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Other segments from the episode on January 7, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 7, 1999: Interview with Richard Wright; Interview with Aaron Sorkin; Review of Bloque's album "Bloque."


Date: JANUARY 07, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 010701np.217
Head: Richard Wright
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

DEAN OLSHER, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dean Olsher, NPR Cultural Correspondent, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Every year, at the end of December, the Justice Department puts out a report called the National Crime Victimization Survey. And last month, as it has for seven straight years, the government reported that certain kinds of crime are plummeting. Remarkably so, in some cases.

Violent crime is down to where it was 25 years ago. Youth homicides are nearly half of what they were in the mid-80s. In 1997 alone, robbery dropped 17 percent. This trend reverses a surge in violent crime that started in 1985.

While various theories are given for why the crime rate is dropping; like tougher policing and prison sentences, a strong economy. One reason stands out in particular, and it has to do with the decline in crack use.

The growing consensus from the relationship between crack use and the crime rate was reinforced for my guest Richard T. Wright, who went beyond the statistics and on to the streets to get a first-hand look at violent crime in St. Louis.

Wright, who teaches Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri went out with his colleague Scott Decker (ph) and interviewed burglars and armed robbers who were still active criminals. Their most recent book is called "Armed Robbers in Action."

You describe this scene in St. Louis where a unique confluence of things happen, and this is something that happened in other countries -- other cities around the country -- where you have guns and crack and crime all coming together to form this almost new -- new scenes, new situations that hadn't happened before.

That had an effect on the economy and even changed the nature of crime. Can you explain, for example, why this led to a rise in robbery versus burglary? And first, I guess you need to explain the difference, technically, between the two.

RICHARD T. WRIGHT, CRIMINOLOGIST; AUTHOR, "ARMED ROBBERS IN ACTION": Well, burglary, of course, involves breaking into a house or a shop or something else, and stealing goods without -- typically without -- the residents present. Certainly, without confronting those who are inside. Whereas robbery involves the taking of money or goods by force or threat of force. It's a much more direct kind of a crime.

Burglary has been falling for a long time, and it has continued -- it was falling even during the increase in violent crime. But what you see is that with the introduction of crack cocaine, and in cities where crack cocaine was introduced, you saw an accelerated decline of burglary in most cases, and a steep increase in robbery.

And what I think was going on there is this: the introduction of crack cocaine meant that a lot of people got involved -- a lot of people got involved with it, and all of a sudden they were, you know, selling everything they had to buy the drug. And you can see in neighborhoods where -- that were rife with crack cocaine -- you can see that the price of goods on the black market just plummeted.

So that, you know, selling something like a video cassette recorder would net you $25 or $30, at best, in many of these neighborhoods.

OLSHER: Wait. I'm not sure why that happened. Explain why the price dropped.

WRIGHT: The price dropped because it was simply supply and demand. There were so many people selling so much of their stuff to support their drug habits in these neighborhoods that the price for hot goods simply plummeted. The people who were buying them had too many VCR's. They weren't worth that much to them anymore. They just weren't scarce.

And if you look at what really has happened to the price of goods of in the black market there's been a dramatic decline. That decline was brought about by crack cocaine, because so many people were selling goods to support their habits. And that really destroyed the black market or the informal economy that characterized some of these high crime neighborhoods.

And as a result people moved out of burglary because it was no longer lucrative for them. It simply was not a lucrative crime. You could steal a VCR but it was going to get you $30. To do that you had to break into the house, you had to carry it, you had to find a fence. Then you could go and get your drugs. And that was not an attractive crime. It simply took too long, and didn't net enough cash. Whereas robbery, that's cash directly.

OLSHER: And aging, right? That had something to do with it as well. I mean, people grow out of the age where burglary is something that they do.

WRIGHT: Well, if you're going to take up robbery you have to be able to stomach the violence. And it is not a crime for everybody. Robbers do tend to be somewhat older than burglars, and most of the robbers that we've talked to started out either selling drugs or committing burglary.

But it's important to remember that only a fraction of the people who get involved in those two crimes ever go on to robbery, because to commit a robbery you have to be able to create a convincing illusion of toughness. And not everyone is capable of doing that.

OLSHER: Even if you're not going to follow through you have to make your victim believe that you have what it takes to do that.

