Podcasts I Love: This American Life

Several years ago I worked in the Records Room in the HR department at American University, which licenses the local NPR station. It’s a source of pride for the staff, and you can hear NPR playing in many offices at AU. Because much of my time was spent sorting through papers and filing in a room by myself, I listened to music or books to help the day go by faster. It was a pretty great way to spend the work day. A coworker noticed that I spent a lot of time glued to my earbuds and recommended This American Life, which, (as you probably know) is a really fantastic podcast distributed by NPR. I listened and was immediately hooked. And not just on TAL. On podcasts.

I now listen to many podcasts, and thought it would be fun to recommend my favorites and the shows I enjoyed the most. And since This American Life was the first one I listened to, I’ll start there.

This American Life is basically the grand poobah of podcasts. It tops many “Best Podcasts” lists and has been the recipient of numerous awards. You’ve probably heard of Ira Glass even if you don’t listen to podcasts. (He was recently in the Veronica Mars movie!) It’s a weekly podcast that features real people telling real stories centered on a common theme.  It’s arguably the platform that made the wonderful and hilarious David Sedaris famous, and has featured many other well-known contributors, including Sarah Vowell, Dan Savage, John Hodgman and Mike Birbiglia. There are SO MANY shows I could recommend, but I’ll try to keep it relatively brief.

  • Switched at Birth tells the story of (as you probably imagine) two babies who were switched at birth in 1941. One of the mothers realized what happened but decided to keep it quiet rather than risk embarrassing the town doctor who delivered both babies. The other mother had no idea. The babies grew up and spent their lives wondering why they didn’t quite fit in with their families until they found out the truth, in their 40’s. Crazy and fascinating.
  • David Sedaris has contributed many stories to TAL. Most are hilarious. This one is not. You may have already read this story in the New Yorker, but it’s worth listening to him read it. Now We Are Five tells of his youngest sisters suicide and the ripple effect on his family.
  • TAL did a two part series on Harper High School in Chicago, where 29 students were shot in 2012. It’s heartbreaking and eyeopening.
  • The story on the Nummi car plant in Fremont, California was the story my coworker recommended and my first taste of TAL.  In 1984, Toyota was trying to break into the American auto market and formed a joint venture with GM. Toyota shows GM all of its production secrets; how to produce better quality cars for less money. GM didn’t exactly take the advice. This story will leave you shaking your head.
  • Dr. Gilmer & Mr. Hyde is probably my favorite kind of TAL story. One that blows your mind and keeps you completely glued to your car or headphones. Dr. Gilmer is hired at a rural general practitioner clinic. He soon finds out that he is replacing another Dr. Gilmer, who went to prison for killing his father. Patients speak highly of the imprisoned Dr. Gilmer and express disbelief that he would have killed his father, which inspires the new Dr. Gilmer to look into the case.
  • I always enjoy hearing personal accounts of those in a biracial or bi-cultural marriage, probably because I am in one. Emily met her husband when they were both living in Arizona. She is an American citizen, he is a Mexican citizen who illegally came to the U.S. They decided their best option was self-deportation for 10 years, and currently live in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, just across the border. She gives a taste of what life is like in Juarez through in this show and keeps a blog about her experience that I’ve since added to my reader. I think my favorite thing about this show, and her in general, is how positive she manages to be and the obvious love she shares with her husband. Her outlook is inspiring and her story is moving.
  • I’ll admit it: I didn’t really understand the ins and outs of what exactly caused the housing crisis in 2008 or the collapse of the banks that led to the global recession. Until I listened to The Giant Pool of Money and Bad Bank that is. There’s also an update episode on the housing crisis.
  • TAL does creepy really, really well. If you’re into that kind of thing, you should listen to The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar, …And the Call Was Coming From the Basement, Halloween, and (my personal favorite), The House on Loon Lake. I like to replay all of these around Halloween.
  • But lest you think all the stories are serious, fear not! Santaland Diaries is the show that made David Sedaris a household name (for NPR listeners anyway.) Accidental Deception and Music Lessons make me laugh every single time I listen to them (which is fairly often, since I like to recommend these episodes when I recommend David Sedaris’ books.) The Seven Things You’re Not Supposed to Talk About is thought-provoking and fun. Hit the Road might inspire you to travel this summer. And finally, Fiasco! features hilarious recounts of a Peter Pan production gone horribly awry, and a showdown between a rookie cop and a squirrel.

I could go on and on. Needless to say, if you haven’t already, I highly recommend that you listen to This American Life. You can hear it on Saturdays at 1 pm on NPR or check out the archive here for FREE. There is also a pretty great app you can download if you have a smartphone.

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