This American Life
|Other names||Your Radio Playhouse|
|Genre||Radio short stories and essays|
|Running time||c. 60 minutes|
|Country of origin||United States|
|Syndicates||Public Radio Exchange, CBC Radio One (Canada), ABC Radio National (Australia)|
|TV adaptations||This American Life|
|Hosted by||Ira Glass|
|Created by||Ira Glass|
|Executive producer(s)||Ira Glass|
|Recording studio||Chicago, Illinois (1995–2007)|
New York City, New York (2007–present)
|Original release||November 17, 1995– present|
|No. of episodes||679 (as of 12 July 2019)|
|Audio format||Stereo, iTunes, SoundCloud, Google Podcasts|
This American Life (TAL) is an American weekly hour-long radio program produced in collaboration with Chicago Public Media and hosted by Ira Glass. It is broadcast on numerous public radio stations in the United States and internationally, and is also available as a free weekly podcast. Primarily a journalistic non-fiction program, it has also featured essays, memoirs, field recordings, short fiction, and found footage. All the stories are produced to sound as though they are true. The first episode aired on November 17, 1995, under the show's original title, Your Radio Playhouse. The series was distributed by Public Radio International until June 2014, when the program became self-distributed with Public Radio Exchange delivering new episodes to public radio stations.
Each week's show has a theme, explored in several "acts." On occasion, an entire program will consist of a single act. Each act is produced by a combination of staff and freelance contributors. Programs usually begin with a short station identification by Glass who then introduces a segment related to the theme which precedes act one. The segment will then lead into the presentation of the theme for that week's show.
Content varies widely by episode. Stories are often told as first-person narratives. The mood of the show ranges from gloomy to ironic, from thought-provoking to humorous. The show often addresses current events, such as Hurricane Katrina in "After the Flood." Often This American Life features stories which explore aspects of human nature, such as "Kid Logic," which presented pieces on the reasoning of children. The majority of interviews with subjects never make it to the air, as many as 80 percent, because the team looks for interviewees who recount stories in a "particular way."
The end credits of each show are read by Glass, and include a sound clip extracted out of context from some portion of that show, which Glass humorously attributes to previous WBEZ general manager Torey Malatia, who co-founded the show with Ira Glass in 1995.
Glass has stated he is contractually obligated to mention both station WBEZ (and previously, former distributor PRI) three times in the course of the show.
In the early 1990s, Glass co-hosted, with Gary Covino, a Friday-night show in Chicago called The Wild Room. However, he was looking for new opportunities in radio, and had been sending grant proposals to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for two years when, in 1995, the MacArthur Foundation approached Torey Malatia, general manager of Chicago Public Radio. They offered him US$150,000 to make a show featuring local Chicago writers and performance artists. Malatia approached Glass with the idea, who countered that he wanted to do a weekly program, but with a different premise, a budget of US$300,000, and sights on taking it national. In a 1998 article in the Chicago Reader, Michael Miner quoted Covino as saying, "The show [Glass] proposed was The Wild Room. He just didn't call it The Wild Room." Glass, however, didn't include his co-host in his plans and assured him that the deal was unlikely to happen. When the show went on without him, Covino says he felt "betrayed." While Glass admits he wasn't transparent about his plans, in that same article, he explained, ""Every week on The Wild Room we came to the show with two independent sensibilities. I love Gary. I loved Gary. But I didn't want to keep doing that show...and the notion that everything I brought to The Wild Room I got from him I find completely infuriating...I didn't want to do free-form radio anymore. I have no interest in improvisation. It might have been possible to design a show with him that he would have felt comfortable with and I would have felt comfortable with. But at that point—I was in my late 30s—I just wanted to do the thing I wanted to do."
Glass, the program's creator, has served as executive producer and host since its November 17, 1995 debut. Chicago Public Media (then called the WBEZ Alliance) produced. The program's first year was produced on a budget that was tight even by US public-radio standards. A budget of $243,000 covered an outfitted studio, marketing costs, purchased satellite time, and paid for four full-time staffers and various freelance writers and reporters. National syndication began in June 1996 when Public Radio International formed a distribution partnership with the program. The show is also carried on Sirius XM Satellite Radio over the Public Radio International block on the XM Public Radio channel. The program consistently rates as the first- or second-most downloaded podcast on iTunes for each week.
