Another Stellar Recommendation

24 06 2009

I am motivated to write this post by the same impulse that directed me to recommend the fantasy fiction of George R.R. Martin. In conversations that cover the subjects of literature or journalism, what one likes and one doesn’t, I often deliver the same sermon extolling the virtues of a weekly radio production from Chicago NPR station WBEZ. Such endless recommending can become tedious, its listeners began faking interest and I am often frustrated that the full extent of its merits is not conveyed. Hence, this post seeks to rectify this situation by providing a definitive account of the subject.

"Every week we bring you a theme and a variety of stories based on that theme"

"Every week we bring you a theme and a variety of stories based on that theme"

“This American Life,” hosted by Ira Glass, consistently delivers a show remarkable in its storytelling, relentless in its journalistic legwork and surprising in its content. It is some of the finest American journalism being produced today.

The show is structured around a theme, conceptual creative and various in scope, with a series of stories, or acts, that relate to the week’s motif. The number of acts per show changes, two to four is typically, with bigger one-act tales coming along occasionally. One show even attempted to cram 60 one-minute acts into a single episode.

The show uses a staple of regular contributors and producers and occasionally includes work by well-known non-fiction authors such as David Sedaris or Dan Savage. Some acts are journalistic retellings, full of interviews, others are personal essays read by those who wrote them and even short stories make rare appearances. While the show has a general formula, the crew at WBEZ constantly finds new ways to tweak and explore the show and what can be with it.

The medium of radio is ideal for the show. Unlike television, which clearly separates the viewer from the performer, radio has a transformative intimacy. As you listen to people tell stories (tragic, funny, heartbreaking, heartwarming, shocking, informative, inspiring, refreshing, gut-wrenching stories) in their own voices and struggle to express them in their own words you feel a closeness to the person and the story.

With a full hour straight through, no commercials, each act is given enough time to develop, evolve and change. There are no hurried edits, one-line cuts or soundbites. Each issue is thoroughly explored and each episode gives you something you didn’t have before, be it information or insight.

For “This American Life,” the success is in the stories. As I listed a few paragraphs up, the range of emotions evoked in a single episode can vary wildly and some of the tales will stay with you for a long time.

In particular, I will always remember the story of a kid whose father, an electrician and TV repairman, dies of a heart attack. It’s the 1950s when his father dies, unwarned and unaware about the risk factors contributing to heart disease. A few years later, the kid decides in typical childish fashion, to dedicate his life to inventing time travel, to save his father before it’s too late.

And for most, this is where the story would end. The kid grows up and realizes that time travel is not possible, just the dream of a distraught child. Instead, the show traces the course of this kid’s life as he goes to college for physics, becomes an engineer and spends the next few decades of his life trying to make time travel possible. He undergoes ridicule and accolades, setbacks and steps forward, love and divorce all in effort to warn his father, to get a couple more years to spend with him.

You can hear “This American Life” as part of the weekend programming for most public radio stations or download the podcast from their Web site or iTunes. Worth a listen, I promise

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One response

25 06 2009
Becky

My favorite NPR show. Love it when I can catch it on road trips!

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