Have you ever heard the expression “there’s nothing so boring as other people’s dreams?”
Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life” works hard to prove the saying wrong on a semi-regular basis.
Alex Blumberg’s 25 minute piece from episode 351 about tracking down his childhood babysitter is a good case in point. There’s a moment when Blumberg says his former sitter, after hours of telephone conversation, was waiting for the other shoe to drop, worried she’d somehow been a negative influence on little Alex.
Turns out she wasn’t.
And that’s precisely what’s wrong with misbegotten TAL segments. We, the audience, endure dramatic pause after dramatic pause, same old music interval after same old music interval, for that crazy twist you never saw coming that will redeem the murdered 20-40 minutes of airtime. Too often it just never arrives.
It’s the old radio memoir bait-and-switch: a strip club where the clothes stay on, a seventies television magic show with all the cheese but no actual tricks, an extended joke with a lot of spittle and no discernible punchline.
But how can you know before the end that you are in the midst of one of these hour wasters?
Fear not, loyal reader(s)! As a public service provided entirely without pledge drive we have created a survey to help you determine when a TAL segment is slowly going nowhere so you can turn off the radio and perhaps ask a loved one to entertain you for 20-40 minutes instead.
Instructions: for each criterion below that is true add the number of points specified.
- The story is about the childhood of an official contributing editor (1 point)
- Ira Glass keeps sounding amazed, but you can’t figure out why (1 point)
- A musical interlude occurs within the story so you can have a moment to let what was just revealed really sink in. Instead you start wondering how many times you’ve heard the music before and if they’re trying to save royalty money (2 points)
- There seem to be more music intervals than actual narration (1 point)
- The narrator has a speaking voice made for novel-writing (1 point)
- The events of the tale could only ever transpire in crazy old New York City! (1 point)
- You realize you wandered out of hearing range of the radio five minutes ago and didn’t notice (1 point)
- You thought you were listening to TAL, but you suddenly realize it’s Studio 360 (2 points)
- You hear a pitiful sound, turn to listen, and discover it’s your own voice intoning “Oh my god, this is so boring!!” (4 points)
If the story you are listening to scores 3 or more total points, TURN OFF YOUR RADIO IMMEDIATELY and leave it off for at least one hour.
To be sure, This American Life is also responsible for some astonishing, wonderful pieces. It is the momentum from these that keeps people listening through the chaff. Some of the personal stories are beautiful, even haunting. Others are hilarious and diverting.
Most often the segments which qualify more as actual journalism than as essay are really excellent and serve to fill in the gaping holes found in other media. What is the day to day experience of the war in Iraq actually like for American soldiers and Iraqis? That question deserves innumerable TAL tales, and the ones they have produced are unique and reveal a poignant level of detail not available anywhere else.
The best stories are like little worlds in poetic miniature that capture the beauty and absurdity of life the way every piece of a broken glass hologram contains the entire image. Each story beat can take the whole set-up in an entirely unexpected direction. Jack Hitt, one of the most artful and consistent TAL contributors, produced a shining example of this about the island of Nauru. If you haven’t heard it make it the next thing you listen to.
One final small critique: Their attempts to shoehorn the segments they pick for a given week into a single theme are often laughably unsuccessful. Guys, just give it up when no theme is appropriate and call it a smörgåsbord episode or something.
Okay, reader(s), your job is to post about the best stories you have ever heard on TAL or the least apt TAL attempted themes of the week. You may also want to try adding to the list of warning signs that the TAL story you’re listening to should be abandoned.
Don’t all post at the same time, by the way, last time you crashed the wordpress servers.