In the New Year of 2011 I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing the dishes after dinner. So far, so ordinary. But then I switched on my iPod and something magical happened. My first time listening to This American Life happened. On that dark January evening as I scrubbed saucepans clean and rinsed soapsuds from plates, This American Life opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at money and thinking about the world.
It all started when I got my iPod for Christmas 2010 and I explored the podcasts section on iTunes. The first episode of TAL I downloaded to my podcast was The Invention of Money (you can listen here: The Invention of Money). Like a paradigm shift, it gave me a completely new perspective on money and the world. From that moment on, I was captivated.
Now, over two years after my first time listening, I am a fan, a devotee, an addict. I listen to This American Life every week. If I miss an episode, I start to get withdrawal symptoms. Why do I love it so much? Let me count the ways…
1. Format – This American Life has a very simple but very effective format.
In the words of its host, Ira Glass, “Each week we choose a theme and put together different kinds of stories on that theme”.
This sentence, like a mantra, is always tucked into the first few minutes of each TAL broadcast. The audience is ready, waiting like children eager to hear a story, and the show begins.
2. Theme – the show covers an endless variety of themes. I looked through the TAL Radio Archives and picked out a few of my favorite episodes:
The Invention of Money – the first episode I ever listened to. It is truly enthralling.
Invisible Made Visible – this is the radio version of a live show which TAL produced last year. I picked it as one of my favorites because of Ryan Knighton’s contribution. Ryan is blind and in Act 1 he talks about trying to explain what that means to his young daughter.
Return to the Scene of the Crime – I spent a while trying to remember the name of this episode and trawling the archives for it because I really want to share it with you. It made me wince and laugh (Mike Birbiglia in Act 1: “D-u-why?!”) and cry (Dan Savage talking about his mom’s death in Act 3: “Our Man of Perpetual Sorrow”).
In Dog We Trust – stories about the animals in our lives. I particularly recommend listening to the last act, Act 3: Resurrection.
3. Journalism – the stories that TAL produces are examples of journalism at its finest hour, encouraging listeners to think creatively and giving them a different angle on everyday life. This article from the July/August 1999 edition of the American Journalism Review explains exactly what sets TAL apart.
4. Storytelling – On the About Our Radio Show page on the TAL website, they explain that the journalism on the program “tends to use a lot of the techniques of fiction: scenes and characters and narrative threads”. That technique is what struck me when I first listened to This American Life on that dark winter evening two years and eight months ago. The producers took an ostensibly humdrum topic of money and opened my eyes to a whole new perspective. The program was factual but the method of presentation was like a riveting novel that I couldn’t bear to put down.
Conversely, “the fiction we have on the show functions like journalism”. Some of my favorite moments on TAL are stories told by contributors such David Sedaris and David Rakoff, for example, the unique retelling of Franz Kafka’s short story, The Metamorphosis, which is about a man, Gregor Samsa, who wakes up as a cockroach. What would happen if Samsa wrote to Dr Seuss, imploring for help? Act 2, “Oh! The Places You Will Not Go”, of episode 470 is a correspondence between Samsa (Jonathan Goldestein) and Dr Seuss (David Rakoff).
5. Ira Glass – Ira Glass is a public radio veteran, having worked in the field of public radio for more than thirty years. As host and executive producer of This American Life, he is one of the masterminds behind the show and he is definitely part of what makes it great.
6. Relaxation – Listening to This American Life is one of my most favorite ways to relax. My preferred way to listen is to download each week’s episode in podcast form to my iPod and curl up under the covers to listen. TAL is an excellent sleeping aid! If I can’t sleep, all I have to do is put TAL on a low volume and before you can say “This is Public Radio International”, Ira’s voice lulls me into a peaceful slumber.
In short, This American Life is funny, moving and brilliant. The stories range from the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans to bizarre stories which challenge your views and make you reconsider your opinions. And these things are all part of a unique listening experience: the joy of truly great radio.
Are you a This American Life listener? What do you love about the show? If you’re not a TAL listener, have I convinced you to check it out?