The Week in Radio: It's worth taking a gamble on This American Life

 

I love BBC radio as much as anyone but every now and then I wake up and think to myself, "Today is not a John Humphrys day. Neither is it a Victoria Derbyshire day. And if I have to hear Roger Bolton placating another listener aggrieved by a rogue split infinitive on Feedback, I honestly can't be responsible for my actions." On those days, I go online and listen to This American Life.

If you haven't heard it, This American Life is a weekly radio show from the Chicago branch of America's National Public Radio (NPR). It is presented by Ira Glass, who is a cousin of the minimalist composer Philip Glass, and whose whiny, slightly nasal tone is the antithesis of the classic "radio voice". Somehow, though, it works.

The programme, which is approaching its 500th edition, has become an institution across the Atlantic. It has nearly two million listeners in the US and another million worldwide, and has been so showered with awards that, at this stage, if Glass played the kazoo into a microphone for an hour, he'd probably be greeted with delirious applause.

Each hour-long episode follows a particular theme – generally one which mainstream news programmes would swerve to avoid – and is divided, rather grandly, into acts. These acts are heavy on anecdote and are a mixture of the idiosyncratic and the complex, the personal and the political.

There have been shows about doppelgängers, storage containers, the sub-prime crisis and patent law. Among my favourites has been Act V, about a group of prisoners at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Centre and their staging of a production of Hamlet; Petty Tyrant, about a school maintenance man from New York whose campaign of intimidation ranged from pouring salt into people's coffee to vandalism and arson; and Loopholes, about extreme cases of people bending the law to achieve the results they want.

The latest episode is called Blackjack and found Glass and producer Robyn Semien taking a lesson in card counting from a man who played for the notorious MIT team, a bunch of clever-dick students who devoted themselves to relieving casinos of their cash mountains. They also heard from a member of the Christian card-counting team featured in the documentary Holy Rollers, who, for several years, saw no contradiction in praising the Lord during the day and pocketing thousands of dollars in casinos by night.

The second act was even more extraordinary as it told the story of Angie Bachmann (not her real name), who went to an Indiana casino and spent her entire inheritance in just a few hours. Having run out of money, Bachmann borrowed £125,000 from the casino and continued to lose.

When she couldn't repay the debt, the casino announced it was going to sue. Bachmann responded by hiring a lawyer who argued that in fact the casino owed her money for exploiting a compulsive gambler who had clearly lost control.

Blachmann revealed how the casino had wooed her over a period of months, putting her up in swanky penthouse suites, paying for her flights and showering her with flowers, concert tickets and jewellery. Meanwhile, the programme looked at the neurological effects of gamblers while they played losing hands, and how their brains acted as if they were winning.

The show raised some tricky questions – is it the casino's responsibility to make sure its patrons don't land themselves in debt? Is card counting technically cheating? Is gambling a mug's game? – without ever presuming to know the answer. Bachmann lost her case, even though the judge was sympathetic. As for Glass, he may know a thing of two about radio but he is not much cop at blackjack.

twitter.com/FionaSturges

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before