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Radio beats video in explaining financial crisis

13 Oct

Want to see the financial crisis deconstructed by a different breed of pundits than those we are subject to on TV?

A Harvard University panel discussion is available as a video feed at the Harvard site. It’s all about this “slow motion train wreck.”

But if you really want feel the heartbeat of the crisis (and not have someone fling around terms like “leverage” and “swaps” without some explanation) then I highly recommend listening to Ira Glass on This American Life, esp his second big take on the financial meltdown.

Part One,The Giant Pool of Money,” was scary enough. This was before the Feds decided to invest in bank stocks, and the G8 finance ministers meeting last week.

Part Two,Another frightening show about the economy,” was true to its title.

This is radio at its best. Glass does much more than capture and edit together the sound bytes of experts. He gives you a sense of the fear and contradictory thoughts running through people in the eye of the storm.

At one point, he asks one John Zuker whom we consumers should be upset with. There’s dead air and Glass says “that’s a long pause, John?” Zuker, apologizes but Glass lets him take his time; you know he’s left the pause in there to give us listeners an idea of how complicated the problem is, how scary it is when so-called experts don’t have pat answers to what ails our financial system. The layman’s explanation of credit default swaps, and something called ‘netting‘ make you wonder where our leaders were when these modern weapons of mass destruction were created.

Compared to similar analytical takes on CNN or Fox, the urgent pace and mesmerizing whirl of distracting graphics, split-screens, fast cuts, crawlers and props, radio beats TV to a punch in getting to the granular level of a crisis.

Even this well-done time-line by the New York Times, fails to get the bigger sweep of history. It begins in 2001, but misses a big one: the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999.

In times like this, TV has become the Circus Maximus providing entertainment for the lazy. Radio delivers the story, the backstory and the analysis. Great work, Ira!

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