Behind-the-Scenes with Zoe Chace

More and more This American Life is covering really current events. It's an impactful choice. Why has TAL moved in this direction? What kind of listener feedback are you getting?

Like all news organizations right now, I think our minds are blown by how much seems to be happening every day at the White House. I'm personally transfixed by Washington at the moment - I listen to more CSPAN radio than I do podcasts. That doesn't signal a planned shift in how we do our shows. I think we have the same view that we always have: we want good, exciting stories, good characters, surprising narratives. The thing is, the country itself is in the middle of a kind of zenith point of tension and excitement in its own story as a country. So I think some of us are drawn to documenting that in a macro sense, not only in a personal, this-is-my-particular-surprising-experience sense. But I don't think the sensibility of the show is necessarily changing.

To be honest, I genuinely don’t know what listeners think. I hope they like it!

When Donald Trump signed the refugee ban, did you immediately know you were going to report on it? What was the first thing you did?

Yes. It just felt like a big story. I feel like that about a lot of stories - like when Greece was about to leave the European Union, I kept jumping up from my desk like, "LET'S GO TO GREECE," but it's good we didn't. The EU takes forever to do anything, even break apart!

But in this case, there was a lot of action on the ground, in my hometown (NYC). As a student of history, I wanted to see it. As a journalist, I wanted to document it. So, I ran out to JFK as soon as I heard they were stopping people with visas from certain countries from coming in. I knew that if couldn't use the tape on this show, it was obviously an important moment with action and conflict and big consequences, and maybe the tape would be useful later.

How did you meet attorney Julie Kornfeld and her client, Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi? When you started this story, did you already know that Haider’s case would make headlines after it led to a Federal judge in Brooklyn blocking the executive order?

I met Julie at JFK when I was out there hanging with the lawyers. I found out pretty quickly that they were filing stays with the Feds. I was just trying to document the chaos of the rollout. Like, who's in charge here?! As the week went on, it became clear that so many reporters were covering that same story, so we adjusted our focus to one particular case, told from both sides of the wall at JFK - the lawyer and the client. Personal stories about something big going on is usually where we end up anyway right?!

The interpreter's voice sounds so un-practiced, like you’re she’s actually having a conversation with you, not just translating Haider’s words. How did you pull it off?

I take no credit for that. That is the natural, practiced talent of Baraa Ktiri. She worked with This American Life in Greece, when we were doing a show on refugees there. Maybe she picked up that style from some of our producers, but I don't know. I just know she's a natural. You always want the translator to sound like someone you want to listen to on the radio. That's a service to the person being translated as well as the listener.

With so much going on, what specific stories feel most urgent to make - and to listen to - right now? Are there any stories under the Trump administration that you wish you could cover but feel are off limits?

Yes! I do!

I wish we could be in the White House following around all these fascinating characters running the country. Personally, I'm really interested in the politicians, intellectuals and money people who are making decisions about policy right now - the Attorney General, the National Security Council, the President himself, people in Congress. But it's hard to do good stories about those people in documentary radio. Hard to get personal tape.

I've been reading a lot. Like these three stories about the Mercer family — stories by Jane Mayer, Matea Gold, Vicky Ward... I gobbled those right up. I do not speak for the show in this! TAL retains its staff of diverse interests. That's just where I'm at.