WRIGHT: Absolutely. Particularly in the neighborhoods where these guys live and ply their trades. I mean, these are tough neighborhoods, and if you're going to rob somebody you have to be able to convey the sense that you mean business. We talk in the book about creating the illusion of impending death. That's not an easy illusion to create.

OLSHER: How often do these robberies go bad?

WRIGHT: Robberies don't go bad very often. If, by bad, you mean how often does the offender end up following through on shooting -- and shoot the person -- or stab them or do something like this, not very often. Offenders don't want to harm their victims, by and large, because -- well, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, that brings heat. They don't really want to have the authorities looking for them. And so they really don't want to harm the victims substantially. So they're much more -- if the victim resists, they're much more likely to resort to sort of nonlethal force.

You see what they're really trying to do is create the allusion of death, and they want to create that allusion in such a way that it extends beyond the robbery itself so that the victim will be loath even to report the crime for fear that the offender will come back and get them.

And if they harm them substantially, they are going to have to -- that's going to come to somebody's attention. And they just as soon not have that occur. Now, if you talk to robbers, like we've talked to them, you'll find that virtually everyone of them will tell you about people who said, you can't have my money.

And in those cases the offenders will typically respond with, like I say, nonlethal force. If they can, they'll perhaps hit them or rough them up otherwise. Some of them will simply run off. Nevertheless, we always recommend that if confronted, one cooperate.

OLSHER: You've collected some amazing stories from your research. I think of a couple in particular. One involves a robber who was afraid to use a knife. I guess that was all he had, right? But he was using a knife knowing that it was a very risky situation to be putting himself into.

WRIGHT: Yeah, we -- I remember him being this guy quite well. We were talking and he was suggesting that he had told his gun because he was really desperate for drugs and in a state of desperation he sold his gun for, really, a very small amount of money. I can't remember how much. I think it was about $50.

And consequently he was relying on a knife to commit his robberies. And he was suggesting that, you know, this is really a very bad weapon to use in a robbery because anything can go wrong. Someone can grab the knife from me, and, you know, just anything could happen. He really -- it caused him to get too close to his victims. He really didn't like it all.

We finished the interview, and within six hours he was lying dead. He had tried a robbery when we left our interview. He'd gone out a few hours later and tried to rob a woman. She grabbed the knife from him and stuck it through his heart.

OLSHER: My guest is Richard T. Wright. We'll be back in a moment.

This is FRESH AIR.


OLSHER: I'm talking with criminologist Richard T. Wright about the link between violent crime and crack.

Why is crack use declining?

WRIGHT: It was always a one generation drug. Shortly after its introduction it very quickly acquired a very bad reputation on the streets. It radiated out a little bit into the suburbs, but not very much. It caused real devastation in the neighborhoods were it got established.

And people saw this kind of human misery that caused, and were extremely put off by it. People selling everything they had. Becoming very emaciated. Doing all kinds of degrading things. And they were simply -- people observing that simply were attracted to it. And so it just didn't develop a good reputation.

OLSHER: There's also, though, some relationship between the drug itself and the nature of the crime associated with it, right? You use of phrase, even, the "pharmacology of crime."

WRIGHT: Well, crack is a binge type of drug. And so that when people unlike -- for example, heroin is used -- it's used once -- and then it's several hours before it's likely to be used again. Whereas crack cocaine, the high lasts a very few minutes. People have a tendency to get caught up in cycles of use.

During tense cycles of use any one individual rock of crack cocaine is very inexpensive. But in the aggregate it can become very expensive. So people use one rock that causes them to want to use an additional rock, use yet another, and use yet another.

They get caught up in these cycles of use and, I mean, you got to remember these highs are lasting, literally, minutes. And so people who were desperate for another hit or another high don't have -- they feel this intense pressure to want to get more money to sustain that use. And they don't have a long time to plan out some kind of an offense, so there likely going to do something quite impulsive.

OLSHER: Whereas a drug such as marijuana brings about a whole different mood and a whole different sensation that not only probably wouldn't make you do crime, but inactivity is more likely to result from something like marijuana, right?

WRIGHT: Yeah, well, of course it's a very different kind of a drug. A much milder drug for one thing, and a much more sedating drug than something like crack cocaine which causes people to be very hyperactive, somewhat suspicious, edgy. Certainly, they're very different kinds of drugs.

And heroin, of course, is also a drug that's really a central nervous system depressant. And so it causes people to nod off and be a lot -- also it's just a very long-lasting drug. So people don't have this same sort of desperation to keep a high going.

