Thursday, September 27, 2007

NPR Has Turned Me Into a Criminal

When I get to our neighborhood pool this morning, there's a sign on the front (retail, not hand-lettered) that says "POOL CLOSED."

Hmm, I wondered. What does that mean exactly?

See, when I see a sign that says "POOL CLOSED," what I actually see is "POOL CLOSED: EXCEPT FOR YOU." And my pass card works, so I walk right on in and start swimming.

I can tell right away that they closed the pool because the chlorine level was too high. But I've swum in worse, so I started my MP3 player and turned on This American Life.

That's right. I realized a few days ago that certain episodes of This American Life, which has to be one of the finest radio programs ever created, are offered for download in MP3 format.

I've tried to increase my yardage this summer, but I'd hit a wall for a few months. I could swim 35-40 minutes with no problem, but I just didn't care after that. And I'd tried all kinds of mental tricks to motivate myself to swim longer.

This was magic, though. This American Life is 60 minutes long, and the episodes are usually so riveting that it's impossible to stop listening.

Motivation problem solved. Start an episode and swim until it's over, whichi s what I did today. I never even thought about how long I'd been swimming because I was so wrapped up in the stories.

And if you've never listened to an episode, just listen to this episode and you'll understand. Here's the description from the show's website:
Over the course of his life, Keith Aldrich was a child of the Depression in Oklahoma; a preacher-in-training in booming California; an aspiring Hollywood actor; in the 1950s, a self-styled Beat writer, and then a man in a gray flannel suit; in the 1960s, a member of the New York literati, and then a hippie; in the 1970s, a denizen of the suburbs with a partying, Ice Storm kind of life; and a born-again Christian when the Moral Majority helped put Ronald Reagan in office.

We devote this entire episode to the story of Keith's life, as told by one of his nine children, Gillian Aldrich. Keith's life is not only a history of most of the major cultural shifts in the second half of the Twentieth Century. It's also a case study of the question, "What happens if you're too good at transforming yourself?"

If you think that sounds fascinating, believe me, the way they tell the story is even better than the description.

This show has been on radio (weekly) for thirteen years. That could be a lot of time in the pool. I realized that I could actually listen to every episode from the beginning of the show. I'd be swimming an hour a workout for years.

And this is about the point where NPR turned me into a criminal.

The most recent episode is a free download--in MP3 format. That's what my "swimming music player" supports.

All the other episodes, though, are $0.95 each from iTunes.

I have zero problem with that price. I'd be happy to pay twice that much. The problem, though, is that the MP3 player doesn't support songs in AAC format (which is the DRM iTunes uses).

Well, crap.

They have a "buy CD" option. Maybe I'll use that. I can probably choose a dozen episodes to have on CD, and just order more CD's when I run out of new episodes.

That sounds like a plan--until I see that EACH episode costs $13 to purchase on CD!

So if I want to listen to This American Life while I swim, I have to either use a program to record the audio stream (you can stream old broadcasts), which seems like stealing, or I have to find a program to convert the iTunes AAC tracks to MP3.

It would be pretty easy to record the audio stream, but here's the irony: National Public Radio wouldn't be getting any money, even though I want to pay them. They've made it much more convenient for me to take the episodes than to pay for them.

So I'm going to fiddle with iTunes this afternoon (there's Google info that you might be able to download AAC tracks to a CD, then prestidigitate them back into iTunes as MP3 tracks) and see if I can get it to work. And if I can't, maybe they'll offer those shows on the new Amazon Music store, which doesn't have any DRM.

Oh, and I suffered no adverse effects from the extremely high chlorine levels, except I had to put a plastic dropcloth around my chair to catch the giant sheets of skin as they sloughed off.

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