27 January 2008

Storytelling Greatness from "This American Life"

From time to time, I mention here about how I've gotten so disenchanted with the local radio stations (especially those controlled by Clear Channel), and have instead focused more on talk radio, public radio (such as NPR), and internet radio (although the latter is under attack on multiple fronts regarding royalties and the like). In a perfect world, someone would figure out how to stream online radio stations from around the world to a receiver you could have in your car or portable radio device...like XM Radio or Sirius do now here by satellite in North America, but just global...and then I think some real openings (and real choice) could happen in the marketplace. I'll just be patient, it will happen soon enough...Live365 is already attempting something similar to what I'm holding out for, with their Radio365-Mobile.

In the last two months, though, I have really latched onto a show that I only listened to occasionally before: NPR's "This American Life" with Ira Glass (who is the second cousin to composer to Philip Glass, in case any one out there is wondering). While NPR has a lot of serious-issue stuff during the week (and that also depends on the local channels doing the programming, too), on the weekends the local one here (WUNC) takes a much more laid-back, although engaging, tone. Intertwined with the folksy auditorium shows of "A Prairie Home Companion® with Garrison Keillor", and the very funny current events quiz show, "Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me", there is the little gem that can called "This American Life". Although it took some time getting used to, I have now become a devoted fan and on Friday nights, while coming home from a long week's worth of work, it is nothing short of a pleasant, and frequently very poignant, reward.

©"This American Life" (with Ira Glass)

I will admit, though, that the program is certainly not for everyone. Glass and his reporters can sometimes be a little too long-winded (even for me), a bit too determined to leave no detail of the story untold. But it's the stories that they tell that frequently are those ones you hear about or think about in brief moments, and then somehow lost track of at a later time when you wanted to investigate further. Or maybe it's a job or a person or a situation you always wanted to ask that 'odd' or 'impolite' question to...and Glass & Co seem to be exceptionally adept at doing just that...but were always afraid of doing so. It's not for everyone, and some of the themes they cover are better than others, but it's an hour well spent if you can take the time to clear the 'noise' of the day and listen. It's not a show you 'come and go' from, though; one needs to pay attention.

The format is simple and straightforward: each show has a different theme, such as 'Man's Best Friend' or something, and then two to four different reports on that theme are developed from there. Sometimes Glass himself takes one of the stories; he always does the prologue that sets the whole show up. So, (thankfully when they miss), the listener knows what the entire show's subject matter is within the first five minutes of tuning in. It's not like the BBC World Service, say, who recap every known world conflict in detail three times over before getting to the exceptional interview with that 'eccentric' (the BBC seems quite taken with the word 'eccentric') so-and-so right before the news comes back with another current events recap. Fair warning, though: if you stay on for the first of 'the acts', as Glass refers to them, you're probably hooked for the rest of the show. When they 'nail a theme' of interest, they really do it well.

I was trying to best describe the growing appeal of the show here, but I just proceeded to write a lot in circles and never got around to make a concrete point (even more than usual, if you naysayers can believe that). Luckily, however, there is a website for the show, and better yet, a way to listen back to old shows for free and outright download them for a very small charge. (Additionally, unbeknownst to me until I found the site, they are doing this show on TV as well. I'm curious as to how that would work...I'm not sure the same delivery method would succeed, but I'd be curious to see it happen for myself.)

So, the above said, I'll give you some links from their site where you can go and investigate for yourself...some of the ones that I found quite memorable for me, anyway. Again, most of each of these run more than 10 minutes in length (and some can exceed 20), so take your time and listen to them when you can concentrate on them and listen in one setting. They're perfect for that mid-morning coffee/tea break, or when you're prepping dinner after work. Give the ones I link to below a shot first, but if none of these particularly work for you, go to this link and see if some other theme in the archive appeals to you more. The "This American Life" crew have even compiled a list of their favourite programs to start with, in case those may hit your fancy, too. Different strokes for different folks and all.

Helpful hints when listening: you do not have to pay to download these (although they are only 95 cents USD each). You have two additional options at the top of each page I'm linking to below. To the left of the description of the prologue and the acts, there are two 'listen now' icons in orange. One is for a '30-second Promo' (which never gives these shows their proper due); the other is for 'Full Episode'. Choose the 'Full Episode' if you possibly can...it takes very little time to download and the acts follow seamlessly, just like they appeared on the radio broadcast.

"Accidental Documentaries"

One from last summer, broadcast here over the weekend of July 13, 2007, the one that really got me to pay attention to the show...This one holds an extreme emotional appeal to me, as my parents and I did something similar many years ago (but far shorter in duration for each message) over our respective answering machines...they still in the Midwest, me the newbie North Carolina resident. Sadly, I erased over and reused the tapes as I needed to, thereby erasing some wonderful messages from my now late father and one very comical one with he and my Mama arguing about if he had taken his medicine that day. I'd give damn near anything to have those back again, but somewhere I do have the last time he sang me "Happy Birthday" on tape. Sometimes I really miss my Daddy's voice.

"Home Alone"

This second one is far more recent, and appeared here right before the Christmas holiday week, around December 23, 2007...Actually, I found the timing of this broadcast (right around the holidays) not a particularly good idea, as I think the subject matter a bit depressing at times. (I'm actually hoping it was a repeat airing when I first heard it.) Still, I was captivated by it all, and all the acts on this theme are equally strong. And, after listening to Act I with some others from work, there was just a heartbreak at all the unknowns/unclaimed who now reside at Evergreen Cemetery...wonder if any volunteer laying flowers even knows the numbers involved. And the phone message at the end of that act, too. But the other two acts...geez. "The Man Who Came to Dinner" indeed.

"The Super"

And, finally, one that just got repeated earlier this month (January 11, 2008), that is an unqualified classic, just for Act I's 'Bob' character alone...and just when you think you know where one of these is going to end up, you end up instead getting quite the surprise. More to a book than its cover, perhaps?? And I thought my apartment situation two residences ago had some problems, little did I have any idea exactly what problems really can be, apparently. Some really great stuff can be found in this one, something typical of TAL.

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