This American Life Favorites

This American Life is a weekly public radio show broadcast on more than 500 stations to about 1.7 million listeners. It is produced by Chicago Public Radio, distributed by Public Radio International. It is also often the most popular podcast in the country, with more than a half million people downloading each week. These are some of my favorite episodes.

Season I

  • #345: Ties That Bind

    A young girl named Sarah receives a heart transplant from a boy her age, and her mother sets off to find out more about the kid who saved her daughter’s life. But years later, Sarah’s not sure she wants to know. Plus, a story by Jonathan Goldstein about a friendship gone awry in the town of Bedrock; it’s unclear whether Fred and Barney will work it out.

  • #346: Home Alone

    A 79-year-old woman, Mary Ann, dies in Los Angeles. She’s lived alone for decades. No one knows her—or her next of kin. There’s a body to be buried, a house full of stuff to get rid of. It so happens there’s a county bureaucracy for just this type of problem. In this show, we follow around the person charged with figuring out what to do with the remains of Mary Ann’s life. This and other stories about what happens when people are left alone.

  • #286: Mind Games

    Stories of people who try simple mind games on others, and then find themselves way in over their heads.

  • #339: Break-Up

    Writer Starlee Kine on what makes the perfect break-up song and whether really sad music can actually make you feel better. Plus, an eight-year-old author of a book about divorce and other stories from the heart of heartbreak.

  • #206: Somewhere in the Arabian Sea

    Life aboard the USS John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea that's supporting bombing missions over Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. This American Life producers Wendy Dorr, Alex Blumberg and Ira Glass visited the Stennis in January of 2002, about six weeks into its deployment. The entire hour is devoted to this one story.

  • #322: Shouting Across the Divide

    A Muslim woman persuades her husband that their family would be happier if they left the West Bank and moved to America. They do, and things are good…until September 11. After that, the elementary school their daughter goes to begins using a textbook that says Muslims want to kill Christians. This and other stories of what happens when Muslims and non-Muslims try to communicate, and misfire.

  • #175: Babysitting

    Hillary Frank reports on what can happen when a teenaged son is put in charge of his younger brothers. It's not pretty. Every year on the day after Christmas, divorced kids all over America fly from one parent to the other. In 1988, lots of them got snowed in at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. Susan Burton and her little sister were among them. Myron Jones and his sister Carol Bove explain what happened when they were teenagers, and they ended up babysitting children who didn't exist.

Season II

  • #220: Testosterone

    Stories of people getting more testosterone and coming to regret it. And of people losing it and coming to appreciate life without it. The pros and cons of the hormone of desire. While putting this show together about the link between personality traits and testosterone, we on the staff of TAL decided to examine our own personalities and guess who has the most testosterone. Then we all got tested. Not the smartest thing for a group of co-workers to do with each other.

  • #168: The Fix Is In

    We hear from Kurt Eichenwald, whose book The Informant is about the price fixing conspiracy at the food company ADM, Archer Daniels Midland, and the executive who cooperated with the FBI in recording over 250 hours of secret video and audio tapes, probably the most remarkable videotapes ever made of an American company in the middle of a criminal act.

  • #90: Telephone

    A man suspects his teenage son is doing drugs. He starts taping his son's phone calls, setting off a series of deceptions and counter-deceptions, all caught on tape, and ending in an act of pure, surprising genius parenting.

  • #218: Act V

    We devote this entire episode to one story: over the course of six months, reporter and TAL contributor Jack Hitt followed a group of inmates at a high-security prison as they rehearsed and staged a production of the last act—Act V—of Hamlet. Shakespeare may seem like an odd match for a group of hardened criminals, but Jack found that they understand the Bard on a level that most of us might not. It's a play about murder and its consequences, performed by murderers, living out the consequences.

  • #210: Perfect Evidence

    After a decade in which DNA evidence has freed over 100 people nationwide, it's become clear that DNA evidence isn't just proving wrongdoing by criminals, it's proving wrongdoing by police and prosecutors. In this show, we look at what DNA has revealed to us: how police get innocent people to confess to crimes they didn't commit and how they get witnesses to pin crimes on innocent people. There have always been suspicions that these kinds of things take place. With DNA, there's finally irrefutable proof.

  • #172: 24 Hours at the Golden Apple

    We record in a Chicago diner called the Golden Apple from 5 a.m. until 5 a.m. the next day. There's the waitress who has worked the graveyard shift for over two decades, the customers who come in every day, the couples working out their problems, various drunks, and, of course, cops.

