“What is a life worth living? When is it time to die?As modern medicine's tools grow more powerful, these questions are asked each day, in every hospital in the country. This program will profile the people who answer them: clinical medical ethicists.”
In 1999, Alex Blumberg was a fledgling radio producer who was hired by WBEZ to produce his first half-hour audio documentary.
Blumberg later became a producer at This American Life and co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money podcast. In recent years he co-founded Gimlet Media, a for-profit podcast company that’s innovating around the creation of narrative storytelling podcasts.
But back in 1999 when he was hired to produce the half-hour documentary, “Doing the Right Thing in Health Care's Brave New World,” he had very little experience.
“This was my third career,” Blumberg says. “I was 31 or 32-years-old but I was just a beginner. I worked at This American Life as the intern/administrative assistant for six months, and then I quit to freelance.”
He was hired for the project by Johanna Zorn, then-Executive Producer of Chicago Matters, a WBEZ collaboration with WTTW Channel 11, the Chicago Public Library and The Chicago Reporter, funded by the Chicago Community Trust. Zorn went on to co-found the Third Coast Audio Festival.
She says digital editing was just coming into vogue and Blumberg had cut down some interviews for the Poetry Foundation that she liked. “He seemed like such a natural,” she says.
Each year the Chicago Matters series focused on a different topic. In 1999, the series was called Examining Health.
Blumberg had heard from some medical residents that end-of-life decisions were becoming so common that hospitals were having to employ medical ethicists.
Blumberg says, “I had this vision of families and doctors being like: ‘We don’t know what to do. Call the ethicists!’ But it wasn’t like that. There wasn’t the ethicists lounge with a big red light going, ‘Somebody needs an ethical decision made!’”
“What intrigued me about it was that here was this modern field of medicine calling on this ancient field of philosophy to solve this problem that modern medicine had created. And then it’s happening at one of the most intense moments you can imagine.”
Blumberg says he got good tape but his original draft was a mess. His editor - Julia McEvoy - made him go back in the writing and identify key turning points in the story. “‘Help us pay attention to this point.’ I remember her suggesting that. It was a narrative you could follow then.”
Zorn, the editor who hired Blumberg, says she’s in awe of everything he has gone on to do. “He’s been such an innovator. It’s more than enough to be a fabulous storyteller, but to reinvent radio with a for-profit model is just incredible.”
Blumberg says the documentary was an important learning experience for him. “I haven’t heard it in forever. I would be curious to hear what it sounds like. I was very proud of it at the time.”
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