Originally titled Your Radio Playhouse, a local show on WBEZ, the program's name was changed beginning with the March 21, 1996 episode. It was picked up nationally by PRI in June 1996. The reference to each segment of the show as an "act" is a holdover from its original "playhouse theme". The program helped launch the literary careers of many, including contributing editor Sarah Vowell and essayists David Rakoff and David Sedaris.
Early response to the program was largely positive. In 1998, Mother Jones magazine called it "hip – as well as intensely literary and surprisingly irreverent." Glass used a unique strategy to promote the show to stations by giving way pledge drive ads he developed himself. In 1999, Rhino Records released a "greatest hits" CD of TAL episode.
In January 2011, the series was picked up by CBC Radio One in Canada. The program is shortened slightly for the Canadian broadcast to allow for a five-minute newscast at the top of the hour, although this is partly made up for by the removal of mid-program breaks, most of the production credits (apart from that of Malatia), and underwriting announcements (CBC's radio services being fully commercial-free, except when contractually or legally required).
In January 2012, This American Life presented excerpts from a one-man theatre show by Mike Daisey as an exposé of conditions at a Foxconn factory in China. The episode was entitled "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory" and became one of the show's most popular episodes, with 888,000 downloads and 206,000 streams. WBEZ planned to host a live showing and a Q+A of "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" in Chicago on April 7, 2012.
On March 16, 2012, This American Life officially retracted the episode after learning that several events recounted both in the radio story and the monologue were fabrications. Daisey apologized for presenting his work as journalism, saying it is actually theatre, but refused to acknowledge that he had lied—even in the face of obvious discrepancies. WBEZ canceled the planned live performance and refunded all ticket purchases. The same day, This American Life devoted their weekly show (titled "Retraction") to detailing the inconsistencies in "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs". The show includes interviews between Rob Schmitz, the reporter who discovered the discrepancies and Daisey's translator in China, Cathy Lee, as well as an interview between host Glass and Daisey. The podcast of this episode became the most downloaded in the show's history. However, the Harper High School series broadcast in February 2013 surpassed it in number of downloads.
The show also removed three stories by Stephen Glass (no relation to Ira Glass) in the week following the retraction of the Daisey episode due to less-than-truthful content. These were noted to have been previously removed, but had resurfaced in episode streams due to a website redesign. Though the segments are cut from the streams of the episodes, the transcript of the contents were kept accessible on the This American Life website. These were from the episodes "57: Delivery", "79: Stuck in the wrong decade", and "86: How to take money from strangers".
In March 2014, the program announced that PRI would stop distributing the show in July, and that May, Glass announced that the staff would be distributing the show themselves, with Public Radio Exchange doing the technical legwork to deliver the audio to the radio stations. On October 1, 2014, the show produced a spinoff, Serial, a season-long exploration delivered as a podcast series. In 2015, Glass became the sole owner of This American Life; WBEZ continued as a production partner on the show and on Serial with future shows to be independent. In 2017, This American Life launched the podcast S-Town.
Marc Fisher with American Journalism Review wrote, in a 1999 article on the show, that "in ways small but clear, as inspiration if not direct model, TAL is at the vanguard of a shift in American journalism." He also drew attention to how the program's production style elicits "a sense of ease, informality and direct, unfiltered access," and "the effect is liberating." Steph Harmon with The Guardian remarked that the show is "often credited for ushering in not only a public radio revolution, but the rise of storytelling as an industry and podcasting as a form."
Discussions of a television adaptation of TAL date back to at least 1999. However, the show's creative team was unsure of what the show would "look like" and, with so much money on the line, turned down offers. In January 2006, Showtime announced it had greenlighted six episodes of a new series based on TAL. The announcement noted that each half-hour episode would "be hosted by Ira Glass and [...] explore a single theme or topic through the unique juxtaposition of first-person storytelling and whimsical narrative."
