Public radio shows are usually very good at self-policing. The shows that fit the stereotypes of public broadcasting — of being high-minded and instructional, having an over-inflated air of self-value and an overall demeanor of being, yuck, good for you — tend not to last too long on it. In other words, the shows that purport to have unassailable merit don’t stick around much, while the shows that genuinely have that merit do. Such is the case for two programs, This American Life and Radiolab. The former, featuring host Ira Glass, bobs and weaves from anecdotes on a unified subject to real journalism on that same subject, varying from episode to episode. (The current podcast hit Serial is a spinoff of TAL.) The latter, hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich dares to take complex scientific concepts and break them down in an entertaining way, understandable to the layman.
There are a few strands that tie the two shows together, even though their locations of origination (Chicago and New York) have more than a few miles between them. Both find the story inside the story rather than the lecture or the rationale behind all of it, again going to the point of being good and not just good for you. Both shows have a tendency to dig into something you recognize to show you how much or little you actually know about the topic.
There is a new link between the two: NPR’s new show Invisibilia, starting Friday, January 9 on supporting public radio member stations. The hosts of the show, Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, both acted as producers and contributors for the previously mentioned programs and have taken the storytelling approach found there and applied it to a new subject: the invisible world that affects us every day.
How so? “Invisibilia is a show about all the invisible things that shape human behavior, stuff like thoughts and emotions, beliefs and assumptions, and all those things you can’t physically lay out on a table but which have a huge impact on your day to day life,” Spiegel told me in an interview. On its face, one might think the show would get bogged down into psychobabble and not be entertaining, considering that it focuses on something as intangible as thought. (Trust me, I once went to a lecture on the “inner world of the mind.” It was the best 2-hour nap I ever had.) You will not sleep through Invisibilia.
The thread that ties the debut’s two stories together is being trapped by and with thought. Without giving out any spoilers, the first half focuses on a man with profoundly disturbing and unwanted thoughts of harming, both himself and others. The second story deals with a man who, as a child, developed a form of meningitis that robbed him of almost all his outward functions but not his thought process or interior life. Two men stuck with thoughts they cannot let out; one to be free of them and the other to prove he is still, in fact, alive.
Spiegel and Miller, self-admittedly, have a similar vocal tone so initially the listener might trip up and not know which person is speaking. Once the stories begin, however, that doesn’t matter as the listener becomes engrossed in the narratives. The program itself is expertly produced, and the outcomes for each of the two stories are surprising, even shocking, and will leave the listener thinking about their own thought processes, what has value, what may not, and what if your thoughts were all that you had left to you.
Owing to the self-policing of radio, I hope that Spiegel and Miller have booked a few years to devote to Invisibilia. They may be doing it for quite a while, and listeners will be all the better for that…and none of it tastes like it’s “good for you” either. Invisibilia begins airing on January 9 and will also be available as a podcast through NPR.Org as well as through iTunes. Segments from and related to the show will be aired during NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Bonus points: the debut show has the oddest, but most appropriate usage of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” I’ve heard in a while. You’ll have to tune in to hear if you get it.