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Jun 3, 2011

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A message from Ira...

Contributor Jack Hitt - on stage in NYC

May 24, 2011

Ira writes:

"We have a lot of great talkers on our show but Jack Hitt stands out. I haven't seen his one man show yet but if it's anything like having dinner with Jack, it'll be the most entertaining evening of theater ever created. He's an amazing talker. Funny as hell, deeply curious about the world, and such a great raconteur that it feeds into every stereotype you've ever had about what it means to grow up in the south, which he did. Some of the stories he tells have been on the radio show which is fine by me, because some of the best things we've ever put on the air were Jack's. His story about a Peter Pan production gone badly wrong, his account of his braggy super who claimed to be a former hitman (and then the claim turned out to be true), the story of the island of Nauru, his astonishingly enjoyable explanation of the writ of habeas corpus and Guantanamo, his search for the truth about his legendary Charleston neighbor Dawn Langley Hall Simmons, the Chicken Little opera, okay I'm tired of typing these out so I'll stop there. You get the idea. I guess I'm saying, I'm very excited to see his show and you might like to see it also. It's only playing for a limited time in a small space so you might want to act fast for tickets."

Jack Hitt: Making Up the Truth
June 1-5
3LD Art and Technology Center
80 Greenwich Street
Show info

"Best Nonfiction of 2010"

May 24, 2011

Over at The Atlantic, a writer named Conor Friedersdorf put together a list of favorite journalism from 2010. We're proud that three of our stories made the cut:

* Ben Calhoun's story "Patriot Games" from This Party Sucks, about two guys in Michigan whose friendship is changed forever after they venture into politics.

* "Is That A Tape Recorder In Your Pocket Or Are You Just Happy To See Me," from Right To Remain Silent (based on a five part story in The Village Voice by Graham Rayman).

* And NUMMI, a full episode reported by NPR's Frank Langfitt, about a car plant that possibly could have saved the US auto industry - and why it didn't.

The list also includes a story by our friends over at Planet Money, plus a bunch of other great stories worth checking out.

A mix tape, and the story behind it

May 18, 2011

Production manager Seth Lind writes:

A few weeks ago I was cleaning out our storage closet (yes, it's as glamorous as you imagine around here), and came across a bunch of blank cassette tapes. I remembered putting them in the closet five years earlier, so I figured we wouldn't be using them anytime soon. Rather than toss them, I tweeted out asking if any listeners still make mix tapes and wanted to take them off our hands. A surprisingly large number of people responded.

But then I got curious about what mixes people would make. So when I sent off the tapes I asked folks to also upload a digital version on, a site that lets you legally create and share mixes, so that we could put a few up here on our blog along with the stories behind them. Maybe we'll even match up some of the actual tapes with other listeners.

Here's the first one, from Jamin Hoyle in Maryland. He made a mix with one song for each of his co-workers as he was leaving a job. It has 35 songs, so I'm guessing it filled two tapes. If you're not in the mood for, say, stories on a theme, give a listen.

Jamin writes:

I just left my job as an art director at a design and advertising agency. I was only there for six busy, stormy months. I made a mixtape for the agency and gave it to them on the last day. Because that's what you do when you're wrung out and you want to say something but you can't use the real words.

I put it on the server and let everybody download it, telling them there was a song in there for all 35 people in the agency. But I didn’t tell anybody which song was whose. I just thought it would be a fun puzzle to let people try to figure it out. Plus, the whole point of saying goodbye is hoping to be remembered for a little while after you’re gone. I’ve always been afraid of being forgotten.

One of my best friends at the agency is warm and joyful and exuberant and cocksure and from the Midwest. She got Hey Nonny Nonny, not really for the lyrics but because of the way the song makes me feel. It’s boisterous and loud but also reverential. And because Violent Femmes are from the Midwest.

A woman who worked pretty closely alongside me and did a lot of the heavy lifting got 99, which is about Agent 99 from Get Smart.

Get Me is about somebody who didn’t turn out to be the person I hoped or wanted he would be.

I've broken the agreed-upon conventions of mixtapes. i.e. more than one entry from the same band (and worse, more than one entry from the same album), it runs far too long, the first half is solid but becomes a bit of a mishmash after Wave of Mutilation, there’s just a shade too much pop-punk, no Al Green.

Truth be told, I had to cheat. I got close to my quit date and realized that I didn’t get to know every person in just six months. Some people didn’t get songs. On the other hand, I grew extremely fond of some people and they got multiple songs. And frankly, some songs are on there just because they’re cathartic and I like them.

