Another Stellar Recommendation

24 06 2009

I am motivated to write this post by the same impulse that directed me to recommend the fantasy fiction of George R.R. Martin. In conversations that cover the subjects of literature or journalism, what one likes and one doesn’t, I often deliver the same sermon extolling the virtues of a weekly radio production from Chicago NPR station WBEZ. Such endless recommending can become tedious, its listeners began faking interest and I am often frustrated that the full extent of its merits is not conveyed. Hence, this post seeks to rectify this situation by providing a definitive account of the subject.

"Every week we bring you a theme and a variety of stories based on that theme"

"Every week we bring you a theme and a variety of stories based on that theme"

“This American Life,” hosted by Ira Glass, consistently delivers a show remarkable in its storytelling, relentless in its journalistic legwork and surprising in its content. It is some of the finest American journalism being produced today.

The show is structured around a theme, conceptual creative and various in scope, with a series of stories, or acts, that relate to the week’s motif. The number of acts per show changes, two to four is typically, with bigger one-act tales coming along occasionally. One show even attempted to cram 60 one-minute acts into a single episode.

The show uses a staple of regular contributors and producers and occasionally includes work by well-known non-fiction authors such as David Sedaris or Dan Savage. Some acts are journalistic retellings, full of interviews, others are personal essays read by those who wrote them and even short stories make rare appearances. While the show has a general formula, the crew at WBEZ constantly finds new ways to tweak and explore the show and what can be with it.

The medium of radio is ideal for the show. Unlike television, which clearly separates the viewer from the performer, radio has a transformative intimacy. As you listen to people tell stories (tragic, funny, heartbreaking, heartwarming, shocking, informative, inspiring, refreshing, gut-wrenching stories) in their own voices and struggle to express them in their own words you feel a closeness to the person and the story.

With a full hour straight through, no commercials, each act is given enough time to develop, evolve and change. There are no hurried edits, one-line cuts or soundbites. Each issue is thoroughly explored and each episode gives you something you didn’t have before, be it information or insight.

For “This American Life,” the success is in the stories. As I listed a few paragraphs up, the range of emotions evoked in a single episode can vary wildly and some of the tales will stay with you for a long time.

In particular, I will always remember the story of a kid whose father, an electrician and TV repairman, dies of a heart attack. It’s the 1950s when his father dies, unwarned and unaware about the risk factors contributing to heart disease. A few years later, the kid decides in typical childish fashion, to dedicate his life to inventing time travel, to save his father before it’s too late.

And for most, this is where the story would end. The kid grows up and realizes that time travel is not possible, just the dream of a distraught child. Instead, the show traces the course of this kid’s life as he goes to college for physics, becomes an engineer and spends the next few decades of his life trying to make time travel possible. He undergoes ridicule and accolades, setbacks and steps forward, love and divorce all in effort to warn his father, to get a couple more years to spend with him.

You can hear “This American Life” as part of the weekend programming for most public radio stations or download the podcast from their Web site or iTunes. Worth a listen, I promise


The Importance of Being Polite

19 06 2009

Learning the hard way often seems to be the only method from which I am capable of perceiving any discernible lesson. For certain subject matters, I lack the kind of common sense intuition that comes naturally to most. One of the standout incidents examples would be in the area of tact and politeness. My mother spent hours drilling a relentless amount of such lessons into what has proved to be a very unreceptive brain. She apologizes for this profusely to any women I date and stresses that she tried, really she did.


What is Soju made of? As it costs about a dollar a bottle, I'm gonna say it's chemically synthesized.

Korea then, presented an interesting challenge. How would I fare with my prospective employers considering I now had two barriers to scale, that of my own lack and that of geographic displacement? Asians, presented in the stereotype of the American mind as formal and stiff, might find my more casual attitude lacking in propriety. I discovered Koreans to defy this categorizing and instead presented themselves as an effusive and warm people, given the proper environment. This small story details one such situation and the lessons in Korean mannerism which I gleaned from the experience.

