Radio reporters tackle a 200-year-old story

The talk sounds very much like public TV's ``Washington Week in Review'' - an informed but laid-back roundtable on the news. ``Jack, what do you think the salient features of this compromise are?'' asks the moderator. The answer from Jack N. Rakove, history professor from Stanford University, is couched in the familiar political terms of conflict and concession, of ``seeing who has the votes and who doesn't.''

But the topic is not the arms-sale issue or the clean-water act. It is something more than 200 years older: the forging of the United States Constitution. And the panel is among the most natural and convincing parts of ``Dateline 1787'' - an enormously informative 14-part weekly series of 30-minute programs from the Peabody Award-winning National Radio Theatre.

The project took three years of research, writing, and production, and has now begun airing on public radio stations around the United States (check local listings).

``In a time of economic depression and growing political chaos,'' the show announces, ``delegates of the new American states met in Philadelphia to reform the Articles of Confederation, the Union's governing charter. Instead, they created a new constitution, one that has prevailed for 200 years and that profoundly affects the world today.''

NRT's way of dramatizing the process - to mark the Constitution's bicentennial year - is by pretending to send ``a 20th-century radio news team back to 1787 to report upon the events, personalities, and issues of the convention'' week by week.

``And now, from the radio booth at the Pennsylvania Statehouse in Philadelphia,'' says the announcer, ``here is correspondent Bill Cameron.'' But those who recall the old ``You Are There'' TV show shouldn't expect the same kind of breathless and sometimes hokey ``coverage'' of historical highlights, with reporters shoving mikes toward Napoleon or General Custer. Instead, ``Dateline 1787'' is decidedly a learning vehicle - and an often highly effective one - replete with carefully researched scene-setting and a realistic depiction of just how the great document was put together.

```You Are There' is where I got the idea for this show, except that I consciously tried to avoid making the historical figures sound like marble statues,'' said Yuri Rasovsky - the series's producer-director and one of its writers - by phone from NRT in St. Paul, Minn. ``What the TV show did was make them speak as if they were in the 20th century.

``But our whole point,'' says Mr. Rasovsky, who founded NRT, ``is to show the contrast between that era and our own, and so we keep the original language. As a matter of fact, on some occasions the historical figures can't understand our reporter's questions, and our reporters can't always understand their answers. The best sources I had for the way people talked in that period were two: Franklin's autobiography, which is very chatty and conversational. And the other one, oddly enough, is ``Tristram Shandy,'' Laurence Sterne's book, which is very much written as if someone was just running off at the mouth about anything that came into his head.

``Therefore when we adapted the material, we repunctuated it and made a few other changes to reflect the differences between the written and the spoken word.

```You Are There' had different imperatives,'' Rasovsky points out. ``They had to entertain a mass audience, and we're public radio. They made everything sound momentous, and our idea was to use both the dramatic and the public-affairs techniques as a way of clarifying the issues, the personalties, and the events of the time, not as a way of making something melodramatic. We didn't want to make it like a TV miniseries, a `Marco Polo' or `George Washington.'''

His series certainly avoids that. In fact, ``Dateline 1787'' tends to be a little short on electric dramatization, leaning on the evolving political battle for suspense. After all, if the convention doesn't reach a compromise about such issues as how states and people should be represented, civil war or foreign intervention may well be the fate of the young nation.

NRT succeeds especially well on two related fronts: conveying the political and ideological battle behind the Constitution's evolving form; and de-enshrining the process - though not the product - so that listeners can understand the political realism, sectional jealousies, and other motives mixed in with loftier aims.

Is ``Dateline 1787'' docudrama - that much-criticized form in which audiences don't know where fact leaves off and poetic license begins? Only in the most technical sense. The series adds touches of human interest and pointed personal feeling. Ben Franklin himself conducts a personal tour of his house and even demonstrates the glass harmonica he invented. Near the series's end, a reporter questions Washington about being a slaveowner.

But these episodes tend to be teaching aids in the service of teaching history. Notes, publications, and speeches of the delegates themselves were used in writing the show, and constitutional authorities were called on. Two of them, in fact - political scientist William B. Allen and Professor Raklove - are regular commentators for the series.

``There's not even a hundred lines of invented dialogue'' in the series, Rasovsky states. ``We took everything from primary sources, and that means that virtually everything that comes out of their mouths is something they actually said.

``The difficult thing, of course, is that it was two reporters [Ms. Damico and Denise Jimenez] and I who wrote the show. They invented their own questions, and we had to find the answers, and in some cases that meant poring through tons and tons of material because we did not want simply to have the reporters conveniently ask only questions for which we had answers.

``It's funny,'' Rasovsky reflects, ``you never know how it's going to turn out when you do something like that. It's really a public affairs show and I'm a radio dramatist.''

A free ``Audiobill,'' providing production notes and extensive historical background for the series, is available by calling this toll-free number: (800) 922-1787.

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