First broadcast in November 1995, This American Life is the most influential precursor to narrative podcasting as it exists today. Over the last 25 years, the show founded and led by Ira Glass has built a vast network of producers and writers who have set standards across all genres of audio production. Two of the biggest names in the podcasting boom — Serial’s Sarah Koenig and Gimlet Media’s Alex Blumberg — were deeply involved with the show’s golden age. Many other producers from that period: Starlee Kine, Brian Reed, Hillary Frank, Scott Carrier, Jonathan Goldstein, and former intern PJ Vogt, to name just a few, have gone on to create acclaimed podcasts of their own.
What makes a good This American Life story? The show’s submissions page narrows it down to two principles: “There are characters in some situation, and a conflict,” and “[the] stories raise some bigger question or issue, some universal thing to think about.” But I would argue that the key ingredient is the contributor. The variety of styles on display in This American Life has separated the program from a traditional newsmagazine, whether that be 60 Minutes or one found in print. And so, to make a list of the best episodes of This American Life, is to spotlight the work of the many staff and producers who make the show.
Surveying the following list, two things become apparent. First, episodes 300 to 400 (released from roughly 2006 to 2010) indeed constituted a kind of “golden age” for the show. During this period, production of This American Life moved from Chicago to New York (on account of the show’s brief experimentation with television), and the program became a force beyond itself. While much of the show’s first 10 years turned around the show’s home base of Chicago, once in New York, the show went global. It might be that no one takes you seriously until you’ve been at work for a decade, or it might just be that this was the moment Gen X became a silent majority of the culture industry. There was a political dimension to this: as the Bush administration tripped over itself in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the follies of the Iraq and Afghan Wars became ever more apparent, This American Life was perfectly positioned to reach into the heart of these major stories and record the shifting ground under life in these United States.
The second fact is that we like long episodes. During that same five-year period, This American Life began to earn its reputation for blockbuster, hour-long narratives that would carry it into the 2010s. Some of these episodes — “The Giant Pool of Money,” “#1 Party School” among them — are so legendary that one can now forget that the show’s bread and butter has always been its act-based structure. The power of this method, one which many podcasts, due to their niche focuses, can never quite live up to, is to find disperse stories on a theme and situate them together in a way that makes them resonate in new ways.
This resonance gives these stories, some of them goofy, nerdy, or downright silly, the power to reshape one’s feelings. While on the surface This American Life can fall prey to the kind of neoliberal ephemera people lambast public radio for, underneath there is a radical current that infuses many of the episodes that we’ve chosen here. The program can be a one-hour chapter of The People’s History delivered to radio each week. It puts the faults and frailties of the U.S. on naked display, stripped of the power, prestige, and distance that older and more traditional mediators dress them in. It is for this reason, and the ones listed below, that we find This American Life to be one of the greatest American journalism projects. – Brendan Mattox
An early highlight of This American Life is “Dawn,” the episode first to give the entire hour over to a single contributor. Master storyteller and magazine journalist Jack Hitt’s work holds a strong influence over the first decade of the program. “Dawn” follows Hitt as he interviews old friends and family in Charlotte about a mysterious neighbor. Fans of the podcast S-Town will find much to love here, as the Faulkneresque story of the end of The Old South yields to a story about sexuality, gender, and the way that media inserts itself into the stories of our lives.
One of This American Life’s most rerun episodes, “Fiasco!” is a collection of masterful debacles. Everything goes wrong, at least once in a while. When it does, you can only hope someone is there to record the wreckage. A community theater’s attempt to dazzle in their production of Peter Pan shatters the fourth wall and a rookie cop succumbs to a devious foe (a squirrel). Each of the episode’s four acts investigates a doomed, hilarious series of errors.
The legend about TAL contributor Scott Carrier (later explored in Carrier’s own podcast Home of the Brave) is that he started making radio by hitchhiking, cross-country, from his home in Utah to the NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. Arriving on a Saturday, he asked the first Weekend Edition producer who would listen to teach him how to make radio. Carrier is fiercely partisan, an outsider in every possible sense, and keenly unafraid to burn bridges. He writes like Hemingway, with brief language, quick movement, and constant grappling with the more toxic angles of masculinity. He can sound, at times, both dangerous and uniquely tuned to an unknown rhythm. All of these traits are on display in “Running After Antelope,” a 40-minute narrative of a decade-long attempt to chase down an antelope on foot, and how his desire to be “primitive” conflicted with the inexorable movement of time. Carrier would later get a full episode of This American Life dedicated to his work (181: The Friendly Man).
