did you have in mind?

Ms. BARRYMORE: I don't know. Something sadder, you know? And I still don't
like my line about `places in my mind.'

Mr. GRANT: It's fine.

Ms. BARRYMORE: Fine isn't good.

Mr. GRANT: Well, yeah, we only have time for fine. I tell you what, look,
you--we'll change your line about `places in my mind' if I can keep the chord
sequence into the bridge. Yeah?

Ms. BARRYMORE: This isn't a negotiation. It's either right or wrong,
inspired or insipid.

Mr. GRANT: I'll tell you what it is. It's 4 in the morning, and we're not
writing the last movement of the Jupiter symphony. It's a song for someone
whose last hit was called "Welcome to Booty Town." Please, get back to work.

Ms. BARRYMORE: Still don't like it.

Mr. GRANT: Oh.

Ms. BARRYMORE: And it's "Entering Booty Town."

Mr. GRANT: Oh, right!

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Terry spoke to Marc Lawrence earlier this year when "Music & Lyrics"
was in theaters.


Well, there's a song called "Pop! Goes My Heart" that Hugh Grant's band in
the movie, Pop!, records and like that's their big hit from the '80s.

Mr. LAWRENCE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: "Pop! Goes My Heart." So you had to get somebody to like write this
song so...

Mr. LAWRENCE: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So who did you choose for "Pop! Goes My Heart"?

Mr. LAWRENCE: "Pop! Goes My Heart" was written by Andrew Wyatt and Alana
Vincente, I believe, is the pronunciation of her last name, and Andrew is just
a brilliant and talented songwriter and musician, and Andrew wrote not only
"Pop! Goes My Heart" but pretty much all of the songs for the Britney
Spears-type character in the film, and Andrew actually has quite a bit of
experience writing for and producing songs for Britney Spears and Christina
Aguilera and that group of people.

GROSS: Well, let's play the song, and then I'll ask you to describe what the
video is like. So here's "Pop! Goes My Heart" from the soundtrack of "Music
& Lyrics."

(Soundbite from "Pop! Goes My Heart")

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) I never thought that I could be so be
Every time that I look in your angel eyes,
A shock inside means that words just can't describe

Something in the way you move I can't deny
Every word from your lips is a lullaby
A twist of fate makes life worthwhile
You are gold and silver

I said I wasn't going to lose my head
But then, pop! goes my heart
Pop, goes my heart.
I wasn't going to fall in love again
But then, pop! goes my heart.

And I just can't let you go.
I can't lose this feeling.
These precious moments, we...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: OK, so we just heard the song that was written for the '80s band in
"Music & Lyrics," in which Hugh Grant plays a songwriter, and there's a great
video--my guest, Marc Lawrence, directed the movie.

And, Marc, there's a great video that opens the movie...

Mr. LAWRENCE: Great.

GROSS: A great '80s video for this song, so I imagine like you conceived and
shot the video yourself?

Mr. LAWRENCE: I did. Once Andrew had written the song, I used that as the
kick-off point for how we were going to construct the video, and I went back
and watched a lot of those '80s videos, and they--a lot of them had
performance aspects to them--you know, you see the band playing and jumping
around, and then a lot of them also had acting, if you can call it that,
storylines, which were always just unbelievably over the top, with everyone
overemoting and shaking their heads and just a great theater of bad acting.
And so I thought it would be nice to combine those two, so we came up with
that little storyline working off of the lyrics, where Hugh's heart is broken
because his girl has left him; and it's so broken that he winds up in the
hospital and then he has a dream about the girl who left him, and then the
sexy nurse who revives him re-instills his faith in love. And he bounces back
off the gurney. And it's, you know, it's taken from a Chekov short story,

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And needless to say there's lots of quick edits and there's like black
and white checkerboard background...


GROSS: ...through a lot of it. So what videos did you study for this? And
what were certain things you thought like, `I've got to do my version of

Mr. LAWRENCE: Well, Terry, I can let you in on this secret, which is, if
anyone goes and decides to watch the Wham! video "Wake Me Up Before You Go
Go-Go," you will certainly notice some similarities. That was--if there was a
template for it, that was it, and partially because the idea for Hugh's story
mirrored to me kind of a George Michael-Andrew Ridgeley story where there were
two guys in a band and one went on to become a household name and a huge star
and the other one was more likely to be the subject of a where-are-they-now?
show. So that led us to Wham!. And then the feeling of the band of Pop!, I
thought, should be closer to, you know, a teeny-bopper sort of--a Beatles in
the mop top era rather than anything darker. So I watched all the Wham!
videos. I watched a bunch of the Duran Duran videos and Flock of Seagulls.