OLSHER: So heroin and marijuana use are on the rise. Crack use is declining. And as a result we see a major shift in crime in America.

WRIGHT: I think so. I mean, I think that we don't want to suggest that police activity didn't have anything to do with this. I think it did. The police, of course, certainly targeted crack sets very substantially. They feel that many of the people who are in prison; you'll find that they're there on crack related offenses. So, they certainly had something to do with the decline in crack use.

And I think that, you know, that's the major way in which the police had an impact on bringing about the crime decline, and I wouldn't want to suggest that they didn't have any role in that. The certainly did.

But it was somewhat indirect, in the sense that they targeted crack cocaine, and the declining crack use then went on to lead to a decrease in violent crime.

OLSHER: You also, in your book, "Armed Robbers in Action" talk about another surprising influence of the credit card on street crime.

WRIGHT: Well, what we're doing -- what we suggest in that book is that as the economy changes. As we move more and more away from the use of cash; that's likely going to have an impact on robbery rates, because credit cards -- essentially they have to be converted to cash before they're useful for offenders purposes.

Because offenders want money to get drugs, and you're not going to buy drugs with a credit card. And so as we become a more and more and more cashless economy; it's hard for me to imagine how robbery will continue to be attractive to these offenders, because it simply won't give them what they need. Cash.

It's also hard for me to imagine how in a wholly cashless economy one would actually sustain a drug economy. How do you import drugs into a country without cash and suitcases. It's hard for me to see quite how that's going to happen.

OLSHER: I'm talking with criminologist Richard T. Wright of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. So, you went to the streets and talked to people. How did you find them?

WRIGHT: We found them through -- with the help of people that I had various contacts with in the community. We had a street ethnographer, an individual who had been shot and paralyzed in a gangland style execution attempt. And he lived in the neighborhood and knew many people who were involved in crime.

And he started off by approaching his friends and asking them to introduce him to people. We then asked them to introduce us to others. And so gradually we made an entree into these neighborhoods. And in fact, ultimately, became quite well-known there so that making contacts was quite easy.

OLSHER: How do you build trust, though, in a situation like that where you're coming in from the outside and asking them to talk about things for which they should be incarcerated?

WRIGHT: cryptanalysis aren't famous for being all that cautious actually. And they were really quite open about their -- about their activities, because quite quickly -- and surprisingly so -- I think that it's almost a middle-class bias to assume that criminals are going to be all that reluctant to talk about what they're doing. A major way in which they get caught by the police is because they can't keep their mouths shut.

OLSHER: When you spend time talking to criminals -- active criminals -- on the street as opposed to those who had already been put in prison, I wonder if they expressed remorse for what they had done.

WRIGHT: Very little actually. The majority of them said that they didn't feel sorry for their victims much at all. They justified that in a variety of ways. A lot of them said things like, well, they wouldn't feel sorry for me so why should I feel sorry for them. Or I was robbed, so why shouldn't I rob somebody else.

Now, I'm not suggesting that the logic is great here, but these are the sorts of justifications that they fell back on. Now, in cases -- many of these people victimized other criminals. And in those cases, they felt like they were actually doing society of favor by -- for example, when they'd rob a drug dealer they'd say, hey, you know, I just took some money and drugs off the street. So I've actually everybody a favor by doing that.

These were the justifications more than anything else, but really the majority of offenders did not express much guilt. Some of them did, particularly if they had hurt someone in the past. They felt guilty about that. But the vast majority didn't. They were busy feeling sorry for themselves and their own circumstances.

OLSHER: I wonder if there are any other stories that you can tell that surprised you. That flew in the face of the conventional wisdom about the nature of street crime.

WRIGHT: Well, one of them was very interesting I think in one sense. We had arranged to interview an offender. We drove up to do our interview only to find him busily engaged in selling drugs.

What was surprising about that is that he jumped -- he immediately jumped into the car and that really surprised us because we thought, you know, this guy's not going to come out and do an interview with us when he's busy selling drugs.

And he said to us, well, no, I promised you I was going to do this. This is an obligation I have, and so let's go and do the -- let's go and do this. And that really surprised us. I mean, I think we were also surprised, you know, we were...

OLSHER: ... can I just interrupt you for a second?


OLSHER: You actually witnessed this crime taking place? This was an instance where you saw it happening?

