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Stories for the heart: This American Life turns 25 10 min read

Stories for the heart: This American Life turns 25

One of the best radio programs/podcasts ever made is celebrating its 25th year. Here are some good episodes to revisit.

By Cary Littlejohn

I’ve been listening to podcasts now for roughly a decade. It was at the suggestion of dear friends in law school. The two podcasts they recommended were RadioLab and This American Life, and I can still remember the feeling of pride I felt after listening to a few episodes, loving them, and remembering the friends say, “This is the sort of thing you’ll like, Cary.” It was a safe assumption on their part due to the wildly popular nature of the shows, but I still felt special, like they’d seen something discerning and full of good taste in me.

This American Life is turns 25 this year, so obviously, the show is much older than the concept of podcasts that it’s now known for. It is an award-winning radio show from WBEZ in Chicago, and it has been played on the weekends on NPR for decades now. I did not know this growing up; we did not listen to NPR.

The show was very much responsible for drawing me to a career in journalism. It’s the storytelling that resonates with me, the inventive themes around which to find multiple stories, the thoughtfulness, the power of the “small” stories and how much they resonate when given the same time and attention as a “big” story. I listened to tons of This American Life, plowing through its archive, trying to make up for the time I’d missed out on since it was already 15 years into its run by the time I discovered.

But then something strange happened. I stopped listening. Podcasts became a bigger and bigger part of my life, and they became a bigger and bigger force in the world of media. Hundreds of thousands of them, many with the same high production quality as This American Life, now existed, and where would I ever find the time to listen to them all? I had a serious fear of missing out, a real desire to explore and try new shows, and so I did.

One of the ways I did that was to find new podcast apps for my phone, and the better ones allowed for minute control over the playback speed, which allowed me to listen to more and more at a speed just below ridiculous. I remembered an interview with Ira Glass, the host/creator of This American Life, who decried the use of higher playback speeds. He described the podcast as a piece of art, or maybe a piece of music is more accurate. The beats were there for a reason, the pauses, the gaps, the melody and rhythm of the sentences, and using an artificially high playback speed ruined that.

Out of some weird respect for his wishes, I didn’t play This American Life episodes in my podcast apps. I had long ago purchased This American Life’s own podcast app (which is discontinuing at the end of the year), and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it did not provide a faster playback-speed option. And so the very great show that got me into podcasts in the first place slowly and then totally fell out of my listening diet.

I took the idea for this week’s newsletter recommendations from a great newsletter called Podcast Review, which selected 25 favorite episodes of the show. I followed the same idea and methodology (using the staff recommendations to limit my search), but I focused on stories that I hadn’t heard in my absence from regular listenership. I remember many of the recommendations that I had heard, because that is the power of these stories. But I found nine that I hadn’t ever heard before, and I included one that I had, that I loved, that I returned to for the first time since I’d heard it because it has seen me so completely. I hope you’ll take a moment to listen to some (or all) of them; I only selected segments and most hover around the 15 minute mark in duration.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Roads: This is the type of story that first possessed me almost a decade ago when I first started listening to podcasts. An innocuous-seeming and totally random statistic from Pew Research that said 9% of Americans want to travel through time. The power of this type of story is that it allows you to get lost in a thought, even something as fantastical as time-travel. Do I want to travel through time, you ask yourself. Would I take that particular leap if the technology existed? Which direction — forward or backward in time — would I go? The end of the episode, when one of those producers of the segment talks about having given a lot of thought to time-travel because of a fork-in-the-road moment in an old relationship. That revelation hit me hard, and his answer was a perfect button to an endearing segment.

  2. Mon Ami Ta-Nehisi: “When people change, they grow apart.” Producer Neil Drumming says those words in the middle of a touching segment where he reconnects with and reckons with his old friend Ta-Nehisi Coates after the latter’s meteoric rise following the publishing of his award-winning book Between the World and Me. Coates grew famous, there’s no other way to say it. Drumming continued on as he ever was, and he felt distant from Coates the few times they talked. He wanted to talk with him about the distance between them, and it’s a particularly brave bit of radio. It resonated with me because who among us doesn’t have the stray friend or two whose lives have diverted from ours? They’re on their own path now. They changed. Or did we? If we sat down like these two did in this segment, would we think the distance that had grown between us was 100% on the other person? Probably. Would we be wrong? Most likely. It’s raw and vulnerable and revealing, and, again, everything that great storytelling should be.

  3. Best Laid Plans: When I was a working as a writing tutor at the University of Missouri, I would often get appointments from a class that focused on Amish culture. One of the assignments was to analyze the concept of Rumspringa, the time at which teenagers in the Amish community turn 16 years old and are allowed/encouraged to sow wild oats for two years. After the two years, they must decide to return to the community or to turn their back on it. That is the extent of my knowledge of Rumspringa, but I saw this segment about a couple who’d been together for 13 years years and wondering why they’d never considered marriage. They thought they needed to take a break, to explore, to sleep with other people before they committed to each other. So they gave themselves 30 days to explore, and, of course, it was not a simple little thing they did.

