Stories of two criminals – two great hours of radio

    Sometimes friends ask me if I have a favorite among the interviews I’ve done for Fresh Air. I don’t, but one that often comes to mind when I’m groping for an answer is my conversation with a one-time Chicago mobster named Frank Calabrese, Jr.

    He wrote a memoir about his experiences, and it opens with the moment he decided he would go to the FBI to help put his father, a career criminal who brought Frank into the business, away for good. I’ve covered enough criminal cases as a reporter to know that when somebody cooperates with the government, they’re almost always getting something for it — immunity, a reduced sentence, something.

    But it turns out Frank got nothing. He risked his life wearing a wire on his father — in prison — and others, then spent years working with federal agents and testifying in court, and didn’t get a legal break of any kind.

    As you hear Frank’s story, you begin to understand. He was raised in a crime family by a brutal, psychologically-damaged and controlling father, and at some point he realized that the only way he would have his own life would be if his father were in prison for good — which would also benefit the rest of us.

    It’s a gripping story to read, but what I wasn’t expecting was the emotional toll it took on Frank to tell the story in our interview. He feels the pain and conflict every time he re-lives it, and it made for a remarkable hour of radio.

    Calabrese’s book, out in paperback next week, is called Operation: Family Secrets, and the interview is rebroadcast today on Fresh Air.

    And I also recommend you get the podcast or go the Fresh Air website and listen to Thursday’s interview with Masha Gessen, a plain-spoken and courageous Russian journalist who will tell you things about Prime Minister Alexander Putin that are simply chilling.

    Much of the world has come to regard Putin as an authoritarian pig, but Gessen’s book is a fascinating chronicle of his rise to power, and more important, a dissection of his systematic dismantling of the country’s independent media and democratic institutions.

    When she was reporting on the first legal case the Putin regime brought to shut down a major media organization, she got a threatening call from a prosecutor and found her home phone suddenly stopped working. Then, outside the window of her apartment, a guy suddenly appeared on a ladder, 24 hour a day. When she asked what he was doing, he would grumble, “repairs.”

    Gessen’s book is The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. You’ll find our interview in the February 29th edition of Fresh Air.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.