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This American Life on “The Big Short”

April 19, 2010

"Broadway x Wall Street" by Matze Ott (CC By)

The award-winning radio show, “This American Life“, which is hosted by Ira Glass and produced by WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, is broadcast on more than 500 stations to about 1.7 million listeners in the United States. It is also available outside the USA as a podcast, and over half a million people download the hour-long program each week. Unfortunately, each episode is available for free for only seven days. The cost of the bandwidth is partially recouped through a US$0.99  (NZ$1.49) charge on archived episodes. The program is a creative and unpredictable mix of first person narrative, journalism, short fiction, essays, and performance. For a history of this very successful show, see the informative Wikipedia article. For an insight into the success of  This American Life, listen to Jesse Brown’s interview with Ira Glass for TV Ontario’s Search Engine podcast, which was published on 15 September 2009.

While you can still get it for free (and even if you are too late and have to pay for it), download episode #405: Inside Job, which was aired on 9 April 2010 and released as a podcast on 12 April. The first 40 minutes explains how a hedge fund called Magnetar Capital created complex securities for Wall Street banks to sell, and then made a fortune by betted against them (a strategy documented in “The Big Short,” a book by Michael Lewis). What could have been a dry business report comes alive as Ira Glass mixes investigative journalism with interviews, quotes, and  an original recording inspired by the Mel Brooks musical, “The Producers“. This creative mix of storytelling techniques, and the multiple ways of delivering content to different audiences (radio, streaming audio, podcasts, iPhone application, website), shows how narrative genres and traditional media territories are becoming increasingly blurred. This American Life collaborated with ProPublica for this research-intensive episode, and their website answers questions about Magnetar, explains how the hedge fund contributed to the financial bubble, and points out that many banks did these kind of deals. ProPublica also has an info graphic and timeline that shows how the bubble grew. More familiar, and more conventional, coverage of this chapter in the financial meltdown chronicles can be found in the New York Times article about the civil lawsuit that was filed on 16 April by the Securities and Exchange Commission that accused Goldman Sachs of profiting from the creation and selling of mortgage investments that were designed to fail.

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