Nick Rogers: Let’s go to the mall

Nick Rogers

In the 1970s, malls signified the future — younger, fresher, cleaner and hipper centers of commercial bustle. Once a cornfield, it’s now congested — a place of sidewalk sales with no sidewalks that’s both a symbol of sprawl and a place where fond memories are forged.

Does that sound like White Oaks Mall? Moreover, what might White Oaks Mall sound like? And could White Oaks just as easily stand in for malls in similarly sized cities across the country?

Those are questions posed by Jonathan Mitchell — a Springfield native and producer for National Public Radio’s New York-based “Radiolab” podcast — in “City X.”

Completed in 2004 and heard only occasionally on public-radio stations throughout the country, Mitchell’s “meta-narrative” piece is online at

Recorded in 2003, it’s a 20-minute examination of mall culture, and its economic and social effects on small cities. Its unidentified voices are Mitchell’s friends and family, as well as a city historian and employees of both mall stores and the Springfield Chamber of Commerce. The piece is amusingly peppered with Muzak versions of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Light My Fire” and “I Can See For Miles.” It’s a compelling and creative piece of new journalism.

While “City X’s” July 1 posting on a “Radiolab” podcast isn’t the piece’s debut, it is where Mitchell has seen it receive its greatest visibility … and its open outing as being set in Springfield.

“i know exactly which city this is. i live here. i hate this mall,” writes commenter “jason” before later responding to a query about the location with: “it’s springfield. white oaks mall.”

On one hand, Mitchell says it’s more interesting to hear the piece as a metaphor for things happening in any number of American places. On the other, Mitchell is happy to declare the piece was inspired by his experience of growing up in Springfield.

“Not vilifying the mall was important to me because I do have a lot of really fond memories of it,” says Mitchell, a 1988 graduate of Springfield High School, who saw White Oaks’ first phase of building in 1976.

“It was a big part of my adolescence and growing into a person who could take care of himself. I would beg my parents to go when I was a kid. You could go to Sears and play Atari for free. That was what I cared about when I was a kid.”

Returning to visit over Christmas holidays, Mitchell’s perspective on the mall changed. White Oaks became a focal point for his pitch about a story on growing up in the Midwest. Yet, in the editing process, Mitchell made a conscious effort to cut out defining details.

“A ‘meta-narrative’ is one that can be applied to many different specific circumstances,” Mitchell says. “People hopefully have the idea to create something in which they could hear themselves and their own town.”

Springfield listeners, though, will be able to pull out specifics (at least circa 2003). People tend to park at the upper level near Bergner’s, while the lower level of Sears is the hinterlands. A food court includes Mandarin Express, McDonald’s, A&W and the Great American Steak Co.

“There were all kinds of things I wanted that I didn’t get,” says Mitchell, whose request for official comment from White Oaks owner Simon was unmet. “But I just walked around with a friend, and I guess it was guerrilla style. No one ever stopped us. Everyone we spoke with was pretty happy to talk.”

Setting myriad voices and recorded sounds to a sort of music is Mitchell’s goal in his radio work.

“I just saw so much musical potential in speech, experimented with it and wanted to work with narratives in that context,” says Mitchell, who earned degrees in music composition from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Mills College (in Oakland, Calif.) before working with Public Radio International, then as a freelancer and, now, on contract with NPR. (Coming this fall, Mitchell also will present his second score for an episode of PBS science series “Nova.”)

“It’s a somewhat unusual approach to radio. It sounds a lot different than other radio pieces that are out there. … I’m not sure how many people in Springfield have heard it. Honestly, I would love for people to know.”

Nick Rogers can be reached at 747-9587. Read his blog, Unpainted Huffhines, at