This American Life

If you had time to listen to only one program on Public Radio, then it would be - This American Life. Last week's show was all the more special since it was about quiz shows, or rather people associated in some way with quizzes.

To describe the show in their own words:

One of the problems with our show from the start has been that whenever we try to describe it in a sentence or two, it sounds awful. For instance: Each week we choose a theme and put together different kinds of stories on that theme. That doesn't sound like something we'd want to listen to on the radio, and it's our show. In the early days of the program, in frustration, we'd sometimes tell public radio program directors that it's basically just like Car Talk. Except just one guy hosting. And no cars. It's easy to say what we're not. We're not a news show or a talk show or a call-in show. We're not really formatted like other radio shows at all. Instead, we do these stories that are like movies for radio. There are people in dramatic situations where things happen to them.

Ira Glass has worked every possible position in a radio station: a tape cutter, newscast writer, desk assistant, editor, producer, and host. This American Life has won the highest honors for broadcasting and journalistic excellence, including the Peabody and DuPont-Columbia awards, as well as the Edward R. Murrow and the Overseas Press Club awards. At first, Ira Glass's voice is not one that you would associate with a radio personality: it's slightly nasally, the delivery is often choppy, but it feels feels direct, genuine, and matter-of-fact; after a while, you can't think of another voice that would match the material better. It is well-crafted like everything else on the show. Glass uses his training in semiotics to great effect: every pause, repetition of sentence, choice of word is a deliberate choice. Glass spends hours selecting, adding, or deleting the position of a particular pause, cadence, and selecting the songs for the show. Consider selecting songs for all these topics? I bet it's a tough job. Try finding a song for a show on quizzes? Their selection could not have been better - the punk tone and lyrical content of Smarter than You by The Undertones almost perfectly describes the attitude of quizzers. He says, "There are only two things in radio - sound and silence."

This American Life goes beyond just finding extraordinary stories on the most mundane of all topics:
The retiree in Brooklyn who invites some homeless prostitutes into his house on a cold winter night and they never leave; pranksters who go on missions to create a cell-phone symphony, board the NY subway in just underpants, or give a band its greatest gig; on New York building supervisors, or the 'Supers', and their fantastic tales; students at a high-school prom when a tornado rips a third of the rest of their town. One of my favourite stories is about Charlie Brill and Mitzie McCall who got caught in another kind whirlwind, when they got their biggest break on Ed Sullivan.

After listening to a couple of shows you realize that despite the name the show is not really about America; it's about life in general and stories of humans caught up in it. How we deal with situations and how we don't. How things that seeemed liked good ideas at the time went fatally wrong.

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All the shows are available free on the website as streaming audio. To my great joy they are now allowing episodes to be downloaded on iTunes as podcasts. Each show is availabe for a week after the broadcast and is then archived on

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