Leaving of Liverpool - The Pogues
I Don't Love Anyone - Belle & Sebastian
Hey Nonny Nonny - Violent Femmes
You Don't Know... - Jawbreaker
Career Opportunities - The Clash
Ivy League College - J Church
The Boy Who Sailed Around the World - Go Sailor
Winterlong - Pixies
Jamie (Live and Acoustic) - Weezer
Ask - The Smiths
Hot Guacamole - MF Doom & MC Paul Barman
No Culture Icons - The Thermals           
Detroit Has a Skyline - Superchunk
99 - Screeching Weasel
Disappearing Boy - Green Day
Chesterfield King - Jawbreaker
Get Me - Dinosaur Jr
Brandy Alexander - Feist
Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf) - Pixies
Burn Your Way Home - Algebra One
Range Life - Pavement
Wings of a Dove - Madness
Young Livers - Rocket from the Crypt
Dead - They Might Be Giants
Maggie Mae - The Pietasters
We Ain't Even Married - Young Pioneers
Cottleston Pie - Rowlf the Dog
Now That You Are Gone - Mr. T Experience
My Favorite Place - J Church
Fett's Vette - MC Chris
Cut Your Hair - Pavement
Please Do Not Go - Violent Femmes
The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism - The New Pornographers
My Brain Hurts - Screeching Weasel
Walcott - Vampire Weekend

A New Day

May 12, 2011

If you're a regular visitor to our website, you may notice a couple of changes. Kind of big changes.

First off, on each episode page, in addition to the big PLAY button at the top, there are now play buttons for individual stories. No more shuttling through audio to get to that one story your friend told you about. Of course, we believe that the episodes are best heard as a whole, but we understand that sometimes you're just after one particular act. So there's that.

You'll also notice in the upper right corner, LOGIN and REGISTER links. Now you can make an account on the site, which unlocks features like marking favorite episodes, checking off which episodes you've heard, and creating and saving playlists with multiple stories and episodes. Your own DASHBOARD page contains these lists.

We'll be adding new features over time, such as playlist sharing and new ways to interact with the archive. Stay tuned.

And as always, we value your feedback. If something seems broken, or you have an idea for better or new features, please email

Your friends at This American Life

Our iPhone App Won a Webby! (Please Rate Our Apps.)

May 3, 2011

We're pleased to announce that our iPhone app has won 2011 Webby Award for Best Entertainment — Handheld Device. Big congratulations to the team over at PRX, who built the app. And we'd like to thank The Academy. For real: it's the 750 members of The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences who vote on these things, apparently. And thanks to all of you who voted for us as well, for the People's Voice Award. Fandango won that, but hey, who doesn't like movies?

One request. If you use one of our apps—iPhone, iPad or Android—would you mind rating/reviewing it? It helps us know how they're working. And to be honest, reviews skew negative because people are just more inclined to speak up when something is not working. So in an effort to have the apps' reputations match their quality, we'd love it if you went to iTunes or the Android Market and gave a rating:

Thank you! This helps out a lot.

—Your friends at This American Life

Pulitzer for ProPublica's Wall Street Coverage

Apr 18, 2011

ProPublica reporters Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein have been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for their series of stories about bankers whose actions worsened the financial crisis. The series began with an in-depth story about the hedge fund Magnetar, which ProPublica covered in cooperation with Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson of Planet Money, resulting in a story in our episode "Inside Job." This is the second Pulitzer for ProPublica, and the first for stories only published online.

From the ProPublica press release about the award:

Jesse and Jake's work was greatly augmented by partnerships with public radio's "Planet Money" and "This American Life." While radio reporting is not eligible for the Pulitzer, we want to acknowledge a great debt to, and celebrate our partnership with, Adam Davidson, Alex Blumberg and Ira Glass and their teams. I also urge you, if you haven't seen them before, to check out the two songs -- a Broadway-style parody from the team that has recently collaborated on "The Book of Mormon," and a work from the young geniuses who Auto-Tune the News -- that accompanied this series. There's also a comic strip.

But while we poked fun at the ironies in this story, and by so doing tried to make it more accessible, its central point is quite serious, and critically important: that the mores of Wall Street, at least in the period 2006-2008, were not consistent with the public interest or the national interest, and that greater oversight (and perhaps enforcement actions) may be in order. (read more)

Congratulations to Jesse, Jake and the entire ProPublica team.

Ira responds to Judge Williams' press release

Apr 15, 2011

Ira writes:

In the last two days, Judge Amanda Williams has decided to respond at length, publicly, to my story about her drug court. A law professor representing Judge Amanda Williams issued a press release yesterday saying that my story about her was "riddled with falsehoods" and "libel masquerading as journalism." Today he publicly released the 14-page letter he sent me.

