Wednesday, September 16, 2009


There's a huge catalogue of material from public radio's mega-popular "This American Life" that we will never hear, or that may no longer exist. At a panel discussion tonight that took audience members behind the scenes of the program, the show's host and executive producer Ira Glass said, 'We kill a lot of material. We kill a half to a third of everything we try.' (That's Ira in the photo.)

The panel featured most of the show's production staff, and took place at the 92nd Street Y, the stellar New York City venue for concerts, lectures, etc. I was taking notes by hand, so these quotes are not exact, and I'd ask you to please not take them as gospel. 

As it happens, the 'kill ratio' is part of what allows the show to rule the airwaves! Producer Nancy Updike said that the radio program is far less expensive to produce than the Emmy-winning Showtime series of the same name. 'You start spending money as soon as you think about something [for television]. Part of what makes radio work is the kill ratio. We can try things [on radio that are too expensive to experiment with on television].'

That's to say the television show doesn't work. I think the TV show rules, and may I say that a personal favorite mind-blowing episode was "John Smith," which tells the stories of a handful of people named John Smith, each at a different stage of life -- infant, young adult, adult, old man, near death. It sparked in me one of those "oh my god, I'm going to die" sorts of moments, only in a most excellent and poignant way. That and other episodes can be downloaded on iTunes, or viewed on the website. 

Ira says that radio stories have to have a plot, have to be surprising, and so on. Television requires that, too, he said, plus 'you have to have something to look at... Most journalism, as it happens, is about stuff that has already happened in the past.' (Big laugh from audience here. This was all rather funny as he said it.) But with television, he said, you have to film things as they happen. You have to go somewhere and set up a camera and hope that you get something with resonance and emotion. 

Ira played a clip of a "This American Life" segment in which the reporter, I didn't catch who it was, expressed shock at seeing coffins along the side of the road in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina.  He said (approximate quote), 'The reason I think most broadcast reporting is so boring is that they're not expressing feelings about what they're seeing. But those [expressions of our own experience] are available to us. [Our reporters] are the surrogate for the audience.'   

The audience at the panel discussion was kind of enraptured. It seemed that, just about anytime someone on stage mentioned a particular segment or episode, someone in my immediate vicinity would say, "Oh, I remember that episode," or "I loved that story." 

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