  • #334: Duty Calls

    Josh's mother and younger brother were a mess. His mother drank too much. His brother got arrested a lot. Josh hadn't lived with them since he was nine, and they didn't play much of a role in his daily life—until duty called, and they took over his life.

Season III

  • #199: House on Loon Lake

    A sort of real-life Hardy Boys mystery, about a young boy, an abandoned house, and the mysterious family who once lived there. It seemed like they just vanished one day, leaving salt and pepper shakers on the table, notes on the bedroom mirror, and a wallet with money still inside.

  • #262: Miracle Cures

    People looking for miracle cures, some from above, others from abroad. A son tries to help his mom in a faraway place defy the laws of medical science. A daughter tries to help her dad by going to a faraway place to defy the laws of the United States of America.

  • #61: Fiasco!

    Stories of when things go wrong. Really wrong. When you leave the normal realm of human error, fumble, mishap and mistake and enter the territory of really huge breakdowns. Fiascos. Things go so awry that normal social order collapses. This week's show is a philosophical inquiry in the nature of fiascos — perhaps the first ever.

  • #182: Cringe

    Stories that make us cringe, and an investigation into just what, exactly, makes some stories capable of forcing this physical reaction out of us when other stories don't. We hear tales of personal humiliation, romance gone wrong, and people who profoundly misjudge how they're perceived by others.

  • #290: Godless America

    At a time when House Majority Leader Tom Delay calls for enacting a "Biblical world view" in government, when Christians are asserting their ideals in the selection of judges, in public school science classes and elsewhere, This American Life spends an hour trying to remember why anyone liked the separation of church and state in the first place.

  • #245: Allure of the Mean Friend

    What is it about them, our mean friends? They treat us badly, they don't call us back, they cancel plans at the last minute, and yet we come back for more. Popular bullies exist in business, politics, everywhere. How do they stay so popular?

    Season IV

  • #94: How-To

    What happens during a "how-to," and what our "how-to's" say about us. Most how-to's promise that you'll not only learn skills: you'll be transformed. Ira teaches contributing editor Sarah Vowell how to drive and more.

  • #184: Neighbors

    Stories of people trying to love their neighbors... and failing.

  • #111: Adventures in the Simple Life

    Two brothers set out with a friend to cross America on horseback. They take a tape recorder with them to make a kind of audio journal of their trip. What they find, who they meet, and what they learn in this experiment in 19th-century travel. Plus other stories.

  • #115: First Day

    Stories of the first day on the job, the first day in a relationship, the first day in school. On the first day, any first day, we're expected to live by the rules and customs of the culture we're entering, but we don't know those rules and customs just yet. These are stories of people trying to make the transition—and the difficulty of making the transition—in a new place—from outsider to insider.

  • #186: Prom

    While the seniors danced at Prom Night 2001 in Hoisington, Kansas—a town of about 3,000—a tornado hit the town, destroying about a third of it. When they emerged from the dance, they discovered what had happened, and in the weeks that followed, they tried to explain to themselves why the tornado hit where it did. Plus other stories that happen on Prom Night.

  • #258: Leaving the Fold

    A popular, progressive politician becomes... a talk show host. One you've probably heard of. A group of nuns leave the Catholic Church... only to find themselves essentially, remaining nuns. These and other stories of people leaving the situation they're used to—and striking off for something less familiar.

  • #293: A Little Bit of Knowledge

    Bob Berenz had a good job as an electrician. He came up with an idea for an invention. But as he studied physics texts to see if his invention could work, he happened upon the biggest idea of his life: a revelation about physics that would disprove Einstein, and Newton. That is...if Bob's right. This, and other stories about the pitfalls of knowing just a little bit too little...

  • #361: You Gonna Eat That?

    The family table is stage on which many family dramas are played out. We hear three stories ... of three families ... at three meals.

Season V

Guest curated by Ryan Consbruck.

  • #361: Fear of Sleep

    Mike Birbiglia got used to strange things happening to him when he slept—until something happened that almost killed him. This and other reasons to fear sleep, including bedbugs, "The Shining," and mild-mannered husbands who turn into maniacs while asleep.

  • #77: Pray

    Can the secular world and the religious world understand each other?

  • #396: #1 Party School

    This year, The Princeton Review named Penn State the #1 Party School in America. It's a rotating crown—last year it was University of Florida, before that it was West Virginia University. So we wondered: what's it like to be at the country's top party school?

  • #421: Last Man Standing

    Is it stubbornness? Tenacity? Survival of the fittest? This week, stories about people who feel compelled to keep going, especially when everyone else has given up.