For all the minutiae presented in these two documents, Judge Williams and Mr. Oedel don't dispute and barely address at all the main two points of my story or the evidence I provide to back up those points. Those two main points:

1) Judge Williams' drug court uses punitive sanctions for relapses and other broken rules which are harsher than any other drug court I—or the national experts interviewed for the show, who were familiar with hundreds of drug courts across the country—could find. These jail sanctions—3 days for a first relapse when a defendant doesn't admit he's still using, 7 days for a second relapse, 28 days for a third relapse, and "indefinite detention" after that—not only go against national guidelines set by the National Association for Drug Court Professionals, researchers (and the head of the NADCP) told me that studies show they would not work with addicts. They run counter to the core philosophy of drug court.

2) Judge Williams' court uses a variety of means that other drug courts don't to encourage defendants to sign up for drug court.

Although Judge Williams and Mr. Oedel claim that there's "a litany of factual errors" in the radio broadcast, the only errors they found were in something I posted on our website. I corrected these once I was informed of the errors. There is no "litany of errors."

My attorneys are responding to Mr. Oedel's letter with one of their own.

For now, I'll confine my comments to his press release.

Mr. Oedel and Judge Williams state that "Glass was looking for someone his listeners could hate, and when the facts didn't fit, he just made them up to make the protagonist hateful." This isn't true. I made up no facts. I stumbled onto this story, and followed the facts where they led. I have no interest in making anyone seem hateful and in fact my story points out Judge Williams' idealism, her good intentions and her great success with many drug court participants. In the story, I quote one who says she saved his life. I would have liked very much to include more from the Judge's perspective, and I wrote her many letters saying this, but once she was re-elected this fall, she declined both my interview requests and my repeated requests to record in her courtroom.

Regular listeners to our radio show know that it's overwhelmingly comprised of stories where there is no one to hate. If anything, that's a hallmark of the show. Yes, when it came to the Wall Street meltdown (and my comments about our coverage, referenced by Mr. Oedel), we did at one point go looking for stories of bankers who did things that were illegal or unethical, as many journalists did. That has nothing to do with this.

In his press release, Mr. Oedel makes a number of statements that I believe are untrue.

He says my story:

"used the recollections of three people who washed out of that treatment program to claim that Judge Williams coerced them into drug court in the first place, and imposed overly punitive (but previously agreed-upon) sentences when they washed out of drug court for driving under the influence and other relapses."

Well, no. In Lindsey Dills' case I go to pains to explain that she was not forced into the drug court program but insisted on it herself. In Charlie McCullough's case I explain that he gladly chose drug court. In Brandi Byrd's case, yes, I point out all the incentives Judge Williams uses that no other drug court seems to use. In their letter and press release, Mr. Oedel and Judge Williams say nothing to challenge the accuracy of the facts I included about those incentives.

As for the sentences these three got "when they washed out of drug court"—my story does not discuss whether those are punitive or not. That is not a subject I take up in my report.

Instead, I focus entirely on the sanctions they and other defendants get while in the drug court program. Here, I point out that the sanctions are much higher than those recommended as effective by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, and much higher than any drug court I could find. Nothing in Mr. Oedel's press release or letter contests these conclusions or the evidence I present for them.

Mr. Oedel says:

"After Oedel challenged Glass on that claim of no independent judicial review, Glass retracted his allegation on April 11, 2011, admitting on Glass’s website, 'That’s not true.'"

There was no retraction. Mr. Oedell sent his letter. In it he said that my radio story had claimed that there was no appeals process for decisions made in Judge Williams' court. But he was misinterpreting the story. The story did not say that. As I pointed out in my clarification, there's a quote in the story where an attorney, Jim Jenkins, says that there's no procedure to appeal the sanctions the judge levies against you in drug court. If she gives you 28 days for a drug relapse, there's no procedure to compel her to review that decision. A public defender who worked in her drug court confirmed this. I stand by that as factual. I did not retract anything.

But I posted a clarification because two other listeners had asked me about the same thing, was Jenkins saying there was no appeal process at all? He wasn't, and it seemed worth clearing up.

Mr. Oedel writes:

"This is one of the most effective drug courts in the nation, with a recidivism re-arrest rate of 5.5 percent at three years after concluding treatment."

This "re-arrest rate of 5.5 percent," Mr. Oedel's letter makes clear, comes from a 29-page report issued by Judge Williams' drug court. As best as I can tell, in quoting this number, Mr. Oedel and Judge Williams are misreading the Judge's own report. The charts on pages 14 and 21 of the report do indeed show that graduates had a recidivism re-arrest rate of 5.5 percent for felony non-drug offenses (or perhaps this is for all felony offenses, the report isn't very clear), but when you add in the other offenses measured by the study—non-drug misdemeanors, drug misdemeanors and felony drug offenses—the recidivism re-arrest rate cited by the charts is 30.1 percent, not as impressive when compared to the national averages that Mr. Oedel quotes.

