A Black Balloon Publication ©
By Jake Flanagin
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It’s hard to believe that WBEZ Chicago’s This American Life has been on the air for almost two decades. In that time, the show has compiled an impressive library of journalistic nonfiction and radio essays. This weekend, TAL will release it’s 500th episode: a compilation of “the very best moments, and by that I mean the staff’s favorite moments of the last 17 years,” says host and producer Ira Glass. In honor of that impressive milestone, here are 17 of The Airship’s favorite episodes – one per year.

 Episode 001: New Beginnings (November 17, 1995)

 This was the episode that started it all. Launched under the name “Your Radio Playhouse,” Ira spoke with Joe Franklin, host of the longest running talk show in television history; Kevin Kelly, the man who experienced his own version of divine revelation; and his own mom and dad.

Episode 046: Sissies (December 13, 1996)

Being gay was by no means novel in 1996, but it certainly wasn’t as mainstreamed as it is today. TAL went above and beyond its reputation for alternative coverage by digging deeper into queer culture, examining the internal tensions surrounding “sissies” in the gay community.

Episode 065: Who’s Canadian? (May 30, 1997)

Described as “notes and stories about the Canadians among us,” this episode fully embraced the show’s now iconic quirkiness, while slyly blending in a dash of serious, cultural inquiry.

Episode 109: Notes on Camp (August 28, 1998)

“In this program, we attempt to bridge the gap of misunderstanding between camp people and non-camp people.” A Camp David Accords for suburban tweens everywhere.

Episode 172: 24 Hours at the Golden Apple (November 17, 2000)

TAL producers camped out in a famous North Side diner in Chicago called the Golden Apple. For 24 hours (5 a.m. to 5 a.m.) they observed and interviewed its diverse patronage, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that This American Life can turn any experience into an enjoyable story.

Episode 194: Before and After (September 21, 2001)

TAL spoke with survivors and witnesses of the 9/11 attacks; one of the first media to lend coverage a truly human element.

Episode 208: Office Politics (March 15, 2002)

Scaling down its political coverage to fit inside a typical American office, TAL explored its endemic “greed, jealousy, and ambition,” officially confirming our suspicions that Janice in accounting has been stealing our yoghurt from the break room fridge.

Episode 241: 20 Acts in 60 Minutes (July 11, 2003)

TAL producers shook up the usual format by successfully vacuum-packing 20 stories within the typical 60-minute time-frame.

Episode 268: My Experimental Phase (June 25, 2004)

We’ve all had one. And if not, we certainly enjoy hearing about others’.

Episode 296: After the Flood (September 9, 2005)

Showing us once again that they’re no stranger to hard-hitting reportage, TAL headed down to New Orleans to bring us stories from Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.

Episode 319: And the Call Was Coming from the Basement (October 27, 2006)

TAL combined humor and horror in this 2006 Halloween special. “True-life scary stories” were produced alongside a live performance by David Sedaris, in which he visits a morgue. Morbid hilarity ensues.

Episode 325: Houses of Ill Repute (February 2, 2007)

An elderly Brooklynite opens up his home to some penniless ladies of the evening. Claiming some perverse, unspoken form of squatter’s rights, they never left. In another one of TAL’s truly unique episodes, Glass explores houses where “the inhabitants don’t always act as they should.”

Episode 350: Human Resources (February 29, 2008)

In this episode, TAL brings us the shocking and little-known story of New York City’s “Rubber Room.” Here, public school teachers on probation report daily. With pay. For how long? Sometimes months, sometimes years.

Episode 396: #1 Party School (December 18, 2009)

TAL descends on State College, Pennsylvania to bring us the story on The Princeton Review’s “#1 Party School” for 2009, Penn State. We all learned what a “fracket” was, and now we can’t un-learn it.

Episode 406: True Urban Legends (April 23, 2010)

“Can a rat crawl through your plumbing and end up in your toilet? Can your cell phone give you a brain tumor?” These are just some of the questions asked in TAL’s report on urban legends. Some are debunked, others are proven chillingly true.

Episode 447: The Incredible Case of the P.I. Moms (September 23, 2011)

We’re seriously stumped as to why this hasn’t been made into a Lifetime Original Movie yet.

Episode 478: Red State Blue State (November 2, 2012)

Leading up to one of the most rhetorically toxic presidential elections in American history, TAL explored how the political started invading the personal in a superbly un-editorialized, un-slanted broadcast.

Episode 500: 500! (July 12, 2013)

Tune into This American Life on your local NPR member station this Saturday, July 12, 2013 for a roundup of the best segments of the past 17 years.

Images courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Andrew Taylor and ThisAmericanLife.com.