Tim Walker: 'Downloading the podcast This American Life is a hipster badge of honour'
The Couch Surfer: 'It’s a kookier version of From Our Own Correspondent, a handful of fascinating stories'
Monday 08 February 2010
Donating cold, hard cash can be spiritually rewarding, but when I'm donating it to pay for something that I've become used to getting for free, my hand tends to develop an aversion to my pocket.
Which is why I glance past Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales's banner ads pleading for money to fund the site as routinely as I would an ad for cheaper car insurance. After all, there are so many more worthy recipients of my generosity, like Comic Relief, the people of Haiti, or the at least 12 different Facebook friends who happen to be in training for half-marathons at any given moment. However, this week I was very glad to be given the chance to contribute charitably to something I've previously enjoyed for free, by paying for it in a form that I've become used to spending £1.79 or thereabouts on: the new This American Life iPhone app.
This American Life is a popular, award-winning weekly radio show (and latterly a less popular TV show) from the Chicago branch of America's National Public Radio, and its presenter, Ira Glass, has been gassing on nasally for weeks now about the need for donations from its many listeners – which includes myself – to maintain its high broadcasting standards. I listen to it via podcast, a great way to ingest some of the more highbrow bits of the American media-sphere. Like a somewhat kookier version of From Our Own Correspondent, every show is made up of a handful of so-called "acts", each one a brief documentary on the vague theme of the episode, with a broad title along the lines of "Mistakes Were Made" or "Got You Pegged". (That one, from July 2009, was great. Go check it out.)
The "acts" – you'd probably just call them stories – are collected from all corners of NPR's empire and beyond, so they include everything from fascinating financial reportage to charming tales from the stage at The Moth, a New York storytelling venue. A fortnight's worth of episodes were devoted to explaining the economic crisis; another fortnight's were given over to humanising the healthcare debate in the US. Sometimes an entire hour coalesces around a single location, with This American Life reporters descending on the nation's top "party school", Penn State University, or a popular rest-stop beside the freeway somewhere in upstate New York.
Among the large cast of big-name regular contributors are Jon Ronson, John Hodgman and David Sedaris. Often the documentaries are quirky, low-stakes stuff, worth a wry chuckle and little more.
But sometimes a spectacular programme can leave me breathless. Like "Arms Trader", the story of a self-aggrandising fantasist whose tall tales landed him in jail indefinitely, thanks to the madness of US anti-terror legislation. Or "Separated at Birth", about a pair of middle-aged women who discovered they had been sent home with the wrong families as newborns; if you don't fancy blubbing in public, listen to that one at home alone.
Glass's presenting style, earnest yet ironic, treads a fine line between excellence and excruciating schmaltz, but the show has made him a cult hero among a certain variety of self-consciously smart, engaged and liberal American 20- or 30-somethings. Listening to This American Life is a hipster badge of honour, akin to owning a canvas bag from Rough Trade Records. Or a beard. Its bitesize chunks of non-fiction are perfect for the podcast medium – or for an iPhone application that, in this case, can stream anything from the entire archive all the way back to 1995. I urge you to download it.
One recent episode of This American Life concerned Improv Everywhere, an improvisation troupe specialising in guerrilla happenings that cause "scenes of chaos and joy in public places". Its members spend rush hour riding the subway with no trousers on, or break into song- and-dance routines in the supermarket. Sounds like fun, right? Yet what the radio documentary revealed was that some of Improv Everywhere's "missions" spread not so much joy as humiliation – like the time they threw a birthday party for a complete stranger (it wasn't his birthday) or pretended to be huge fans of a struggling band. I assumed that This American Life had found some kindred spirits to converse with, but instead the show was counter- intuitive enough to make these self-appointed spreaders of joy sound like unrepentant bullies.
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