For budgetary reasons, Glass and four of the radio show's producers left Chicago for New York City, where Showtime is headquartered. In January 2007, it was announced that Glass had completed production on the show's first season, with the first episode set to premiere on March 22. Originally the series had a contract for a total of 30 shows over the four years, but after two seasons Glass announced that he and the other creators of the show had "asked to be taken off TV", largely in part to the difficult schedule required to produce a television program. He went on to state that the show is officially "on hiatus", but would like to do a television special at some point in the future.
Stories from TAL have been used as the basis of movie scripts. In 2002 the show signed a six-figure deal with Warner Bros. giving the studio two years of "first-look" rights to its hundreds of past and future stories. One film to have apparently emerged from the deal is Unaccompanied Minors, a 2006 film directed by Paul Feig and reportedly based on "In The Event of An Emergency, Put Your Sister in an Upright Position" from "Babysitting". In June 2008, Spike Lee bought the movie rights to Ronald Mallett's memoir, whose story was featured in the episode "My Brilliant Plan". Potential Warner Bros films from TAL episodes include "Niagara", which explored the town of Niagara Falls, New York, after those who sought to exploit the tourism and hydroelectrical opportunities of the area left; "Wonder Woman" (from the episode "Superpowers"), the story of an adolescent who took steps to become the superhero she dreamed of being, well into adulthood; and "Act V", about the last act of Hamlet as staged by inmates from a maximum security prison as part of Prison Performing Arts Adult Theatre Projects. Paramount Pictures and Broadway Video are in production on Curly Oxide and Vic Thrill, a film based on the TAL story in the episode "My Experimental Phase".
This American Life's 168th episode, "The Fix Is In", inspired screenwriter Scott Burns to adapt Kurt Eichenwald's book about business executive and FBI informant Mark Whitacre, titled The Informant, into a major motion picture. The film was directed by Steven Soderbergh and stars Matt Damon. Glass has stated that the radio show has no financial stake in the film, but noted that he appreciated how well the movie stuck to the original facts.
This American Life's 361st episode's, "Fear of Sleep", section "Stranger in the Night" featured an excerpt from Mike Birbiglia's one-man show, "Sleepwalk with Me". This inspired Glass to work with Birbiglia for two years on a movie based on this segment. The film version of Sleepwalk with Me screened at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2012, to favorable reviews, winning the "Best of NEXT Audience Award".
This American Life has taken the radio show on the road three times since 2000; material recorded on each of the three tours has been edited into an episode which aired on the radio shortly after the tour. Other episodes include segments recorded live.
- "Music Lessons", recorded at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco during the 1998 Public Radio Conference in San Francisco. Performers include Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris and Anne Lamott. Music includes elementary school students from the San Francisco Unified School District as well as "Eyes on the Sparrow" with Renola Garrison vocals and Anne Jefferson on piano.
- "Advice", recorded in 1999 in Seattle and at HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. Performers include Sarah Vowell, Dan Savage, and Cheryl Trykv with music from the Black Cat Orchestra.
- "Birthdays, Anniversaries and Milestones", recorded in December 2000 in Boston (Berklee Performance Center), New York, Chicago (Merle Reskin Theatre), and Los Angeles. Performers included Sarah Vowell, Russell Banks, David Rakoff, Ian Brown, and OK Go.
- "Lost in America", recorded in May 2003 in Boston, Washington, D.C., Portland, Denver, and Chicago. Performers included Sarah Vowell, Davy Rothbart, and Jonathan Goldstein. Jon Langford of the Mekons led the "Lost in America House Band" during the show.
- "What I Learned from Television", recorded in February and March 2007 in New York City (February 26 at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center); Boston (February 27 at the Boston Opera House); Minneapolis (February 28 at the Orpheum Theatre); Chicago (March 1 at the Chicago Theatre); Seattle (March 7 at the Paramount Theatre); and Los Angeles (March 12 at Royce Hall, UCLA). Directed by Jane Feltes, performers on this tour included David Rakoff, Sarah Vowell, John Hodgman, Dan Savage, Jonathan Goldstein, and Chris Wilcha. In New York, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, and Minneapolis, Mates of State were the house band, while in Los Angeles, OK Go performed between acts.