WRIGHT: Well, he was standing there. We didn't see him actually sell -- we didn't see him actually transacting business, but that's what he was certainly doing standing there on the street corner.

OLSHER: Did you feel any obligation to report him or any other criminals you witnessed in the act of committing crimes?

WRIGHT: The police are really quite good at what they do. They don't need our help to solve these crimes. Certainly, it's a real concern when you're out there. You're really living in this kind of -- world of real emotional conflict all the time. But the fact remains that if you actually were to turn in one of these people we'd never learn anything about the nature of street crime.

All of our avenues of information would dry up immediately. And so it's a conflict. You're always feeling like, gee, you know, this is -- it's really terrible stuff that they are doing. And there's no doubt about that.

And I didn't like them very much as individuals, usually. There were a few that I got along with reasonably well, but nevertheless I felt like it was important to really understand what was going on in the streets and I didn't see any other way to do it.

But again, information about crime has been obtained from criminals for years from law enforcement authorities who are also well aware that these people are involved in activities they shouldn't be involved in. And that's simply part of understanding what's really going on in the streets. It's simply a necessary part of what -- the ultimate goal of controlling crime.

OLSHER: Right. So, if you believe in a higher purpose of doing something about crime than I guess there are decisions you have to make along the way, that while in the short term may seem amoral, are in fact necessary means to an end.

WRIGHT: You do struggle with yourself all the time when you're on the streets; making all kinds of extremely difficult decisions. And they're not comfortable, I have to say that honestly. It's -- well, you have sleepless nights, there's not doubt about it. But it's necessary work. It's as simple as that.

OLSHER: Can you give me an example of a moment where you felt you really had to do a lot of soul searching to get through a moral dilemma?

WRIGHT: Well, I think -- I think that there's just no separating it out in talking about one particular instance. When you do this kind of work you live with that, and you're always trying to make sure that you don't have a foreknowledge of crimes. That, you know, you -- that you only -- that you restrict your inquiries to past offenses. All those kinds of things.

But on the streets that's a very difficult guideline to follow because offenders are very inclined to want to talk about the future. To want to talk about things that are going to happen. And you have to constantly remind them these are not things that you want to talk about with them.

OLSHER: Because if you did know then you would feel even more compelled to do something about it.

WRIGHT: Certainly. Yeah. Absolutely.

OLSHER: Mmm-hmm.

WRIGHT: Absolutely.

OLSHER: Richard Wright, thank you very much.


OLSHER: Richard T. Wright is a professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He's co-author of the book "Armed Robbers in Action."

I'm Dean Olsher, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Dean Olsher, Washington, DC
Guest: Richard Wright
High: Criminologist Richard Wright. He teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He'll discuss the statistics released last month by the Justice Department showing that the crime rate has been falling steadily since 1991. He'll also discuss the link between the crime rate and the decline in crack use which he has studied. Wright is the co-author of the book, "Armed Robbers in Action: Stickups and Street Culture."
Spec: Crime; Drugs; Culture; Lifestyle; Richard Wright

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Richard Wright

Date: JANUARY 07, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 010702NP.217
Head: Dean Olsher
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

DEAN OLSHER, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dean Olsher.

And this is a clip from what many critics think is the best new TV show of the year.




UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I've made a decision.






UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: It's absolutely time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I've been having some very bizarre computer problems. Have you noticed that? The LC wire has been getting numbers wrong.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Messersmith (ph) won the gold medal in the pole vault with a leap of 238 feet, 6 inches?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: That doesn't sound right.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: It lacks an amount of truth, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Two hundred and thirty-eight feet, six inches in the pole vault. That would be a record, wouldn't it?



UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Why are you staring at me?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Because it's time.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: It is time. It's past time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: It's not past time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: It's well past time. You need to start meeting women.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I've met many women.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: No you haven't. You haven't met any women. That's why I'm here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Oh boy, I like the sound of this.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You got married at 23 to a woman you met when you were 19.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I know, I was there.



UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You agree it's time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You said it was past time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: It is past time.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I'm going to help you out.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Thank God for that, Danny. Thank God for you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Thank God, indeed.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Do you know why I can help you out?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Because there's still time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Sixty seconds to (unintelligible). Two minutes live.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Loading effects.

