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May 17, 2012 | by

Radio journalism is having some trouble with self-definition right now. Every art form always is, of course, but radio’s growing pains are under particular public scrutiny. In January, This American Life broadcast part of a monologue by Mike Daisey, who had visited factories in China that make Apple products; it turned out he’d invented pieces of the narrative based on reports he’d heard, not seen, about labor conditions in other factories. This American Life retracted the episode, and a thousand questions bloomed. What does this mean for the industry as a whole? Is journalism even about facts anymore? Are larger truths ever more important, or is that a false dichotomy? Is storytelling different from journalism? Where do documentary-style shows like This American Life fall on the spectrum, and to what standards must they adhere?

Good questions, all, and vital ones. May I sidestep them? If the spotlight is on fact versus fiction, the refracted light falls somewhere else: on the reason this episode matters so much to us. The original Mike Daisey program was the most popular in This American Life’s sixteen-year history. Listeners cared about Daisey’s character and about the ones he described: his translator; a thirteen-year-old laborer; a man with a mangled hand. All, save for Daisey, were invented, in the pure sense of the word, but visceral.

This is the point: we can’t care about information until we can feel, and we can’t feel until we know people. We can’t learn until we empathize. This American Life may be the go-to example of character-driven radio journalism, but it’s a pervasive practice right now. Radiolab, StoryCorps, The Moth, Radio Diaries—name a radio program and I will show you its protagonists.

It’s impossible to say, for certain, where a form of expression begins. But I offer that this concept—that we need characters in order to understand pretty much anything—was first put into practice in radio by Edward R. Murrow, during World War II.

It’s a funny thing to say, now that I’ve brought up This American Life’s falsification debacle. The Murrow we discuss endlessly is the one who championed truth and facts, who transformed broadcast coverage to focus on the reality underneath all the jargon and propaganda and posturing. (Cue Good Night, and Good Luck sound track.) But Murrow’s greatest contribution to radio as an art wasn’t that. It was his ability to create a scene and populate it with human beings—to tell Americans what they’d be feeling, tangibly and emotionally, if they were in, say, England during the war. He did it simply, without the long and involved story lines piped into our ears today, but he gave us the germ of what we now know to crave.

The challenge, now, is integrating our love of characters with Murrow’s other love, that of facts. We need to relearn to empathize with real people—not those of Daisey’s invention or anyone else’s, but those whose lives may or may not fall into neat narrative arcs, who might surprise us and might bore us. Murrow knew how; he was the first to know.

When Murrow landed in England in 1937, foreign news radio didn’t exist in America. CBS had appointed him Director of Talks, meant to set up interviews with famous people and discussions of events like Wimbledon and choral performances. If the possible war factored into CBS’s decision, the higher-ups’ main motive was trumping NBC, which had produced radio’s most heralded recent broadcast: coverage of an international singing-mouse contest.

Of course, that attitude crumbled. In 1938, Austria’s Chancellor capitulated to Hitler, and a Nazi took over the country. CBS asked Murrow and his colleagues to deliver its first overseas roundup: a half-hour of reporting from London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, and Vienna. “They lift the right arm a little higher here than in Berlin, and the ‘Heil Hitler’ is said a little more loudly,” Murrow told Americans. By the time Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, CBS was in the business of reporting foreign news. And Murrow—who happened to be right where CBS needed him, journalism training be damned—was a war correspondent.

At the time, there was a ban on using recorded material in radio broadcasts; everything had to be aired live. The networks often broadcast orchestral performances, and they thought playing prerecorded versions would cheapen their value and, as a result, the networks’ worth. For Murrow, this posed a challenge. Occasionally, he violated the ban, but he also navigated around it by conducting broadcasts from places where he could get natural sound. In September 1940, he gave Americans the first war audio some had ever heard: that of the Blitz, as heard from a rooftop.

“Straight in front of me now, you’ll hear two sounds in just a moment”—boom, boom—“There they are. That was the explosion overhead, not the guns themselves. I should think in a few minutes there may be a bit of shrapnel around here. Coming in—moving a little closer all the while.” Murrow explains, with precision, the tangibles of war: what an explosion sounds like; how, after the noise of it, one can expect shrapnel to fall. It’s step-by-step, but not patronizing—just enough to give the listener a clear image. This is the photographer’s concept of punctum: that singular detail that collapses the distance between the listener and the reporter on the scene. This is what it’s like to be living through a war; it’s the sound of bombs. Can you imagine it, America?

