9 “This American Life” Episodes Brits Really Need To Hear

The American public radio programme is finally making a debut on British radio this Sunday. But with only a limited 13-week run on Radio 4 Extra, which of the more than 500 episodes should you consider listening to after the series is over?

This American Life will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra from this Sunday.

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As a fan of This American Life (TAL for short), trust me: This is awesome news. For many years now the only way that you could listen to TAL in the U.K. was by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes or by listening to episodes on the This American Life website, and the only way that you found out that the show even existed was by being told by a friend for weeks on end that you just had to listen to it.

What is This American Life? Well, it’s quite hard to describe. Yes, before you say anything, I know this sounds like a wanky thing to say, but it’s true. TAL is a public radio show consisting of stories and presented by Ira Glass (the guy above with the thick-rimmed glasses). Each week has a theme, and the stories during the programme revolve around that theme. Some weeks it might be a documentary, about what it’s like to work on an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea during the Iraq War, for example, and another week it might consist of the presenters spending 24 hours at a service station to hear stories of the people passing through. And as new episodes are aired irregularly and each episode can take up months to make, you know each broadcast is going to be high quality. There’s no filler.

Thirteen episodes of This American Life will be broadcast from this Sunday, but Radio 4 Extra has no plans to extend the series or broadcast the current series broadcasting right now in the States. This is a shame. TAL really deserves a permanent Radio 4 slot. Here are nine episodes that you should consider listening to, as well as the episodes due to be played on Radio 4 Extra:

1. Episode 500: “500!”

This episode is a great place to start. To celebrate the 500th episode, Glass and other contributors to the show go through the archives and choose their favourite moments. Here you’ll get a real mix, from an interview with a person who was trapped in the New Orleans Convention Center after Hurricane Katrina, to a story about teenage girls in a detention center who perform a musical number apologising for their actions in front of their parents.

2. Episode 100: “Radio”

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This episode covers everything, from why so much of commercial radio is so repetitive (and arguably quite terrible), to a story about a pirate radio in Miami that keeps going on and off the air, to a radio station for the “reading disabled” with a presenting style so old it’ll make you feel as if it is still the 1950s. Ira also makes a great point about the intimacy that radio gives us, and to cap it all off you’ll even hear an Inuit singing along to a Rolling Stones’ record.

3. Episode 186: “Prom”

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You think that this episode is going to be a lighthearted episode about high school proms, and in some parts it is, but the first act really takes you by surprise. It’s about a school in Hoisington, Kan., celebrating its prom one April evening. Then, without warning, a tornado crashes through the town.

Susan Burton interviews students from the school about the incident and the physical and emotional devastation the tornado caused. You’ll also hear recordings from a video camera that happened to be filming the prom just before the tornado hit, which are really eerie. The song played at the disco shortly before the tornado hit the town? Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor.”

4. Episode 109: “Notes on Camp”

It’s easy to think of summer camps as inhumane. You’ve just finished your year at school and at last it’s the summer holidays, but now you’ve got to pack up your stuff and drive hundreds of miles away from your parents to stay in a camp with strangers your age for a month, maybe two, maybe more.

This episode casts a different light on the ritual of summer camps. American camps sounds amazing. Glass and producer Julie Snyder stayed in a couple of camps in Michigan in 1998. The show consists of interviews with kids and counsellors, as well as contributions from call-ins from listeners. You’ll hear camp stories, ghost stories, and a hell of a lot of harmonicas.

5. Episode 487: “Harper High School”

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Harper High School is a school on Chicago’s South Side. In just one year, 29 current and recent students were wounded by gunshots, eight fatally. To understand what it’s like to be a student or teacher in a school in one of the most violent areas in the city, TAL spent five months in the school interviewing the staff and students. You learn about how there’s no choice about whether you’re in a gang or not.

This is full of incredible reporting, and it’s the most listened to episode of This American Life to date.

6. Episode 900: “The Psychopath Test”

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The This American Life team found out about a test that can determine whether someone is a physcopath, so they decided to go and take one and to broadcast their results. Also in this episode author Jon Ronson investigates whether corporate leaders could be psychopaths. He visits Al Dunlap, a former CEO of the car company Sunbeam, who was regarded as “a man who seemed to actually, unlike most humans, enjoy firing people.” It’s a fascinating episode. Plus, it’ll make you question everybody.

7. Episode 427: “Original Recipe”

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Coca-Cola’s recipe has historically been a well-guarded secret. But Ira Glass manages to stumble across the original recipe for Coca-Cola made by the inventor, John Pemberton, printed in a newspaper column in 1979. The recipe was written by a columnist who wrote it out in full after finding the recipe in an old pharmacist recipe book from the 1880s. Glass reads out the full recipe on air, and then they make a batch of it to see how close it tastes to the real thing.

8. Episode 186: “20 Acts in 60 Minutes”

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A lot of This American Life consists of two or three stories, spread across an hour. This episode? Well there are 20 stories. Twenty! Most of these stories last just a couple of minutes at best, but trust me on this, a lot of them are absolutely unforgettable.

Want an example? Well, there were two brothers who got a new dog: One brother wanted to call the dog Pasta and the other brother wanted the dog to be called Batman. The dog’s name ended up being Pasta Batman.

9. Episode 433: “Amusement Park”

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You wouldn’t think that amusement parks would necessarily be fantastic places to work. This episode proves that it is possible. Glass interviews the staff who work in the games section of the Kansas City Amusement Park, and some staff are so enthusiastic about working at the park you start to wonder whether they are on something.

At the start of the show, you hear an employee of the park, Cole Lindbergh, singing a song about the park to the rest of the team to the tune of Bruno Mars’ “The Lazy Song”: “Today I don’t feel like riding any rides / I just want to play all the games / I really like playing Mamba Ball with a giant frog or a big basketball / Yes, today I don’t feel like riding any rides / Just playing games / Woohoo, woohoo, woohoo.”

This American Life will be on BBC Radio 4 Extra at 11 a.m. on Sundays, from May 4.

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