My “This American Life” favorites
by Alek Davis
I have been listening to This American Life (a radio show produced by Chicago Public Radio) for a several months and I can say that it has become one of my favorite (non-technical) shows. This American Life may be not as well known as my other favorites, which include Fresh Air, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me, and Car Talk, but it often tells the most fascinating stories. Where else can you hear about an apartment super plotting murders of his tenants, a mortgage broker making $70K per month, or foreign-born wives and husbands of U.S. citizens who are being departed from the country because their spouses die before the green card interviews.
If you haven’t heard This American Life before, each episode of the show consists of several parts which follow a common theme. A show normally starts with a short prologue, followed by one or more acts, and sometimes concluded with an epilogue.
Here are some episodes that moved me (I’ll try to keep this list updated once I hear more interesting podcasts):
379: Return To The Scene Of The Crime: I liked Act One (D-U-Why?!): Mike Birbiglia recalls being in a car accident with a hit and run drunk driver, and in the weeks that follow, Mike’s brush with death turns into a full blown nightmare when the police report is so poorly filled out that somehow Mike, winds up owing the drunk driver 12 thousand dollars … not because it’s fair, but because he can’t get anyone to listen to him. I also enjoyed Act Three (Our Man of Perpetual Sorrow): Dan Savage points a finger at the Catholic Church for being the kind of criminal organization that drives him to atheism—despite the fact that he still wants to believe he’ll see his mom in heaven someday.
375: Bad Bank: This show could’ve been part of the American Banking for Dummies series.
374: Somewhere Out There: Of all the 6 and a half billion people in the world, what are the odds that any two people are a real match? Stories from people who know they’ve beat the odds, and the lengths they’ve gone to do it—including an American professor who sings Chinese opera for anyone who’ll listen, to get one step closer to his mate, and two kids who travel halfway around the country to find each other and become best friends.
370: Ruining It for the Rest of Us: Stories of people who ruin things for everyone else…or who are accused of that. Prologue explains what happens when a bad worker joins a team. Act One tells a story about an unvaccinated 7-year-old boy who infected 11 children with measles, and caused more than 60 kids to be quarantined (interesting, especially for parents who consider not subjecting their children to immunization). In Act Two, comedian Mike Birbiglia talks about the time he ruined a cancer charity event (funny).
369: Poultry Slam 2008: Act Three — A Pastor and his Flock — tells the story about worker rights advocates who have been using the church to intervene with company management in a very, very personal way.
365: Another Frightening Show About the Economy: Alex Blumberg and NPR’s Adam Davidson—the two guys who reported the Giant Pool of Money episode—discuss the $700 billion bailout package passed by the U.S. Congress and Senate, and explain what regulators could’ve done to prevent this financial crisis from happening in the first place.
364: Going Big: I liked Act One, a report about the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Baby College project, an 8-week program where young parents and parents-to-be learn how to help their children get the education they need to be successful.
363: Enforcers: Act One tells about three Internet vigilantes who spend their free time scamming Internet scammers. Act Two reports on how one of Wall Street’s main regulators, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, doesn’t seem all that interested in regulating anything.
360: Switched At Birth: It’s a fascinating story. Two infants were accidentally switched, and went home with the wrong families. One of the mothers realized the mistake but chose to keep quiet. Until the day, more than 40 years later, when she decided to tell both daughters what happened. Find out how the truth changed two families’ lives—and how it didn’t.
359: Life After Death: Act One tells the story of what it’s like to live with being the accidental cause of someone’s death.
356: The Prosecutor: The politics of the Department of Justice (DOJ) shown through the eyes of a prosecutor-turned-into-defender.
355: The Giant Pool of Money: Dissects the forces that brought about the current housing and credit crisis.
353: The Audacity of Government: Act Two made me really angry. It tells the story of foreign nationals marrying U.S. citizens, who die before their Green Card interviews, which leads to their denial of residence by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service and deportation from the country.
350: Human Resources: Act One tells a story of New York teachers, who spend months, and sometimes years, in secret rooms, while they are being investigated by the Board of Education for something they may, or may not, know they did.
349: Valentine’s Day 2008: Is a collection of not very traditional love stories.
347: Matchmakers: I liked Act One (a story about realities of love in modern day Afghanistan) and Act Three (an illustration of racial prejudices shown through a window of the toy store FAO Schwartz).
344: The Competition: Both acts offer interesting stories: one is about a group of Indian workers who have been short of enslaved by an American steel tank maker and a pastor who helped them; the other describes the act of courage by a journalist who chose not to report about a former sex offender working with kids at a local ice rink.
340: The Devil in Me: Act One tells the story of the unusual action an Iraq War veteran, who came home from the War plagued by feelings of hate and anger toward Muslims, took to change himself, and the Muslim students who helped him do it.
323: The Super: All three acts are worth listening, but I liked the first one — the story about an apartment super with mob connections and dark past — most.
322: Shouting Across the Divide: Act One offers a disturbing story about the prejudice a Palestinian family encounters in suburban America.
318: With Great Power: This episode focuses on people who have power to help and hurt other people and their decision to use or not to use this power.
304: Heretics: The story of Reverend Carlton Pearson, a renowned evangelical pastor in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who cast aside the idea of Hell, and with it everything he’d worked for over his entire life.
291: Reunited (And It Feels So Good): Stories about getting back together. I really liked Act One: the story of an Iranian couple who were unhappily married for 27 years, split up, got divorced, and then, two years after that they fell in love and married each other again.