In a way, though, it’s odd that Murrow’s sound-rich broadcasts have come to represent his wartime reporting. In fact, he used natural sound fairly infrequently. Most often, he simply described what he’d seen. It’s in the best of these moments that his characters emerge. Take a broadcast from a few months later, in December 1940. “During a heavy raid, courage varies in direct proportion to the cold. It’s difficult to be brave when you’re cold,” Murrow says. Physicality yields imagination, imagination yields understanding. And then, this:

One night during a terrific barrage I saw a little man wearing a tin hat, running down the middle of the street. He tripped over a rope stretched across the street to prevent traffic from passing. His tin hat rolled into the gutter. He retrieved it and said to no one at all—he was quite alone in the street—“Sorry, so sorry,” and then he went on his way. Those of us who have been trying to report this war have said too much about courage and too little about courtesy. People who remember to be courteous are not greatly afraid.

Punctum, again: it’s the little man with the tin hat who transports us to wartime London.

As does the pilot who appears in a June 1940 broadcast—“about one hundred and fifteen pounds,” with “a pair of brown tennis shoes, three sizes too big,” his voice “loud and flat” because he’d been bombed for a few hours and couldn’t hear himself speak. Or the prime minister of the Netherlands, Nikolaas Gerbrandi, nicknamed Cherry Brandy, who “wears life lightly, like a loose garment,” who “has, too, a stomach which has got a little out of control, but then no one could imagine him without that stomach to support the heavy gold watch chain draped across his front.”

But Murrow was his own best character. It starts with his voice, that rich baritone, like a hand waiting to be grasped. And then there is his language: simple and direct, with a cajoling bent. The image of Murrow on the rooftop, shrapnel falling around him, is a powerful one, but the best example is possibly the lead-in to one of his most haunting broadcasts, about his visit to a concentration camp. “Permit me to tell you what you would have seen, and heard, had you been with me on Thursday,” he says. “It will not be pleasant listening. If you are at lunch, or if you have no appetite to hear what Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio, for I propose to tell you of Buchenwald.”

Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, could hardly sound more different from Murrow. His voice is nasal, stuttery, not a baritone horn but a kazoo. But he uses his voice as Murrow did, as a lifeline. In a video about storytelling he made for Current TV, he advises prospective radio makers to “talk like a human being and just talk like yourself.”

This American Life is in every sense a radical outgrowth of Murrow’s focus on character. Where Murrow’s broadcasts rarely feature voices aside from Murrow’s—a matter of practicalities but also, probably, his place at the beginning of the genre’s evolution—This American Life’s broadcasts are its voices. There are those of its protagonists, spinning nearly unimaginable tales, and those of its reporters and producers, who become characters in Murrow-fashion.

All of the “documentary-style” public radio shows we’re fond of today, in fact, have exploited Murrow’s people-centric technique in ways that have redefined the genre. Radiolab’s success rests not only on its much-lauded, many-layered sound production, but also on the irresistible dynamic between its hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. (Full disclosure: I interned at Radiolab. They’re always like that.) And on the tales they bring us: these are by no means stories of girls- and boys-next-door. They are hardly believable. (For a sample, try the last segment of an the episode “Lost and Found,” called “Finding Emilie.”) Radio Diaries and StoryCorps take a different tack—these programs are not narrated, giving us only the voices of the protagonists; it’s an extension of Murrowism that I’d venture Murrow would not have foreseen. It can be heartbreaking.

At times, these programs give us people we can recognize—people like us. The latter two do this routinely. But there’s a push, now, toward delivering ever more outstanding tales. This is highly, exhilaratingly entertaining—but I miss, at times, the simplicity of Murrow’s technique. He didn’t need to find the Londoner who subsisted on a day’s ration for a week, nor the pilot who was the only one to survive his bombing run. He was content with the man with the tin hat; with the skinny kid pilot who couldn’t hear the sound of his own voice.

If Murrow the persona was empathetic, comforting, and calm, Murrow the person was not. He was a workaholic and a perfectionist; as he broadcast in that measured voice, his leg bounced up and down under the table and sweat poured down his face. Daring broadcasts—standing on a rooftop during a bombing, flying on a bomber plane—were the result of an almost self-destructive tendency toward risk. His moods flipped between cheery and brooding, and he was withdrawn: though his colleagues revered him, few felt they knew him.

How to reconcile the detached, off-air Murrow with the engaged broadcaster? Ira Glass lends a hint. “As you might suspect about somebody who designed and created an entire radio show built around very personal conversations and moments when people really connect with each other,” he says in one episode, “the only kind of person who would go to the trouble to invent a show like that would be somebody who in real life struggles with every one of those things, which I do.”

The discrepancy between the on-air Murrow and the real-life one isn’t a contradiction—it’s causal. Journalists are driven to report by a lack in their own life, just as therapists are perhaps often motivated by a desire to better understand their own complexes. I imagine it’s Murrow the man’s difficulty with people that led Murrow the persona to seek out Londoners and try to understand their lives. And perhaps this is where we’re left. Radio can provide—for its producers as much as its listeners—a space for long-distance companionship, the kind that yields true understanding. We just have to let ordinary stories be enough.

< a href="jessicargross.com">Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.

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