GROSS: The dialogue in "Music & Lyrics" is really funny, lots of witty
retorts and caustic asides from Hugh Grant. You're obviously good at writing
this kind of humor. Can you draw on this in real life? Like, can you quip in
real life?

Mr. LAWRENCE: Well, I try to do this with my wife, but it requires me
writing the setups for her, and she's often not amenable to that. If she'll
do the right setup, I can be phenomenally witty. Yeah, I can. You know, the
first thing that I did professionally was writing on a sitcom, and it was
called "Family Ties." And when I showed up there--and this was shot out in
LA--I was 24 years old and I had just dropped out of law school, and I'd never
written with anyone else. I had just written a few scripts and was lucky
enough to have them like it and fly me out there.

And suddenly I was sitting at a table in LA at Paramount Studios with five
other really talented, really clever, really smart writers, and my first day
there, you know, we would all sit around the table together and work on the
script, which involved taking the script that we had on the stage that week
and improving it. And I sat there, and people were so fast and so funny and
so quick, and I remember calling Linda--was not my wife yet, but we were
already going out--and calling her and saying, `I don't think I'm going to be
able to do this. It's just too fast.' And--but, you know, I stayed on the
show, and they were nice enough to keep me on the show, and very quickly, I
sort of got into that rhythm and it became one of my favorite things to do,
and TV training--you know, I was at that show, writing it and producing it for
five years, and that kind of training is really, really invaluable, I think,
when you're doing a comedy.

GROSS: Now, you got started in your writing career writing for "Family Ties,"
and that happened because you sent them a spec script.


GROSS: What was that script that you sent?

Mr. LAWRENCE: I had--actually, the first script I wrote was called "The
World's Most Famous House," and it was based on my experiences at college,
living in an off-campus house with some people. And I sent that script out--I
got a book called "The Writer's Market," which I believe is still published
now, and it listed all the agents that you could send a script to, all the
WGA-approved agents. And, you know, I typed my script and I copied it--this
was sort of before computers. It was 1983, I guess. I didn't have a
computer, and put them--I guess about 50 or 60 of them in envelopes and sent
them out to pretty much every agent in that book. And they all came back, not
even rejected, just unread, except for two. One of them was from a lady named
Marsha Amsterdam, who still lives here in Manhattan, and she was a literary
agent mostly concentrating on books, and she said, `You know, I read this and
I liked it. Come on up and talk,' and she became my first agent. And she
said, `What would you like to do?' and I said, `I'd like to write for movies
and television,' and she said, `Let's start with TV because the scripts are
shorter and it's faster.'

And I had not watched television in quite a while at college or whatever
sitcoms were on, so I got a copy of TV guide and I circled all the sitcoms
that were on that year, and I--on a little black and white television I
started watching them, and the two that struck me were "Cheers" and "Family
Ties," and I particularly was attracted to the character that Michael Fox was
playing on "Family Ties," so I went and wrote a script and she sent it out,
and they called and they flew me out and then, suddenly, I was there.

And the only other script that was read of those 50 or 60 that I sent out was
by a man named Jack Rawlins, who, of course, is Woody Allen's producer--not
just Woody Allen, but, you know, Billy Crystal and David Letterman. He said,
`Come on up, I want to talk to you.' And I went up to his office on 57th
Street, sat in this room surrounded by these huge pictures of Woody Allen,
just--I had run out from the job I was in at the time on my lunch hour, and he
walked in carrying two pastrami sandwiches, and he said, `One of these is for
you,' and he sat down and we just started talking. We must have talked for
two and a half hours, and it was everything you wanted show business to be.
This was a man who just loved comedy writing because he loved it, and he
answered all my questions about Woody Allen and about comedy writing, and at
the end of it, he said, `Take a look at this script. I think this is the kind
of movie that you could write,' and it was a movie that he had just produced
and it was called "Arthur." And it was the first screenplay I had ever seen in
my life, and I took that and ran out of the office, and it was probably still
the most thrilling meeting I ever had in show business. So those were the two
people who responded to the script.

DAVIES: Director Marc Lawrence speaking with Terry Gross earlier this year.
His film, "Music & Lyrics," is now out on DVD. Coming up, music that says
summer. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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