Audio File #1: Urban Cultures

Audio stories captivate me. I know I am not alone, but radio is something I can totally geek out about. Hell, it's a cliché now to be obsessed with NPR. It is an old adage that while TV speaks to an audience, radio speaks to an individual. There is something innately personal about hearing another human speak in their voice into your ear, tellng you news from around the world, or stories from their experience in the world.

To honor the power of audio, I am beginning a series of short posts on favorite shows of mine. Up first for the holiday weekend: Urban Cultures, from To the Best of Our Knowledge.

To the Best of Our Knowledge (TTBOOK, as they abbreviate it) comes from Anne Strainchamps at Minnesota Public Radio. At first I was slow to warm to the sometimes-flowery take on different subjects; interviews seemed to lack a hard-hitting truth-seeking approach. But what I came to appreciae was the sheer sense of wonder that seems to drive the production staff of this show, and the breadth of topics they take on. It is not a news magazine show that seeks to tell all sides of a story evenly. Rather, the staff curates interviews with individuals really invested in their take on a subject. (Side note: Strainchamps is apparently the cousin of my boss, and not-infrequently covers plants; both of these things are awesome.)

Naturally I was drawn to the show because of its focus on cities and the human experience of urban life. An ongoing topic in the twenty-first century is the increasing urbanization of our world--the majority of humans live in cities now for the first time in history--and how that impacts our society. I, of course, feel that cities can augment our humanity and bring diverse groups closer together. But it is really in the developing world that the problems of urbanizing hundreds of millions of people over the coming decades will be decided.

The show starts with a melancholy look at Istanbul, once the seat of the Ottoman empire, now an enigmatic bridge between East and West. We move on to the power of cities and their progressive ideals, such as individual property rights, free enterprise, and representation, to reshape the world. Curiously, Russell Shorto proposes that the immigrant experience of New York as the entrance to America helped define American culture as those immigrants then moved inward and continued to take New York ideals with them.

Next we get a chance to consider how places can shape our experiences and memories, and the danger of building or inhabitating "blandscapes", generic stand-ins for authentic locales. Fittingly, the urban section ends with a focus on the cities of China, specifically Shanghai, and how the migrant experience there continues to shape Chinese culture.

One nice thing about TTBOOK is that the final minutes are reserved for different topics. A "dangerous idea" offered is to split America into several smaller countries to make government more nimble. I already worry about the cultural fragmentation enabled by the segregation of liberals and conservatives geographically, so I am left unconvinced. Our government seems to lumber in paralysis today, but I sincerely feel that our progress is strengthened through debate. To live in a homogeneous society driven by groupthink would be a sad state for our society indeed.

The show ends with NPR's Michele Noris recounting her own father's interaction with a police officer, and how the stories brought up by the events in Ferguson, Missouri over the last several weeks go back decades. Unfortunately, the circumstances in our society that lead to ongoing racial segregation and inequity will likely take decades more to address. The solace I find there is that I may be able to contribute to addressing them.

A nice hour of audio coming out of Minnesota this week. Savor it!