The question is, Why? Since 1995, Ira Glass and friends have produced one of the few national public radio programs worth listening to. This American Life: Stories of Hope & Fear is the Chicago Public Radio program’s first compilation since 2003’s Crimebusters and Crossed Wires, both of which are described as greatest-hits compilations. All of the program’s hour-long episodes, which usually air during weekends, are consistently remarkable for their intriguing subjects and fresh storytelling. They are so remarkable that nearly two million listeners enjoy them each week. A stream of all of the program’s episodes is available for free at the show’s Web site. The show is available and well-known. Why, then, this release?
All of This Life‘s staple contributors are present: David Sedaris, Jonathan Goldstein, Starlee Kine, Julie Snyder, Alex Blumberg. The stories of this collection are, of course, about hope and fear, with a CD devoted to each topic. Part of the continued success of This Life is due in part to the selectivity of host and co-producer Ira Glass. It is juxtaposition at its best. On Hope, Sascha Rothchild comically reading journal entries from her adolescence (about coke and promiscuity, among other topics) leads into a dark story about fictitious babysitters contrived so that two children could escape their mother’s strict treatment. "Fear" includes a mediocre David Sedaris story concerning a chipmunk and a squirrel, and Julie Snyder’s account of being shafted by the phone company is the only one that’s as good as those on "Hope."
Production is another reason for the show’s success: If McSweeney’s had a radio show it would sound much like this. "Hip" bands such as Calexico, Morcheeba, RZA and Blonde Redhead are featured underneath the stories and string them along, adding to their emotion. The stories and documentaries are, quite simply, like nothing else. They are quirky, disturbing, funny and idiosyncratic.
As parts of a compilation however, the stories lack the cohesive energy that Glass provides on the weekly version of the program. The lack of his introductions ultimately sacrifices the narrative feel. But for those who have never heard the program, this is a good introduction. Not only are staple contributors included, but staple themes such as homosexuality, family, mental illness and pop culture are present as well. For those of us who are familiar with the immense creativity and continued enjoyment of This American Life, this collection only serves to enable us to physically hold a piece of something (it is nicely packaged with artwork by Divya Srinivasan of Sufjan Stevens’s Illinois fame) that we may normally only get to hear. So long ephemeral, hello capitalism. In short, it’s a slice of This American Life.