Adapting Daisey’s staged monologue for radio: less shouting, more intimacy

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Update: On March 16, This American Life retracted “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” its Jan. 6 broadcast that adapted monologist Mike Daisey’s story about working conditions in Chinese gadget factories. Read more.

Crunching a two-hour stage monologue into a 39-minute radio piece was a huge challenge for Ira Glass, e.p. and host of This American Life.

Glass decided to adapt The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs after seeing monologist Mike Daisey perform the show that skewers Apple and Jobs for the harsh working conditions in factories where adored Apple products are assembled. Glass said the adaptation “turned out to be much more difficult than either of us expected.”

Aside from length, there were issues of tone, and moments that work on the stage don’t necessarily translate to radio. Also, issues of accuracy. Daisey is a performer, not a journalist. Everything in his piece needed to be meticulously fact-checked.

Glass started by playing a show recording for his staff. Producer Robyn Semien didn’t like it. “She thought it was interesting but said, ‘He’s shouting so much, I don’t connect to the material emotionally, and it sounds like he’s not connected.’”

So editing down the show wouldn’t work. Daisey then wrote a one-hour script, which Glass and his staff adapted for radio. They dropped the Jobs story line and just focused on China.

The next challenge was recording Daisey, a Zero Mostel–size presence with a commanding voice. “Mike tried to perform for the scale of radio,” said Glass. “But I kept interrupting him, which blew his mind. Play directors don’t interrupt.”

Daisey needed to tell his story one-on-one, but that was difficult since he was accustomed to bellowing into a theater that holds 199.

Glass booked a theater for 40 people, and opened it free to listeners so Daisey could perform a revised show in a more intimate venue.

They scheduled two shows, recording Daisey until they got it right.

Producer Brian Reed was tasked with fact-checking Daisey’s script.

Daisey does not purport to be investigative reporter, but glimpses of the story drew him in. A few years ago a worker in Shenzhen, China, left four test photos of the factory on an iPhone, and someone posted the photos online. They haunted Daisey, so he flew to China to visit the sprawling factory town where Apple and other electronic devices are assembled.

Daisey and an interpreter interviewed workers but did not apply the same journalistic rigor that Glass would have.

Reed fact-checked the monologue by talking with industry sources and double-checking items such as the population of Shenzhen, a number Daisey had obtained from a local museum. The producers learned that underage workers in the factories used by Apple are not as prevalent as it might seem from Daisey’s remarks.

So, after the monologue, Glass ends the show by chatting with Daisey to clarify that and other discrepancies found in fact-checking.

Acknowledging that reporting was new to him, Daisey readily submitted to extended questioning. “Mike wanted it to be as accurate as possible,” Glass said. “He viewed with pleasure what we were doing because it was going to give him, in effect, the Good Housekeeping Seal of approval.”

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