“This American Life 596: Becoming a Badger,” a non-fiction audio story critique

Podcast link: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/596/becoming-a-badger

“Becoming a Badger” is a metaphor for people or animals who are trying to become something other than what they are. The badger reference in the story was inspired by a man named Charles Foster, who wanted to understand how animals perceived the world, so he actually lived, slept, and ate like a badger for about six weeks. Foster also wrote a book about his experiences.

The whole piece encapsulates three stories, in two acts, all at different ends of the topic spectrum.

The first story starts out at the extreme end of the spectrum, a man, trying to experience what it feels like to be another species. Early on in the interview around 1:13, I noted Charles Foster’s interview seemed disjointed from Ira Glass’s interview. It was like Foster was interviewed, and then Glass taped another interview narrating the story outside of Foster’s interview. I could definitely there was a difference between the two interviews because Foster sounded almost mechanical.

Foster’s interview served as an over five minute anecdotal lead that definitely captured my attention because Foster’s story was so bizarre. I mean, badgers eat worms in case you didn’t know, and Foster ate several live ones. In an excerpt of his book he describes the taste like, “…slime and land…decay and splintered wood…” and how the worms tried to wriggle through his teeth to escape while he ate them. Disgusting-yet evocative. Music denoted the mood of the next topic and signaled transitions throughout the entire piece.

Gad Elmaleh, a Moroccan French comedian, was described as the “French Jerry Seinfeld” left an extremely successful career as a standup comedian in France to pursue standup comedy in America. Elmaleh’s challenge: English was not his first language, and American culture possess a different sense of humor than French culture. Why would Elmaleh want to embark on such a daunting challenge? He explained that after he became successful in France, no matter what he said, people would laugh and it deadened him. Elmaleh wanted a new challenge.

The transition to Elmaleh’s story is marked by a clip of one of his French performances a boisterous crowd, cheering to a Michael Jackson song, while they watch Elmaleh’s silhouette dance to the music prior to his comedy set. Glass narrates over the top of this clip and tells the listener who Elmaleh is-this is effective, I definitely get the vibe of Elmaleh’s performances in France and the gist of who Elmaleh is.

Glass does an effective and short introduction qualifying the next narrator to tell Elmaleh’s story. After a pass off to the next narrator, Zak McDermott, who begins the story with his initial impressions of Elmaleh. As the story progresses there’s a section of narration from Elamaleh as he describes the French crowd and the type of physical comedy he performs and you hear clapping from the audience mixed with Elmaleh’s description. This is effective part of the audio storytelling because it makes me feel like I’m right there at this moment watching Elmaleh perform.

After another appropriate music transition,  and Elamaleh talks about how some of his jokes fell flat in America. On one track you hear Elamaleh telling a joke in an American performance and the crowd’s reaction is included; and in possibly another track, I can’t tell- you can hear the natural sound of silverware dropping on a glass plate. I felt this is a unique and subtly effective way to convey failure in audio storytelling.

This story follows a simple formula throughout: narration, sound bite, narration sound bite.

Act one ends with a traditional broadcast sign off of Glass saying, “Zak McDermott, New York.” and a humorous song about Gad Elmaleh helps wrap up act one.

The second act begins with the University of Wisconsin fight song, about a badger, and transitions into the next story about a dog named Ray-Ray. Ray-Ray’s story is about an animal trying to understand what it’s like to be an animal.

Ray-Ray’s owner, Judy, is introduced into the story by a little background information from the narrator and a one-time natural sound of a dog squeaky toy accompanied it. A simple sound bite of Judy talking to Ray-Ray is played, and the listener immediately understands what type of person Judy is and her relationship with Ray-Ray based on this unpretentious sound bite.

Judy’s objective for Ray-Ray is to get him accepted into a club for Terrier’s in New York that hunts for rats on the streets. The best part: a mic is strapped to Ray-Ray during the story and it draws the listener into his experience to hear him fetch a ball, whine, and finally triumph and assist another dog in catching a rat.

There are two distinct narrators in this story, Zoe Chace, who gives excellent scene setting descriptions throughout the story. For example, when Ray-Ray meets up with the club for the first time to try out, she gives the physical location, time, temperature, and, “It smells like hot garbage.” Zoe’s evocative description makes me feel connected to Ray-Ray’s story through all of my senses.

The second narrator, Emmanuel Dzotsi, who has an English accent by the way, also does a lot of basic but effective scene setting and description of characters in the story so you get a feel for who they are.

Act two concludes with a song that has a happy vibe that says, “I smell a rat baby…”

Glass begins narrating the conclusion of the production and, “Badger Song” by Dead Milkmen comes on and plays until the end of Glass’s narration providing a wraparound conclusion to all three stories.

With the exception of the unnatural interview mixing of Ira Glass and Charles Foster in the beginning, all three of the stories were told very effectively through audio. All of the narrators were descriptive about the characters, the scene, and what was happening throughout the stories. All of the natural sounds produced were of quality and strategically placed throughout the stories in meaningful ways. The music in the production was appropriate and effective for transitions because it set the mood for the listener, added comedy, and connected the listener to all the stories in visceral, creative ways.


One thought on ““This American Life 596: Becoming a Badger,” a non-fiction audio story critique

  1. This was such a weird episode. Classic TAL in the story of Ray-Ray and the French comic. But definitely off the rails with the Charles Foster segment. TAL has their method down pat so it can be hard to find something to critique. With respect to the first story, what production techniques would you have suggested to make it feel more cohesive? Especially when you have an interview subject that sounds overly rehearsed.


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