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The Best of ‘This American Life’: 25th Anniversary Episodes

When the public radio show I host went on the air 25 years ago, I was firmly against publicity photos. They were anti-radio, I’d tell anyone willing to listen to my little rant on the subject. Better not to be seen. Better to be a voice. A presence. Hearing Howard Stern has a power that seeing him does not. Ditto Rush Limbaugh or Terry Gross or anyone who knows what they’re doing on the mic. Why give up invisibility, which makes radio so powerful?

But of course, we live in a world dominated by images. If you want newspapers or magazines to tell readers that your new radio show exists, most of them insist on some sort of photo. And a couple of years into this, my sisters Randi and Karen intervened and told me to drop the schtick and just have my picture taken like everyone else. But till then, our show’s publicity photo had me hidden behind a handwritten note saying “Radio = No Pictures.”

You learn and change over 25 years of doing a thing.

In 1995, when we went on the air, there were a handful of people on NPR experimenting with the sort of journalism-as-radio-storytelling I liked, but nobody had done a weekly show of it. “This American Life” gave this kind of audio narrative journalism — stories told with plot and characters, and a chatty, informal sound — a visibility it had never had.

As part of our new partnership with The New York Times, I’m pleased to note our 25th year here, by sharing some of my favorite episodes. We tried this at Thanksgiving — with a list of holiday listening recommendations — and people seemed to like it, so we’re doing it again. For more episodes, check out our 25th anniversary page.

When we decided to record a bunch of Long Island car salesmen as they tried to make their monthly sales quota, we had no idea the mayhem and drama we’d be lucky enough to capture on tape. Also: I love all the cursing in this one.

A story whose details are so amazing, it’s hard to believe it’s true. After 43 years, a mother confesses that her daughter was switched at birth for another girl, but she’d never set it right. The structure that producer Sarah Koenig and reporter Jake Halpern designed for the story couldn’t be more cunning: Our picture of the mother changes completely when she finally shows up in the last act.

This episode is drenched in feeling, really funny, and — if you’re going through a breakup right now — weirdly comforting. In an unlikely plot twist, Phil Collins pops in as a total menschy sweetheart.

Chana Joffe-Walt, who would go on to report “Nice White Parents,” starts this one as a story about two high schools and a girl who freaks out on a class trip, but it ends up being about something so much bigger and more disturbing.

I love the weird mission that producer Neil Drumming brought to this show: to find real-life stories with the kind of plot points you’d see in romantic comedies.

A group of inmates at a high-security prison stage a production of Hamlet. As reporter Jack Hitt and his producer Alex Blumberg learned, when convicted murderers put on a play about a murder, they have lots of interesting thoughts about how Shakespeare handled the material.

One day in a Chicago diner, from 5 a.m. till 5 a.m. the next morning. This was our first try at doing a whole episode in one location, a total experiment at the time. We’d never heard any radio show attempt anything like this, so senior producer Julie Snyder (who went on to co-create our podcasts “Serial,” “S-Town” and “Nice White Parents”) had to invent the production model and structure from scratch.

For more classics, visit the “This American Life” 25th anniversary page.

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