What would you rather do: Sit down and read a dry, statistical and numbers-driven article or devote an hour and a half to watching an emotional and intense documentary? For some the answer is neither. What if there was a middle ground? A riveting and relatable radio show that combined the best of both journalism and fiction. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Ira Glass, creator of the Emmy award winning radio show This American Life would agree. He brings his gift of storytelling to the radio to deliver theme-driven podcasts to the American people, hungry for drama in a form that fits their busy schedules. The radio broadcasts range from accounts of babysitting to the journey of a Muslim convert; stories that would generally not have a place in the media. The radio show has been critiqued in the past for its ‘theme-driven’ philosophy and its devotion to storytelling. The claim is that this only allows for the perspective of the interviewer and does not leave much room for contradiction. In addition, some state that the show is too light and shies away from harsh realities. Still, however theme driven the content, the show does open the eyes of the American public in a way that arguably no radio show has done before.
In light of the recent Refugee Crisis, This American Life aired a special to illuminate the issues plaguing those trapped in refugee camps across Europe. The broadcasts focused on the sprawling camps that began to spring up around Greece. The interviews in the episodes are prefaced by short snippets of background information to set the stage for listeners. The broadcasters do a remarkably good job of not oversimplifying the information in light of the time constraint.
Listeners do not tune in week after week for educational purposes, however. They are hooked on the stories. In my opinion, the distinguishing feature of This American Life from other radio shows is its ability to allow the listener to feel as if they have a connection with the subjects. Empathy and connection are created by listening to personal interviews, such as one with a mother of two, Aziza. She speaks about her visit to the doctor with her seven-year-old son, Hammad. Due to war-induced trauma, he is behaviorally stuck at age four and his learning abilities are severely hindered. Hearing his mothers pain allows listeners to feel a more human connection than distant facts or statistics.
Despite the show’s ability to create this relationship, there are a few draw backs. These stem from the methods used to produce an entertaining show. Some critics believe that the show gives up truth-telling in favor of good story-telling. This directed type of story telling is criticized by a review in the New York Times. In it, the author criticizes Ira Glass for pushing too hard to stick to a specific ‘theme’. He argues that there is only one story being told, and it is not the subjects,
“Ultimately it’s maddening to watch Mr. Glass force this point on Ralph and Sandra, two fascinating people whose dual intimacy with the fading art of ranching and the ascendant art of cloning should have earned them the microphone for the full hour. But Mr. Glass apparently can’t help himself. Only one person really has a story to tell here.”
Although I do not agree with this argument, it did remind me that I was listening to a radio show. I found it easy to forget that This American Life is, at its basis, a form of entertainment. A basic theme can be easily found in each episode, but I did not feel that any interview was too heavily guided.
Critics also claim that the show has a tendency to gloss over more difficult themes. In a review by the A.V. club, Dennis Young argues against this claim, “…he [Dennis Young] has found plenty of examples of stories with unhappy endings, unchecked dictators, and even borderline nihilism, including an episode that actually makes a case for the effectiveness of assassinations.” Although I have not listened to all of This American Life, the two shows I did listen to definitely did not shy away from dark stories. The section titled “The Parents are Trapped” was particularly jarring. The act focused on the severe trauma experienced by young children due to war and displacement and the toll this takes on their parents. One mother recounts her child telling her, “you’re the one who’s deciding about our lives, whether it is the beginning or the end”. Of course, there were happy accounts shared in the broadcast. I do not think that this means producers are trying to keep a heavy situation light. These lighter stories helped humanize the subjects. For example, in one interview a husband jokes about how it is hard to keep his wife happy in the refugee camps. He jokes with the interviewer in such a way as if to say, “you know how it is”. Bringing up these types of universal issues creates a point of relation for the listener.
The two-chapter episode in Greece touched on many more issues faced by those living in the camps. Ira Glass introduces the broadcast by stating, “Today we have on our show stories of people trying to have semi normal parts of their lives in a place that is not normal at all”. The producers chose to air stories covering a wide array of subjects, including relationships, parenting, running a camp, and seeking asylum papers. As a listener, I appreciated the diversity of the stories. One would expect to hear about the logistics of trying to obtain asylum papers, but hearing a love story between a Muslim and a Christian is far less expected. For me, it is these types of stories that bring to life the people of the camps and help to understand them on a deeper level. One major setback in these episodes, however, is the language barrier. Many questions asked by the producers prompt emotionally charged responses, but the answers must be stated by the translators. The authentic response is lost in the process. In addition, although the scene of each broadcast is described in great detail, the potency of the story is lessened by the lack of visuals. For these particular episodes, however, This American Life offers a virtual tour of the camps on their website. These highly detailed tours, which include photos and small video clips, greatly help to supplement the radio broadcast.
In a quote with Jim Henderson, a younger Ira Glass states with eager excitement, “capturing the way things really are just seems like its worth doing”. The mission to tell honest stories of people’s everyday lives was evident in each episode. This American Life has brought to light a number of important issues in such an interesting way that it has captured the attention of millions. It has created a platform for stories that would have otherwise not had a place in the media.
- Blevins, J. (2015, December 10). Read This: At 20, This American Life is darker than it’s … Retrieved October 18, 2016, from http://www.avclub.com/article/read-20-american-life-darker-its-given-credit-229566
- Heffernan, V. (2007, March 22). The Myth of the Omniscient Narrator, and Other Stories. Retrieved October 18, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/22/arts/television/22heff.html?_r=0
- Henderson, Jim (2012, October 8) Ira Glass Explains His Mission. Retrieved October 17, 2016 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8vIBVb705w