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Podcasts Offering New Perspectives on Policy

This American Life 500th Episode

The radio show “This American Life” celebrated its 500th episode a few weeks ago. This American Life (or TAL for short) likely is familiar to media-interested Americans, but its title may have made it less appealing to the many non-American readers on this blog. If you haven’t listened to TAL, you missed out, and here is why.

Focusing on in-depth reporting, often from the point of view of ordinary citizens, TAL and its host, Ira Glass, have helped define excellence for longform radio. By listening attentively, TAL has also given us a new take on major policy issues. So perhaps this 500th episode is a good occasion to identify highlights for non-Americans interested in policy research, to join the other lists of favourites published by a number of outlets, and TAL itself.

The award-winning classic is The Giant Pool of Money, which explains the source of the 2008 financial crisis in an accessible way. If ears had lids, I’d be tempted to say that this is the kind of radio that would open them. Beyond the abstraction of financial products, the episode reminds us that people made this crisis, and that people are now stuck with its consequences.

A key challenge for policy almost anywhere is healthcare, although developing and developed countries look at the problem from different sides. Two TAL episodes explain how the American healthcare system gets squeezed between expanding medical possibilities and afflictions of affluence, and why its costs have risen so dramatically. The episodes address policy challenges by telling memorable stories, such as that of the hedgehog on health insurance to explain the economic concept of moral hazard. Next to the BBC’s empty-hospital Yes Minister classic, this is the most entertaining introduction to health care policy that I have come across. Here on the high costs of the system, and on some particular aspects that need to be fixed.

Even if you only vaguely followed US politics, you probably are aware that the welfare reforms undertaken under President Clinton are broadly seen as a success. A recent TAL episode qualifies that achievement somewhat, suggesting that as many people got off welfare, many got onto disability. As of today, 14 million Americans are receiving disability benefits. The episode, Trends with Benefits, thus offers a “story of the U.S. economy quite different than the one we’ve been hearing.” As numbers are key to policy research, this could be of broader interest.

TAL regularly covers US attempts to get crime under control, with an episode in 1999 suggesting that mandatory minimum sentences had gone too far in that they locked up people for non-violent offences for too long. Checking across think tanks, RAND had already provided a study showing that mandatory minimum sentences were not effective in 1997 and the CATO Institute made the same case in 2002. Only now does there seem to be a move towards change. One lesson is that policy change requires ultra-marathon perseverance, as one might be close to the 20-year mark from the RAND study until changes take full effect.

Perseverance is the theme of innovative approaches to education as well. Back to School offers an emerging theory of how to make schools better by focusing on the development of tenacity, resilience, and impulse control. The ideas have potential implications for school systems everywhere, and are backed up by solid economic research, including an interview with Nobel Laureate James Heckman on the economic benefits of pre-school education.

Another economist, Paul Romer, provides the background for a story from Honduras. In a widely watched TED Talk, Romer had suggested the idea of charter cities, cities that could have their own laws, and thus be attractive magnets for development in areas of otherwise poor governance. Here is the story of how this idea went awry in Central America. In spite of its name, This American Life regularly goes global: location tags provide an overview of where the stories originate. Check the convenient map here.

Next to this selection, This American Life collaborates with Planet Money, a twice-weekly radio show that aims to tell us about what’s happening in the economy. Planet Money regularly covers issues from across the world, including on why Somali pirates have timesheets (so maybe an idea for think tanks to have them too), development in Haiti, poverty in India, off-shoring in Ireland, and most recently an economist’s one-page plan to fix global warming (read the comments).

Even if you are not American, you may enjoy how the program discusses policy ideas in 20 snappy minutes, and hearing how Planet Money makes economics both accessible and fun, here.

Thus my list. Do you have other great episodes to suggest? Or other quality podcasts that policy researchers might enjoy?

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jeff Knezovich #

    How could a good policy wonk not listen to the Freakanomics podcast?! http://www.freakonomics.com/tag/freakonomics-podcast/

    August 16, 2013
  2. Jay #

    One of my favorite TALs is along the same vein as US crime and drug policy: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/430/very-tough-love. It looks at a harsh drug court judge in a small coastal town in Goergia, whose “tough” decisions actually increase costs to the state and have the opposite intentions of a drug court. The story actually caused the judge to step down from the bench.

    August 16, 2013
  3. Hi Hans – Thanks for a useful rundown of Podcasts. Ira Glass in TAL has indeed transformed long-form audio. And, of course, the availability of portable, audio on-demand has been critical to this. I listen to podcasts on my 45-minute bicycle commute, uninterrupted listening time that would have been impossible without these technological advances. Among the really excellent professional, mainstream media podcasts you did not mention is The New Yorker Out Loud . Ira Glass’s influence is easy to hear in the informal, slightly wonky voice of several of the hosts.

    Speaking of wonky, since this is the On Think Tanks blog, I thought your piece would be about the growing number of think tanks that are experimenting with podcasts. To make this something less than a totally flagrant flog comment, let me first call attention to my colleague Owen Barder’s long-form interview show Development Drums . Owen gets big name guests in development thinking, and holds thoughtful, in depth conversations with them. His most recent show, posted in May, featured Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson talking about their best-selling book, Why Nations Fail.

    Here at the Center for Global Development in Washington, I produce the Global Prosperity Wonkcast a more or less weekly podcast that runs about 20-25 minutes and usually features an interview with CGD researcher with a fresh policy proposal for reducing poverty and inequality, and promoting shared global prosperity. As a recovering journalist, I tend to run it like a radio show, with a brisk introduction that provides context. I then help the researcher to unpack the idea in a manner that will be accessible and lively even for non-experts.

    Readers may wonder how to keep track of all these podcasts. There are many tools out there but one that I really like and is not very will known is Stitcher, a free ap that pulls in live internet radio as well as a huge range of podcasts. Unlike iTunes (which I also use) it doesn’t require synching to get the most recent broadcasts.

    August 16, 2013
  4. The TAL episode Continental Breakup (455) is probably the most insightful backgrounder on the implosion of the Greek economy that I have come across so far: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/455/continental-breakup. I also really enjoyed When Patents Attack I and II, http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/496/when-patents-attack-part-two and the Planet Money series on setting up their own shell companies.

    August 19, 2013
  5. Hans Gutbrod #

    thank you all for the comments and suggestions, including the very practical suggestions.

    Shortly after I posted, there was another great episode that should be of interest to people working in development, on whether giving poor people cash is better than giving them a cow:

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/503/i-was-just-trying-to-help?act=1

    September 12, 2013

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