This American Life
“This American Life is a weekly public radio show, heard by 2.2 million people on more than 500 stations. Another 2.5 million people download the weekly podcast. It is hosted by Ira Glass, produced in collaboration with Chicago Public Media, delivered to stations by PRX The Public Radio Exchange, and has won all of the major broadcasting awards.”
At this point in the audio zeitgeist, it’s pretty safe to assert that the radioshow This American Life (hereafter referred to as TAL) is more or less the raison d'être that podcasting and podcasts are as popular as they are today. And that makes Ira Glass, longtime host of the show, the de facto godfather of podcasting or, better yet, podcasting’s kingmaker. But more on that later.
TAL is a bit like Seinfeld in that, if you listen to it today, having listened to other storytelling podcasts and without knowing its history or the context in which it was created, you couldn’t be faulted for thinking it a bit derivative. But it’s not. In fact, it’s quite the opposite--TAL essentially invented the theme-based human interest storytelling podcast genre that has inspired so many spinoffs. And even if it were derivative (and again, it’s not), it would still be the best in the genre.
First, let’s talk a little bit about the podcast itself. As previously mentioned, TAL falls pretty neatly into the storytelling genre. Being a fan of primary sources, I think Ira says it best following the prologue of every episode:
“It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, [insert given theme here].”
The format of TAL is central to the podcast as a whole. Each episode begins with a prologue, which is usually a brief story told by Ira or one of the producers containing an implicit theme for the show. Following the prologue Ira then explicitly states the theme and expounds on it before introducing the meat and potatoes of TAL: the Acts. Each show can have any number of acts, from one act spanning the entirety of the episode, to as many as twenty. Generally speaking, though, listeners can look forward to between three and five acts per episode. An act, according to the dictionary, is “the main division of a play or an opera,” and I think it only makes sense to listen to TAL through this lens, so to speak. That is, when listening to TAL, keep in mind that each story or act, though often presented by different producers and on the surface seemingly unrelated, has deep ties to the theme and was chronologically positioned as Act I and not Act III for a particular reason. TAL is presented this way, in my opinion, with the intention to create a cohesive piece with rising action, falling action, and resolutions, much like a play. This perspective and intention is important to keep in mind because in the broader scheme of podcasts, TAL succeeds at this where others fail and seem rather to be more of a hodgepodge of stories loosely tied together by an underlying theme in name only. Think of the difference I’m talking about as the difference between a hand-selected, polished playlist you spend hours on in high school before presenting to your significant other, where each song, and even the order of the songs as a whole, means something, and a hastily cobbled together playlist you just hit shuffle on and go. That’s the difference.
Now let’s talk about TAL’s cultural impact. I mentioned that Ira Glass is a kingmaker in the podcasting world, and I wasn’t exaggerating. Not only has TAL managed to stay at or near the top of the podcasting charts, but it’s also had several affiliated podcasts produced/co-created and promoted by Ira reach the number one spot on iTunes. I’m speaking, of course, of the cultural phenomenons of first Serial, hosted by Sarah Koenig, and then S-Town, hosted by Brian Reed, which you should also absolutely listen to. But perhaps more important are the countless storytelling podcasts and radioshows out there that owe their existences to TAL, if not outright explicitly, than at the very least implicitly, for paving the way and proving that longform human interest narratives can be successful in audio format. So here’s to TAL and its enduring legacy as the radio show that showed people what podcasts could be. Thanks, Ira.
Episode 597: One Last Thing Before I Go (Be warned, this one is a tear-jerker)
Episode 550: Three Miles
Episode 513: 129 Cars
Episode 360: Switched at Birth
Episode 241: 20 Acts in 60 Minutes
Episode 528: The Radio Drama Episode
Episode 489: No Coincidence, No Story!
Episode 617: Fermi's Paradox
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