Tuning In to the Voices of America

From Christmas elves to price-fixing scandals, National Public Radio's This American Life offers quirky, personal journalism that packs a punch

By Thane Peterson

One of the saddest stories I ever heard went like this: In 1993, John Perry Barlow meets Cynthia Horner. She's a psychiatrist. He once wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead, was a rancher in Wyoming, then became a computer guru who heads the Electronic Freedom Foundation, which is aimed at preserving free speech on the Net. They happen to be attending professional conventions in Los Angeles at the same time. They see each other across a hallway and lock eyes. "I had always thought that the idea of love at first sight was one of those things invented by lady novelists from the South with three names," Barlow recalls.

They discover that they both live in New York City -- and by one of those weird coincidences life throws at you, she is about to move into a new apartment in his building on lower Fifth Avenue. They spend every moment together in L.A. and then, a week later, start living together in New York.

Nine months after that, in April, 1994, they're in L.A. again to attend a Pink Floyd concert. That evening, caught in traffic, they decide to get married. They want to have children. But they both have the flu, so he suggests she take an afternoon flight back to New York the next day -- he'll take the overnight red-eye and arrive in time to see her before she leaves for work. They kiss good-bye at the airport -- but he never sees her alive again. She goes to sleep on the flight and doesn't wake up when a flight attendant tries to rouse her. It turns out that the flu virus has somehow attacked her heart and she has died of a heart arrhythmia, two days short of her 30th birthday. "I feel like my heart has been amputated," Barlow says at her funeral.


  When I first heard Barlow tell this story in August, 1997, on public radio, I was riveted. The pain of Horner's death was still palpable in his voice, three years after the fact. The story was featured on This American Life -- one of my favorite hours of listening each week. It's an acquired taste. In fact, it can be downright annoying when you first tune in. But it's worth the trouble. You can listen to past episodes at www.thislife.org. Otherwise, check the schedule on the Web site and find out when it airs on your local station. In just over five years, the show now attracts 1 million listeners per week.

This American Life is a sort of general interest magazine of the air. It gives you a glimmer of what American journalism might be like if you deported all the weak-kneed, homogenizing editors and TV producers, the lazy, tin-eared reporters, and then let the best, funniest, and most imaginative writers do the stories they really want to do. You would end up with something odd and individualistic that gives voice to all sorts of people and ideas you don't normally hear about. Quirky? Yes. Eccentric sometimes? Yes. But little wonder that some of the best reporters for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and other mainstream publications do stories for the show on the side.

This American Life regularly does lengthy segments on prison inmates, Christian evangelicals, and other groups usually patronized (when covered at all) by the mainstream media. For instance, Alix Spiegel, who is Jewish, went to Colorado Springs, Colo., to report on a massive project to put a "prayer shield" around the city. The report, like most of the show's episodes, is scrupulously fair but also highly personal. The evangelical Christians involved in the project try to convert Spiegel. She resists but begins having trouble sleeping. Later the Christians tell her they've been praying for her to sleep badly so she will be more susceptible to conversion.


  The show is best known for the humorists discovered early on by Ira Glass, the fortysomething onetime public-radio news reporter who created it. These include writers such as David Sedaris, whose book Me Talk Pretty One Day is a best-seller. You can get an idea of what they're like by listening to one of the signature episodes, a day-by-day account by Sedaris of what it's like to work at the Macy's on Herald Square in New York as one of Santa's Christmas elves.

Part of what's funny is that the story is being told by Sedaris, who is unabashedly and irreverently gay, and has a grating twang and a ba-ba-boom delivery of laugh lines. Sedaris' insider account of the flirting, jockeying, and public posturing the elves do is hilarious. At one point, Sedaris, who was then a 33-year-old struggling writer, is working as a "Magic-Star elf." His job is to tell parents to stand on the Magic Star and look in a little window where they can see Santa. To liven things up, he starts loudly telling people to stand on the magic star and see Cher or Mike Tyson. Someone complains to management and he's transferred to another post.

But like most stories on This American Life, this one has many layers of meaning. In one sense, it's a gay man spoofing stereotypes by dressing up as an elf. And, of course, it messes with many of our cherished beliefs about Christmas. After all, the Macy's on Herald Square was originally made famous by the sappy holiday movie Miracle on 34th Street.

On another level, it's a wry, Dilbert-style comment on the absurdity of modern work life. To become an elf, Sedaris has to fill out an eight-page job application, take urine and personality tests, and be interviewed twice. He fails the drug test, but is hired anyway. "They hired me because I'm short," Sedaris explains. "All the elves are short." Once hired, he has to endure eight hours of "cash-register training" and management-led sessions of motivational cheering.


  But this tale also is revealing in a serious way for what it says about the hypocrisy of many parents. White parents request a "traditional Santa" (i.e., a white one), while black parents request a Santa of color and then are incensed when the one they're directed to is a black man with very light skin. Other parents throw tantrums, threaten to get the elves fired, and make unseemly sexual remarks in front of their children. One woman slaps her little daughter and tells her: "Get on Santa's lap and smile or I'll give you something to cry about." Once the child has stopped crying, a photo is snapped to record the happy holiday moment for posterity.

Darkly humorous? So what. The show thrives on irreverence. Last year, an entire hour was devoted to the price-fixing scandal at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM ), a story Glass did in collaboration with Kurt Eichenwald, the New York Times reporter who wrote The Informant, a book about the case. It's a touchy subject for This American Life to take on because ADM is a major funder of public radio.

Glass likes to take on important and deeply reported investigative stories. One show in mid-March of this year, co-hosted by Glass and author and New York Times reporter Alex Kotlowitz, was devoted to probing the lack of open democratic institutions in Cicero, Ill. It's a town that in some ways doesn't seem to have come all that far in terms of civic reponsibility since Al Capone ran it.


  One of the things I love about these tales is that they are never flattened by the usual, tired journalistic formulas. You see people, including the reporters, in all their egotism and frailty. Even as you're listening to Barlow, for instance, you can't help but be aware that during his devastatingly sad tale, he seems to be dropping the names of famous pals like Steve Jobs and Timothy Leary. And toward the end, when Glass asks him if he feels closer to Horner when he's in an airplane, he lapses into pomposity that is painful to hear. "The stratosphere is my church," he says. But the story is no less moving because its protagonist -- like all of us -- is only human. That Barlow wasn't edited into a stereotypical grieving lover simply adds to the piece's complexity.

It's astonishing that Glass, who has a tiny staff and produces the show on a relative shoestring under the aegis of Chicago public radio station WBEZ, can maintain such a high level of quality week after week. It gives you a new perspective on more conventional journalism. Sometimes quirky and personal can be more revealing than all the facts and objectivity a reporter can muster. That's the beauty of This American Life.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online

Edited by Beth Belton