This American Life

By Bill McKibben


From The Nation, November 24, 1997. Reprinted with Permission.


            The best job I ever had was at the old New Yorker, in the years it was run by William Shawn.  I wrote all kinds of things, but mostly "Talk of the Town" stories.  And what I liked most about them was that they could be about anything - about the things that people wrote on typewriters when they were trying them out, about taking the police exam, about the first person who thought to make earrings out of plastic sushi, about cleaning up the Holland Tunnel.


            Along with his opposition to vulgarity (a word so currently meaningless it will soon disappear from the language), Shawn placed only one real restriction on content:  He was not interested in things that seemed timely and topical.  Important was fine - Silent Spring, Hannah Arendt, The Fate of the Earth.  But if the subject of your profile had the bad luck to die, or involve herself in a scandal, or otherwise make news at the moment that your piece was due to run, it usually disappeared into the massive backlog of articles that were waiting for their chance.


            This seemed insane to many people, maybe most, because they believed that journalism, by definition, concerned the timely and the topical.  But I liked his approach, because it granted much greater latitude.  Instead of being defined by its subjects, the way mycology is defined by mushrooms, journalism (or "fact writing," as we called it) was defined by its technique.  It could be about, literally, anything.  Which is to say it could be about all manner of "news" that never got written about because it was not controversial (the infamous corn and soybeans and wheat series of the eighties, for instance, which told readers all they ever wanted to know and more about the basic staples of the world's larder) or it could be about daily life in all its particulars, just as a poem or short story or novel can be about daily life. 


            All of which leads me to say that my favorite piece of new journalism is a weekly radio program, This American Life.  It originates from WBEZ in Chicago, and appears on 219 stations nationwide, courtesy of Public Radio International.  It takes as its beat, well, life.  For instance, it did a show recently on "The Kindness of Strangers":  Four segments, each about fifteen minutes long, each set in New York.  One was about a locksmith rescuing a stranded motorist; one about a white teenager who ran away from home to move in with a black actor/father figure in fifties Harlem; one about a crazy lady who tormented the people in the apartment next door, posting notices accusing them of being drug dealers; and one about a guy who entertained his block once a week with Sinatra songs.


            "There is something about the judgment of strangers - when the clerk at the record store seemes unimpressed by your choice of CDs," said host Ira Glass as the show began.  "It's as if by their status as strangers they have some special instantaneous insight into who we are."  Which is true:  It gets you thinking.  But that was about it for the summing up, the philosophizing.  Mostly, week after week, the show is just stories - an 18-year-old covering a local audition for a movie about Selena that she herself was trying out for; a Christian husband and an atheist wife talking about their marriage; a pair of best friends (one black, one white) visiting South Africa on vacation; a hypnotically powerful piece by one of the show's producers, who spent weeks in Colorado Springs with fundamentalists who were praying, block by block, for the city's soul and who were also trying to convert her.  It's all simultaneously "light," in that it doesn't discuss Madeleine Albright/global warming/the Teamsters election/budget deficits/the Gephardt campaign, and "deep," in that it gets at what matters to us most of the time.


            It is, for instance, almost the only journalism I've ever come across that manages to cover religion as the experience it is in contemporary America.  And at the same time there's room for a report from a rock-and-roll fantasy camp; what it's like to be one black person taking a tour of a Tennessee plantation with an all-white group; what it's like to drive around Utah interviewing schizophrenics for the Medicaid authorities.  You hear well-known writers like David Sedaris, new voices like Sarah Vowell and Nancy Updike, and just plain people who send in tapes - like the fat woman who suddenly got skinny at 35 and describes the first dates of her life.


            What's amazing is how new it sounds.  It has this beat all to itself.  Even the magnificent public radio news shows Morning Edition and All Things Considered have largely abandoned most of their attempts at anything similar.  (In part that's because Glass used to do many of their most quotidian and lovely features.)  The only other outfit I know that's making a similar effort is my new favorite magazine, DoubleTake, which lets me do some of the same kind of writing that I used to do at The New Yorker and that also publishes stories and photos of people living their lives.


            But radio can somehow do it with unsurpassed ease.  In part that's because radio is so cheap to produce:  everyone at This American Life was overjoyed to get a three-year, $350,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a sum that would get you through to about the second commercial on any one episode of 60 Minutes.  And in part it's because radio such a profound technology, far more profound than television, which must limit itself to things it can take pictures of.  None of the pieces I've heard on This American Life would work well on TV, but with Glass's wheedling, encouraging voice and with the impeccable production work of his staff, these stories float right into your brain and lodge there.


            And they are stories in the true sense of the word, not stories in the recent journalistic tradition of balance and precision but stories in the old sense of more-or-less true tales you tell one another to spread insight, meaning, pleasure.  For me, as a journalist, it's an important hour every week.  Because I come away thinking just how much there is to do with this art form.  Because I come away desperate to get to work.