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CD Review: This American Life – Stories of Hope and Fear

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Every episode opens with Ira Glass repeating the same line, now drilled into the heads of millions of loyal public radio listeners. It is the mantra of WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International’s This American Life: “Each week we choose a theme and put together different kinds of stories on that theme.” Then the audience discovers what the theme of that week shall be, and one of the finest hours of storytelling currently available in the American media landscape begins.

One of the things about great stories is that they never fall directly into one theme – there’s always a bit of overlap. That’s where the show’s new two-disc collection This American Life: Stories of Hope and Fear comes into play. Here the show’s producers have collected a number of stories from a wide variety of recent broadcasts that all seem to share common ideas. Like a skillfully crafted mixtape, it is split up into two halves: Disc One – Hope, Disc Two-Fear.

With topics as broad as those of hope and fear, the possibilities are endless, and indeed, the wide variety of pieces on these discs will be sure to delight any NPR listener, even the boring people who enjoy Car Talk and A Prairie Home Companion.

The first disc, Hope, teaches the listener about what hope means, using everything from David Wilcox’s moving and somewhat sorrowful piece about his dying mother’s relationship to his mentally impaired sister, to Alex Blumberg’s entertaining and fascinating interview with a person, born a woman, who made the choice to become a man. These are complimented by more lighthearted pieces like Sascha Rothchild’s live diary reading at Los Angeles’ Mortified stage show, which may be, in this writer’s opinion, one of the funniest items ever broadcast on the radio.

The slightly more serious Fear disc runs the gamut from teenagers living in dread of their mother, to a developmentally challenged child’s fears that most of us could not possibly comprehend, to a radio producer being brought to tears by Corporate America. Of particular interest in this section is a work by writer David Sedaris, known by many for his autobiographical stories, that provides an example of his latest endeavor – a bizarre reshaping of the world of animal fables.

The quality of this collection was, however, never up for much debate. The fact of the matter is that This American Life has had a profoundly successful run for its first decade on the air. With a television version set to debut on Showtime in the near future, the show is going places that most Public Radio shows could not fathom. Listeners are never let down by Ira Glass and his cast of regular storytellers, but that isn’t the reason to buy this compilation. After all, most consumers could just turn on the radio any weekend for free. Hell, most of them have probably already contributed to their local fund drive as it is. So why shell out cash?

Obviously one could argue that radio doesn’t give a person the chance to listen to their favorite show at a whim. A CD set is, to be sure, a pretty nice thing to have around the car when you’re on a long trip, but this isn’t 2004, or even 2005. The fact of the matter is the radio landscape has been profoundly reshaped by the podcast revolution. Over the last year, most major weekly NPR and PRI shows have become available for free weekly downloads set up automatically by your computer, and This American Life is no exception.

The listener is no longer beholden to his local station’s weekly schedule. If that isn’t enough, you can stream each old episode for free on your computer or download them for less than the cost of a king-size Butterfinger. Any sensible, digital-aged child wouldn’t pay twenty bucks for under three hours of entertainment when they could just log onto iTunes and get twenty hours for the same price – and you don’t even have to leave your bedroom.

But that’s just it. While podcasting has most definitely begun to reshape the way young people consume news and entertainment, most Public Radio listeners are not among the cloned, iPod-wielding masses of college and high school students. Besides, few cars have begun including mp3-hook-ups on their dashboards. I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly not trading in my set of wheels just to plug in my Apple gadgets. For the meantime, a market still exists for items like this, even if it will be shrinking in the years to come.

Were I a reviewer who tends to get a bit more preachy, this would be the moment where I’d encourage Public Radio to adapt to the times and start reshaping the way they peddle their wares, but they seem to be doing a good enough job adapting to technology without my help. So what is my advice? Buy this CD. The price is more than worth it, if for no other reason than the fantastic cover art that will compliment any CD collection. Besides, you probably haven’t pledged yet, and I’m sure you’re feeling guilty about that.

by Aaron Kahn

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