The Best Christmas Story On NPR (One Reporter’s Opinion)
The Christmas season can be kind of slow for radio news. The institutions that usually drive our coverage–the legislature, schools, businesses–grind to a halt, and newscasts get filled with the inevitable travel and weather forecasts and retail projections.
Every so often, though, a Christmas story comes along that has never been told before. For your enjoyment, here is one of the best Planet Money episodes ever made: #506: Bell Wars.
Like all the best Planet Money episodes, this one introduces listeners to to offbeat characters populating very specific, hidden business universes. In this case: the cutthroat world of handbell manufacturing.
The story: In Pennsylvania, there are two high-end handbell producers (down the road from each other!) that have warred for decades not only over whose bells sounded better, but also over accusations the two companies were spying on each other to try and learn everyone’s deep, dark handbell trade secrets.
But it’s more than a great topic that makes “Bell Wars” such a perfect 19 minutes of public radio:
If you listen to the story, you hear David Kestenbaum (who now, just like other PM alums Zoe Chase and Chana Joffe-Walt, departed for This American Life) give very little narration. He lets the characters tell their own story and then gets out of the way. This is classic NPR: it’s expressive, intimate, surprising and built around the human voice.
Also: the story is about handbells. Most of the arguments between the two companies focused on what exactly the two handbells sound like. Being able to hear these differences (or non-differences) in real time draws listeners into the story in way a magazine article, no matter how well-written, just wouldn’t be able to do.
Even though it’s approaching its third anniversary, NPR sometimes re-runs “Bell Wars” around the holidays. If you don’t catch it during your holiday drive this year, you can always listen to more Planet Money episodes during Morning Edition and All Things Considered.