For those of you who aren't aware of the This American Life podcast then you absolutely should be. Although, I will warn you in advance that you may start reeling off paraphrased stories from the show to all your peers until they eventually get sick of it and you have to turn to your blog to vent the love you have for it in a public forum. Case in point being the following article that you're (hopefully) about to read.
Each weekly episode of NPR's This American Life revolves around a differing central theme such as being your own worst enemy, living without, the psychopath test, etc. Fronted by its host Ira Glass, the show is comprised of usually three to five stories (or rather 'acts' as they're referred to) loosely based around the central theme of the show. The stories vary from the serious, the moving and the poignant to the absurd, the ridiculous and fthe unny. But the real mastery to be found in this podcast is the quality of storytelling.
Every narrative on the show, both the fictional and non-fictional, is constructed masterfully with a meticulousness that makes it near impossible to resist becoming emotionally invested in the stories. Particularly pertinent are those told first-hand by the people directly involved in the anecdotes. It's an incredibly gripping technique in this medium. It allows for more emphasis to be placed on being able to hear every inflection in each person's voice, giving you insight and emotional attachment that is so sorely lacking in so many other shows. Recently the podcast featured the first performance of a comedienne, Tig Notaro, after finding out she had cancer. The resulting ten minutes of the podcast is incredibly emotional as she thinks out loud to an appreciative audience, pondering her situation with her voice cracking slightly in places as she delivers an impromptu routine that is simultaneously funny and moving.
More than anything, This American Life is about people. And if like me you're a little obsessed with people, human interest stories and why we do the things we do, then I genuinely can't recommend this podcast enough. They take stories from people all over the world on all manner of topics and try to understand and interpret what motivates our actions, why things have happened the way that they have, and what consequences this could have upon the future. These stories vary from smaller insular issues that effect one person (such as the audio of a blind man taking his baby for a walk for the first time) to larger human issues (a massacre committed in Guatemala that was covered up for years). In each case, the theme expands from the everyday and often strange behavioural quirks, to huge underlying social issues in need of address. Every human intricacy and impulse is explored and discussed, often meaning that the stories can be incredibly dark and harrowing, but ultimately, they are all rewarding listening.
Perhaps what I personally respect about this podcast above all else is that it tip toes the line of respecting its audience and not simply patronisingly spoon feeding knowledge. It doesn't acquiesce to the demands of dumbing down nor does it hold any pretence about itself. Rather, it strikes a happy medium that is incredibly difficult to achieve. Complex and challenging issues are presented in a clear and accessible way which renders ordinarily disinteresting subject matter entertaining and captivating.
When recommended recently in The Guardian, the article BRIEFLY bemoaned the lack of English equivalent which saw the comment section turn into mindless jingoistic vitriol, proving that nowhere on the internet is safe. Perhaps the closest we have is 'Jon Ronson on...' who, incidentally, is a regular contributor to This American Life himself. But for those with any passing interest in radio, podcasts or storytelling more broadly then This American Life is essential listening.
I implore you all to seek it out and listen to this podcast now whilst it's still cool and niche so you can retain a smug air about yourself as you recommend it to others, which, in retrospect, might've been the driving force behind this article.
Follow Pete Strauss on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@petestrauss