This episode is yet another example of This American Life’s ability to turn a mundane topic — in this case, stories from summer camp — into a meaningful exploration of our values. The camp stories are funny and awkward, as we all were during our early adolescent summers. The scary stories, first kisses, and halting efforts at adulthood that appear throughout the episode answer at least some of the questions they pose about community and the importance of being together.
One of the hallmarks of This American Life is its commitment to telling stories of everyday life, eschewing the need for every episode to be relevant to the news. “24 Hours at the Golden Apple,” an episode with a rather literal title, shows this approach can be revelatory. In this episode, Glass and a few other producers spend the day at a local Chicago diner, from early morning until late into the night. We meet a regular who plays harmonica as the sun rises, a waitress who’s been working the night shift for the past 26 years, a pair of teen girls trying to corral friends to come join them at the diner, and many, many others.
In this engrossing episode, producer Adam Beckman tells the story of how, when he was eleven years old, he and two friends came across an abandoned house in the small town of Freedom, New Hampshire. The three boys dare each other to venture inside, and what they find — a crumbling newspaper, decaying clothes, old letters, and much more — hints that the home had been untouched for decades. From there, “a sort of real-life Hardy Boys mystery” commences, as Beckman and his friends work to uncover who lived in the house and the circumstances under which they had to leave.
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“Plan B” features stories from two of This American Life’s former contributors, John Hodgman and Jonathan Goldstein. In one sense, John Hodgman’s story, It’s Another Tequila Sunrise, is about Cuervo Man, Jose Cuervo’s Princeton-educated brand ambassador who seemingly exists to balance tequila shots on his head and be the life of the party. In another, it’s about fear and acceptance of who we are. Jonathan Goldstein faces similar considerations as he deals with his unexpected success as a telemarketer. Both segments wrap the discomfort of self-examination in the humor of Hodgman and Goldstein’s small absurdities.
The episode in which every This American Life crew member decides to measure their testosterone levels competition-style begins with Alex Blumberg’s quest to find out how much the hormone has shaped his life. Two excellent, extended interviews give this 2002 show its verve: one with a journalist whose body briefly stopped producing testosterone, one with a transgender man who noticed a series of astounding changes to his own thought patterns when he began testosterone injections. The episode doesn’t seek to prove anything, but hearing these two men, plus every TAL producer, try to understand how hormones inform their character is funny and fascinating.
The entire cast of characters briefly guest star in the 2003 episode that abandoned the regular act-based structure for 20 mini-stories. Jonathan Goldstein tells a long joke. David Rakoff reveals his bad instincts. Starlee Kine finds the perfect punch line about low-level celebrity. David Sedaris finds out he’s been duped for years. Ira Glass discovers the mystery of Vienna Beef. The ultimate highlights of the experiment, Acts 6 and 20, tell two stories from separate juvenile detention centers.
If one wants to pinpoint the shift of This American Life towards its current reputation for intensely original reporting, a strong contender is this 2004 report on the employees of Custer Battles, one of the many private security contractors to flood Iraq in the wake of the United States contentious (and illegal) invasion in 2003. Reported and narrated entirely by Nancy Updike, one of the great journalists of our time, “I’m from the Private Sector…” offers a detailed and critical picture of the men and women hired to administer the war in Iraq, and their reasons for doing so.
Another early feature of This American Life was their holiday episodes: the Valentine’s Day shows, the Poultry Slams, and the Christmas specials, which culminated in the 2006 Holiday Spectacular. This hammy showcase of TAL’s bench of creative contributors features almost all the big names: David Sedaris with a barnyard O. Henry, Heather O’Neill’s affecting retelling of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, a carol written by Sarah Vowell, an alternate history from John Hodgman, a Jonathan Goldstein nativity, and David Rakoff premiering one of his first verse works in his distinctive purr. But more than just a fun diversion, the episode is exemplary of This American Life’s attitude towards the holidays, which sought out the existential ambiguity at the heart of these seasons of plenitude.
I will be up front about this one: part of what makes this episode so special is that it’s the first episode of This American Life I ever heard. Composed of recordings from several live shows, “What I Learned from Televison” once again relies on TAL’s cast of creative contributors, this time David Rakoff, Sarah Vowell, and Dan Savage. I was struck by the friendliness, the gang’s-all-here aspect of the show. It gave me a cast and a rubric to understand the sprawl of This American Life.
