January 16, 1998


Stories of who we are on the phone, of things we learn on the phone, and of things that happen on the phone that don't happen anywhere else.


Host Ira Glass explains why some old answering machine messages from a decade ago have such power for him: there's a special power to recordings of phone conversations. The phone is intimate — more intimate than a photograph. Even when the person on the phone is a public figure like Lyndon Johnson. He plays some tapes from the Simon & Schuster audiobook of Johnson phone tapes, Taking Charge, The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964, by Michael Beschloss, to demonstrate. (7 minutes)
Act One

When The Wall Came Tumbling Down

The story of a teenager, illegal drug use, lying, stealing, and a kid's life changed completely when he heard how he sounded on the phone. (31 minutes)


“I've Got A New Home” by Pilgrim Travelers
Act Two

When The Telephone Is Your Medium

Sure you can try to get your pop songs onto records, or on the radio, or onto MTV. But what happens if your medium of choice is ... the telephone? Before they had record contracts, the band They Might Be Giants distributed their songs through the medium of Answering Machine. They created their own Dial-a-Song line. They say it taught them a lot about songwriting, because they could hear which songs people hated, because people hung up on the bad songs. It taught them how to do better musical arrangements for their songs. Sarah Vowell visited John Linnell and John Flansberg in Brooklyn and talked to them about Dial-a-Song. (15 minutes)


“I'm Sick” by They Might Be Giants (A song they wrote about This American Life, for us)
Act Three

Phone As History

We think of our phone calls and phone messages as so transient. We have another example of phones recording personal history: this story from Barrett Golding in Bozeman, Montana, comprised of telephone messages about his father. (4 minutes)