Radio Host: Jack Hitt
Radio: This American Life from WBEZ
Show: No. 253: The Middle of Nowhere
Aired: December 5, 2003
For class today we listened to the audio of Act One: No Island is an Island, a show aired on This American Life in 2003 (see fig. 1). We also were able to read along with the transcript as we listened. The show discussed the island of Nauru, which is located in the Pacific Ocean and is 1,200 miles from any other land. A lot has happened with Nauru, including illegal offshore banking, unwanted immigrants being dumped on its shores, and the United States striking a deal to set up a spy embassy in China, otherwise known as Operation Weasel.
While Nauru is quite the story, we want to look at how that story is told. This is the first thing that we’ve examined in class that hasn’t been strictly text; because it was a radio show, we compared some of the methods used in radio versus text in terms of style, transitions, introductions, and other things.
For starters, the show incorporates many different speakers into its program. While articles and books can incorporate quotations and dialogue, the radio show can actually include another person talking. We listen to the actual dialogue between two people. Jack Hitt is the constant host throughout the first act, but he talks with Jonathon Winer, Carl McDaniel, Andrew Bartlett, and Cameron Stewart.
Hitt introduces each of the speakers either right before or after their first talking points. Hitt names them, offers their credentials, and incorporates them into the flow of discussion by pointing out what they have to add to the story. For example, after Carl McDaniel gives the listener a fact, Hitt says, “This is Carl McDaniel, an ecologist with the Rensselaer Polytechnic. He says Denson worked for a company that was in the phosphate business in Sydney” (3).
Hitt works with his speakers to tell the story. He builds off of their quotes and continues to tell the story with them, going back and forth to supply various details. For example, after Cameron Stewart explains his discovery of a bunch of papers and documents, Hitt explains what the paperwork was: “The paperwork, including emails, personal correspondence, and memos on state department stationery, detailed a quid pro quo between Washington and Nauru. Washington offered to return Nauru to paradise with fisheries, health clinics, schools, desalination plants, the works” (7).
There is also some question-and-answer action between Hitt and the speaker. This is exemplified between Hitt and Jonathon Winer, when Hitt asks: “Have you ever been there?” and “When you say the word Nauru, what image do you see in your mind?” (2). (see fig. 3) Winer then answers his questions, and the story goes from there.
Another aspect unique to radio, and quite impossible with writing, is the use of music. Throughout the act, the listener can hear different sections of music and beats in the background. These sounds, sometimes sinister, other times representing the pacific beach theme, are used to transition between points. Hitt might use a brief interruption of a song in order to give the listener a chance to absorb their thoughts before turning to the next section of the story. For example, after Hitt describes his stay in Nauru, there is a musical intermission before Carl McDaniel begins discussing the science and minerals of the island (3).
The radio show also incorporates sound bites and recorded clips. At one point, the listener hears a clip from a news anchor giving a report. In another spot, we hear a brief clip of the play Leonardo, A Portrait of Love, which is referenced in the story. These sounds offer a unique feature that an article would not be able to.