“From WBEZ Chicago, it’s This American Life distributed by Public Radio International, I'm Ira Glass. On today’s show …”
Radio When I mentioned on Twitter that I was intending to listen to all of This American Life in order, some friends said, “that is an epic, epic project” and “wait til you get to the dotcom era episode about JenniCAM”, neatly encapsulating the two reasons why I’ve decided to begin again with one of my favourite radio shows from the start, because I’ve some time on my hands and want something to keep myself busy and because I want to hear what I missed. Plus I was still only on dialup when camgirls were in the ascendancy.
My first episode must have been in about 2004, and must have been the one sent by my friend Kat in Baltimore. I don’t have the episode number, but I do remember sitting on the balcony of our flat not knowing what to expect and finding myself transported not just to another place, but another kind of broadcasting, one that mixed journalism and creativity in a way I’d not heard before. My experience of the US had always been projected through the romance of movies and the sometimes overly didactic British reporting. This was what it really sounded like.
It was ironic, then, that the recent controversy was caused by just those things, the Mike Daisey story all about taking the audience on a journey in order to make them feel differently about a subject and with all the humour and music which has made This American Life so special. But it’s also those things which ultimately hurt its reputation, the strange element of naivety that they trusted this particular contributor, even in the moment as they say themselves they should have walked away, when he said he didn’t have the contact details for the one person who could properly verify the story.
But their response was classy. Unlike some media outlets, they put their apology and retraction in the same prominent position as the original flawed episode by dedicating a whole new hour to it, creating some powerful radio as that contributor was asked to explain why he’d lied to them. They were able to do that because Marketplace, the magazine which bothered to do the background checking which they’d failed to, rather than simply dropping them in it, contacted the programme and offered to have their journalist do a story for them as well as a piece for the magazine.
Marketplace could have just run the story. But they gave Ira and everyone else breathing space which is a pleasing act of goodwill of a kind that's rare in today’s media landscape and so I suppose the third reason for doing this is to somehow discover exactly why this show has that ability, why when they’d made that mistake we all believe they’d do the right thing by us listeners and hold their hands up and be transparent about the mistakes they'd made. That’s also rare in today’s media landscape.
This wasn’t initially supposed to be a blogging exercise and the updates will be sporadic. I don’t know how many Acts there will be or how often, this won’t be an episode by episode guide. There might be natural breaks when some comments present themselves like the first. I simply don’t know what to expect and that’s exciting. But like my friends suggest, it’s clearly going to take some time and there’ll be an element of time travel involved. So at least it’ll be perfect training for when I finally watch a certain other series all in order, also for the first time. Stay with us ...