Since premiering in 1995, the public radio program This American Life has captivated listeners with fascinating and diverse stories. Here are a select few to listen to before Ira Glass comes to Ohio University.
Spread the news door to door and shout it in the streets: Ira Glass is coming to Ohio University on Saturday. Glass, if you aren’t aware, is the co-creator and host of This American Life, a weekly, hour-long public radio program produced by WBEZ Chicago.
As a long-time fan of the radio program, I cannot wait for Reinventing Radio: An Evening with Ira Glass. To put it in perspective, Mill Fest, my favorite Athens street fest, is also on Saturday, and I am planning a sober and short day, so I can be ready for the Performing Arts and Concert Series event.
This American Life has been running for 21 years, so there’s plenty of programming — and Glass — to consume in preparation for his visit.
In all those years, specifically in all my years of listening to the program, there are certain episodes that really stand out as my favorites. Here are just a few:
The first episode of This American Life I ever listened to was episode 218: Act V. Aired in 2002, the episode followed a group of inmates putting on a production of Act V of Hamlet at a high-security prison. I listened to it as a senior in high school for research on a project about theater’s positive effects. The broadcast was one of my main sources. And more than that, it was an inspiring piece of storytelling that was compassionate and just. As a journalism student, that’s the goal: to tell a story not just with facts, but with emotion and humanity.
Sinatra’s 100th Birthday
Ask me who my favorite artist is, and there’s a fairly good chance I would say Frank Sinatra. The man himself was complicated, but his music is timeless and terrific.
Episode 574: Sinatra’s 100th Birthday of This American Life aired Dec. 11, a day before Sinatra would have turned 100, and it is actually an updated version of a 1997 episode.
I like this episode because I like Sinatra, but also because the juxtaposition between the original broadcast — created a year before Sinatra died — and the sprinkled-in 2015 updates show just how eternal Sinatra’s legacy is and how well-produced This American Life episodes are, as the 18-year-old segments still are fresh and insightful and entertaining.
And as a journalism student, Act I of the episode is special. Gay Talese reads part of his 1966 Esquire piece “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” That feature has become a staple in required reading for journalism classes everywhere and a standard many writers yearn to reach, in part because Talese never actually interviewed Sinatra for the famous profile.
The Problem We All Live With
I was counting down the days until episode 562: The Problem We All Live With aired in July. The program deals with the resegregation of American schools and was reported by Nikole Hannah-Jones, an investigative reporter at The New York Times Magazine. She used to work at ProPublica, and I heard her present her work on the topic of resegregation, titled “Segregation Now,” and how she investigated it last year at the 2015 National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting conference.
When I heard Hannah-Jones speak at NICAR and later on This American Life, I was inspired again. If “Act V” introduced me to reporting facts with emotion and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” in “Sinatra’s 100th Birthday” became a journalistic bar to reach, “Segregation Now” and “The Problem We All Live With” are the investigative standard I look to and say “I want to research and tell a story like that.” The radio episode is also an easy way for me to share the story with people I know won’t take the time to read the entire ProPublica piece.
Episode 573: Status Update is one of my favorites simply for the four-minute prologue in which teenage girls describe to Glass the importance of Instagram likes. It aired Nov. 27 and when I heard it, I was amused and appalled at how much I, a college senior, related to the experiences of high school freshmen dealing with social media and the pressures of status. The rest of the episode is great, as well, but the prologue is killer.
Red State Blue State
Are you aware we’re in an election year? Have you seen any news about candidates or political parties? Well, episode 478: Red State Blue State is a great one for the topic. It aired in November 2012 but still has strong relevance in today’s polarized political climate. The first act especially stands out because it deals with people who either get along really well or not at all, with people of opposing political opinions and why that is. That helped me communicate better with people in my own life I disagree with politically.
Will They Know Me Back Home?
Some episodes of This American Life are amusing and light-hearted. Some take serious topics and find the light or maintain solemnity. Episode429: Will They Know Me Back Home? is a heavy episode that weighs heavy on my heart, months after hearing it. It aired March 11, 2011, but I listened to it last summer. Act I told the stories of soldiers and their families when the soldiers came home for 18 days after serving in combat in Iraq for 15 months. The stories were chilling, heartbreaking and heartwarming.
Act II tells the story of Sarah, an Iraqi woman who became an indispensable translator for the U.S. military. Sarah and her family applied for visas to America after Al Qaeda threatened and targeted them because of her job. A tragic turn of events left her in limbo. After I heard her story in 2015, I searched for an update on Sarah’s status. I even emailed This American Life begging for a follow up. I haven’t heard anything yet.
Return to the Scene of the Crime
This American Life has, on occasion, broadcast a live episode into movie theaters across the country. One of those programs is episode 379: Return to the Scene of the Crime. In Act I, comedian Mike Birbiglia tells a serious but funny story of how he ended up owing $12,000 to the drunk driver responsible for a near-fatal car crash he was in. (Fun fact: Birbiglia is the guy whose Orange is the New Black character got kicked out of OU.) Act II features Joss Whedon singing a satirical song from his Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog commentary.
After all that entertainment, Act III had me in tears. Sex advice columnist Dan Savage discusses his complicated relationship with the Catholic Church. He talked about the allure the Church’s promise of Heaven proved to be when his mom died, years after he stopped believing. I can relate to his feelings about the Church, and on the day I listened to this May 2009 episode, I was getting ready to attend a Catholic funeral for a beloved relative. By the time Savage’s voice gave way to Glass’s closing remarks and thanks to the episode’s producers, I was a mess.
That’s why I love This American Life. The range of topics and emotions and stories told each week are inspiring and impressive. On Saturday, Glass will speak about “reinventing radio.” Now, if I know anything about this stranger from listening to him speak week after week, I’d put money down that he’ll claim he hasn’t done anything revolutionary, and maybe he’s right. Maybe it’s not the formula of This American Life, but simply the quality.
This American Life has about 2.2 million listeners, according to the show’s website. We listen for the quality and the stories, the journalism and the humanity. Glass does it all and does it well. I can’t wait to hear more.