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Arts in Review

This American Life and you

The term “podcast” was coined in 2003 by former MTV VJ Adam Curry, and if you’re still confused as to what it is, it’s an mp3 file that can download directly to your computer, phone, or, yes, iPod, as the name suggests. If you’re still confused: okay, it’s radio.

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By Dave Cusick (Contributor) – Email

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The term “podcast” was coined in 2003 by former MTV VJ Adam Curry, and if you’re still confused as to what it is, it’s an mp3 file that can download directly to your computer, phone, or, yes, iPod, as the name suggests. If you’re still confused: okay, it’s radio.

The first radio show I ever fell in love with was This American Life. In 2000, my long drives from the Lower Mainland back to my native Portland, Oregon would have me scouring the radio dial. There’s a term in radio called a “driveway moment,” which means that although you’ve arrived at your destination, you stay in your car until you’ve finished listening to the story. It’s the mark of a good and compelling piece. I had my first driveway moment with This American Life 15 years ago, in my parents’ driveway, as the hosts were talking with kids at a Christian camp; one kid in particular felt like an outsider because she was agnostic. I could relate, and had a few tears to dry off before I went in the house.

A year later, I was totally hooked, and after planes and their passengers were used to destroy buildings and their occupants one day on the East Coast, one single hour of This American Life provided more closure and context for me than the countless preceding hours of news coverage (and their newly-introduced bottom-of-screen tickers).

But the show doesn’t just contain sad or touching moments. I’ve also laughed my belly sore listening to it. A rookie cop whose routine house-call ends in a civilian’s broken nose and a squirrel and couch in flames. A small-town opening night of Peter Pan that devolves into fiasco, including a flying apparatus ineptly operated, Captain Hook’s actual hook flying off to reveal the actor’s hand, the building’s fire alarm going off, and an audience of otherwise polite people eventually howling for more blood.

Over the years, the show has developed the capacity for long-form journalism as well. In 2008, when everyone was struggling to understand the beginnings of the global financial meltdown, This American Life created the episode “The Giant Pool of Money,” which explained how pent-up demand for investments led to riskier loans to American homebuyers, which artificially inflated home prices and caused the subsequent crash when many homebuyers couldn’t repay. This year, they aired two two-hour shows on persisting racial divisions, one focusing on issues with the police, the other on segregation and integration in schools.

By the way, don’t let the name This “American” Life throw you; the show isn’t so specifically American (or un-Canadian) that it’s unrelatable. Many of its stories take place all over the world. A World War II concentration camp in China that held, among others, Girl Guides. A camp in Mexico that’s designed to simulate an illegal nighttime desert border crossing as a team-building exercise for corporate staffers. Several episodes of war reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You might be wondering how all these different kinds of stories somehow all form one cohesive show. I saw Ira Glass, the show’s creator and host, speak in Vancouver last spring, and he said that the principle driving the show’s producers is that they’re just trying to amuse themselves. They don’t tell a story out of obligation, or because a topic is popular, but because they find a story interesting and want to see where it goes. When you first hear this approach, it might seem self-centred, hedonistic, or unjournalistic, but it’s actually really good and simple creative advice: follow what interests you, it’ll probably interest someone else, too.

And hopefully, This American Life will interest you.

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