WBEZ-FM's 'This American Life' To Focus Two Special Episodes On Chicago's Harper High School

WBEZ-FM's nationally syndicated "This American Life," which got its start in Chicago, returns home for two very special episodes, both of which will be exploring the terrible gun violence that is affecting Harper High School. These episodes will air this coming weekend and the following weekend.

There were 500 murders in the city of Chicago in 2012 -- most of which occurred by guns. Chicago's murder rate greatly climbed last year, while in many big cities, including New York and Los Angeles, the number has been steady or declining. Last weekend, Hadiya Pendleton was laid to rest. The 15 year-old Chicago honor student was shot in a park, just a week after performing at a Presidential inaugural event in Washington, D.C. Her death and funeral made national headlines.

The Chicago Public School's William R. Harper High School is located on Chicago's southside in the West Englewood neighborhood. In the 2011-2012 school year for Harper High School, 29 current and recent Harper students were shot -- eight of which, fatally. The school is filled with over 15 rival gangs.

"This American Life" (TAL) has chosen to dedicate two full programs to exploring the troubles at Harper High School, as it is sadly, a microcosm of the gun violence that now plagues the inner city of Chicago.

"TAL" host Ira Glass said this week "For everything we've all heard about children and gun violence, there are basic things we don't hear so much about. Like what it's like to live in neighborhoods that have to cope with so much bloodshed. This is a school that knows this problem in a way that most of us around the country don't."

Three reporters -- Alex Kotlowitz, Linda Lutton, and Ben Calhoun -- spent months working on these reports. Kotlowitz has written about children and violence in Chicago for more than twenty years, turning out books, documentaries, and numerous articles for publications such as The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Chicago Tribune Magazine, and Rolling Stone. Lutton is WBEZ-FM's education reporter, who has also reported for Education Week, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Reader, In These Times, The World, Marketplace, NPR's Morning Edition, and the Daily Southtown. Calhoun is a staff producer for "TAL," who previously spent eight years as a reporter with WBEZ-FM and contributed to NPR news programs.

The Harper High School administration gave these three reporters for "TAL" unusual access for a full, five month semester. The reporters were there to witness the school's staff jump into action when violence struck, when the staff had to have difficult meetings with families and students, and the steps they take on a daily basis to try and keep these teenagers alive.

Lutton was able to get shockingly candid answers from students who told her where they get their guns. She also learned how the gangs at that school operate differently, where young men are assigned a gang affiliation based on where they live, whether they want it or not, and then have to defend themselves.

The "TAL" reports mention how some young men are targeted to be shot, merely because they grew taller and look more adult. When groups of teens stick together just to keep themselves safe, since being along is unsafe in the neighborhoods, they automatically become a "gang," and thus a target. The two weekends of "TAL" programs will showcase the incredibly troubling "Catch-22" that Chicago's urban youth and their families are dealing with each day.

Although "This American Life" moved to New York in 2007, the show is still officially produced and co-owned by Chicago's WBEZ-FM, where it got its start. The popular talk show with a different topical theme each week was created in 1995 by host Ira Glass and Chicago Public Media CEO Torey Malatia. The radio show is now heard on over 500 radio stations.

Locally, "This American Life" can be heard on WBEZ 91.5 FM on Fridays at 7:00pm, with an encore airing on Saturday mornings at 10:00am.

After the Friday airings, podcasts of "TAL" can be heard on demand at ThisAmericanLife.org.