On May 1, 2008, This American Life was the first major public media program to use digital cinema, distributing a one-hour-long program titled This American Life – Live! to select cinemas. PRI originally conceived of the idea to serve stations around the country. This American Life Live! was presented exclusively in select theatres by National CineMedia's (NCM) Fathom, in partnership with BY Experience and Chicago Public Radio, and in association with Public Radio International.
On April 23, 2009, This American Life broadcast a second theater event, titled This American Life – Live! Returning to the Scene of the Crime. Contributors included Mike Birbiglia, Starlee Kine, Dan Savage, David Rakoff, and Joss Whedon.
On May 10, 2012, This American Life broadcast a third theater event, titled Invisible Made Visible. Contributors included David Sedaris, David Rakoff, Tig Notaro, Ryan Knighton, and Mike Birbiglia, who made a short film with Terry Gross.
On June 7, 2014, This American Life recorded a fourth live event titled The Radio Drama Episode. Contributors included Carin Gilfry, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mike Birbiglia, Joshua Bearman, and Sasheer Zamata. The episode was broadcast on radio and the podcast on June 20, 2014.
From 1998 to 2005, the program could be accessed online in two formats: a free RealAudio stream available from the official show website, and a DRM-encrypted download available through Audible.com, which charged $4 per episode. In early 2006, the program began to offer MP3 copies of each episode, which could be streamed from the show's website using a proprietary Flash player.
Since October 2006, the program has offered a free podcast feed to the public. Under this arrangement, each show is made available to podcast feeds and aggregation programs Sunday evening at 8 p.m. ET, allowing radio stations a 43-hour window of exclusivity to carry the episode. After seven days, the link to the MP3 is removed from the podcast feed. Older shows can be streamed online via the show's website, or purchased from Apple's iTunes Store for $0.95 per episode.
Since the move to MP3 files in 2006, the show has relied on an extremely lightweight Digital Rights Management system, based on security through obscurity and legal threats. While the show episodes are removed from the podcast RSS feed after a week, they remain on This American Life's server, accessible to anyone who knows the location. On at least three different occasions, Internet users have created their own unofficial podcast feeds, deep linking to the MP3 files located on the This American Life webserver. In all three instances, the podcast feeds were removed from the Internet once representatives from Public Radio International contacted the individuals responsible for creating the feeds.
In October 2016, This American Life launched an app called Shortcut to allow listeners to share short audio clips on social media, similar to the way gifs allow social media users to share video clips. Stephanie Foo served as project lead, collaborating with developers Courtney Stanton and Darius Kazemi of Feel Train. In the app, listeners can select an audio clip of up to 30 seconds to post to social media, where the audio plays and displays a transcription of the clip. The app's initial iteration operates on This American Life's archives, but the project code will be released as open-source software, available for other audio projects to adopt.
WBEZ-FM received a Peabody Award in 1996 and again in 2006 for TAL, for a show which "captures contemporary culture in fresh and inventive ways that mirror the diversity and eccentricities of its subjects" and "weav[es] original monologues, mini-dramas, original fiction, traditional radio documentaries and original radio dramas into an instructional and entertaining tapestry".
- 2016 WBEZ/Chicago, IL, This American Life, for the documentary "The Anatomy of Doubt"
- 2015 WBEZ/Chicago, IL, This American Life, for the documentaries detailing "The Case for School Desegregation Today" in the episodes "Three Miles", "The Problem We All Live With - Part One" and "The Problem We All Live With - Part Two"
- 2014 WBEZ/Chicago, IL, Serial/This American Life/Chicago Public Media, for the series Serial
- 2013 WBEZ/Chicago, IL, This American Life, for the documentary "Harper High School"
- 2012 WBEZ/Chicago, IL, Pro Publica, Fundacion MEPI for the documentary "What Happened at Dos Erres"
- 2008 WBEZ-FM Chicago and National Public Radio, News Division for The Giant Pool of Money
- 2006 WBEZ-FM Chicago
- 1996 Ira Glass, Peter Clowney, Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike, and Dolores Wilber, WBEZ-FM Chicago, for This American Life.
