What happened over the past 12 months that challenged our assumptions and made us think about things in new ways?
As Senior Producer, every once in a while I like to step out from behind the mixing board to give a behind-the-scenes look at some aspect of the program—especially when the Philosophers themselves are off on their holiday breaks. For this week's annual end-of-year special, "The Examined Year" (because the un-examined year is not worth reviewing!), we tried something a bit different, though not unprecedented.
As a modular episode featuring three different conversations, it's often a challenge to come up with a "Roving Philosophical Report" that satisfyingly captures the sounds and stories of the year that was. So a few years ago, as we were working on The Examined Year: 2015, we asked our Roving Reporter to produce three abbreviated stories to set up each of the conversations in that episode. Of course producing three pieces of sound-rich narrative journalism under two minutes each proved to be its own challenge (we tried it again for The Examined Year: 2016 but reverted to the traditional RPR the following year). But when schedules and such were becoming complicated earlier this month, I proposed that we produce a brief audio montage as a setup to each segment. The result was a rare episode with no Roving Philosophical Report but a tad more work for yours truly.
With the news hooks for the discussions in this year's program being the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the new Space Race among private citizens, and the return of some forms of on-site work, I started with the low-hanging fuit and built the montage for "The Year in Space Tourism" around William Shatner (aka Captain James T. Kirk) becoming the oldest person to travel into space. I wanted to be careful not to glamorize Jeff Bezos and the other billionaires leading the ethically-questionable private-sector charge into space; Elon Musk appears only indirectly through the people aboard the SpaceX Dragon capsule, but it proved tough to entirely ignore the media-savvy Richard Branson.
Next up was the challenge of illustrating what returning to on-site work (for those whose jobs allowed them to work from home in the first place, of course) sounded like. A typical Zoom meeting certainly featured a host of different-sounding interactional dynamics, but not only had we "been there, done that" in 2020, the whole point this year was the tentative steps we were taking back to semi-normality. I was honestly at a bit of a loss as to how to depict the post-pandemic workplace in sound, until a friend pointed me to the folks who had taken to TikTok to work through some of their concerns and experiences.
That left the least savory of the segments to tackle, the Year in Political Insurrection. It was certainly easy to think of sounds associated with the January 6 attack; we had seen and heard them on the day and repeated throughout the year. The most disturbing, of course, were those associated with the violence itself, which for better or worse would likely lose their power on the radio. But I was loath to listen to the unedited tape of speakers at the rally that preceded the riot, or to listen to politicians and others downplaying it as the year wore on. In the end it was Rep. Jamie Raskin's presentation at the ensuing impeachment trial, along with a small set of media clips from the day itself, that provided me with the necessary material.