A few weeks ago in New Orleans I was having drinks with a couple Trop writers, talking about our common love for This American Life. I’ll speak for them when I say that we wish TAL had had a third season on Showtime. But we know television is a much different beast than radio. Its deadlines are scarier because it takes longer to produce, and it requires whole crews to film, which, unlike radio, often needs just a producer with a field recorder.
Then there’s the visual aspect. Not only do you need a good story to tell and assets that lead to good audio, you also need something interesting to see. To begin the first episode of their second season, “Escape,” TAL producers chose an un-narrated story about urban kids who’ve wandered into the Philadelphia tradition of inner-city riding. It’s a story about earning and maintaining respect. And it’s a story that relies on surprising truths—that this actually exists—and arresting visual juxtapositions:
Could this segment have worked on radio? Do you think narration would have diminished the power of these juxtapositions, such as the first establishing shot of horses walking into an intersection while cars pass by, or one of the final and most impressive shots, of kids racing through a park on horseback with the Philadelphia skyline behind them, canopied by low gray clouds?
A radio producer who wanted to keep this story without narration might have begun the piece with a kid or the stable-master mentioning something about the horses, so that when we heard hooves on the pavement we wouldn’t be confused about where we were or what was happening. Then listeners could imagine the scene for themselves. We’ve all seen horses in cities before, usually pulling tourists through downtown areas or bestowing urban police with intimidating presences, like the ubiquitous “10-foot tall cops” in Times Square.
But we’re not at all familiar—at least, those of us who aren’t from Philly—with this kind of horse, the urban horse without a profit motive. Robert Krulwich has said that in radio, the listener is co-author. In television, this is much less so. And for a piece like this, I’m glad I’m not co-author. While I’m watching this piece, my thoughts concern the magnificence and strangeness of what I’m seeing. I’m not sure that my imagination would have done these kids, these horses, and this city justice (I once ran out of gas on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and it’s not for nothing that I’ve never been back).
For many, TAL is their introduction to modern radio storytelling—it was for me—and luckily for all of us, the radio show isn’t going anywhere (their weekly podcast is regularly the first- or second-most downloaded podcast on iTunes). And TAL is a great introduction to storytelling in general. In an undergraduate Intro to Creative Writing class this past year, I used the second segment from “Escape” to illustrate how a focus on the arrangement of information can help tell a great story.
The segment begins with the shot of a ceiling fan as we hear its rhythmic humming. We then cut to the reflection of a computer screen on a lens, with an eye visible behind it, as Ira Glass begins narrating about Mike Phillips’s tenuous connection to life. Phillips suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, one of a group of diseases that cause respiratory distress and muscular wasting. We see his breathing apparatus and his constrained posture, and then realize Glass is sitting next to Phillips, reviewing how he communicates. Then Phillips is asked the question that sets the truth of the story in motion: If we were to replace your [computerized] voice with someone else’s, who would you want it to be?
After three minutes of typing, Phillips replies: “I totally want either Johnny Depp or Edward Norton, whoever is available, because they are both bad asses.”
In his phrasing, in his choices, we realize immediately that Mike Phillips is familiar. We talk like him, and we think like him. The next shot is of Phillips as a child, speaking for himself, and then we hear Glass formally introducing the voice of Johnny Depp, who for the rest of the segment speaks for Phillips. This is an emotional moment: Phillips’s handicap has been briefly transcended, his voice upgraded. Our expectations of Phillips as “just another” handicapped person who talks through a computer are surprised. How many of us have known someone like this? Popularly, Stephen Hawking comes to mind, but who of us has ever had a conversation with the Cambridge physicist, much less considered how much his life is like our own?
The rest of the segment plays off our expectations of what people like Phillips must endure. Because of the nature of Phillips’s circumstances, these shifts are shocking, but not gratuitously so. The shock arises from the fact (and here I’m speaking for myself) that we’ve simply not considered such things before, or not much: a disabled person’s urge for physical and emotional freedom, or his mother’s salutary manipulations.
One of the first aspects of Phillips’s reality we learn about is his reliance on a computer for speaking and a machine for breathing. But the producers wait to tell us why he must use the machines until over halfway through the segment, after Phillips has realized just how independent he can be. He exercises that freedom, he falls in love, he becomes a lover. Until the inescapable truth of his reality intrudes.
Stephan McCormick lives in Los Angeles.