So a few weeks ago I told you how podcasts have become a major part of my week. I don’t watch much TV anymore (except The Only Way Is Essex, weirdly – I’m addicted) but I make a whole bunch of appointments to listen to my favourite podcasts. It occurs to me that some of you poor darlings might never have stumbled across these wonderful, free shows that add such excitement to your week. Last time, I introduced you to Radiolab. This time, it’s This American Life.
I must have been listening to TAL for a good 6 years now. Presented by the charming, genial Ira Glass, in his words ‘each week we take a theme, and bring you some stories related to that theme’. Some parts of the show are interviews, some are non-fiction reportage, some are monologues, and occasionally there’ll be a short story. But none of that really does the show justice. All I can say is that TAL is very, very good. Sometimes it deals with topical stories, but – for me – what it does best are the little bits and pieces of life I had always thought you weren’t allowed to write about: the minutiae of daily life, the tiny epiphanies, the invisible struggles. The fact that these are true stories makes them so engaging.
I would never have thought to sit down and begin writing my memoir, We Can’t All Be Astronauts, without TAL. It has had a significant positive influence on my life, and I’m proud to have been the vector through which the majority of my friends have caught the TAL bug.
It’s almost impossible to pick 5 ‘best’ episodes – I’m sure my friends will see this list and shake their heads. ‘What, you missed out x? You crazy!’ But still – if you fancy trying it out, all episodes are free to stream on the website, with the latest downloadable as a free mp3. If you want to get started, you could do worse than these 5 episodes (click the links to get listening):
Petty Tyrant – this story of a maintenance man who instigates a rein of terror, all to keep control of his maintenance department, is crazy, compelling stuff. A fascinating exploration of the psychology and self-justifications of a tyrant, albeit on a minor scale.
Mistakes Were Made – the main part of this episode is devoted to one guy’s (a Californian TV repairman called Bob) bumbling attempts to construct and maintain a cryogenic storage unit. As his generous nature makes him accept more bodies than he has space for, things start to spiral out of control.
Break-Up – this episode is full of toe-curling honesty. Starlee Kine contributed to some of the best TAL moments, and her story in this episode, singing Phil Collins to her ex to try to stop him breaking up with her, then her quest to write the perfect break-up song, is so. Damn. Good.
The Super – a show about superintendents of buildings doesn’t sound terribly promising, but this episode is, very possibly, my absolute favourite. Jack Hitt’s story about the tall tales of his larger-than-life super in 80s New York is brilliant, and the snowman story made me laugh uncontrollably. Oh my goodness, you have to listen.
The Ghost Of Bobby Dunbar – I think I’d get told off if I didn’t include this one. A whole show dedicated to the true story of a little boy who disappears in a Lousiana swamp, then is discovered in the custody of a wandering handyman 8 months later. The tale that unfolds spans generations, features deceit, heartbreak, privilege, injustice and death. Unmissable.