Coaxing a Petty Tyrant out of the Dark

I love when This American Life illuminates some tiny piece of some random city that I might pass on the freeway, reminding me how this country’s landscape is still rich with stories. I had barely heard of Schenectady, New York, when I listened to Petty Tyrant. In this episode, for a full hour, Sarah Koenig tells the story of a single manager in a seemingly “normal” school district, reminding me that great stories can lurk in dark spaces.

Ira Glass describes the story as “a huge scandal was slowly coming to a boil in one of the least likely places,” and the difference between this radio story and the broadcast news-version of the same story is that the news only shows you the part that boils over the top. This American Life takes its time, though, waiting until the story reaches just the right temperature, seasoning it to enhance the flavor.

This episode mixes dozens (maybe a hundred) of tiny anecdotes throughout the story. Like salt, these anecdotes enhance the experience of the larger story being told, providing a more detailed image of what’s going on. Here’s one such detail:

Steve Raucci (the “Petty Tyrant”), in order to strengthen his grip on his employees, openly rewarded snitching. “A district carpenter even made a wooden wedge of cheese, which would end up in your mailbox if you’d been what Steve called, ‘a good rat.’”

In the six or seven seconds it takes to listen to that soundbyte, you imagine yourself opening your mailbox and looking at a fake block of cheese. You imagine your manager, Steve, placing it there, encouraging you to help increase his reign. With enough details like this, you get a really good picture of what Steve was like, during the days before he was discovered.

Steve Raucci’s reign lasted for years without anyone knowing about it, and the story takes its time describing those years. Sarah Koenig speaks at a relaxed pace while she spells out the details – her voice is comfortable.

At 46:37, more than three quarters of the way into the episode, we hear a TV news-reporter’s voice, announcing Steve’s arrest on the day it happened. You know that “reporter voice” as soon as you hear it – it’s crisp and quick, concise to the point of feeling rushed. That voice is starkly different than Koenig’s. It feels like a jolt.

And it’s certainly a jolt for the protagonist. While his reign is secure, he is comfortable, but when he gets caught, everything shifts at once. This piece gives you distinct images of (a) life before the shift, (b) the shift, then (c) life afterward. Koenig guides the listener through a time when no camera was present, then she shows you the effect of the cameras (ie, the eyes of the media), once they hit the character. This piece carries you through a powerful story, with the protagonist emerging from the dark into the light.

When you listen to this story, you’ll wonder what kind of stories might be lurking in the other nondescript buildings you’d normally just drive past without considering.

Petty Tyrant
Produced in 2010 by Sarah Koenig at This American Life
58 minutes