Alec Nevala-Lee

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Radio free will

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Ira Glass

If you haven’t yet listened to Invisibilia, the new podcast launched earlier this month by NPR, I encourage you to download its latest installment right now. As soon as it was over, I simply thought: “I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life.” It reduced my wife to tears in two out of three episodes. And if it’s so successful, it’s because it takes place exactly where radio lives and breathes. It describes itself as a show about “the invisible forces that control human behavior,” which means, in practice, that it’s a show about thought, and particularly about how we’re shaped by our thoughts and those projected on us by others. Which is really what radio professionals do for a living. Radio’s true medium isn’t words, or even sounds, but the sequence of thoughts in the listener’s mind. This applies to all forms of narrative, but it’s especially stark in radio, where that chain of thoughts is all there is. Unlike written works, which allow us to reread or skim ahead at will, radio is ruthlessly linear: while it might be possible for a listener to replay a section of a podcast, it’s unlikely to happen. Everything has to be as clear as crystal in the moment. And Invisibilia is the product of a creative milieu that has spent years thinking in practical terms about the nature of human thought and awareness.

I happened to start listening to Invisibilia shortly after reading Radio: An Illustrated Guide, a comic book produced fifteen years ago by the cartoonist Jessica Abel and Ira Glass of This American Life. The idea of a visual guide to radio is faintly amusing in itself, particularly when you consider the differences between the two art forms: comics are about as nonlinear a medium as you can get between two covers, with the reader’s eye prone to skip freely across the page. Yet this little book is as elegant and practical an introduction to any narrative craft as I’ve seen—it leaves you wanting to make radio. It also attunes you to the many small bits of trickery that a show like Invisibilia uses to manage the presentation of its material. Its hosts, Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, keep things obsessively organized while maintaining their chatty, casual tone. Whenever they introduce a new character or story, they tell us to sit tight, reassuring us that we’ll circle back soon to the central thread of the episode, and they’ll often inform us of exactly how many minutes an apparent digression will last, which is the auditory equivalent of thumbing through the pages of a book or article to see how much longer a section has to run. It’s obvious as hell, but it works.

Notes by Ira Glass

And much of the interest of radio as a metaphor for other kinds of storytelling lies in how visible its bones can be. As Glass notes in Abel’s book:

This is the structure of every story on our program—there’s an anecdote, that is, a sequence of actions where someone says “this happened then this happened then this happened”—and then there’s a moment of reflection about what that sequence means, and then on to the next sequence of actions…Anecdote then reflection, over and over.

Glass compares this structure to that of a sermon or homily, and he concludes that radio is an inherently didactic medium. It isn’t enough to tell your listeners something; you also have to tell them what it means. What’s funny is that this sermonizing doesn’t necessarily emerge from a particular social or political agenda, although it certainly can: it’s more a solution to the structural problems that radio presents. When we’re reading a book, we can pause to consolidate our thoughts and figure out how we feel about the material, which satisfies us that our time has been well spent. The ceaseless stream of radio doesn’t permit that kind of silent reflection: as listeners of Serial know, if you stop to try to figure out what you’ve just been told, you’ll miss the next tidbit of information. A compelling radio show allows us to briefly outsource that critical faculty to the program itself, which frees up those levels of the brain to continue paying attention.

It’s a good trick, but also a risky one. Radio can be insanely persuasive to dittoheads and latte-drinkers alike because its didacticism is embedded into the fabric of the medium itself, which so shrewdly mimics our stream of consciousness that it can be hard to separate it from our own conclusions. Even television can’t compare: if we’re watching a news broadcast, we can tune out for a second to gather ourselves, trusting in the stream of images to keep us oriented. Radio, at least in its most successful incarnations, doesn’t allow for that kind of distance. (If it does, it needs to be as consciously built into the structure as anything else, which is why programs like This American Life often use extended musical breaks to provide five seconds or so of breathing space.) If it’s true, as many say, that we’re entering a golden age of podcasting, it also means that we need to be aware of the kind of thinking, or the suspension thereof, that it creates. Radio can be used to educate us, move us, or entertain us, but it’s only after the program has ended that we have a chance to think for ourselves. Invisibilia is a masterpiece of the form, but it’s also an example of the same invisible forces that it describes. And if its message has any meaning, it’s that we occasionally need to make time for the kind of scrutiny that it gently requires us to abdicate.

Written by nevalalee

January 26, 2015 at 10:28 am

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