Three Audio Stories

I love NPR.  Now that I’ve said so, I feel less guilty about saying that on some days, NPR so mind-numbingly, eye-blearingly boring that it knocks me out like a tranquilizer. Or it would if I weren’t driving. After two or three self-administered face slaps, I’m able to refocus just enough to safely operate a vehicle traveling at high speed. In fairness, news over the past four years has favored market stories, which don’t exactly get the blood pumping.

On other days, NPR does an admirable job of covering not just above-the-fold headlines but a mishmash of economic, military, government, international and human interest stories that often aren’t mentioned anywhere else. For the human interest category, the quirky stories stand out and serve to cleanse the palette between long features about terrorism and politics.

The Magic Roundabout in Swindon, UK.

Going Round In Circles Over Traffic Fix caught my ear with its relatively light-hearted topic: the so-called ’roundabout revolution’. While the awful puns made me wince, the story was was well-balanced, featuring input from several sides of the roundabout debate in the US, which has seen a steep increase in the traffic circles in the past five years.  Kicking off with an audio sample of Chevy Chase in his role as Clark Griswold in European Vacation, this story walked the tightrope between absurd and practical. Some listeners, like me, rarely use roundabouts, but for others, they’re part of daily transit whether they love ’em or hate ’em.

Since I have no opinion either for or against, I was able to smile at the silliness of it all, which I appreciate when it’s nestled among news of discord and mayhem elsewhere.

Another NPR story, Political Ads Target TV, But Not Everyone Is Tuning In, hooked me with its headline. I think most people secretly love checking out the newest political TV ads: the more venomous, the better.  This story does a good job of leading with audio from a new ad paid for by the Democratic National Committee, whose ominous piano provides dramatic background to an impassioned Obama speech. An ad funded by conservative organization Crossroads GPS is briefly sampled as counterpoint. Then the focus of the story takes a turn, and Ina Jaffey explains that, in a recent survey, 31% of people polled said they had watched no live TV in the past week. The story continues with this point in mind: there exists a broad generation gap in America, and its implications for the ads that accompany the electoral cycle are not well understood. Roughly a third of Americans consume television by way of smart phones, laptops, or other nontraditional platforms, although many ads are eventually seen when covered by major news media.

Finally, The New York Times’ human interest series 1 In 8 Million has developed an interesting audio series for its online presence: profiling everyday New Yorkers, one at a time, using entirely the subject’s own narration. The stories are accompanied by candid black and white photos of the people talking.  The effect is hypnotic. One story in particular connected for me: the profile of Henrique Prince.

Prince is a self-taught musician whose string band, the Ebony Hillbillies, plays in the streets and subways of New York. I was taken with his eloquence when describing some of his ideas about music, that it’s something that moves through him and isn’t made by him, that he sees it as uniting varied New Yorkers, if only for a moment, on their frantic rush to work.

The sense of character is so clear in this format and the view so intimate, the one real weakness I can identify is the brevity of each clip.  Prince’s story was only about two minutes long when I felt there might have been much more to include. The story zeroed in on his band — about which there could have easily been another five minutes — at the expense of any other aspect of Prince’s life.

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