February 21, 1996

Accidental Documentaries

What unites these stories on the surface is that they're all made from old tapes, recordings found in attics and thrift stores. What unites them under that surface — and not far under it — is that they all end up being stories about fathers and the legacies that fathers leave their children.


Host Ira Glass with some tape he recorded of a high school senior prom. Kids goof around in the car after the prom and get lost looking for a friend's house. This tape, Ira says, has all the qualities you look for as a documentary producer: everyone is acting the way they do when there's no tape recorder present. It's intimate and alive, and the kids reveal who they are. This is the quality of all the tape in this episode, though all of it is tape found in basements and attics and thrift stores. Ira calls these stories "accidental documentaries." (3 minutes)
Act One

Berrien Springs, Michigan

A Midwestern family records a "letter on tape" to their son, who is in medical school in California. Three decades later, the recording somehow ends up in a thrift store. The tape gives a complicated portrait of what goes on among the family members. Mother wishes that Father were more religious. Daughter is miffed because Dad won't help her solve her financial problems. Dad tells corny jokes and talks enthusiastically about machines, extrusions and drills used for the family business run from the basement — a business everyone else in the family resents. And after the old tapes, Ira interviews the son they were sending these to, Arthur Davis. (26 minutes)

Act Two


Ira plays tapes of his own father, Barry, who was a radio deejay in the mid-1950s. Barry gave up spinning records when he decided that he couldn't make a decent living at it, and for over a decade he was against his son going into radio, not wanting him to waste time the way he did. (14 minutes)

Act Three


Nora Moreno with tapes of her father, a pioneer in Spanish-language broadcasting in America. Her mother fell in love with her father because of his poetic character on the radio, but in real life, the very things that attracted her to him over the radio drove them apart. (13 minutes)