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Don’t Kill the Radio Star: This American Life Onscreen

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There’s a certain attractive mystique about the medium of radio. From an indistinct location, in an indistinct studio, a faceless voice speaks into a microphone and, through the magic of radio waves, the speaker’s persona is transmitted into one’s car, one’s kitchen, one’s bedroom.

In a world barraged with visual images, radio, though older than television and the internet, oddly feels as though it’s the alternative, fresh medium. Without the distraction of pictures and moving bodies and imagery, its raw simplicity pushes the imagination to its feet. Radio stands out like a naked human body. With no Armani suits or oversized necklaces or emo hairstyles to distract from its love handles and stretch marks, radio unapologetically embodies the cliché, “What you see is what you get.” Or, in this case, what you hear is what you get.

Well, last night I saw radio with its clothes on, and frankly, I think I liked its exposed flaccid skin and muffin tops better. At my local movie theater I saw a live screening of This American Life, during which Ira Glass guided viewers through outtakes and never-before-seen stories from the second season of the Showtime TV program. It was part of a nationwide simulcast from NYU. The TV show, begun in March 2007, is based on the weekly, nationally-syndicated radio program by the same name from Public Radio International.

This American Life, as described on its web site, takes a look at “mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always.” The show utilizes interviews, essays, short stories, and documentaries to capture a unique insight into the general human condition through some particular aspect of life. The television show does the same, with additional help from video.

While last night’s live show was fun and entertaining, it was like getting a backstage pass to a magic show. Now I know all the secrets to the tricks that once amazed me. And the reality is not nearly as exciting as the illusion. I must admit I enjoyed seeing Ira in his finely pressed suit spinning audio clips on his fancy radio equipment. But now I can no longer picture him with droopy eyelids in a ripped, mustard-yellow vintage t-shirt, rubbing five days worth of facial hair against a worn microphone.

And what I love best about the show, the everyday stories from people who could be and might be my neighbors, also lost something: my imaginative participation. Ira and his producer talked about the challenges of adapting the stories and format of the show to work well on television. And while they did a wonderful job with that transition, my cerebral investment in the stories was somehow altered by the video images that accompanied them. Just as when I slob around on the couch watching Desperate Housewives, I caught myself with my brain numbed, my eyes glazed over, and my jaw slacking open. I was sucked in and lifeless. I missed the vivid, mental tangents my mind creates to complement the words from the faceless voice coming from my dashboard. I missed the energy, the openness, the connection between my mind and the simple, unclothed words of oral storytelling.

With that said, it’s not that I dislike television, but that I love the one-of-a-kind art that is This American Life. Perhaps my reaction to seeing radio clothed is a symptom of some kind of deep narrowmindedness, or an inability to maturely handle innovation. Or perhaps I am just simpleminded and get too distracted by striped ties and super-styled emo hair. Either way, Ira is still welcome to sit shotgun anywhere I go.

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About Amy Ballor