I probably watch around 20 to 30 online videos a day. When I go on a YouTube binge, that number skyrockets to some unhealthy and disturbing amount that I frankly do not care to confront. We constantly inundate ourselves with visual stimulation because it is often mindless entertainment that is more than easily accessible. Just sit back and enjoy, and maybe, if necessary, pay attention to the plot and the characters.
What happens when the visual component does not exist? It is called radio, or a podcast, no gasp necessary, as these are obviously not new or revolutionary forms of storytelling. But, in a world where viewers demand an emphasis on the visual dimension, these methods are often forgotten and disregarded. In the realm of radio, the radio essay offers a longer format; expository program that provides unique argumentative devices that video does not.
Yesterday, I listened to This American Life’s radio essay titled “Good Guys.” The piece was organized like a play; it began with a prologue, which was followed by four acts. “Good Guys” was first aired on live radio in these segments, over a few weeks during This American Life’s time slot on National Public Radio. I had the luxury of listening to the entire story in a podcast on This American Life’s website. I plopped down in my oversized armchair, hit play, and relaxed.
The Prologue introduced the question of “what it means to be a ‘good guy’” through something called the ‘good guy discount.’ The narrators Ben Calhoun, a producer at This American Life, and Ira Glass, host and executive producer, are impressed yet suspicious of Ben’s friend’s ability to save money by asking for a ‘good guy discount.’ The discount basically consists of asking the cashier, “Hey, I’m a good guy, you’re a good guy… Could you knock a little of the price?”
In Act I, Ben and Ira perform a field test in which Ben attempts to get this discount. Ben feels contempt for the practice, contending that it diminishes the meaning of the term ‘good guy.’ To Ben, ‘good guy’ should not be used as a coupon, but should be reserved as praise for truly ‘good’ acts, whereas Ira thinks asking for a ‘good guy discount’ “shows moxy.” Their field tests show that the ‘good guy discount’ has a 20 percent success rate. I do not know if I have the moxy to employ the method, nor do I care to create an unnecessary confrontation between myself and a perfectly nice cashier. I have no moral qualms against the ‘good guy discount’ – in fact, I respect those who even attempt it.
Act II maintains the comedic tone of the Prologue and Act I but switches to a new narrator, comedian Mike Birbiglia. As I laughed aloud at his anecdote about a bus ride gone awry, his question became clear to me. Does being decent mean that we are ‘good’ or is decency expected as a baseline standard for being an individual in society? Mike wanted credit from his wife for not staring at a pretty lady on a bus, while a “creepy guy” stared at her for the duration of the bus ride. His wife thought his expectation was ridiculous, and I agree with her. Being decent constitutes nothing more than being generally polite and respectful of others’ personal space. Basically, it means minding our own business. Being ‘good’ implies that we proactively help people and are consistently conscious of others.
Acts III and IV leave the humor of the first half of the essay behind and delve into the serious topics of death and killing. In Act III, Julia DeWitt narrates the story of David Shaw’s mission to recover the dead body of Deon Dreyer, a diver who went missing on a dive in Bushman’s Hole, an underwater cave in South Africa. During the recovery dive, David becomes entangled in Deon’s equipment and is trapped 900 feet below the surface[RG2] . David cannot free himself and dies despite the perilous efforts of his safety divers. But by entangling himself in Deon’s equipment, David made it possible to recover Deon’s body on the same dive in which his own body was recovered. David is a ‘good’ person, and all the more noble because he dies trying to help others. David is the opposite of Mike, who wanted credit for merely minding his own business. If there were a spectrum of ‘goodness’ David would be at the top next to ‘selfless’ and Mike down in the middle next to ‘decent’.
Julia Dewitt also narrates Act IV, in which she interviews an Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran named Adam. They listen to audiotapes of Adam talking about the war during his deployment. Soldiers sacrifice their lives for their countries, and the word ‘good’ does not do them justice. Yet, Adam and Julia confront his and many other soldiers’ strong desire to kill another human being as their main motivation in the midst of a war. Adam just wants the experience of shooting and subsequently killing another person, and he does not care about revenge or killing a bad guy to help win the war. This primal desire consumes him even though his days of fighting are over. Certainly, we characterize unmotivated killing as bad, and pretty much as far from good as possible. Killing for the sake of killing is an act reserved for crazy people, a drive someone is born with. Yet Adam was a normal 30-year-old who worked in the tech industry and did not come from a military family. He remembers having no such desire to kill. He believes basic training taught him and others how to be homicidal, and taught them to be ‘bad.’ Can a ‘good’ person be trained to be ‘bad’? Is goodness a quality reliant upon our personality or something that we can be trained out of?
We all want to be ‘good,’ as do all the people in this story. We define ‘good’ in different ways, but our personal definitions do not mean anything unless they exceed society’s expectation of decency. We do not have to risk our lives to be good but we can perform the same easy and basic acts every day to be considered ‘good guys’ and ‘good girls’.
Fifty-eight minutes after I pressed play, the podcast ended. By this time, I was thoroughly sunk into my chair, my eyes were closed, and my feet were resting on my chair. Listening to the story is just as informative, but not as abrasive or tiring on my eyes, as an hour of documentary style video. The radio essay gives the listener creative liberty to create their own visuals through imagination. If nothing else, the radio essay offers an enjoyable break from the constant stream of audiovisual overstimulation of our daily lives.