Deep Reporting, Engaging Stories on ‘This American Life’

I heard it on the Howard Frankland.

That’s when, as I drove that bridge on the way to work, the subprime mortgage mess made sense to me. That’s when I heard from a man who borrowed $540,000 he couldn’t pay back, the ex-bartender who bought and sold mortgages like that one, the young college grad drinking Cristal champagne bought with commissions from selling investments made up of such loans.

I didn’t hear from these people in a typical news story. It was another podcast of “This American Life,” the documentary radio show better known for David Sedaris than news analysis.

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The episode, called “The Giant Pool of Money,” explained the mortgage crisis with fascinating stories from people inside the mortgage industry and trenchant explanation of the big picture. Periodic musical interludes allowed everything to soak in.

“This American Life” has developed a way to tell stories that sound fictional, but are narrated by interesting people you can’t help believing. The stories on the show are quirky, often complicated. They’re funny, sad, engaging, revealing.

The format works well for exploring the experience of summer camp or the nature of telephone communication — and, it turns out, the subprime mortgage crisis. As well as:

That episode, “Habeas Schmabeas” is a good example of the “This American Life” approach. It features interviews with two former prisoners to show who they are and how they got there, and it explains how the open-ended imprisonment of hundreds fits in (rather, doesn’t) with the longstanding legal concept of habeas corpus.

Imagine pitching that story: “I want to do a story on the prisoners at Gitmo and how it all relates to habeas corpus.” But that’s what Jack Hitt, a contributing editor for the show, did. And it works. It won a Peabody Award.

I talked to Alex Blumberg, a producer for the radio show, about these topical stories. He and National Public Radio correspondent Adam Davidson reported and produced “The Giant Pool of Money.” (NPR aired a companion piece in May when “Giant Pool” first aired.)

I learned that these current events-based stories aren’t new.

“It definitely picked up, I would say, after 9/11,” Blumberg said. In those days immediately following the terrorist attacks, “It seemed crazy to do anything other than try to talk about it. … It seemed like it was too huge an event to just try and go find somebody telling a funny story about their crazy mother.”

Some of the techniques that make these shows successful are elements of any good journalism, no matter the platform. And others, such as focusing on a small number of characters and welcoming  complexity, show how longer audio can be uniquely powerful for certain stories. There are ways to integrate these techniques into all sorts of work, whether audio or text.

Start with a question that no one has asked in quite the same way. “Keep your eye on the prize in terms of the question you’re trying to ask,” Blumberg said.

“I started,” he said, “with this initial question: Why were banks making loans to people who couldn’t pay them back? What changed?”

Others wrote about the plight of poor people who had lost their houses to foreclosure or people scamming their banks. But by focusing on why banks didn’t check the income of the people they lent money to, Blumberg found an eye-opening story.

Use your ignorance and your status as an outsider to your benefit. Blumberg said his initial inquiries took him into the confusing world of mortgage-backed securities. He found it hard to make sense of this financial world, but that forced him to ask questions that other reporters — those more familiar with the business — hadn’t.

They were so close to it, he said, that they couldn’t see the big picture. “If you knew more than I did, you could have it explained away to you more easily.”

The general account of the business, for example, was that “mortgages are bought, pooled, and then sliced and diced and turned into securities that are then sold to investors,” Blumberg said.

“I guess I sort of knew what every single word in that sentence meant,” he said, “but I didn’t understand who any of those people were. … How can you buy a mortgage? What does that even mean? Who buys the mortgage? What does it mean to slice and dice a pool of them? And who was an investor? And so, that was what I tried to find out.”

Use the specialty press and the blogs. “I could never have done this story without blogs,” he said. One of his favorites was called Calculated Risk. The blogs, experts and specialty press all spoke a language that was unfamiliar to him, but once he delved in, he started to understand what they were talking about.

Look for people who aren’t experts. In 2000, David Foster Wallace wrote about John McCain’s campaign, using cameramen for his sources. “Find the person in your story who is in a position to know something and maybe doesn’t get asked,” Blumberg said.

Make the story concrete.
“I didn’t want to use the words slice and dice — I wanted to talk to the guy who was actually buying and selling things,” Blumberg said. “And then I wanted people to tell us stories about what it was like: when was it crazy, and what was it like, and what did you do with the money, what was your life like while you were doing it, what did it feel like to be in the room where it was happening?”

Ask people to tell their stories, ask about key moments, and get out of the way. Moments are the key in radio, Blumberg said. He said he asks people, “Was there a moment when…” Or he simply says, “Tell me the story of when…” That puts people in the position of telling their own stories rather than answering a reporter’s questions.

Those first-person accounts are what first drew me into “This American Life.” I often listen the podcasts in my car, one after another. The offbeat stories, the odd connections, the intensely personal moments melt away the miles.

On my way to work Monday morning, I’ll be listening to Blumberg and Davidson’s follow-up to the mortgage story that will air this weekend. It’s called “Another Frightening Show about the Economy.”

They had just two weeks to put the new story together, rather than the months for the first one, but I expect to be enjoyably informed.

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