When this episode was recorded, Showtime had recently premiered a television version of This American Life. As Ira Glass notes in the episode’s introduction, this moment arrived before peak TV and Netflix, when public media and popular culture still had a fraught relationship with one another. Anchoring the hour is Glass’s brief anecdote about seeing This American Life mentioned by name in an episode of The O.C. – his favorite program at the time. Listen closely, and you hear the scrambling of the codes of high and low culture that the burgeoning world of Internet consumption would visit upon us over the next decade.
When Mystery Show first premiered, it was hailed as a prime example of podcasting’s possibilities and promises. In 2015, Apple Podcasts declared it their first Podcast of the Year. Host Starlee Kine honed her very particular style while working as a producer at This American Life, and this episode, from 2007, is an early example of her expert work. Within 20 minutes, Kine (1) gives listeners a revealing amount of personal information, (2) convinces someone more famous than you could possibly imagine to give her advice, (3) enlists a group to help her in some strangely specific goal (writing a breakup song for an ex), and (4) wraps the whole experience in a startlingly-meaningful reflection.
It’s not often that an episode of a radio program inspires the creation of an entirely new radio program. But that’s what happened after the release of “The Giant Pool of Money” — in which Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson outline the workings of the subprime mortgage crisis and explain how it led to the 2008 recession — which essentially became the pilot for Planet Money. In the episode, Blumberg and Davidson speak with bankers and mortgage lenders as well as people who took out loans for which, under any reasonable regulations, they shouldn’t have qualified. “I wouldn’t have loaned me the money,” one remarks, “and no one I know would have loaned me the money.” The episode makes as solid a case as you’ll find for audio as the perfect medium for explanatory journalism.
Reporter Jake Halpern tells the story of two infants accidentally switched at birth and the mother who waited 43 years to let both of them know. The episode begins with the two daughters, Martha Miller and Susan McDonald, reading aloud the letter they received one day from Mary Miller (who raised Martha and is Sue’s biological mother), and from there details the emotional fallout of this news. Structurally, the episode — which was produced by Sarah Koenig — is rather ingenious, ending with a heartfelt and illuminating interview with Mary Miller about why she decided to keep her knowledge of the switch to herself for so many years.
If “24 Hours at the Golden Apple” explored the wealth of a single diner in Chicago, and “#1 Party School” would go on to discover the millennial death drive at the heart of a small college town, then “Scenes from a Mall” was the blockbuster shadow sequel to “Giant Pool of Money,” taking a national event that had ripped through everyone’s lives and returning it to a milieu in which it could be felt. Scenes of desperation in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis: listen to the 19-year-old cell phone salesman, who dreams of being an entrepreneur, and his 18-year-old girlfriend, who is afraid of loans, discuss their future. Hear a Chick-fil-A manager attempt to drive up business by any means necessary.
The show’s second act, too, is an all-timer: a story of organized labor featuring the world’s most famous boss, Santa Claus. Focusing on a Mall Santa union called The Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, reporter Joshuah Bearman tells a very serious story while cramming as many Santa-related puns as the script allows. In detailing the rift between two Santa factions, Bearman reveals the weird constitutional legalism that had crept into an America reeling from the loss of its governing myths and detailing all the strange new media phenomena – message board disputes replete with references to George Orwell, cell phone-recorded shove matches and name calling– that have become the atomic unit of digital journalism.
Before she was the voice of Serial, journalist and producer Sarah Koenig was most memorable to me as the voice of this episode of This American Life, which covered Pennsylvania State University during its brief reign in 2009 as “#1 Party School.” At the top of the show, you hear her correctly identify the sound of a stop sign being dragged around and chase a series of peeing college students out of her yard and alleyway in Happy Valley, Pa, where she lived at the time. If you’re a certain age, born in the late 80s to early 90s, This American Life is fascinating because one can hear themselves grow up through childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. “#1 Party School” contains especially potent examples of a kind of nihilism that have become the mark of millennial life; it’s also one of the show’s most subtle episodes, revealing the conflicted relationship that America has with its young adults.
The chilling follow-up, “Back to Penn State” (2011), expands the initial reporting after a sexual abuse scandal brought down the university’s beloved head football coach and, from the opposite end of the 2010s, sounds an early warning siren of just how far some people will go to protect their tribe.