This report does not appear to be the work of an independent researcher, but generated by the drug court staff itself. The copy provided to me had not been peer reviewed or published. Using it as the one piece of evidence to conclude that "this is one of the most effective drug courts in the nation" seems questionable.

Mr. Oedel writes:

"After being challenged by Oedel, Glass also conceded that he erred in reporting that bail in one of his example cases was revoked for the addict’s failure to pay for her drug treatment."

Yes that's true. After Kim Spead sat in jail for eleven months, from September 24, 2003 to August 5, 2004, Judge Williams did finally offer her bail at $15,000 cash. The word "cash" is handwritten and double underlined on the court document, and initialed by Judge Williams.

"Glass admitted that the individual’s bail was revoked for failure to report to court, not for failure to pay a portion of costs for treatment."

Here Mr. Oedel is correct. I misunderstood the sentencing document, which did not state what Kim Spead was being sentenced for. I appreciate the correction and was glad to update it. This was not a fact that was part of our broadcast, but a case I wrote about on our website.

Mr. Oedel writes:

"John Dills, the father of Lindsey Dills, the primary source relied upon by Glass for his story, flatly rejected Glass’s claim that the drug court program hurt his daughter."

Great. And if he'd been willing to talk to me in a taped interview, maybe that's something I could have quoted on the radio. But he turned me down. As to whether Judge Williams' drug court saved his daughter's life or anyone else's, it seems possible it could have saved those lives using sanctions that are more in line with national standards. In Lindsey's case, when one of the sanctions that no other drug court uses—Judge Williams' "indeterminate sentence"—was employed, Lindsey unsuccessfully attempted suicide. More traditional sanctions against Ms. Dills might have avoided that.

As to this:

“Glass is an admitted character assassin who’s not above using his national radio platform for partisan political purposes in the national debate about drug courts, meanwhile trashing a local official whose major offense was to succeed at helping people to get off of drugs, keep off drugs, and survive.”

Let me state here unequivocally: I do not admit to being a character assassin. Also: I am not a character assassin. Further: I have no idea what "partisan political purposes" would be in the national debate over drug courts since, as I point out in my story, both major parties support drug courts. They seem like a fine idea to me as well. My story had nothing to say about the effectiveness of drug courts nationally, except to praise it. My story was about how this particular drug court, run by Judge Williams, is not run like other drug courts. Nothing in Judge Williams' and Mr. Oedel's press release and letter contradicts that.

If Judge Williams wanted to comment on what I found in my research, I wished she had answered my repeated letters and phone calls asking her to do that in my story. If she prefers to respond through press releases then I guess I'll settle for that.

So now I call on her and Mr. Oedel to answer these questions for me in their next press release: When she sentenced Charlie McCullough for his very first drug relapse to 17 days in detention and added a year and a half to his time in the drug court program, this was a much harsher sentence than recommended for a first relapse by the National Association for Drug Court Professionals. The NADCP recommends no jail time at all for a first relapse. The NADCP philosophy—articulated in my story by its president—is that more punitive sanctions don't work with addicts. Research shows that more punitive sanctions can backfire and in fact be counter-productive with addicts. Which brings me to my questions: What was the therapeutic goal of this unusually harsh sanction? Why does she believe a sanction so out of line with national standards will be effective? Since it caused Charlie McCullough to give up on the program, does she believe it backfired? Finally: now that she's been informed that the jail sanctions she imposes are far outside the national guidelines, and that research studies show that such measures may be ineffective, will she be eliminating these punitive measures which add an additional burden to taxpayers?

Ira: "Teachers - Teach me!"

Apr 14, 2011

Ira writes:

I've agreed to teach my nephew's high school class how to make a "podcast" which in this case is code for making a little radio story in the style of our show. I know many teachers have done this with high school and junior high and even I've heard of elementary school kids in one class doing it.

I could use advice. Specifically: what topics seemed to work the best to energize the kids and to get nice stories? Should we go for personal stories? Stuff going on with their friends or families? Or turn them into reporters, interviewing interesting people around the neighborhood, doing oral history, stuff like that? What's seemed to work best?

Post any advice over on our Facebook page, or email:

And if your class posted their audio stories on the web, maybe put up the links up on Facebook too (if they're okay with it)... so all of us can listen!


Mike Birbiglia's new one-man show

Apr 14, 2011

Birbiglia has a new one-man show called My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. Many of the stories he tells in this one have been on the radio show, including that amazing story from our cinema event Return to the Scene of the Crime about marriage and a car crash ... but lots of new stuff besides. It's playing at the Barrow Street Theater in NYC. Tickets.