Video helps the radio star

this american lifeMy husband and I watched This American Life on the television the other night. I had mixed feelings since I believe with all my heart that the radio show can’t be topped. That, and I love radio in general and am extremely resistant to change. I still listen to music on the record player while my husband stores all his music on his hard drive.

I came across a fantastic interview of Ira Glass, the show’s host, in Forward. The profile, by Beth Schwartzapfel, is very well written. Here’s how she describes the radio show:

For one hour each week, “This American Life” tells true stories about everyday Americans; the show’s Web site describes them as “movies for radio.” The stories are organized loosely around a theme — recent ones have included “Quiz Show” and “Houses of Ill Repute” — and manage to locate drama, humor, joy and sorrow in such unlikely places that listeners can’t help but fall in love with the elderly Brooklyn man whose house has become a haven for homeless prostitutes, or with the building superintendent who was part of a Brazilian death squad.

So true! The interview focuses on the benefits of radio over television, and Glass says radio’s invisibility of radio is part of what gives it numinous power. Schwartzapfel asked interesting questions. One of the first stories on the television series is about an atheist who poses as Jesus for a series of paintings. She asks if Jesus stories lend themselves well to television because of the iconography. She goes on to ask about Jewish stories:

Christians are actually, to me, anyway, as a Jew, much more interesting in America. And weirdly, much more misunderstood. Evangelical Christians are the most incompetently portrayed group in America, in TV, in fiction, in the news. When Christians say that the media gets them wrong, Christians are absolutely right. Christian life in this country is really horribly documented, and way more interesting than is done. Generally, in the media, very religious Christians are portrayed as hardheaded doctrinaire knuckleheads. But in fact, from my experience, the most religious Christians I know tend to be incredibly thoughtful, complicated, generous to a fault, very principled and not knuckleheads. Actually, they’re sort of weirdly the opposite of the stereotype, and that includes people from the hardcore fundamentalist faiths.

I am so thankful to have interviewers such as Ira Glass. I only wish that there were more people with his listening aesthetic in the journalism field. It’s so easy for reporers to rely on stereotypes and portray people in a negative light. It’s honestly just easier when you’re working on tight deadlines and with difficult stories. But for years Glass has shown the benefit of working hard, moving beyond stereotypes, and showing the complicated nature of people.

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  • Rachel

    I, too, am a hard-core TAL fan, in part because they provide some of the best feature-style coverage of American evangelicalism in any medium. I encourage GetReligion readers who are not regular listeners to the show to troll the online archives over at for some of the religiously-themed coverage.

    My personal favorite episode, now all the more poignant after the Haggard scandal, is a profile of New Life Church in Colorado Springs from 1997, titled simply Pray. It portrays profoundly how both compelling and weird New Life’s brand of charismatic evangelicalism can come across to an outsider. The first-person account crosses the traditional line of journalistic objectivity, yet without falling into advocacy journalism.

  • Larry Rasczak

    I can’t say I’m a regular listener, but on the few occasions I have caught TAL I was very very happy with it.

    Generally I detest NPR, and I can’t remember why I first heard TAL… I think I was listening to Marketplace and the radio button was stuck…(not kidding). I remember being plesantly surprised at how Ira Glass was not just intelligent, but FAIR. NPR is many things, but unbiased is not a word that can be applied to it. Ira Glass however was a joy to listen to.

    Since then, on the rare occasions my radio happens to be on NPR (statistically it has to happen sometime) I have always greated TAL with joy, and sometimes disapointment that I will arrive at my destination before the show is over.

    My favorite episode was the one he did on Dave Ramsey, the unabashedly Christian “get out of debt” financial counselor. Any other NPR host would have seen it as a chance to get out the sneer cream, but not Ira. He talked with people Dave had helped, and I was really really pleased with the job he did. I can’t say enough good things about him.

  • DebW

    Count me in as a big TAL fan – I don’t have time to listen regularly, but download the podcasts (free from Itunes)and take them on the road with me.

    While I have not thought of TAL as a place for hard news and information, I have always had a sense of fairness and openness…this confirms that assumption.

  • Eli

    Just downloaded last week’s TAL. Very excited about listening to it tonight after work and exploring past shows as it seems like exactly the kind of broadcast I would get along swimmingly with…

    Also, totally obsessed with this notion of a “listening aesthetic” for reporters that Mollie brings up and just basically interpretative aesthetics, in general. Speaking of which, just read a brilliant, sane book on the topic that I’m still digesting which was launched last month: Only A Promise of Happiness by Alexander Nehamas. At the very least I now know exactly why I hate so much of Modernist architecture since it’s *supposed* to be ugly.