OLSHER: Every Tuesday night at 9:30, ABC airs a TV show called "Sports Night" about a fictional TV show called "Sports Night." The show within the show is an ESPN-style sports news program, and the real-life show is a half hour that blends elements of sitcoms and TV drama.

Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplays for the films, "A Few Good Men," "The American President," and "Malice" is the creator of "Sports Night."

Thanks for being on FRESH AIR.


OLSHER: "Sports Night" really stands out for a couple of reasons. One of them is your writing, and you write all of the scripts. And also some of the issues that you take on which can be rather heavy for a half hour TV show, traditionally speaking.

And I have to say that I, for one, really don't care at all about sports, and yet I really like the show.

SORKIN: Yeah. Yeah. I'm glad to hear that. A knowledge of, or an appreciation of sports is, I think, no more required to enjoy "Sports Night" than a knowledge of, or an appreciation of trauma surgery is required to enjoy "ER," probably. You don't have to be a sports fan.

OLSHER: How did you hit on this idea for a show?

SORKIN: I had been a fan of "Sports Center" on ESPN for a lot of years. In fact, I was -- it was about two years when I was holed up in a hotel room here in Los Angeles while I was writing the screenplay for "The American President," and I didn't get out of the room much.

To keep me company while I was -- I'm from New York so I didn't know many people out here -- and to keep me company I would have ESPN on in the room almost 24 hours. And I'd be watching "Sports Center."

And these people on "Sports Center" really became my friends in a pathetic kind of way. But I did think that the show was remarkably well produced, and I remember feeling like boy, I wish I could go behind the scenes there. I bet I could have a great time there. I bet I could make friends. I bet I could meet a girlfriend there.

And that's generally kind of a writer's queue for, you know, gee, it would be nice to write something about that.

OLSHER: Now, I have to say watching the show one of the things I find refreshing about it, and I'm talking about your show "Sports Night," is that there seems to me to be a very minimal laugh track.


OLSHER: And yet there are critics who have referred to the laugh track as intrusive. Was there a big fight with ABC over this?

SORKIN: Yeah, the laugh track has been a bit of an issue since the moment we were born. And perhaps a bit too much of an issue. It was written about a lot. I and the other people who do the show felt that laugh track was just wrong for the show.

The style of writing is a little bit different than it is on other half hours. We don't necessarily lead to an obvious punch. A lot of it is more enjoyable than it is laugh out loud funny. So the march time rhythm of a laugh track was actually getting in our way, on top of which we all thought it was a little bit silly and maybe the time to do that anymore.

But you got to remember that really the greatest asset of half-hour television, at any rate, is its familiarity. Half-hour television is something that you watch very passively. You do it while you're flipping through a magazine or talking on the telephone or cooking dinner or putting the kids to sleep.

And in a lot of cases that sound of the laugh track, the familiarity of the show, that it's a sitcom, that it's a half-hour helps a lot in getting the audience. And I think that our show, because it is a little bit different than other half hours, the concern on the part of the network, and it's a legitimate concern, was that let's try and create and touchstones for this show. Let's try and let people know that there's nothing to be afraid of here.

They're more words in this show than in other half hours, but look, it's funny. It's not good for you. This isn't eating your vegetables. And so that was really the kind of the genesis of the argument. Our laugh track is pretty toned down, and I do like to believe that it's inobtrusive.

OLSHER: Mmm-hmm. This show has an ensemble cast, and many many of the great TV shows that are most memorable have also had ensemble casts. Sometimes they tend toward archetypes, and I wonder if that's been a temptation that you've had to face when you're writing these characters.

SORKIN: It's always a temptation when you're starting something from scratch, when there's just a blank piece of paper. To say, well, who do you got? You got the guy and you got to sloppy guy. You got the tall guy and the short guy. You got the gay guy and the straight guy. Let's see, we need a dorky guy and we need a really uptight guy.

You want to do everything that you can to not do that. And one way to not do that is, rather than, I think, tell an audience who a character is. If you show them what the character wants. If you're just a little subtler. If you realize that everybody can be smart and everybody can be stupid and everybody can be right and everybody can be wrong then you'll be a little bit better off.

If you take manage -- I mean, one of the great things that you have in episodic television I think is time. If everybody will just agree to be patient, that we,re not going to, in the pilot episode -- we're not gonna feel bound to say these are who these people are in 22 and a half minutes.

