There’s a lot going on in This American Life—Superheroes! Which I suppose is justified because of the busy lives the caped crusaders lead. This podcast is broken up into four parts, but, save for the final act, there is a thematic cadence throughout. Everything is anecdotal, fragmented, splintered, and layered on top of each other. Different speakers tell the same story.
For instance, the Zora piece really follows two different stories, the nameless narrator and Zora herself. By juxtaposing the two speakers, it gives the story dimensions. I think this is a great way to maintain listener interest—it works like jumping between a close up and zoomed out shot of the same person.
Another motif I noticed is the importance of detailed description and exposition. Because the listeners can only hear—and we’re all naturally short on attention—precise but colorful wording is key in setting the scene: “I noticed this amazon of a woman with huge blond and red streaked hair and frosty lips.” This attention to detail is something I hope to include in my own story. I’m a sucker for minutia, and I think scene narration like this can make certain small vignettes, and the larger thematic agendas they represent, much more accessible for the listener.
The first act was probably the most fragmented, showing us a 30,000-foot view of a seemingly innocuous question (Superman pun intended…so intended). Fly or fade? The podcast used a mosaic of testimonials and expert analysis to unpack what an individual’s answer says about them, what our answer says about us. And like the other acts, the more things were talked through, especially when the interviewer pushed back on a particular answer, the more the speaker becomes vulnerable or otherwise human—decidedly not super.
Moreover, those giving the testimonials were rarely given names. So the people on the street became just that, making it easy for the listener to identify with a certain person, their perspective, their confidence, their uncertainty, or even their uninteresting candor. The one guy who said he’d fly to the bar, his doctor’s appointment, then maybe hit Atlantic City with his buddies is so painfully mundane that I immediately thought, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”
Another recurring element in this podcast was the careful deployment of background music and sound effects. Although it’s usually white noise in NPR, the background music has a definitive role to play. It’s most notable, however, when it’s absent, giving the speaker’s words sudden depth, importance and immediacy. Like when everybody in a room shuts up, things get serious in a hurry.
At the 14:30 minute mark, a woman declares, “A person who wants to fly has nothing to hide, while a person who wants to be invisible wants to hide themselves.” Then the interviewer pushes back and asks, “Do you feel like you have to hide yourself?” She stammers as piano keys creep back in, waxing in volume as she grows quieter in discomfort, ultimately refusing, “I’m not going to answer that question.”
By personalizing the conversation, and flipping the subject’s own canon back on to her, the dialogue takes on a much more invasive tone—a sobering moment augmented by the blanket of silence. I hope to be just a judicious with my use of background noise in my piece. Likewise, I want anyone I interview to be comfortable and trusting, but not complacent. Just like in the real world, I want to hold myself, and anyone I might interview accountable for the things they say.