Various Artists

This American Life: Hand It Over -- Stories from Our First Year, Vol. 1

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This American Life is easily one of public radio's most creative programs. For each week's show, host Ira Glass picks a theme and collects an hour's worth of relevant stories, documentaries, essays, radio plays, interviews, and whatever "found tape" he can dig up. The themes range from the personal to the political, from the philosophical to the silly. The show has steadily improved since the beginning of this first season, and some of these pieces betray the sort of wrinkles the staff was still in the process of ironing out. Some of the rough edges are intentional: Glass is a firm believer that radio works best when one feels one is hearing a real, idiosyncratic personality. Consequently, most of the voices on the show lack the slick professional polish of most radio performers, and Glass will occasionally interrupt himself and his pieces to say "I'm going to roll some music here," or "Maybe I should point out at this point..." Unfortunately, though, not all of the foibles are charming. For example, the music too often falls into repetitive patterns, fading up and down in gratingly symmetrical intervals. The show's producers have gradually grown more adept at using music to set a mood, comment on themes, and allow listeners time to reflect. But this freshman season was already sufficiently smart and inventive to win one of broadcasting's most prestigious awards, the Peabody. This is the first disc in a two-volume series designed as an enticement in a fund drive at Glass' home base, WBEZ in Chicago (hence the title "Hand It Over"). Highlights on the first disc include Scott Carrier's eerie story about his experiences interviewing schizophrenics, and an autobiographical monologue by Saturday Night Live's Julia Sweeney. Her improvised standup story of her battle with cancer is strikingly intimate, funny, insightful, moving, and personal. That's a mix that has become typical of This American Life.