The show’s second turning point came in 2012 when, for the first time in This American Life history, the staff was forced to retract a full episode. Several weeks prior, TAL had broadcast “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” an abridged recording of monologist Mike Daisey’s one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. After a Marketplace reporter found Daisey’s depictions of Chinese factory workers to be suspect, the loose thread quickly unraveled the factual accuracy of the episode’s most affecting moments, leading to an even more affecting griller of an interview with Daisey that is the centerpiece of “Retraction.” As Ira Glass pulls the truth out of him, molar-by-molar, Daisey reveals a stunningly crooked vision of storytelling and its uses.
“Retraction” is such an essential episode in the This American Life canon because it called into question the narrative journalism at the heart of the program. At that moment in time, “storytelling” was being lauded as the future of media, while some members of the show were giving interviews in which they praised this particular style and its abilities to keep audiences engaged. Daisey’s Trumpian diction, his slow revision of facts as he tries to cover his ass with a dishcloth — as well as the way that certain parts of Agony and Ecstasy, once stripped of their “truth,” embody the worst forms of western poverty porn and the infantilization of the Other —these are things that This American Life had hoped to dismantle in its mission. This American Life suddenly found itself in a place that no journalism program wants to be, the focus of a story, and you can hear the displeasure in Glass’s voice as he attempts to get to the bottom of what went wrong.
This is the first of a two-episode series, both of which could be on this list. Occasionally TAL undertakes a large investigative journalism project and produces a whole episode, or two, on a single story. This story is an expansive look at the students and adults around the Harper High School in Chicago, where the specter of gun violence is always present. The episode provides an empathetic, painful look at the cost of violence, and the efforts of the school and its students to bring about peace.
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The This American Life team spends the last week of the month with the salespeople of Long Island’s Town and Country Jeep Chrysler Dodge Ram. The salespeople have an uphill battle to make their magic number for the month, the only way to stave off financial crisis for the dealership. The episode is a character study of Town and Country’s employees, as Jason explains his dealership-leading success, Manny teaches the wisdom of Sun Tzu, and Bob tries to escape his reputation as the office loser. “129 Cars” swings between lighthearted and urgent, as the car dealers repeat their monthly cycle of nearly losing everything they’ve worked for.
“The Leap” patches together three stories about the unknown. It deserves a place in the This American Life canon for its centerpiece, Sean Cole and Jonathan Goldstein’s survey on time travel. They ponder why so many feel the need to tell the world that they would kill young Hitler if given the chance, and why older people seem less interested in going back than the rest of us. The segment is ultimately sentimental, but it’s a standout for the disdain with which the elderly treat a frivolous radio segment.
When a loved one is in the slow process of dying, we get to decide what to say in our final conversations with them. When a person dies unexpectedly though, in such a traumatic event that even their body cannot be recovered, as happened to thousands of victims in the 2011 tsunami and earthquake in Japan, our final words have nowhere to go. Miki Meek’s story about a phone booth in Sendai used by people to leave them messages to loved ones lost in the natural disaster is beautiful and crushing.
“Suitable for Children” is an example of the show’s best work on race. Neil Drumming discusses the impact the Dukes of Hazard starcar ‘The General Lee’ made on him. Sean Cole is taken on a field trip to Famous Blacks in Wax by producer B.A. Parker, and there is an unforgettable excerpt about the questionnaire administered to young children caught in the net of the United States’ immigration system. This American Life often feels like it swings between two poles: one incredibly white and goofy, the other absolutely morbid and radical.
This 2018 collection of library stories is sweet start to finish, celebrating the most reliable free public spaces we have. The standout is Sean Cole’s “Bookfishing in America” segment, which investigates the evolving legacy of Richard Brautigan’s 1971 novel The Abortion. The library dreamt up in The Abortion is an open-source public good, one to which any ordinary person can bring their writing, and have it archived forever. The fictional space was a home to books written and read by the public. Cole tracks down the man who tried to make Brautigan’s dream real. The nearly 30-minute story, about bridging the divide between the art world and our own, is among the best in This American Life’s archive.
This two-act episode from late last year covers the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their case is heard in U.S. immigration court. What it does exceedingly well, with stories from reporters Molly O’Toole and Emily Green, is chart the real human stakes of a government action. It seems fitting that This American Life would win the first Pulitzer Prize for audio journalism — and this episode is truly deserving of the honor.
Brendan Mattox lives in Lansdowne, PA. He produces the podcast Stories About Music.