In their current incarnation podcasts have only been around 15 years. However, the tenants of modern podcasting goes back much further. Much of radio today is music and news based, but once upon a time it had a much broader range of appeal. For much of the early 1900’s the radio was a primary source of family entertainment, where they could listen to short plays, dramas, interviews, stories, or even live musical performances. With the arrival of televisions, radio popularity declined, and sadly it’s entertainment value and diversity too.
Fortunately, there are still pockets of radio airwaves that provide great diverse entertainment. I can recall one of my first experiences of realizing when radio was more than flipping through music, talk, music, static, news, music, commercial… and that was when I came across Seattle’s public radio, KUOW. They were airing a play by L.A. Theatre Works called “Lost in Yonkers,” which typically (at the time) I would’ve flipped on through, but I heard the name Dan Castellaneta whom I immediately recognized from “The Simpsons,” and found it agreeable to stay put. What I thought was going to be something to last me until I reached my destination, ended with me sitting in the car at my destination for the better part of an hour. Sadly, there is no podcast for this show. However, there are worlds of similar shows to download! But, of all the shows produced, including ones I’ve written on, none have reached the prevalence and respect of “This American Life”.
“This American Life” dates all the way back to the technological dark ages: November, 1995. I know, wow. This actually pre-dates podcasting as we know it. It began as a 1 hour radio program for NPR, and still is, but now it has made the smooth transition to podcasting. Many of NPR’s programs are now podcasts as a matter of fact, which is great news for anyone with the means and desire to listen.
With all of that said, this show is far from one of my personal favorites. That doesn’t mean it isn’t an exemplary show, and loved by many including myself (a man of much love I am). I just have a few gripes. When “This American Life” is good, it is life-changingly good, but, unfortunately it has segments, or whole episodes, where it’s quite honestly boring. That aside, it really is a great show that is brought to life by its host, Ira Glass. Ira’s voice is very casual and friendly, and he is very proficient at bringing listener’s into a story and its meanings. He shows the lives of people that you would never have heard of otherwise, and portrays the stories in a way that is immediately listenable.
Now where to start? Truly, not an easy question when there are 11 years of episodes. I’ve put some thought into it and have found a small handful to get you started. “This American Life” cannot be rolled into one category of programming. Sometimes it can be very serious and be similar to a news style expose, or it can be purely entertaining featuring a deluge of witty and hilarious stories from writers/comedians/poets and personalities.
On the more serious spectrum, I bring to you a two part story, episode’s 487 and 488, “Harper High School”. The crew for “This American Life” spent half a school year at Harper High School in Chicago, and during that time they interviewed students and teachers and brought to light the reality of what it’s like to go to school in an area teeming with gangs. Much of this episode is startling, and really an eye opening experience for many of us that grew up in a severely safer environment. Don’t get the impression that this episode is too daunting to start with, for with all the heartache within the community, there is still a story of compassion and strength exhibited by this community within our country.
Then there is another side of “This American Life”, and that is it’s more stylized, creative, story crafted side. Check out episode 482 “Lights, Camera, Christmas!” I enjoyed this episode so much, that on the re-listen, I became excited with anticipation of holiday gatherings and hopeful for snow days. OK, clearly it’s too early for holiday related talk. No worries, just keep this one downloaded and save it for when you’re ready, it’ll be worth it.
Finally, I’d urge you to listen to episode 1 “New Beginnings.” This American Life is a modern day classic, and many other podcasts’ have clear inspiration derived from the show. From its layout for stories, and the way that Ira Glass pulls the audience in and greets you with what feels like direct eye contact. Many podcasts take some time to develop their voice, and find their own way to tell stories, but “This American Life” immediately took charge of its voice and set an example for years of podcasts to come. Visiting the first episode, I was slightly shocked at how well put together it was, which is why I feel so inclined to recommend you start your listening experience here!
While “This American Life” has many positive attributes and accolades, I like to remind everyone that not every episode is gold. No episode is ever really bad, I believe that the show sets a very high standard of entertainment and content, that even it can’t deliver on that from time to time. So if you hear episode you don’t like, don’t be afraid to skip it and move onto the next.
Happy listening fellow podcasters.
Born in Seattle, raised in Bellingham, Joel is a real cloud loving, tree climbing, North Westerner. He can be found living by a Troll in Seattle, often exploring a vast array of breweries and music happenings. He works as an audio/video technician in Redmond giving him a perfect drive for listening to podcasts. He is also a certified dance instructor, and produces his own local concerts in his spare time.