Choose 'Life'

I'm hooked on 'This American Life,' but sometimes Ira delivers some bad dope.

So I'm in a dark and empty parking garage, at the end of a long day. It's straight-up 8pm, and I'm primed for This American Life, the hottest show on public radio. I start up my car and the show begins. "What if you knew the exact date of your death?" wonders the host Ira Glass, introducing the first story of the hour. A guy starts talking about a trip he made to Jerusalem as a young man, how he got locked out of his hostel one night and ended up sleeping in a church. The next morning, he vows to live as if his death were only six months away. He returns to his parents' place in suburban New Jersey to do really "ordinary" stuff, like gardening. Once he's gotten bored with that, he sets off to tour the country by bike, where he finds that people really envy him for just living in the moment, and where he takes to creating drawings and haikus that become "increasingly dark."

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My irritation is growing. I keep waiting for the irony—he finds out he really does have a terminal illness—or something that makes this more than a 20-year-old's self-indulgent head trip, but it never arrives. At the end, after the day of his death has come and gone, and he's had a good cry, I wonder what the hell was the point of this story that kept me so absorbed. In the credits, I learn that the guy is now an editor at Wired magazine, which somehow cheapens the whole thing for me even more. That's how This American Life often makes me feel: like I've been snookered. They give you some awfully bad dope sometimes. But I'm hooked anyway.

Life premiered in its hometown of Chicago two and a half years ago and has since been picked up by more than 200 stations across the country. That's superfast success in the slug-a-bed world of public radio. KUOW-FM 94.9 airs the show on Friday nights, with a repeat on Saturday morning. KUOW's Ross Reynolds reports that "the show goes wild" at pledge time and, like many station managers around the country, he believes Life attracts a younger audience. In April, the station had a Festival of Life, airing the show every weeknight, which allowed me to catch up on this past year's greatest hits.

Life has been celebrated for "reinventing radio," reviving that pre-television experience of huddling by the speaker, imaginations aflame. With its atmospheric music and intimate delivery, the show proves again how compelling a story can be when it isn't bludgeoned into obviousness with full-color special effects. Unlike most of what you hear on NPR, Life is wonderfully free of any concern with this week's, or even this year's, news cycle. Many of the stories seem to have taken place in an unspecified past. Not everyone on it has just published a book. The show is fascinated by subcultures and determined to find stories from all walks of life—not for bemused segues, à la Morning Edition, but for real consideration.

Even when Life takes on something kitschy—like for instance, the guy who is the king, the acknowledged master, of balloon animals—they never do it for an easy laugh. (Or not just for an easy laugh.) As producer Paul Tough follows the balloon man around a toy convention, hearing about his estrangement from friends, his competition with colleagues, he draws out an intriguing portrait of a man caught somewhere between art, commerce, and absurdity.

The show begins, literally, with Life creator and host Ira Glass, who sounds like a kid but is actually pushing 40 (and—if we are to believe a story in LA Weekly—a "babe magnet"). Though he's a career public-radio reporter, Glass' persona on Life is far from the smooth, professional broadcaster: He makes mistakes and leaves them on tape, he smacks his lips, rushes his words or swallows them. Most of all he speaks as if it were just you and him in a quiet corner. He'll start with something like, "So I was at this party the other night... "—and he's got you for the next hour.

Each show has a theme—"Shoulda Been Dead," "Sinatra," "Taking Money from Strangers"—and presents four or five segments, or "acts," that purportedly explore that theme, though as often as not, the segments can be pretty interchangeable from show to show. One of my favorite episodes is about people who try to quantify things that maybe they shouldn't. It opens with a woman who uses Microsoft Excel to track her love life; as a chart, it seems to show reassuring progress. Another producer presents a portrait of his elderly uncle, who since 1955 has kept a daily color-coded record of every event in his life. Later, Ira visits a marketing guy in Seattle who, as a professional exercise, focus-grouped his wife—his "no. 1 customer"—to learn how he could provide her with a better "product." Like the guests on a daytime talk show, everyone on Life is defined by their vaguely "wacky" ticks or obsessions. Still, the show consistently manages to find insight and humanity beneath the wackiness.

Arm's-length reporting isn't Life's bag. Just as every book is now a memoir, every segment of Life is a "personal quest" for the producer; the search for good copy repackaged as a spiritual journey. "If God is going to speak anywhere in America it will be here," says Ira of Colorado Springs, where prayer teams walk the streets seeking salvation for every home and business. "I don't sleep for two days...." says producer Alix Spiegel, after she's flown in. "I think: 'They have something I don't have.'... I go back to my room and stare at the TV...." Life frequently offers up this sort of men's-magazine-y tale in which the narrator sets off alone, to places strange or remote, where madness or physical suffering beckon, and sends back laconic and deeply felt dispatches in a cool monotone.

Life's willingness to get out among ordinary people and just let the tape run is admirable, though it naturally makes for uneven results. In a show on small towns and big cities, producer Sarah Vowell (whose nasally drawl I've developed quite a crush on) talks by phone with her sister and each of her parents about the family move years ago from an Oklahoma hamlet to the "big city" of Bozeman, Montana, and what that change meant to each of them. (Interviewing staff relatives is another Life specialty.) But later in that same program, another producer spends a very long and not very productive weekend with a group of carousing farmers who call themselves Singles in Agriculture, where she records a lot of unenlightening whooping it up and chatter. That's Life at its worst: I feel like I'm stuck overhearing a conversation on the bus.

Still, nothing made me more grateful for This American Life than tuning in to KUOW after the Festival of Life was over and finding a weeklong series about the History of the Disabled ("Since ancient times, begging has been a common relationship between people with disabilities and society..."). Plodding, dutiful, humorless... in short, typical NPR and everything Life is not. I want my Ira!

Related Links:

This American Life site with Real Audio

KUOW homepage

Find out about Ira Glass

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