"I kept thinking, 'It's visuals it's visuals it's pictures it's pictures,' " Susan Stamberg said recently in her chatty, rambling way. Except this time she wasn't speaking on National Public Radio's acclaimed news program, "All Things Considered"; she was talking about the show's first venture on television, and the challenge of translating the subtle images of radio into pictures.
The program, "All Things Considered . . . on Main Street" (channels 26 and 32 tonight at 9:30), is "a special for now," Stamberg said, dismissing the suggestion that it may be a pilot. "There's no way we can do that on a regular basis. Maybe -- and this is totally unofficial -- if it works to our satisfaction, maybe once or twice a year. But that would take a lot of thought. The main goal is to stretch us and see if it would hold up in another medium. Maybe it will bring more people to the radio program."
As if "All Things" needs to flag down its audience. Stamberg says that at any given moment during the daily, 90-minute radio show, half a million people are listening (with a total daily audience of about 5 million). The program, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last May, has won numerous prizes, including the prestigious Peabody and du Pont-Columbia awards in broadcasting. So why tamper with something already wonderful?
"Television is there, and an enormous number of people watch it," suggests Sanford Ungar, Stamberg's co-host. "I don't think the mysteries between the media are as great as they're supposed to be. 'All Things Considered' does have this incredible loyal following on radio. But it's a kind of noble experiment to see how it translates."
Co-produced by NPR and WETA, it translates rather well, especially for a maiden effort. "All Things Considered . . . on Main Street" does more than superficially apply its radio format to a visual medium. It experiments with animation, photography, music, an incisive script and still does what the radio show does so well -- it lets Americans talk. The experiment works better in some places than in others. But the finished product is a playful journal that says more about this country in one hour than network news magazines have mumbled so far this season.
The fast-paced program opens with the familiar voices of Stamberg and Ungar (both have worked on television before), the "ATC" music and a clever piece of animation that reveals the show's theme even before any serious talking begins. A roll of film leaps from the top of a cartoon Capitol and becomes a highway extending across America. Or, as Stamberg puts it, the show looks at the effect of Washington on the rest of the nation, and the reaction of people on Main Street to the "Reagan revolution."
Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer handle the first story, on what they call the "new Congress" -- a legislative body with little sense of history or of how the system works, elected by "a rootless new America." Rep. Jack Fields (R-Tex.) is the example they use of a "fine young man," a relative unknown who, by using computers and a slick television campaign, managed to defeat Democrat Bob Eckhardt, a 14-year-veteran of Congress. Roberts and Wertheimer make excellent use of pictures in this segment, with a rapid flipping of pages through the "Congressional Portrait Directory" to demonstrate their point that rootless politics leads to electing leaders on looks alone.
In a segment called "The Malling of Main Street," Stamberg visits shopping malls, "the extension of the vision of Walt Disney." "In here it's safe," she remarks, standing in one of the thousands of climate-controlled cocoons, with a background of strolling couples, frolicking children eating ice cream, and windows chock-full of consumer goods. When she asks two teen-aged boys why they come to malls, one of them answers, while chomping on bubble gum, "to hang out." The segment is consummated with a wedding in the mall -- complete with ushers and bridesmaids riding down an escalator.
One story that might have fared better without the voyeurism of TV is Bill Buzenberg's verbally moving report on U.S. immigration policy. As the camera lingers on an obese Haitian woman, who waits for the judge's verdict slouched in her chair and picking her nails, the viewer's sympathy decreases. Maybe the intent, as both Stamberg and Ungar suggest, was to capture the woman's look of fear or anguish upon hearing of her deportment. But the expression reflected on film is one of boredom.
Nevertheless, "All Things Considered . . . on Main Street" doesn't neglect the touches that work so well on radio, like ideas simply stated and plain folks talking. In explaining supply-side economics, Robert Krulwich says, "The more you save, the more there is for business to borrow . . . You are supplying business with extra money to borrow." While rumps sporting designer jeans bump on the screen, a child's voice says innocently, "It's not the need that you need 'em. It's the want that you want 'em." And during a scene at a Cajun celebration in a Louisiana bar, a young man says, "We're going to enjoy life. I don't care who's president. I don't care what's happening. We're going to enjoy it."
Stamberg suggests another reason for the move to television. "I think there's a real curiosity about us, too, from our audience. They're curious about our looks." She's probably right; there is a reciprocal curiosity between the "All Things Considered" team and its vocal audience, and that's what makes the program so magical -- on both radio and television.