That we're going to take much more time than that. And if you agree, as I say, that there are no -- and I'm going to reference now just a classic comedy, and one that I'm a big fan of -- but there are no Ted Baxters on the show. Then you're probably better off.

OLSHER: How do you go about deciding what to treat as a topic for the program?

SORKIN: That's an interesting question. I -- what I don't do or what I don't often is say, boy, I feel very strongly about -- I'll tell you what I don't do is I don't tend to take things off of yesterday's headlines. For one thing, yesterdays headlines will be six weeks ago's headlines by the time the show airs.

Secondly, it also seems cheap. Often times I'll take something off of page 23. I'll read about something and think, that's interesting and not quite enough was made out of that. And what if this had happened instead of that. That kind of thing.

I'm not -- it's not my goal to necessarily say something with each and every episode. As I said, I'm not looking to teach anybody anything. Really we're, you know, telling our lame jokes and doing our stories and trying to do them from a place of reality as opposed to, again, a traditional half-hour place.

You know, this isn't the first television show that's been done about a television show. There was a really good one done about a television show, "Murphy Brown," which ran for 88 years or something. And it was great. But the success or failure of "Murphy Brown," of that show, didn't depend on us thinking -- on us believing -- that that's really how "60 Minutes" get's done.

That a show like that -- a national news magazine show -- is staffed by five people who have their meetings at a linoleum table in the lobby near the elevator. With "Sports Night," because we want to tell all kinds of stories and in all kinds of ways, it all has to start from a place of reality or the appearance of reality. You have to really buy that these guys are doing this show every night at 11:00.

OLSHER: Right. Right. Let's talk about some of the risks that this show faces -- let's put it this way, its had a certain amount of difficulty finding an audience.

SORKIN: Mmm-hmm.

OLSHER: And I want to read to you what James Collins wrote in "Time" magazine about "Sports Night."

"This series represents the best opportunity in a long time for network comedy to evolve into something sharper and more interesting. If it fails, a highly possible outcome given its mediocre ratings, then the networks will be all the more weary of trying something novel. On the other hand, if the show succeeds it might just revitalize a very tired form."

SORKIN: Well, an easing of the pressure is what we were looking for over at "Sports Night," and James Collins provided it. That was a very flattering thing that he wrote about us. The whole piece was very flattering and the idea that we could do something as huge as change television even a little bit, well, that's pretty high cotton.

I can assure you, as flattering as that is, no one, least of all me, went into this with the thought of let's do something different or let's change the old way that it was done. I'm really writing "Sports Night" exactly the way I've written everything else. The plays that I've written and the films that I've written. And what's so unusual is simply that its half-hour television. But that notwithstanding, I'd like the sound of what James Collins said.

OLSHER: But he also refers to what seems like, you know, the sword of Damacles (ph) hanging over your head. I mean, are you reading the Nielsen ratings every week worried that, oh my God, this might be it for us. We need to find some more viewers?

SORKIN: I will tell you honestly that our ratings, which I must say -- this is weak 13 -- broadcast week 13 -- have been climbing and climbing and climbing. And are now on the -- they are respectable. We're going to call them.

Which means we get about 10 million people every Tuesday night watching the show. I have to tell you that for me 10 million people is an enormous audience to play to every Tuesday night at 9:30.

Ten million people, for instance, is nine million people more than my play, "A Few Good Men," played to in a year and half on Broadway. If -- the first night that the show was on the air, we premiered September 22nd, if that had been a movie opening that night it would have been a $90 million opening.

So the numbers in television are very strange, and my concern isn't so much that, oh my God, if we don't get the viewers we're going to get off the air. My concern is, gee, we've got 10 million people now. I'm not sure I like what we have to do to the show in order to get 12 million people.

OLSHER: Does that mean dumbing it down? Making it more conventional TV?

SORKIN: I think that that's going to be the next argument that's going to take place is really what I'm alluding to. I'm of a believe that it absolutely does not mean dumbing down the show. I think that people in this country who watch television are a lot smarter than they tend to be given credit for.

OLSHER: My guest is Aaron Sorkin, he's the creator, executive producer and writer of "Sports Night." We'll be back in a moment.

This is FRESH AIR.


OLSHER: Aaron Sorkin is the creator of the TV show "Sports Night." He wrote the screenplay for the films "Malice," "The American President," and "A Few Good Men." Which means he's responsible for introducing this phrase into the popular culture.


JACK NICHOLSON, ACTOR: You can't handle the truth!

