When This American Life made its debut on public radio in November 1995, early response was largely positive, with Mother Jones magazine calling the program “hip, as well as intensely literary and surprisingly irreverent.” The show has since gone on to win two Peabody Awards for excellence in radio and television broadcasting.
This weekly hour-long program features essays, memoirs, field recordings, short fiction and found footage ranging from the conventional to the offbeat. Each week’s show, hosted by veteran presenter Ira Glass, focuses on a particular theme — for example, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — explored in several enthralling acts. Its emphasis is on American current events, but it also explores global issues as well as the peculiarities of human nature.
In one episode, entitled “This I Used to Believe,” people recount how they were forced to let go of firmly held convictions. One woman, who long believed that abortion was murder, is finally persuaded by her pro-choice activist mother to switch sides after Mom encourages her to visit pregnant women in an abortion clinic amid protests outside.
“Remember Me” contains an amusing account of a distinguished philanthropist’s ghost, who supposedly plays pranks on guests at a Ramada hotel in Wisconsin. And writer David Wilcox tells the story of how his dying mother made a videotape for his developmentally challenged sister, in hopes that the tape would keep her memory alive.
More recently, the program has dwelled on the economy. In “Scenes from a Recession,” a variety of Americans hatch unusual plans to survive the economic drought. They include 19 condo owners who were left in a Chicago building that was partially renovated and then abandoned by its developers. Desperate, they take it upon themselves to keep the electricity going and the water flowing, and actually improve their living conditions. The same episode also finds Glass looking for unusual signs of the recession, such as a dentist who has seen an increase in broken teeth from grinding.
Ultimately, what makes these everyday stories so extraordinary is their telling. By weaving together monologues, mini-dramas and documentaries, they educate and entertain, not only reflecting the diversity and eccentricity of the subjects, but also capturing contemporary culture at its most interesting and inventive.
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