This American Life

Sitting down to recast an updated listing of the RSS feeds, Twitter favourites, and podcasts I make a habit of perusing on a daily weekly monthly basis, I would be remiss to not isolate one of these sources of infotainment above the others — the unparallelled public radio institution that in all honesty, I cannot praise highly enough: This American Life.

My love for public radio goes back to a few consecutive summers I spent living in the woods at the Gus Blass Scout Reservation in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Outside our tents on Saturday afternoons, furiously packing our things for a weekly twenty-hour furlough into neighbouring Conway, or Little Rock, the Saturday broadcasts of NPR would accompany us into cars and down the dusty road leading back to civilization and the comforts of home.

Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion, All Things Considered and Morning Becomes Eclectic quickly became a part of my weekend routines. Doing laundry, drying moulding sleeping bags and pillows, and catching up on massive debts of sleep accrued in the sweltering wilds of Camp Rockefeller, I was kept ample company by the likes of Diane Rehm, Robert Siegal, Mr. Keillor, and others. And even now I am never far from a host of disembodied voices that accompany me (in podcasts) on road trips, insomniac nights in bed, runs around the inlet trail in Port Moody, in headphones, car speakers, and the tiny drone of my iPhone’s audio output.

These days, there is an unequivocal champion in garnering my listening attention. His name is Ira Glass, and he hosts a little show called This American Life. Part gonzo journalism, part contemporary American fiction, part living history, This American Life is many things to many people, and difficult to describe. The long and the short of it, as Mr. Glass prefaces every episode, is that “Every week we choose a theme and then bring you a number of stories on that theme.” Where each show goes from there, well…

We view the show as an experiment. We try things. There was the show where we taped for 24 hours in an all-night restaurant. And the show where we put a band together from musicians’ classified ads. And the show where we followed a group of swing voters for months, recording their reactions to everything that happened in the campaign, right up through their final decision. And the show where we had a story for each of the Ten Commmandments. Or the one where our producers all collected stories for a weekend at the same rest stop. We also occasionally do our own versions of stories that are in the news, including award winning economics coveragePlanet Money. that spawned another entire program called We think of the show as journalism. One of the people who helped start the program, Paul Tough, says that what we’re doing is applying the tools of journalism to everyday lives, personal lives. Which is true. It’s also true that the journalism we do tends to use a lot of the techniques of fiction: scenes and characters and narrative threads. Meanwhile, the fiction we have on the show functions like journalism: it’s fiction that describes what it’s like to be here, now, in America. What we like are stories that are both funny and sad. Personal and sort of epic at the same time. We sometimes think of our program as a documentary show for people who normally hate documentaries. A public radio show for people who don’t necessarily care for public radio.
About our Radio Show This American Life

To get started, or to even see if This American Life might provide an introduction or addition to your podcast, or talk-radio listening, subscribe through iTunes, or check out the website’s Favourites Page. You can also browse through more than ten years of the award-winning program in their archives (which is handy, as downloading old episodes on iTunes costs 99 cents). It is honestly difficult to find an episode not worth your time.

Some of my recent favourites:

  • Notes on CampFittingly, this episode tells the “Stories of summer camp. People who love camp say that non-camp people simply don’t understand what’s so amazing about camp. In this program, we attempt to bridge the gap of misunderstanding between camp people and non-camp people.”
  • The Georgia RamblerThe This American Life team heads to Georgia to retrace the steps of 1970s “reporter Charles Salter [who] wrote a column for the Atlanta Journal called “Georgia Rambler.” He’d get into his car, head out to some small town, and ask around until he found a story. This week, nine of us go to Georgia to try it out for ourselves, in small towns all over the state.”
  • Origin StoryAn eclectic collection of “little-known and surprising stories of how all sorts of institutions—from a controversial legal precedent to a Hollywood teen dance flick—began. In one story, a man tries to set the record straight about his life’s achievements, which he says include inventing thumb wrestling and popularizing the eating of shrimp in the New York area. And the story of a seven-year-old old boy trying to figure out where he comes from.”

And if I’ve yet to see you thus far, even the Simpsons know how cool Ira Glass and his little program are (though I would probably skip the Condiments episode):

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