The Common Good
September-October 1999

Fearless Curiosity

by Kari Jo Verhulst | September-October 1999

The irreverent offerings of "This American Life.'

I complain about radio a lot. I rant about Gannett owning all of the so-called alternative stations; how National Public Radio is too safe and tidy; how I wish the micro-radio advocates would hurry up and take over.

My tirades have tapered off lately due to the weekly public radio offering "This American Life." In its fifth season, this hour-long show explores a theme—"Be Careful Who You Pretend to Be," "Edge of Sanity," "I Enjoy Being a Girl, Sometimes," to name a few—through essay, interview, and story.

I’ve become an evangelist for this show. It has usurped my dead mother’s place in my small-talk repertoire. My introduction came a little over a year ago when a friend called and told me to turn my radio on—now. Producer Ira Glass and contributing editor Sarah Vowell were detailing the former’s attempt to teach the latter how to drive. Through recorded conversations and after-the-fact commentary, they recounted her transformation from bus rider to car driver. The subject matter grabbed me immediately. I don’t drive. What’s more, friends—former and present—have tried to teach me to drive. So when Vowell drove off the cemetery road to get out of the way of an approaching vehicle, I yelled at my housemates, "It’s me!"

The driving lesson "act," as the segments are called, was part of an episode called "How To." It shared the hour with a piece about a sixth-grader’s manual for staving off attacks by dinosaurs and other wildlife; Junot Diaz’ "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie"; and interviews with insurance adjusters on how to increase your monetary value. Each act can stand on its own, but the ensembles provide a well-balanced diet of wry humor, edge, and insight. Most of the contributors aren’t well-known, which is why they are some of the most creative, fearless writers out there. The show is hipper, wryer, and rawer than anything else I’ve found on broadcast radio.

THE "MEDIA FRINGE" episode, a collection of outtakes from people working on the edges of the media industry, included a piece by journalist Scott Carrier about his assignment for a radio show called "The Friendly Man." This fictional wanderer travels the country looking for heart-warming stories, each of which has a pre-written ending to make people feel warm and hopeful. Carrier’s camera is stolen while covering a basketball program for at-risk youth, and he sees the story that he wants to write—one that talks about poverty and the roots of violence, and how kids have the capacity to steal and to excel. The friendly man isn’t interested in this version.

Carrier is a particular favorite of mine. Another of his essays, "The Test," is included on the newly released CD, This American Life: 11 Self-Revelatory Radio Monologues With Perfunctory Musical Accompaniment.

If TAL has a vision, it’s that good stories reside everywhere, and that they deserve respect. Ira Glass and the production team infuse each show with a reverent curiosity, an almost holy innocence that stops well short of annoying. The walkman-diary of a young man from Los Angeles deported to El Salvador, as part of a U.S. Immigration program to fight gang activity, aired without editorial voice-over, social worker, or youth expert commentary—just a kid describing culture shock upon returning to his so-called native land. The policy and human rights lessons were left to the listener to draw, thanks to the editors sticking to the story and steering clear of propaganda. Propaganda manipulates; art transforms.

The vision of American life TAL presents undermines the cozy notion that every one in the melting pot is really just the same. Steady listening hones your ear to hear how inherently interesting true diversity is, revealing that the stories that set out to inspire us rarely do, and that the human race is endlessly compelling. Of course, not every act works, not every monologue makes your heart sing, not every theme resonates with your soul. But this is radio as worship—an encounter with real, often harsh truths and absurdities so well told that judgment is suspended and awe takes over, the kind of awe that is the beginning of wisdom.

KARI JO VERHULST is marketing manager at Sojourners.

This American Life: 11 Self-Revelatory Radio Monologues With Perfunctory Musical Accompaniment. . Rhino Records, 1999.

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