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Why "This American Life" Is My Favorite Podcast

by Tom Johnson on Apr 7, 2010
categories: technical-writing

Of all the podcasts I listen to, I enjoy This American Life the most. I enjoy it because Ira Glass, the show's producer, has a keen sense of story. Not story in the sense of fables or fiction (which you can listen to at Storynory or The New Yorker Fiction podcast). Nor single personal narratives that you find with podcasts like The Moth Podcast (which I also enjoy). But stories that often focus on an intriguing question as the starting point and delve deeper and deeper into attempts to answer the question.

Here's an example. Listen to this two minute clip from the latest podcast from This American Life.

Are you hooked? The question -- why are American cars still not as good as foreign cars? -- draws me in.

You could break this topic down into a typical story structure and rephrase it. For years America has tried to match Japanese quality when it comes to cars. They've studied Japanese business models, routines and patterns in plants, and have even initiated programs to even replicate the Japanese culture of teamwork in American plants. While these efforts helped move companies like GM forward a little, GM still went bankrupt. It seems that whatever GM tried, it couldn't adopt the Japanese model.

One could approach the topic like that. But isn't all the story inherent in the question too?

When you're looking for stories, rather than look for conflicts or journeys of some kind, instead try asking questions until you come across an intriguing question. Chances are the intriguing question will lead you down the path of a story.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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