Sunday, April 04, 2010

On the Radio

There are programs, and people who are made for a medium. For instance, Scorsese and Spielberg are cinema people, period. They may be great storytellers, but I don’t see them achieving greatness as, say, theater directors. Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly) is the quintessential television guy: his best work comes when he’s constrained by the hour-long format and he has the luxury of a full season or two to build character arcs.

In a similar way, Ira Glass and This American Life to me embody radio. The lack of visuals and the lo-fi audio are limitations the TAL team seems to revel in.

Not all radio shows feel that way. Even the good ones. NPR shows like Wait, wait, don’t tell me and Says you, I see them working as TV game shows or live acts of some kind.

But “This American Life” is pure radio (though, ironically, it had an award-winning two-season run as a TV series). The connection is direct and visceral: you and that voice on your radio. Technique goes a long way in making that work: a ‘sticky’ radio experience is dependent on atmosphere. As Ira Glass himself detailed in an illuminating talk on stage last year, great production and background music help immensely in making stories that stick. While listening to TAL, there are times when I’m absolutely riveted, and a break in the proceedings seems intrusive. 

Those driveway moments take hard work.

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