Two weeks into my new career as a molder of young minds, our boss decided to prove his gregarious nature with a generous buffet at a local raw fish joint. The whole staff was to be treated to plates of raw fish and bottles of booze, for Korean employers like their employees to think the company is doing so well such a feast can be afforded. This is often the case even when it’s actually not. Indeed my particular academy had long since left the black for the red, but appearances had to be maintained, I suppose.

As a recent transplant, the whole experience served as an introduction to many quintessential aspects of Korean culture. We dined on the delicacies of the sea, imbibed the national liquor of Korea (Soju) and heard speeches presumably about the general awesomeness of our work establishment. Or at least, this I assume as no one bothered to translate said articulations for me. This was the first of many linguistic lapses on my employer’s part (the sign that informed us, in Korean, that we would be paid five days late springs readily to mind).

As the diner wore on, I grew tired of the chatty company of women, both foreign and local, that surrounded me and spied the Korean men, cigarettes in hand, engaged in animated discussion further down the low tables at which we sat. I had learned zero Korean at that point, but knew that at least one of the three could speak some English, so I decided to attempt a conversation.

Aware of my own intrinsic lack of courtesy, I made every attempt at politeness and learned a very hard (that’s in terms of alcoholic content, not difficulty) lesson about Korean culture. The three I had joined consisted of my direct manager, the owner of the English academy and the head bus driver. The owner, who’s name I learned many times but never remembered, had no grasp of English and instead supplanted this absence with a firm grasp of the Soju bottle. Koreans have many rules governing the consuming of alcohol and it’s important to show the proper respect when drinking with elders. I had already learned the very basics, such as holding your glass out with two hands when an older person pours a drink for you, but there was a second rule about which I had not been instructed.

In such a social business situation, it is considered rather rude for someone to have an empty glass and borderline insulting if you must fill your own glass. Upon sitting down with the three gentlemen, a large shot glass full of Soju was offered to me. Such a presentation is bound to confuse the average American. To us, liquor in a small glass hearkens back to the days of our drinking’s first experience. We know that to maintain our machismo, the liquid must be consumed completely, quickly and without hesitation. The offer thus made to me, I quaffed the libation and set the empty glass down.

The thorough dispatch of the beverage amused my Korean compatriots and I immediately found another full shot in my hand. This I also vanquished in seconds and in seconds more, my glass was brimming again with Soju. I thought of my mother then and how she always stressed the importance of being a gracious guest and properly respectful in all manner of interactions. Compelled by such a creed, I threw back the glass yet again, bringing laughter and bemused smiles from those who had offered it.

Yet, they were not satisfied and a fourth full glass sat on the table in front of me. At that point, I decided that if I desired to be able to walk away from this restaurant under my own power, it would be best to adapt the virtue of restraint. My glass no longer in need of refreshing, the Koreans continued merrily with their conversation while I contemplated ordering some water.

Minutes later, however, the shot which I had been regarding warily on the table in front of me needed consumption. Koreans, as it turned out, are also quite found of toasting, cheering and clicking their glass together whenever possible. Such an occurrence demanded my participation, though I cannot say to what I was so heartily saluting. So, my mother’s instruction ever in my mind, I dutifully obeyed my superiors and got well and truly drunk.

Lesson learned. I think. My memory of the evening grows increasingly foggy from that point onward.

Freelance Continued and Other Updates

16 06 2009

Matador just put up another one of my articles and this one differs significantly from my previous effort. One of the things I like about the site is that it covers so many aspects of travel, including the philosophical and emotional impact world travel often has on individuals. This recent piece explores how I felt as a self-described procrastinator set loose on my own in China and Southeast Asia. Read it and find out!

I had hoped on my return stateside that I would be able to find gainful employment in the industry of my degree before my funds dipped below a critical threshold. Despite my best efforts and many resume revisions, my outstanding qualities and qualifications continue to elude any potential employers. The reason for such rejection confounds me when the choice seems so clear. Come on guys, just hire me already, you know you want to. Really, it’ll be awesome.

Such attempts at persuasion coming to naught, I have been forced to find some vocation to sustain my basic necessities. While I managed to avoid delivery duty again at the sandwich shop of my collegiate career, I will tomorrow attend a training session for that most ubiquitous of part-time jobs, a waiter. I’ve been employed in a number of fields, but this will be an experience entirely new to me. While I can be quite personable and amiable in social situations, I wonder about my ability to maintain such cheerfulness for shift after shift.

