For as long as I’ve been a frequent flyer on the airwaves of “This American Life,” I’ve been hit a few times with the same comment from my friends and peers. Something along the lines of, “Yeah, ‘This American Life’ is good, but ‘Radiolab’ is better. You should listen to ‘Radiolab.’”
I always feel mildly affronted by this interaction. Because yeah, maybe I should be listening to “Radiolab.” It’s probably neat. But who are they to simply brush off my interest in “This American Life?” It’s one of the programs that helped cultivate my interest in journalism in the first place. I remember how I felt when I was seventeen, seriously listening to an episode of it for the first time. I went online and played a section of it over and over again—the interviewee was saying something incredibly insightful that blew my mind—but what occurred to me later on was that it was the questions used by the journalist that got him there.
How could I ever disregard that? How can I explain to people that while my peers swoon over the voices of Justin Bieber and Harry Styles, I’m entranced by the far more nasally intonations of “This American Life” host Ira Glass?
Now, I’m committed to finding out if “Radiolab” is as good as they say. But today, let’s evaluate TAL.
If you’ve never heard of “This American Life” before, it’s a radio program that focuses on a different theme each week. TAL tells the stories of at least three people who have had radically differentiated experiences within the same theme.
It isn’t usually hard, breaking news. But it’s a humanizing account of the complexities of experience. People’s insecurities, mysteries, and endeavors big or small, believable or not, get orally illustrated for us. One of my favorite episodes is #573, “Status Update.” It starts out with a few teenage girls walking the listeners through the significance of posts to social media. Next, TAL interviews Ta-Nehisi Coates about his transition from being more or less unknown into having fame and notoriety. And then, a man explains his experience with a Missouri town wherein everyone was having the same problem, and none of them knew it. Finally, a 76-year-old man from a previous episode explains what happened when he proposed the idea of love to his longtime crush.
So, yeah—not solely hard news, but it’s all relatable and accessible. All seamlessly woven together by the narration of talented NPR reporters.
That’s why I like “This American Life.” Next week, I’ll tune into “Radiolab” and let you know if it’s up to the same standard. Until then, Ira Glass, you’re my hero.