Tuesday, July 10, 2018

This American Life (radio)

Radio: An Illustrated Guide
(I own this comic book.)
Recently we had occasion to dig out our old copy of Trivial Pursuit: 90s Time Capsule Edition. The tagline is, “from the most trivial of decades.” Even today, that seems a most accurate description. You can get in trouble painting an entire decade (or an entire generation) with so broad a brush. But historically speaking, we were complacent.

In 1995, when I was creating theater pieces about Gen X nostalgia and long-form improv-inspired by nascent reality TV, NPR reporter and producer Ira Glass introduced This American Life.

Its mission, ostensibly, was to report on life in these United States. Not the famous, or the necessarily newsworthy, but life as it is lived in the corners and in the fringes. I loved it almost immediately, if only because these brief radio diaries were about things I was interested in. Conventions, summer camp, 24-hour diners, Canadians, and terrible sex.

Glass quickly developed a stable of reliable writers he would turn to with some regularity, whose work I greatly enjoyed; David Rakoff, Scott Carrier, Tobias Wolff, Dan Savage, Sarah Vowell, and David Sedaris. You notice that even in this sampling, which I thought up off the top of my head, almost all are men. All were white.

By the late 1990s I was consuming episodes voraciously, even using primitive methods of “downloading.” Due to issues of copyright, TAL came to the podcast game rather late, but early on you could stream the program with players like RealAudio, and I hooked a cassette machine to my computer to record episodes in real time for playback anywhere in house or car at my convenience.

The most compelling to me were the truly moving ones, most notably Last Words, an extended rumination on death. This episode sends chills down my spine through the music alone, prompting me to buy CDs from Bill Frisell, Philip Glass, and to put Brian Eno’s Music For Airports back into personal rotation. It was here I first heard the quote attributed to Yahuda HaLevi, “It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.”

A moving sentiment, it has what the kids today refer to as “all the feels.” I did not yet comprehend what that phrase means, though. These weekly journeys into dark corners America were, shall we say, an in vitro experience. I was thirty. I was a slacker. I didn't know much.

On one episode in the mid-2000s, Ira related the moment he was watching The O.C. when two of the characters name-check his show. They’re on the phone and one says he’s listening to This American Life, and the other says, “Is that that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are? Ecch. God.”

However, by that point, things had already begun to evolve for the program. The events of 9/11 was a challenge the team met with surprising speed, depth, and clarity. The last program in August, 2001 was about basketball tricks and professional gambling. By September 14, they had assembled a collection of stories they already had in the can on personal loss; co-writing your father’s obituary with your not-yet-deceased father, and David Sedaris writing about his mother’s death.

By the following week they were able to break open tales of how communities experience and cope with (or do not) monumental tragedy and grief with the brilliant episode Before and After. David Rakoff recounts the historic destruction of the steamship General Slocum, which devastated nearly every family in an entire New York neighborhood, and Haruki Murakami reporting first-person accounts of the 1995 poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

In telling smaller stories around a subject, and not necessarily about the big story at hand, the producers of This American Life have been able to effectively, and in recent years with more urgency, comment upon recent events. The war years (which have not actually ended) pushed the program out of its comfort zone, and TAL’s definition of what constituted a story about “American life” broadened considerably. We were taken to Afghanistan and Iraq and Kuwait and Guantanamo Bay.

Your host.
I mentioned the prominence of male writers and voices on the program, though even from the beginning there were women producers, writers and reporters like Nancy Updike, Alix Spiegel, Julie Snyder, and later Sarah Koenig (of Serial fame, a TAL spin-off) have played a prominent role. But if you tried to articulate any bias, or particular point of view for the program, it would be that squishy, liberal, can’t-we-all-get-along vibe. Homosexuality was always presented as matter-of-fact (though predominantly male-centric homosexuality) and racism, for example, is presumed to be a bad thing.

For example, in Be Careful Who You Pretend To Be we hear the story of Ron Copeland, who plays a “slave owner” as part of an interactive, historical reenactment. He thinks of himself as a good person, certainly not racist, and it begins to tear at his soul when he has to behave as one for the purposes of education and entertainment. It is an affecting piece. You feel bad for him, the white guy.

In light of recent national events, however, the show has started to lean with greater strength into uncomfortable modern issues … and Ira Glass, the omnipotent, white, cis-male narrator has noticeably begun to lean back. Two remarkable episodes from the past twelve months illustrate issues in American society which have deep roots, but have been brought into sharp relief during the time of the Trump Administration. And in each case, Glass has taken the once rare and now more frequent opportunity to hand over responsibility to another, one more familiar with and a true representative of the subject matter.

Last summer We Are in the Future, hosted by TAL producer Neil Drumming, who is African-American, delved into the subject of Afrofuturism. For the uninitiated, one of the most powerful recent examples of Afrofuturism is the movie Black Panther, and particularly the fictional nation of Wakanda. What would the present be like if white colonials had not ravaged the continent of Africa in the past? But that is merely one way to describe the aesthetic.

FTL, Y'all!:
Tales From the Age of the $200 Warp Drive

Cover art by Paul Davey
One of the stories reflects that episode from almost twenty years ago, about the white historical reenactor who played a slave-owner. In this case, however, it is comedian and actor Azie Dungey recounting her time playing the part of an enslaved person at Mount Vernon. Playing the part of one of those whom our first President claimed to own as property, she was exposed to the mental and emotional abuse of white visitors and co-workers who unintentionally or not saw her as what she was performing -- a servant, an object, an other -- which begs the question; is that not already what happens every day in America?

This past spring, the episode Five Women, hosted by producer Chana Joffe-Walt (a female-American) told a story about one empowered man -- a so-called progressive, liberal man, by the way -- and the manipulative effect he had on five women he worked with, was romantically involved with, or in several of these cases, both. The President of the United States is an unapologetic serial harasser, who only this week mocked the #MeToo movement, but the outrageousness of his sins have served to created not merely a conversation, but a revolution is the way we consider inappropriate and/or inexcusable behavior across the society.

The past year and a half we have seen historically marginalized people’s rights and liberties threatened, at the same time witnessed as they have used their voices in new, exciting, insightful, and powerful ways. And while This American Life was never meant to be at the forefront of fierce social debate, I am glad that this program, which originally focused on stories most trivial, has evolved to reflect the current moment in a manner most relevant.

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