Sunday, September 18, 2005

This American Life

Sometimes words are worth much more than a thousand pictures.

The spoken word is magical, and this most ancient, basic and straightforward medium of human communication is sometimes the only way to tell a story.

Some of the most moving and insightful coverage of the Katrina disaster has been on the radio. A good friend insists that you had to see the pictures on TV to grasp what was happening, to sense fully the enormity of the situation.

But I have been reading the paper and listening to the radio; I understand how horrible and how sad these days have been for the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. And I have come to two conclusions: TV is good if you want to see people in difficult situations; Radio is better if you want to hear from people in difficult situations.

I have come to the conclusion that TV is not a medium for me. And I think, if you try "This American Life", you will switch from TV to radio too. At least sometimes. Maybe.

"This American Life", from WBEZ in Chicago, is a regular program on public radio (Public Radio International). Hosted by Ira Glass, the program runs an hour each week, with a different theme each week. Beyond that very general description, it is very hard to categorize it, except to say that it is well worth checking out.

Today, I was listening to the program, titled "This is not my beautiful house". The show follows its usual structure -- a series of short segments linked by a common theme. One segment was taped in a shelter in Houston, and included an interview in which two young girls and their mother; the girls mention that they have not seen their brother and sister who were left in New Orleans with their father. The girls and their mother evacuated the day before Katrina hit.

The girls were confident their siblings were okay, because their mother was acting confident. And I thought how hard it must be to put up a front like that for your children.

Another segment included interviews with women from one of the shelters who were looking for apartments. They line up for hours and then take a bus to the outskirts of Houston and endure frustrations and anxiety and humiliation. One woman is pregnant. She is due any day, and is dilated 3 cm. Still she lines up and gets on a bus to look foran apartment.

She is having a contraction while she is looking for a place to live -- all she wants is a place she can bring her baby home to, other than a cot in some arena with a couple thousand other people.

Another segment presents a woman who stayed in her one-story home in New Orleans -- in five feet of fetid water. She spent 8 days on a mattress that remained afloat, though partly submerged. She lived on a little cheese, some juice and a gallon of water.

This little synopsis does not do the program justice.

You can catch the show on your local public radio station this week, or listen on-line next week if you prefer. Right now, last week's program "After the flood" is available on-line. That program includes some astonishing, shocking, personal stories about the days of hell in New Orleans.

Listening to people tell their stories is amazing. It is intimate and deeply moving. No mountain of images can compare to the spoken testimony of these people who survived Katrina.

Turn off your TV, and give radio a try. Listen to people tell their stories. You won't need a TV to get the picture.


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