The Story with Dick Gordon isn't indescribable. It's a radio show on WUNC-FM. With Dick Gordon. Once it airs at 1 p.m. Thursday, similes will spring forth and adjectives will abound. But at this moment, as it balances on the verge of the airwaves, it's not easy to elicit a quick description—even from its creators.
So what's the story? Here's what it's not: It's not Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation or This American Life. Fine with me. Even the best of those, Fresh Air, isn't quite as fresh as it used to be; Talk of the Nation stumbled and never recovered from host Ray Suarez's departure; and the Gen-X archness of This American Life can irritate as often as it entertains.
"It's important that we not be any of those things," Gordon says, putting an articulated slowness and a slight emphasis on the "not" and the "be." It's good to hear that smooth, syncopated voice again after Gordon's months-long hiatus from public radio. "It's funny, because you don't ever want to define yourself by what you're not going to be, but for the past few months, that's what we've been doing."
The Story with Dick Gordon won't have a lineup of tired and retired generals, beltway bloviators and coy instapundits. Nor will it jump from topic to topic in the relentless rat-a-tat of much radio and television news, leaving an empty buzz in its wake. Listeners can mostly expect one or two stories an hour, not three or four or more.
And while it won't have that old tempting invitation for Connection listeners to call in, "to join the conversation," don't mourn the decision to kill the call-in. You may have fantasized about how casually you would have said, "Dick, really enjoy your show." How cleverly you would have then articulated your aperçus to a national audience. And how quickly other listeners, simultaneously bored by you and embarrassed for you, would have ground their teeth and punched their radio buttons to stifle the sound. Rare are the moments—except, of course, on Car Talk—that a caller elucidates or deepens the conversation. To say nothing of making you laugh. Research nationwide shows that political call-in shows are, if not on the decline, showing symptoms of choleric fatigue syndrome.
So, yes, The Story will be different from WBUR Boston's abruptly canceled The Connection, which ran on WUNC-FM from September 2001 until its demise last July. But WUNC had the foresight and financial chops to hire that show's main asset, Dick Gordon, and ask him what he wanted to do. He arrives with decades of reporting experience, intellectual curiosity and an ability to both cleverly frame and pose questions in a seemingly low-key manner that gets lamely described as "civil" and "polite." He's not a "pump up the volume," "more about me" kind of host. He's neither a pushy ideologue nor an interrupter. Some people think he's not enough of a lefty; more people think he's not right enough, but who wants to listen to them? What he's not is a temporizing, bland, middle-of-the-roader.
Perhaps the best description of Gordon's new show resides in its purposefully stripped-down title. Less is more; though telling a story is never simple. What Dick Gordon and senior producer Greg Kelly, who had worked for four years in radio with Gordon at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, are now working on is creating a kind of new journalism over the airwaves. It's a re-acquaintance with the literary journalistic ideal of telling a story, of privileging experience over academic or elite expertise, of finding the people who have lived the story. Want a story on illegal immigration? Talk to illegal immigrants.
The Story's equivalent is out there, endangered, but hardly extinct. Its most familiar models are probably from literary journalism. The long magazine article with the developed anecdotal lead. Those pieces can take months for an experienced reporter to report and write. They only happen with great effort, by slowing down and finding the people who can illustrate the story, the people who can illuminate why we should care. It's not done much because it's incredibly hard—and expensive—to do. It can turn journalism into a ground-pounding project. The results, of course, can be brilliant.
Kelly, who most recently worked in television documentary production with the CBC before returning to radio to work with Gordon, notes, "It's a return, really, to something elemental." Neither of them is sanguine about being able to pull it off. Gordon demurs quite realistically that the "journalistic calisthenics" involved in doing a show five days a week is daunting—especially since they don't yet have a full contingent on board. So the show is being rolled out slowly—just once a week for the first month or six weeks.
But the first show, airing 1 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 16, is a prototype they'll try to pull off as often as possible—one issue, one hour. This story springs from the question: What effects will the current U.S. policy on "coercive interrogation" have years down the line—post-Abu Ghraib, post-Gitmo, post-Afghanistan? Instead of going to former state department officials or U.N. officials, talk to someone who was tortured. Because everything bad in the world has already been invented, U.S. interrogation teams are serving the same mean menu the British served up to IRA suspects decades ago: hooding, stress positions, white noise, and extreme heat and cold.
The Story finds a man from Belfast, hauled off the streets by the British in their indiscriminate sweeps of IRA-suspected areas in 1971. He was 21 and interested in girls, not politics. He was held for months, beaten senseless, tortured by British interrogators.
"This fellow seemed like a perfect example of the kind of random hauling in we've seen—in some instances—in Iraq," Gordon says. Gordon is always careful, in that experienced journalist's way, not to exaggerate. But even the U.S. Army's own study of Abu Ghraib estimated that 60 percent of the detainees were "not a threat" and should have been released. Military intelligence officers told the International Committee of the Red Cross that between 70 and 90 percent of Iraqis arrested and detained were innocent.
