His American Life
This is an article from the spring 2016 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Joel Lovell (M.F.A. ’94) is taking a break from listening to teenage girls talk about photos on Instagram to chat with me. No, he’s not a high school guidance counselor, or even a cultural anthropologist— he is an editor at This American Life, the iconic, 20-year-old radio show created by WBEZ in Chicago.
Now in his second year on the job, Lovell has come to expect the unusual. One week, he’s puzzling through decades-old mysteries surrounding the assassination of an Israeli prime minister. The next, he’s tackling the story of a 90-year-old woman finding love in a nursing home.
In each episode, This American Life generally features two to four pieces of non-fiction, fiction, and interviews relating to a central theme. Topics range from the highbrow to the quotidian, suggesting that no aspect of culture is unworthy of exploration. For each story, Lovell’s task is the same: He helps polish the pieces to perfection in time for broadcast every week. And the stakes are high—This American Life beams weekly episodes to over 500 stations and more than 2.2 million listeners.
Today, Lovell has been in editing sessions for an episode called “Status Update.” During these meetings, he and his colleagues listen and re-listen to the stories, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. They look for holes in the narrative that need to be filled, or pieces of the story that should be moved for clarity or better flow. Lovell decides if someone needs to be interviewed again, or if a new person’s perspective could be helpful. It’s his job to ensure that each and every piece keeps the listener riveted from beginning to end—and that it all seems effortless.
“You have to look at what’s working in the story, but also, in a less intellectual sense, you look at the way in which things are said,” says Lovell. “You start paying a crazy amount of attention to the sound of things, such as, ‘Oh, there’s an intake of breath here that makes the next thing she says difficult to understand.’”
Joel Lovell has edited for New York Times Magazine and for the popular podcast Serial, and his work for This American Life includes stories about his interactions with a drunk tax attorney and how he trained himself to not sleep when he was eleven years old.
In the end, Lovell and his team whittle down stories to the compelling, bite-sized slices of the human experience that fans have come to expect from the series.
“On the best weeks,” says Lovell, “the stories explore the central idea in an interesting way, and the sum is even greater than the individual parts.”
Lovell’s résumé is packed with gigs at some of print and radio journalism’s heaviest hitters, and yet he is humble in recounting his life story. He was raised in upstate New York and went to college at Cornell University, expecting to eventually go on to medical school. As a student, he discovered that he had a burgeoning interest in literature and storytelling.
“At some point, I started reading and writing a lot of fiction,” says Lovell. “So I decided to apply to an M.F.A. program, which is how I ended up at U-M.”
Even after he received his M.F.A. and began teaching undergraduate fiction writing at Michigan, Lovell still figured he’d end up in medical school. But then something interesting happened.
“I kind of lucked into a magazine job at Harper’s,” says Lovell. “My friend had applied for a job at the magazine but decided not to take it, so he recommended me. I literally just got a call one day from an editor asking if I’d be interested in applying for an editing job. That was 20 years ago.”
And he’s still editing. Lovell spent several years at Harper’s before he went to the New York Times Magazine, then on to GQ, then back to the New York Times Magazine. And he has continued to write. In 2013, Lovell authored a cover story for the Times Magazine about author George Saunders and made waves with his August 2015 GQ cover profile of Stephen Colbert as the comedian made the transition to his new gig as late night host.
Lovell has also appeared on This American Life as a contributor multiple times, sharing anecdotes about odd jobs, insomnia, and college life. In 2014, he began editing for the show on a part-time basis. It was the first time he would edit for radio.
“When I started at This American Life, I thought the editing process would be similar, just listening to it rather than reading,” says Lovell. “I was so totally wrong.”
In radio, he learned, there is no way to correct a mispronounced word, or write around a speaker’s quote to better reflect their intent, as in a written story. Instead, he says, everything depends on the tape.
“In the best radio stories, the narrative unfolds through the tape—including emotion—and the script, if there is any, is in service of the tape itself,” he says. “There is a tyranny of the tape.”
Although his gig at This American Life is still fresh (he began working full time for the show in July 2015), Lovell also spends time exploring new media as an editor for the Atavist, an online magazine working to revolutionize digital storytelling. He also helped edit the first season of the wildly popular Serial podcast, which followed a tangled murder investigation.
“I think one of the reasons Serial was so popular—and there were a number of them—was because it was just so transparent,” he says. “Often we pretend that journalism is a function of pure objectivity. But it’s not. There are always all sorts of biases at work, because we’re human beings. With Serial, the host was deftly honest about her subjectivity, and she examined it so that the listener always knew what she was struggling with, and it made the series even more compelling.”
Radio, Lovell says, is experiencing a resurgence because it is so intimate and feels, at times, more raw than other forms of journalism. “It’s like someone talking directly into your brain,” says Lovell.
But Lovell cautions not to assume that the recent podcasting boom means that they’re easy to produce, or that all radio shows are created equal. “It’s really hard to make a good podcast,” he says. “There’s a reason that This American Life has been the most popular radio show for 20 years, and I can say that since I’m a recent arrival and all of their success has nothing to do with me. The people who make it are extraordinary—they’re crazy, crazy good at it.”
With Lovell’s help, This American Life will continue to produce the engrossing content for which the show is known, bringing stories of all aspects of our culture to millions of listeners across the globe for years to come.
For now, though, Lovell has to get back to the editing room. There are a few more stories to play around with today. This afternoon, it’s the politics of Instagram. Tomorrow—who knows?