Well, about time. This week the BBC – specifically, BBC Radio 4 Extra – finally woke up to This American Life, the awards-strewn US radio show that has around two million listeners at home and another million world-wide, yet has remained niche listening here, reserved for podcast-savvy types for whom mainstream British radio is, for much of the time, a colossal turn-off.
While This American Life's appearance on British airwaves is long overdue, one wonders what Sunday morning listeners made of its host Ira Glass, a man with a voice like a wasp in a Coke can (listeners to his early broadcasts reportedly asked when the adult host of the show would appear) but with a knack of finding a narrative in big themes and shining a light in the more unusual corners of human experience.
While the odd show has been guilty of sentimentality, I've yet to hear one that isn't surprising, absorbing and beautifully made.
In the past, themes have included doppelgängers, the sub-prime crisis or newborns sent home with the wrong parents. One episode looked at legal small print, which is a pretty hard sell, but in this case filled listeners in on the infamous Van Halen rider that demanded that bowls of M&M's have all the brown ones removed. It turned out that this gargantuan display of rock star hubris was in fact a method of ensuring attention to detail amid the band's potentially hazardous touring operation.
Making its BBC debut this week was "Before It Had a Name", which looked at the fear and disorientation that can come with a condition or event that has yet to be identified. It was also about the relief and clarity when these things are finally given a name.
It told the story of David Boder, who began an investigation into the Holocaust before it was called the Holocaust and before the scale of the Nazi campaign against Jews had been comprehended. Boder went to Europe in 1946 to record the testimonies of the survivors. When a French woman mentions the name of the camp she was sent to, Boder asks: "And Auschwitz is where?"
Later on the same woman described the march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, now known as the Death Marches, though at that time they didn't have a name and you could hear her struggling to describe what had happened. "All the route was bordered with corpses, you see," she said.
Through the recordings, we heard two very different perspectives – the survivors and the outsiders – each with little context or common language and each trying to understand what had taken place. It was, to those of us with the full picture, devastating.
Later on, we heard about the American siblings whose mother would pick up jars of relish and throw them at the wall, and would cry when she couldn't find a comb. Once she took a full-size dinner plate and smashed it over her son's head. As adults, her children made a conscious decision to keep their distance until her health started to decline. Then one day during some routine CAT scans, they discovered that she had frontal lobe syndrome, which accounted for her violent outbursts.
For those brought up under her tyranny, this was complicated news. There was relief but also a world of "what-ifs" that would take years to work through. But it was a turning point, a line drawn in the sand by virtue of a name.
Both stories were sad and wonderful and illustrated why TAL is viewed in hallowed terms by its listeners who like journalism to be expansive and empathetic rather than delivered in short, cold sound bites. If this is the future of broadcasting, count me in.Reuse content