In the world of order taking and food serving, the twin skills of overbearing enthusiasm for items on the menu and dogged but non-invasive interest in the persons seated are what vault one to the upper echelons of food service income. Alas, my financial fortunes will again be left to the kindness of strangers. I pray for rich drunkards and recent lottery winners.


11 06 2009

My travels in Southeast Asia have finally born some journalistic fruit. A meta travel site for backpackers, the Matador Network, has published an article I wrote about exploring the semi-remote town of Nan in northern Thailand. Filled with motorbikes, caves, friendly locals and maps that indicate there should be a waterfall here, but really there isn’t, it’s a good read.

Check it out!


A News(paper) Analysis

10 06 2009

Whenever I tell someone I’m an unemployed journalism major looking for newspaper work, they immediately bemoan the sad state of the news industry. However, while I agree with this sentiment on a personal level, I’m actually not concerned about the future of journalism itself. Things are changing and a certain amount of growing pains are to be expected.

The essential problem (at least for one such as me) is not a lack of jobs, but an abundance of journalists. has new entry-level postings almost every day, but each of these is immediately swarmed with applicants. New college grad that I am, I can’t really compete with someone with five years experience in the field.

Even with that in mind, there are two unquestionable truths. First, ad revenue is falling for publications across the country. Second, large national or regional papers are cutting back on staff.

Yet this doesn’t mean journalism is dying. Newspapers aren’t going to disappear. Perhaps print editions of newspapers will in the future, but the idea itself isn’t going anywhere. After reading a recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review that pondered the future of journalism, I’ve reached two conclusions.

1) The companies most threatened are the large ones that must compete on a global or national scale, like say the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune. This modern age features a myriad of easily accessible sources for such news, from citizen blogs to foreign media outlets. RSS and other methods of news feeds allow users to bypass a direct visit to most sites and aggregate information instead. Maintaining foreign news desks or funding investigative reporting is an expensive proposition and a losing one, when competing against cheaper Internet-only operations.

However, smaller community newspapers can still thrive in this environment. For most small American towns, the local newspaper remains the sole source of information about said community. Yahoo news isn’t going to bother posting items about Smalltown, USA. In fact, the convenience of modern technology allows such newspapers to do more than they’ve ever done before and create a better product. When the recession ends, these papers will be poised to do quite well.

2) Journalism, both large and small, will become increasingly fragmented and collaborative. The web Site Politico is a good example of this. Formed by veteran political reporters from the Washington Post, it created a (hopefully) sustainable model by going after a very targeted audience and has become a staple for political junkies. It competes directly with media giants in both print and TV but is a fraction of their size. The new age of Internet journalism will give rise (and indeed in many cases already has) to thousands of niche publications. The idea of a single publication (such as a newspaper) covering all topics at once will give way to people reading several separate sites instead.

Since stories can be uploaded via the Web from practically anywhere, the need for a central newsroom becomes less important. Full-time staff positions will grow less common and more work will be done on a freelance basis. This will help news organizations remain lean and keep their overall costs competitive. All these changes, will of course affect how news is presented, consumed and ultimately, paid for.

The industry is in the process of adapting and integrating into our brave new Internet-dominated world. Collectively, there have been more stumbles than successes, but the consumer demand for quality news and journalism hasn’t dissipated. Great progress has been made in how to adapt content for online consumption (videos, blogs, etc.), but little attention has been given to how to pay. The approach has been to sustain any online operation through online advertising, but after a few years of experimentation this method has fundamentally failed.

Thanks to the analytical software available to advertisers, clients know more about the reach and effectiveness of their ads. While this allows for the creation of more targeted campaigns, the exact nature of it has weakened the traditional leverage publications held and therefore reduced the rates they can reasonably charge.

Businesses are now emerging to introduce new fee structures that take lessons from proven methods of online payment like PayPal and the iTunes Store. Eventually, one such of these methods will come to dominate the market. Expect to start paying for your online reading and expect it soon. Newspapers really can’t afford it otherwise.