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March 30, 2010, 10 a.m.

What does This American Life look like? A designer visualizes the radio

Most New Year’s resolutions are as predictable as they are short-lived: Quit smoking. Lose weight. Be more patient. Stop procrastinating. Use the occasion of a sparkling new year to become happy of mind and healthy of body and strong of spirit and pretty much awesome of everything.

Most New Year’s resolutions, in other words, aren’t terribly interesting to anyone save the resolution-makers themselves. So it’s pretty exciting when someone comes up with a resolution that is — and with one that’s less about fixing something broken as about creating something new. This American Infographic, for example: an attempt, born of a 2010 resolution, to illustrate each episode of This American Life in graphic form — and to add, essentially, a visual component to an aural medium. “The idea is to expand and add context to the stories and information contained in the shows,” TAI’s proprietor (who is virtually anonymous: he takes credit for the project only with a name embedded in its web address) writes on the site. “Basically, anything I am curious about while listening to the pieces.”

The proprietor in question? EJ Fox, a web designer living in upstate New York. Who is also a freelance infographic producer. Who is also an aspiring journalist. Who is also a student. Who is also 17.

“I grew up on the web,” Fox told me. “I didn’t really grow up reading newspapers.” And his digital nativity, as it were, has given him a visual approach to journalism — even to journalism born on the radio. “Me and my friends, we’ve all been fans of This American Life for a long time — they make a great program,” Fox says. “Instead of delving into the news, you’re really telling a story from start to finish. That’s one of the things that appeals to me.”

He started with a bang, posting one graphic on January 4, two on January 5, one on January 7, one on January 8, and one on January 17…and then — one way Fox’s New Year’s resolution is, indeed, like most other ones — the project stalled in mid-January. (“I’ve been extremely busy over the last couple of days,” he explained on January 12.) But now that This American Infographic is getting some attention, he’s started up again. The latest infographic, based on “#1 Party School,” went up on Saturday:

Fox is an info junkie. He visits and other government-information sites in his spare time, “just looking for interesting data,” and likes the idea, he says, that “somebody has cold, hard numbers about something, and that some truth can be brought out of it.” And This American Life, he points out, has now “gotten to a point where they can have a really great story and also have hard numbers and hard facts.”

It’s that combination — one the show is celebrated for, and one steadily expanding our notion of what “explanatory journalism” can be in the first place — that inspires This American Infographic. “Everybody has access to the bare news, everybody knows what’s going on,” Fox says. “But I think that the quality, and what makes a good journalist, comes from how you interpret that event — what perspective you have on that event, and what you can dig up and find out about it and then put forward as your piece.”

Fox is home-schooled, and he attributes the project in part to the scheduling flexibility and the creative agency that homeschooling gives him. In addition to his high school course work (he follows a mostly self-directed curriculum, guided by his parents), Fox also takes digital radio courses at the local community college. He also experiments with music. He also puts his interest in journalism, data, and web design to work in his freelance infographic projects.

Which is, in a roundabout way, how This American Infographic came to be. “I’d been listening to This American Life as I worked on infographics for clients and whatnot, and I always found that what I was listening to on the radio was a lot more interesting than what I was working on for the client,” Fox says. “And it made me really, really just want to delve into those episodes and get into it.”

Among the people impressed by the work that’s resulted? Ira Glass, This American Life’s much-beloved host. “Mainly it’s just really cool — there’s not a more sophisticated word for it — it’s just cool to see the stories turned into something so different from what they are on the radio,” Glass told me over e-mail. “Like if there were some guy doing our show in Urdu, imitating my voice and using Urdu music in the background of the stories, it would feel like this.”

POSTED     March 30, 2010, 10 a.m.
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