Audio Story Critique: Petty Tyrant

The audio story I chose to critique is an episode of NPR’s This American Life titled “Petty Tyrant.”  The episode can be listend to here:

The episode is about the rise and fall of Steve Raucci, a maintenance man who eventually became the head supervisor of all maintenance departments in the Schenectady, New York public school system.  During a career spanning 36 years, he started out as a laborer and ending up becoming the head man in charge of the district’s 21 school buildings (as well as wielding influence in local politics).  Ira Glass did the intro, and Sarah Koenig (who now does Serial) narrated the story.

The story is told in three parts. The prologue starts with an anecdote of one of the more milder eccentricities that Raucci had – his obsession with keeping energy costs down.

The first act describes his “rise,” and goes on to interview former co-workers and people who knew Steve who described his ‘reign of terror’ as he rose up the ranks of the bureaucracy.  The stories get increasingly disturbing, including instances of extreme sexual harassment and physical threats.  It also describes how Steve became untouchable as he became more and more vital to the workings of the maintenance department, which allowed him to retain his position despite numerous complaints.

The second act describes his “fall,” as he his actions to thwart opposition become increasingly manic and, eventually, violent.  Eventually, he winds up going so far as splashing red paint on homes and planting homemade bombs across the region, targeting people who he didn’t like or who got in his way.  While nobody got injured, he cause a lot of damage and terrified everyone involved, even catching the attention of the FBI.

He eventually gets busted after law enforcement put a wire on one of his friends, who manages to record Raucci bragging about his numerous terrorist acts.  Raucci wound up getting arrested and charged with 26 felonies including arson and terrorism, and after a trial that saw the dozens of people he terrorized testify against him, he was convicted to 23 years to life in prison.

What made Steve Raucci remarkable, and terrifying, was his hyper-Machiavellian pursuit and maintenance of power, as well as how people above him turned a blind eye – either because they needed him or because they were also afraid of him.  He bullied everyone who worked under him, made crude and not-so-veiled threats to anyone who challenged his authority, handed out punishments and reassignments to people he didn’t like, and exploited his power to help his friends and anyone who could help him move up the ranks.  While the story of a maintenance man in a public school system didn’t seem interesting at the beginning, the longer it went on, the crazier it got.  It astounded me how a man could get away with so much without being challenged by anyone in this day and age.

The key to what made this audio story great was how it was self-aware about the relative dullness of the initial premise, but works that to its advantage – by building up the character of Steve Raucci incrementally, until the listener becomes absolutely fascinated with him and is eager to know what happens next.  It’s a slow burn that ends with a literal bang, and rocks a region after his full story comes out in the open after 36 years.

I loved this story, and it is one of the big reasons why I love This American Life.  Bringing stories that would probably never reach the light of day in many parts of the country, and producing them into slick, amazing shows.


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