You know how episodes of This American Life are supposed to be based on a theme? But they’re not, right? The “theme” thing is a conceit, and the episodes are really an excercise in tying together the most disparate possible group of stories. It’s pretty fantastic, but what if a radio program picked a theme and really tried to explore and shed some light on that theme. Well, that radio program would be To The Best of Our Knowledge. But TTBook, as it calls itself, is not dry and didactic. It’s every bit as poetic and inspirational as This American Life. It’s contributors have enough Midwestern NPR sincerity make Steve Inskeep sound like Steven Colbert, and they sometimes veer dangerously close to paralyzing self-consciousness, but it’s always in the line of trying to get to the real heart of the issue.
But the best way to explain how great this all is might be to present a few episodes. Almost all of the episodes on the site are in RealAudio(!), so I figured I’d try to make them a little more user-friendly. I’d suggest subscribing to the podcast for future episodes.
The New Abolitionists: There are more human slaves in the world today then at any other time in history. The first interview in this show is with a woman who was abducted from the street in New York, and spent 5 years as a slave. The second, with a journalist who wrote a book on contemporary slavery, is about going to Haiti to purchase a child. Then follows the story of the successful abolitionist movement in Britain, over two hundred years ago, which succeeded — while innovating many of the techniques still used by political activists — because it got the whole of society to care. Finally, looks at a modern-day family’s attempts to come to grips with its slave-trading legacy and an interview with a Nobel Peace Prize winner about the economics of poverty which drive slavery. In one hour, the program explains how slavery works, argues that it can be stopped, and explains how to stop it. mp3 link
Alone Time: The first two segments are the quintessential TTBOOK juxtaposition: an in-depth discussion of the neurological and evolutionary origins and consequences of the cognitive process of loneliness, followed by an interview with a guy who spent a year living in complete isolation in the near-Antarctic part of Chile. Plus songs of loneliness, and a look at how American society is becoming increasingly isolated. mp3 link
David Foster Wallace: Obviously a labor of love for the crew, this posthumous look at DFW’s life and writing includes interviews with book critics, family, editors, and the writer himself (the program interviewed him three times between 1996 and 2004). There are links at the bottom of the page to the full versions of these interviews (recommended!) as well as an excerpt from the famous commencement speech DFW gave at Kenyon College in 2005. mp3 link