09 May, 2008

"We've arrived at Act Two..."

“Who was that? It sounded like a girl.”
“Did it? Yeah. Well, sure. Because I'm listening to the radio. And This American Life is on. And so there's a girl talking.”
“Is that that show where those hipster know-it-alls talk about how fascinating ordinary people are? God.”
- Summer and Seth, "The O.C.", The Anger Management (season 3 episode 7)

So here's the thing.

There's a guy over in the States called Ron Mallett, and he is planning to build a time machine.

Now, I know what you're thinking - "The guy's obviously a kook." Certainly, that's what I would think. Except that Dr Ronald Mallett is a professor of physics in the University of Connecticut, and his findings have been published in reputable peer-reviewed scientic journals. His theories (as far as I understand them) involves using a laser to cause the empty space inside the machine to swirl around, altering gravity in the machine. Since Einstein teaches us that time is affected in part by gravity, this should twist time into a loop, allowing travel between the points of time on that loop. Something like that. He's even built a functioning model, albeit a very small model, where they can drop a molecule into the machine and follow its behaviour, demonstrating the feasility of the theory and machine.

Now what is interesting about this guy is not so much that he's wanting to do this, or even that he has accomplished what he has. What is interesting is that his interest in time travel started 50 years ago, when Mallett was 10 year old. His father died, and the young boy, inspired by a comic book version of H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" and his desire to see his father again, threw himself into trying to make a time machine. His early efforts centred on building a machine through mechanical means, until he read about Einstein and started to focus on physics. Fifty years later, his entire life's work, his entire extraordinary achievement, all comes back to a 10-year-old child who misses his dad. Something so incredible born out of an emotional and completely relatable human response to a situation.

I first heard of Ron Mallett listening to an episode of the long-running radio show This American Life, which I have become obsessed with over the past few months. (The second season of the television version has just started to air over in the States, so it seemed like as good an excuse as any to talk about the show.) The show has been running since 1995, and over the past 13 years has built up a huge library of brilliant radio (almost all of which is available to listen to on the show's website).

The basic concept of the show is simple. As host Ira Glass states, each week they pick a particular theme, and present a variety of stories on that theme. So, for instance, the episode about Ron Mallett was called "My Brilliant Plan", looking at people who have big plans and ideas, that don't necessarily work out as expected. In addition to the story of Ron's plan to see his father again through time travel, they discussed a guy who planned, once he died, to use his own headstone to have the last word with the sons who hurt him deeply. They also told the story of a reporter who bought a house in Iraq as an inconspicuous place of residence for people to live while reporting on the war, and the fiasco that resulted.

And you start to get the idea - in each episode, you get some fascinating stories, but the presentation of the stories often creates a strong contrast. The stories themselves often have little connection, other than a broadly-drawn theme. So, in one episode, built around the theme of a "Tough Room", we heard about a Thanksgiving dinner that erupted into conflict after the daughter said she thought Osama Bin Laden was "hot", we heard the writers of the Onion comedy newspaper pitching jokes, we heard about a teenager who would read tarot cards for adults in exchange for beer, we heard about a couple of Mormon missionaries trying to save Manhattan, and we heard about a couple of reporters competing with each other. All wildly varying stories brought together by one overarching idea.

Almost all of the stories are true (except for the occasional clearly-indicated piece of fiction). And for me, that is the other fascinating thing about the show. People come onto the show to tell their stories, sometimes stories they haven't ever told anyone before - it may be the most important story in their life, or just an amusing anecdote about something that happened one day at work. And there is an openness, an honesty, an intimacy to the show that is powerful. People talk about their struggles with people, with life, with the government, with God. Every facet of life gets explored in the show, not in some overarching discover-the-meaning-of-life way, but just in the experiences of individuals. Our doubts, our uncertainties, our fears, joys, and hopes, all the wealth of human experience voiced by people who have experienced it.

One of the most surprising elements of the show is the discovery that there is a story behind everything we do. In one intriguing episode, "Classifieds", they pick the classified sections from two newspapers for one day, and compile an entire episode just from the stories told. A man whose big plans are dashed after his dog is stolen. A group of people all looking for a band are brought together for one day to record a single song. Two people hunt unsuccessfully for a job. Ads in the Personals section reveal heartache and regret. Objects for sale reveal surprising stories both about the seller (who they are, how they acquired the object, why they are now selling the object) and the purchaser (what circumstances have brought them to need that object).

The show is anchored by show creator and host Ira Glass. An interesting character, Ira - how can I put this - doesn't really have the kind of voice that seems immediately suited to radio. It's not a bad or unpleasant voice, it's just the voice of an ordinary person, sort of nasal, not the type of voice you would expect for a medium that relies entirely on voice for expression. But that just contributes to the show's charm - it's not a perfect radio voice, but then this show is about people, about life, and these never are perfect. What Ira is is friendly and intelligent, inviting and personal. And that's a rare quality in broadcasting these days - giving a sense that that the person speaking into a microphone thousands of miles away is speaking directly to you. And that's a good thing, because in a show so wildly varying and surprising, it's important that there be a strong anchor, someone that you want to spend your time with.

I guess my main point of this post is to say, Listen to the show. I doubt many people reading this will have even heard of the show, let alone listened to it. And that is a shame, because it is honestly a brilliant programme, and one I look forward to listening to, not just that week's episode, but all exploring the backlog of past programmes. And the great thing is, with over 350 hour-long radio episodes, and more being made, (as well as the new season of the TV series,) I'm going to be listening to this show for years. And I can't wait.

* And, for the record - while I am a fan of The O.C. (or, at least, of the first and fourth seasons of The O.C.), I don't have anything near the knowledge of the show to be able to remember a one-off reference to This American Life in an episode I saw long before ever hearing the radio show. One of the first episodes I listened to on discovering the show's website was called "What I Learned from Television" (an episode that happens to be being repeated this week) just because, as a TV fan, I was intrigued by the show title. In that episode, Ira actually played that dialogue and talked about the experience of his show being referred to on a show he himself enjoyed. It was that episode that alerted me to the existance of this dialogue, and it seemed a perfect way to introduce this post, in part because it is such a perfect summary of the show. Ordinary people are fascinating - that's pretty much the whole point of the show.

To conclude this post, here's a piece of animation (from the new TV series) of a very funny and illuminating story that was originally broadcast in the "Reruns" episode - which coincidentally I was listening to literally last week. The animation was posted on the This American Life website. Hope you enjoy it.

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