  4. Make ’em Laff: Things are often associated with the places we encountered them, and the same is true for me when it comes to The Onion, the satirical news organization, and Washington, D.C. Before The Onion stopped publishing a print newspaper, it was in a green newspaper box in certain cities. Washington, D.C. obviously, and there was one of those boxes right outside of a Starbucks on the corner of the street where the law firm for which I was interning during my sophomore year of college sat on 7th Street NW. Every so often I would go in the Starbucks, but certainly not every day because I was broke and I don’t even know if I drank coffee daily at that point in my life, but I never passed up The Onion, free and for the taking. I’m ashamed to say that when I first started picking it up, I’m not certain I knew it was satire. I was green to the world, green as The Onion’s newspaper box, and D.C. was the first city outside of Memphis I’d ever stayed longer than a visit. The silly, nonsensical, deeply spot-on humor did not happen by accident, and in this segment, Ira Glass visits the writers’ room for The Onion. He realizes it’s a tough place, and the beautiful thing for any person who creates with words is the inexact science by which they’re governed. Something just doesn’t sound right, can’t put a finger on it, and therefore it can’t make it in. Other times, there’s just something about it that works, but they can’t articulate why convincingly. It’s an interesting dance.

  5. Our Man of Perpetual Sorrow: This American Life was my introduction to Dan Savage, the brilliant sex advice columnist, LGBTQ activist and founder of the It Gets Better Project, and his segments on the show were always some of my favorites. This segment in an episode themed “Return to the Scene of the Crime” is unbelievably touching and incredibly human. Savage discusses the death of his mother, a good Catholic woman, and his struggle with the desire to believe as she did despite his own disbelief. He performs this story in front of a live audience and the moments when his voice breaks as he described his mother and her final moments are so tender, so painful, that it’s almost hard to recommend this segment in good conscience. But its honesty and humanity demand it be heard.

  6. Stranger in the Night: Comedian Mike Birbiglia tells a story in this segment that’s that strange combination of a harrowing story told in a funny way. It has to do with a sleepwalking disorder he had, and you can imagine the fun to be had when a comedian gets his hands on this kind of material. But it makes me think about how crazy the concept of sleep really is. Sleeping soundly is one of my gifts, and I don’t mean that facetiously: I have friends and family members who struggle to sleep, and I simply can’t relate. My brother was prone to sleepwalking when he was a kid, and even a few instances when he was older, like in the Navy and just bailed out of the top bunk during training, fast asleep all the way down until he hit the floor. For me, I think the occasional talking in my sleep is as bad as it gets for me. I think of my ability to sleep as one of those things in my life that works correctly that I too often overlook. I go to bed and rest soundly in the faith that I will wake up where I dozed off, no worse the wear. As Birbiglia describes with humor and grace, that’s not always the case.

  7. It Takes a Villa: Another stunning Neil Drumming piece, this one about the revelations of his father’s inner thoughts when he bought a timeshare in Florida in the early 1980s that became a staple for the Drumming family’s summers going forward. Drumming had never really been that close with his father, and his conversations with him for the segment, with his father now in his 90s, is a reminder of the selflessness of parents. It’s also a testament to how little things in life stick with a person and drive their actions going forward. For Drumming’s father, a strong motivator for buying the timeshare was his memory of being in school, returning after the summer break, and the obligatory “What I Did This Summer” essay he’d be expected to write. He said he never had anything to write for those assignments, and he didn’t want that for his kids. How many of us are driven in our later years by something as outwardly insignificant-seeming as a school assignment? Probably more than we realize.

  8. Prologue, Who You Gonna Call?: This is a perfect episode for the times we’re in right now, a time of less physical interaction with loved ones and more phone calls (now often FaceTime or Zoom calls). The entire episode is all about the power of phone calls, regular, old phones-being-used-as-phones phone calls. Guest host Sean Cole starts the episode with the now-frequent calls he makes to his stepdad after his mother passed away. When I first started riding the bus home from school to an empty house, it was customary to call my mom at work to let her know I and my siblings had made it home. The act became a habit, and I don’t remember how well I did with it in high school, but from college onward, it’s been my routine to call my mom once a day. I remember making the calls as I was walking across campus in Memphis or driving in traffic in Knoxville to lunch breaks in the backyard while the dog played in Mississippi. Just a regular old phone call, whereas my siblings now call almost exclusively through FaceTime; she told me recently that she caught herself walking through the house to show me something before realizing we were just using the phone as originally intended, with no video. This segment of is an exploration of why he calls his stepdad more consistently than he had his mother, though his mother was the one who’d wanted such consistency. It’s a sweet reminder of the power of a phone call, and a deeper exploration of why we make them in the first place.

  9. Why Can’t We Be Friends?: One more from Neil Drumming, who started producing for the show around the time I stopped listening to This American Life regularly, and his voice and perspective are clearly examples of what I’d missed out on in my time away. This one is such a simple concept, and that’s what makes This American Life some of the most inventive storytelling out there. It truly captures everything you could ever want from a show with that title. One of the weirdest things about getting older and moving around a decent bit is the question of how adults make friends. It’s crazy how much of our friend groups are created by the grouping beyond our control (schools and work, for me) or the force of habit (childhood friends). I think about the blessing of starting a job out in Wyoming with a roster of guys close to my age and who share in many of the same interests, because if I looked at my phone book for names and numbers of people I’ve added since I got out here, the guys from the newsroom are the ones I’d consider friends. I haven’t actually made many in the wild, so to speak. This segment is just that, two guys trying to make new friends in a new city, and being helped along by a radio producer. It’s just good stuff.

  10. Dr. Phil: And there’s one story I couldn’t not include on this list, not only because it’s one of my favorite segments of This American Life ever, but because of how acutely how it applies to my life right now. Producer Starlee Kine was working through a breakup, and she did so on tape in an incredibly raw way. She dived deep into the art and omniscience of breakup songs and tracked down Phil Collins and talked to him about how to write one. It is beautiful and moving and a true testament to just how much a well-crafted piece of audio journalism can reach through your headphones and grab you by the heart.

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