Thursday, May 08, 2008

This American Life

When I was a kid, probably in early high school (in the late 1980s), I discovered a radio serial on some station I never normally listened to, which aired every Sunday night. It was set during World War 2 and it was about a British (I think, possibly American) man who'd been captured and was being held on a German U-Boat. My memory of it was there was a tension between the theatre of war and the tedious reality of daily life, though I think it was an adventure story too. I vaguely remember that the prisoner developed an almost friendship, a sort of mutual grudging respect, with the Captain. Okay, so my memory of it is actually hazy at best. I don't recall ever talking to anyone about it, but I do remember looking forward to it, feeling like it was a very private pleasure - far more so than any television show. I clearly remember my bedroom, lying in bed listening, the red numbers of the clock radio shining in the dark and I've grieved its loss on and off since.

Martin subscribes to hundreds of podcasts, and Martin has an evangelical streak in him - he's been trying to persuade me to try a podcast for ages. 'When am I going to listen to it?' I'd say, 'And with what?' I always had a child at home, or I was working. On the rare occasions I caught a train or a tram somewhere on my own, I had nothing to listen with. After Martin bought me a shiny purple ipod for my birthday, and knowing I'd be doing long trips on the train, I finally decided to delve into iTunes and explore the free podcasts (I think it was the word free that pulled me in). I can't remember how I stumbled on This American Life, just as I can't remember how I stumbled upon that radio show all those years ago. But I've been meaning to blog about its virtues for a while, and I've just listened to a show that I have to tell you about.

This American Life is, without fail, amazing. It's created by Chicago Public Radio, and airs in hour long weekly instalments. Despite the title, the show occasionally sources international material. However the American content is utterly absorbing. The show is funny, sad, intelligent, thought provoking, beautiful (the long letter from an old man to his wife in the Valentine show is one of the most perfectly pitched love stories I've ever heard - not an ounce of sentimentality). I've laughed out loud on the train several times. I've also cried.

I fell a bit behind in my listening, so the show I'm blogging about today aired in March. It was The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar (you can buy previous episodes no longer available for free download for 95c). It's an incredible story about a boy, Bobby Dunbar, who went missing at the age of four (he slipped into a Louisiana swamp) and turned up months later living with a wandering handyman who was arrested for kidnapping him. Bobby's parents came and after some confusion claimed him. Another woman also showed up (a single mother of dubious morals) and also claimed him - she said he was her son Bruce. Like Bobby's mother she hesitated (it seems incredible to me that neither woman was sure). Anyway, the way the story unfolds is spellbinding. And the way the present can interrogate the past, and the way the past can interrogate the present, is quite mindblowing - I found myself literally reeling at the end of this show. Worth every penny of 95c (or $1.01AUD according to my dashboard currency converter) even if you have to listen to it in snippets while you cook the dinner.


  1. I'm listening to it now. How moving.

    Thanks for your blog - I always enjoy your posts and your writing

    J x

  2. Oh no. Don't tell me that. I struggle to listen to my current lists of podcasts even with 4 gym sessions a week.

    Gotta love the podcast.

    Have you listened to Stephen Fry's? You must. He's only done two so far. They're found via his blog at

  3. Anonymous9:10 AM

    I love This American Life, too. I listen to the podcasts when I walk my dog and often find myself laughing out loud, or commenting on the story to myself like a crazy lady. Also living in Chicago, I feel especially proud of the program (although they moved to NYC to do their tv show).

  4. WW - thanks Jazz! I love that you read it.
    Dani- Will download Stephen Fry.
    Laurie - he he! I too am that crazy lady (and I love that crazy ladies find their way to Eglantine's Cake). You should be proud (radio is infinitely cooler than tv anyway) - every time I listen to it I wish I was from Chicago.