One of the most popular shows on NPR, This American Life (TAL) talks about stories of all kinds, each evoking different emotions. Ever since its first episode in 1995, the show has received numerous Peabody awards and even had an HBO TV show. From stories on summer camp to pressing issues such as immigration, TAL hooks listeners right away. Each radio episode is unique, but it follows a general structure. Radio producer Ira Glass starts off the episode with the prologue to introduce the theme. Then, there are acts (stories) that relate to the theme.
TAL’s storytelling format is what makes this show engaging. Despite being true stories, the radio producers present them like plots in a fiction novel. Having conflict and then heightened suspense that leads to the climax, this causes the audience to focus on the story. Although everything is sound, TAL doesn’t let this be a limiting factor. The show still captivates the audience by providing rich dialogue and background noise, making this other world feel real.
A specific episode that does a good job of this is My Experimental Phase. In the story, Chaim is a Hasidic Jew (orthodox) who doesn’t want to live his traditional lifestyle. He ends up taking an interest in the Brooklyn rock scene and even adopts the stage name of Curly Oxide. Despite Chaim’s unique background, the story hits on a universal theme that everyone experiences: the desire to embody a new identity. Near the climax, I kept asking myself, “Can he sustain his alter ego as a singer or will this end?”
What makes TAL addictive is not only the stories’ variety but also the various people featured on the radio show. Some feature the average joe, others are famous figures. Despite these differences, they all have fascinating stories about interesting experiences. The different perspectives ignited my curiosity to know America’s diverse landscape better. TAL provides an imaginary way for listeners like me to travel to other places and visit other people. Whether it is the streets of Brooklyn or small-town Kansas, I am left wanting to know more about the world beyond my community.
The other magical element of TAL is how it can make any story feel relatable, no matter where the story takes place or who is in the story. By doing so, this makes the audience better at empathizing with others and understand other people’s situations. Like the people featured in the episodes, we all have fears and insecurities. Listening to people from different backgrounds talk about their lives is thought-provoking. This is especially the case when the listeners may not cross paths with these people. The story challenges the listener’s assumptions about others. Not only that, it makes others more aware of other people’s cultures or lifestyles. Far from being a source of entertainment, TAL encourages unity in a divided country through stories.
The most mind-blowing episode I listened to was Three Miles, which I still think is my most favorite one out of the hundred or so episodes I listened to. The episode talks about two kids from the same poor Bronx high school that take on different paths. One goes to college and graduates, while the other one doesn’t and is a grocer. It was heartbreaking to hear the reasons that the students in the episode didn’t pursue higher education or dropped out of college.
Also, the stories encourage listeners to seek deeper explanations of human nature. Before, the answers about human nature seem straightforward. People act this way because that is who they are. Over time, however, the stories teach you how complicated people are. An episode that illustrates this lesson was Petty Tyrant. At first, it sounded absurd that a janitor wants to commit arson and scare his subordinates using fear and intimidation. As I listened, however, I thought that the janitor was doing this because he felt insecure inside and had low self-esteem, so he used power as a way to validate himself. I will never know why the janitor did such a thing, but it doesn’t hurt to make educated guesses.
This American Life leaves the audience with lots of interesting stories to tell their friends and family. More importantly, it teaches them how everyone, even themselves, has a unique story to tell. When the episode comes to an end, the show has this question for the audience to ponder upon: what story do you want the whole world to know about yourself?