OLSHER: Aaron Sorkin, what's it like to be the writer of a line like that which has been taken over by people who are not actors?

SORKIN: Who knew? Who knew? Every once in a while you'll see it on "The Simpsons" or something. And I remember watching the opening of the O.J. Simpson trial, and there were all sorts of pretrial motions flying back and forth.

Everyone else in my family is a lawyer, but me. My mothers a schoolteacher, but my father is an attorney and my sister is an attorney and my brother is an attorney.

And somewhere in the pretrial motion phase of the O.J. Simpson trial I think Johnnie Cochran referenced the line. Judge Ito, it's like that movie you can't handle the truth. And Ito said, yeah, but Nicholson was the bad guy in that movie.

And my phone rang, and it was my sister, saying, 93 years of law school and you're the one who gets quoted in the trial of the century.


OLSHER: You also wrote "The American President," which has Michael Douglas as a very human, but still -- somewhat heroic chief executive of the United States. And I read in "USA Today" when the playwright Wendy Wasserstein (ph) came out of the screening, she said, it's a perfect example of what Hollywood wants in a president. It's what they thought they had elected in Clinton. Was she right?

SORKIN: That's interesting. I think that, first of all, I get a little nervous when anybody talks about Hollywood. I have to tell you. As if we all get together for meetings every third Thursday of the month and decide what it is we want, and what it is we do.

I could not tell you what Hollywood wants and doesn't want in a president. Hollywood had absolutely nothing to do with that movie. I wrote it all by myself. And the answer to Wendy's question is, of course. I wrote the kind of president I wish we had. And certainly one we thought we were getting when we voted for Bill Clinton.

OLSHER: I'm talking with Aaron Sorkin, he's the creator of "Sports Night." I wonder what your week is like.

SORKIN: The week begins -- it's hard to say when the week begins because the old one is still ending when the new one begins. But the week begins with a Monday morning -- with a table read of the script that I generally have finished writing on Sunday night.

It's been sent out to everyone Sunday night. They've had a chance to read it through. And this table read is for people from the network and from the studio, as well as the department heads and the cast and I. And as soon as the table read is over rehearsal begins.

We rehearse for two days, Monday and Tuesday. Filming begins on Wednesday. We film Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Now, I'm always doing three things. I'm making this week's show while editing last week's show and writing next week's show; is basically how it works. And I love this show so much. I just love my job.

I really sprint to work every morning to get to work with these people, and we -- it's like doing a new one act play every week. The big difference between what I'm doing now and writing movies is the immediacy of it. About three or four weeks after I've written a show it will be on the air.

If I were writing a screenplay right now, I could write a joke today and wouldn't hear a laugh for two years. So, it's really an adrenaline rush.

OLSHER: When it comes to the dialogue, you talk about the jargon and the illusion of reality. But even just in the writing of dialogue it's so far from the way people really speak, and yet it does have that illusion. It feels more real than if you were in fact transcribing actual dialogue from people in real life.

SORKIN: That's right.

OLSHER: And it's very writerly dialogue.

SORKIN: Yeah. I'm going to accept that as a compliment. It's what it is. It's the way I write. It's not so much the way people speak, I think, as maybe the way people wish they spoke some time. Look, if I'm going to have a two minute conversation with my best friend let me try scripting it, and it can be more interesting. There's a certain musicality to it.

It's very -- I mean, a lot of the show is very much about its own rhetoric. And we, you know, we try and strike the right balance in 22 minutes and 35 seconds. We, as I said, we have a lot more words per episode, I think, than some other shows do. And -- but -- that's the way I write.

OLSHER: It's a funny balance any time you're trying to make a work of art. How much artifice do you use to create the sense of reality?

SORKIN: Yeah, well, I've become -- that's right. And I've always -- I've enjoyed playing with that balance in the other things that I've written which require -- that's part of the fun of "The American President" was going to be the feeling of, boy, I feel like I'm inside the White House. And there's a cool conversation taking place that I don't get to see on CNN or hear about on NPR.

And the same thing with being in a Navy courtroom. In "Malice" -- in "Malice" -- I'm also -- my friends know this about me. I will frequently, as far as the jargon is concerned, make things up. Especially in a first draft. If I'm writing a first draft and I'm really just trying to get the sense of the scene down on paper and the sort of the verbal fireworks -- really the rhythm and the music of it.