So the Irish fellow is now more than 50 years old and has decades of hate under his belt. After months of beating and torture, he came out as a fervent supporter of the IRA and its use of violence as a way of resistance, as a way of provoking the British. He was politicized.
"He just explained that with such cold passion," recalls Gordon. "Here's the first-person anecdote that tells the story we're sitting around wondering about. What's the effect of coercive interrogation or torture—be it a year or five years or 10 years from now?"
And because that's not the whole story, Gordon and his producers and researchers have also found a former U.S. Army interrogator, from our current "Global War on Terror," and played him some of the tape to start the dialogue. Stay tuned. We GWOT more.
But the show isn't going to be all torture, all the time. Like The Connection at its most engaging, it will be, as Gordon notes, "a kind of selfish approach to the world." What gets and holds Gordon's attention will keep the show varied. For instance, bringing in witty British cultural critic John Carey to debate "What good are the arts?" with an artist and visual critic. Letting the wily Frank McCourt—author of Angela's Ashes and most recently Teacher Man—loose in a North Carolina classroom. This mixture of cultural and public policy and news programming will keep the show from falling into the dark gray front-page headlines of The New York Times and never emerging.
Gordon remembers the fall of 2004 at The Connection as an abject lesson. A soul-sucking, intellectually bereft presidential election. The Iraq war. Helicopters falling out of the sky, Iraqi citizens being killed. And The Connection went from election coverage to war coverage and back to election coverage.
"We hadn't done our jobs. We were so driven by the headlines that we weren't offering the diverse voices, access to other stories, political or social, in this country or elsewhere. We started to hear from people, What happened to you guys? Now you're just the news."
While The Story is conceived as a national show with hopes for syndication, it's ultimately going to depend greatly on North Carolina and the stories and people here for its success, even though it's not a program about North Carolina. But the national media aren't crawling around here, sticking mikes up our noses. The South is generally ignored, except for every four years when we're hauled out of the stable and trotted around the track as commentators explain that we're the shin-splinted reason that progressive politics will lose out nationwide. So Dick Gordon, a Canadian by way of Boston, and Greg Kelly, a Canadian by way of Oxford, are going to change that? Hey, every little bit helps.
And, as they work with that volatile mixture of the South meets the nation, there's the other, even more ambitious plan floating out there—the one that might replace the old New Journalism with a kind of new New Journalism. What if The Story, instead of ground-pounding for its stories and sources, partly depended on tens of thousands of listeners across the nation? These listeners wouldn't just sit and passively talk back to their radios, or send a pissed off or a congratulatory e-mail after a story ran—an e-mail that might get distilled to two sentences and read on the air. What if the audience itself helped create and report the stories, a feed-in loop, not just a feedback loop? Wiki journalism. This kind of participatory journalism via the Internet is right on the verge, too. It's also a nice big smack upside the head of a recalcitrant, if not shin-splinted, mainstream media.
"The venerable profession of journalism finds itself at a rare moment in history where, for the first time, its hegemony as gatekeeper of the news is threatened by not just new technology and competitors but by the audience it serves," noted an influential report by the American Press Institute in 2003. Darned audiences.
"There's a resistance," notes Gordon with his trademark restraint. "It means we're not in charge anymore. Who am I to decide, in fact, what the story is?" So the new game in reporting town essentially repeats this mantra: "My readers and listeners know more than I know." Imagine.
To take that seriously, you can't just be launching editors' blogs here or hosting reader or listener response forums there. Horizontal, open-source journalism means you take thousands of readers and listeners, you ask them regularly for their input, and you mine them like crazy to help define, frame and even sometimes report the stories. WUNC is in discussions with Minnesota Public Radio to perhaps join forces with Minnesota's Public Insight Journalism, a database of thousands of Minnesotans willing to both listen and participate, and expand that database nationally. Sources and stories with a keystroke, via some sophisticated combinations of techy-nerd-meets-ethnologist-meets-reporter-meets-sources. As Gordon puts it, much more simply, "Our bosses are talking." Stay tuned to see if the possible can be made actual.
This is heady stuff, what Gordon and his small, not yet completed team are trying for. If they can pull it off, it'll be fresh, and original, and meaningful. It'll be real journalism, by whatever means.
Finally, though, there's the simple truth: Aurality rules. We like to listen.
"I think radio can do just about anything," Gordon says. "There's something about the sound of a human voice that makes it really hard for people to walk away from."
The Story with Dick Gordon premieres Thursday, Feb. 16, at 1 p.m. on WUNC, 91.5 FM. It will have a weekly schedule for the first month or six weeks until airing five days a week.