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.

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