I'm really not going to bother to -- I wrote a scene that was cut from the film "Malice," but it had been an opening scene in an operating room where the camera was just circling the doctors and the nurses standing around the operating table while instruments were being asked for and slapped into the surgeon's hand. And, you know, a lot of chrome and steel, and this and that -- suction and numbers going back and forth. And it was -- this scene built and built and built, and it was terrific.

But I was making up all this stuff in the scene. And finally as the script went along, it was in production and we brought in a technical supervisor -- a trauma surgeon -- and I was amazed to find out that one of the things I had done was right.


OLSHER: Pretty scary, don't you think?

SORKIN: Yeah, it was very scary.


Yes, the Benson Clamp.

OLSHER: Aaron Sorkin is the creator, executive producer and head writer of "Sports Night."

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Dean Olsher, Washington, DC
Guest: Aaron Sorkin
High: Aaron Sorkin is creator of the new ABC TV show, "Sports Night," a behind the scenes look at a cable sports newscast like ESPN's "Sports Center." Its been described as a "home run" and " the most consistently funny, intelligent, and emotional of any new-season series." Sorkin also wrote the films "The American President" and "A Few Good Men."
Spec: Televison and Radio; Entertainment; Movie Industry; Culture; Aaron Sorkin

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Dean Olsher

Date: JANUARY 07, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 010703NP.217
Head: Milo Miles
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

DEAN OLSHER, HOST: If the term "world music" means anything it means music rooted in a culture, and yet attuned to, and excited by the sounds of other cultures. Music critic Milo Miles thinks Bloque from Colombia is a prime example of a great world music band.


(Lyrics unintelligible)

MILO MILES, MUSIC CRITIC: When you find out a big pop star got his start as a hunk on a TV soap opera, like Colombia's Carlos Vives did, you have doubts about his talent. But Vives is more than a pinup who's wired for sound.

He's got fabulous hair, great thighs, and a pretty OK voice. What put him over, though, was his dynamite backing band. And now they've split off and call themselves Bloque. The new frontman, who used to write songs for Vives, is Ivan Benevides. And he has no hair at all.


(Lyrics unintelligible)

MILES: Benevides is indeed a motor mouth, suited by nature for rap and for speak-singing lyrics about social and personal chaos held together with tricky beats. Bloque use a lot of regional rhythms from Colombia, and they make a point of identifying each one in concert.

But it's the popping, funkified bass and the nimble ferocious rock guitar of Ernesto "Teto" Ocampo that hook your attention. Because Bloque uses them with the same passion and grace as their folk sources.

In interviews, Benevides huffs and puffs about the cultural imperialism of Western pop, but this is a band who does a dang good Led Zeppelin cover. In other words, Bloque shows the dexterity and insouciance that world music fans hoped would transform pop just a few years ago.

If you think infinite niche marketing is a dead end, the promise of world music was that one of its many many styles would become the next big thing with American or British bands. It hasn't happened.

New bands continue to recombine past Western pop in hopes of finding the magic formula in their rear view mirror, and now a lot of world music stars are recording bland versions of themselves for the Western market, and only taking risks on albums released in their homelands. Bloque will have none of it.


(Lyrics unintelligible)

MILES: With the band pushing and raving behind him, Benevides has a first rate central idea in his songs. A man, a love affair, even a whole country with a chaotic surface, but spiritual roots that will save them. If the roots can be located.

The problem is that chaos and laziness have their pleasures. Benevides has a dandy tune that could apply to Washington as much as Bogota. He suggests the usual corruption and failures just continue because, "innocents know nothing because they are too innocent, and culprits know nothing because they are too guilty."


(Lyrics unintelligible)

MILES: Bloque's self-titled debut is one of the years finest world music records. But one major shortcoming is that it down plays the role of singer and Indian flute player Mayte Montero. In concerts she bears down on her huge wooden flutes and flies through fancy phrases with as much fervor as guitarist Ocampo. Her relaxed joyous vocals seem to offer the harmony Bloque searches for so nervously. Perhaps Mayte Montero is the spiritual route that will save them.

OLSHER: Milo Miles is music editor at

I'm Dean Olsher.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Dean Olsher, Washington, DC
Guest: Milo Miles
High: Music critic Milo Miles reviews a new album released by the Colombian band Bloque.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Culture; Bloque; Milo Miles

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Milo Miles
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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