- 2001 Susan Burton Best New Artist award for act 1, Tornado Prom from episode 186, "Prom".
- 2002 Jonathan Goldstein, Alex Blumberg and Ira Glass: Best Documentary Gold Award for act 3, Yes, There is a Baby from episode 175, "Babysitting".
- 2003, Susan Burton and Hyder Akbar, Best Documentary Silver Award for episode 230, "Come Back to Afghanistan".
- 2002 Alix Spiegel: National Reporting for episode 204, "81 Words".
- 2004 Nancy Updike: Jack R. Howard Award for episode 266, "I'm From the Private Sector and I'm Here to Help".
- 2005 Nancy Updike: for News Documentary for episode 266, "I'm From the Private Sector and I'm Here to Help".
- 2007 Alix Spiegel: for "Which One of These is Not Like the Others?" for episode 322, "Shouting Across the Divide".
- 2007 Trey Kay & Lu Olkowski: "Best Human Interest Story" for act 2, "I'm Not a Doctor, but I Play One at the Holiday Inn" from episode 321, "Sink or Swim".
- 2008 Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson: "Best Radio Reporting" for episode 355 "The Giant Pool of Money
- 2012 Ira Glass: "Best Radio Reporting" for episode 430 "Very Tough Love"
In popular culture
This American Life was referenced in the television series The O.C., prompting the character Summer to respond, "Is that that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are?" and, with a dismissive snort, "Gawd!" This reference was itself repeated in a segment of the 2007 Live Tour episode, when Glass, a self-confessed shameless fan of the teen soap opera, described his experience responding to the aforementioned line.
In 2011, comedy writer Julian Joslin (with Michael Grinspan) released a parody of This American Life entitled "This American Laugh" on YouTube, wherein a fictional Glass makes a sex tape with Fresh Air's Terry Gross. The spoof was viewed over 100,000 times in one week but was met with a cool reception by Glass himself.
Fred Armisen parodied Ira Glass for a skit on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" in 2011. The skit was cut from the show on the grounds that Ira Glass was "not famous enough" to be parodied on Saturday Night Live. Glass then invited Armisen to impersonate him as a guest co-host for an episode of This American Life in January 2013.
In two episodes of Season 1 of Orange Is the New Black, Robert Stanton portrays a radio personality, Maury Kind who hosts an NPR show called Urban Tales, a fictional portrayal of This American Life.
The 2014 motion picture Veronica Mars depicts the character of Stosh "Piz" Piznarski working at This American Life. Host Ira Glass appears in a cameo role as himself, and many This American Life staffers appear in background roles.
In 2014, in Season 1, Episode 5 of Bojack Horseman: "Live Fast, Diane Nguyen", Ira Glass voices Diane's ring tone during a meeting with Bojack and his publisher, thanking her for being a sustaining member of public radio.
Episodes of TAL are accompanied by music. Some songs are used between acts and are credited in the episode guide for the show. Other songs are used as thematic background music for stories and are not credited.
"Over the years, we've used hundreds of songs under our stories—and in some stories, we use a number of different songs in different sections. We tried to answer these emails for awhile [sic?], but often it was impossible sometimes to pinpoint which song people were asking about...".
Some of the show's episodes are accompanied by multimedia downloads available on This American Life's website. For example, a cover version of the Elton John song "Rocket Man" was produced for episode 223, "Classifieds", and released as an MP3.
Four two-disc CD sets collecting some of the producers' favorite acts have been released: Lies, Sissies, and Fiascoes: The Best of This American Life was released on May 4, 1999; Crimebusters + Crossed Wires: Stories from This American Life was released on November 11, 2003; Davy Rothbart: This American Life was released in 2004; and Stories of Hope and Fear was released on November 7, 2006.
A 32-page comic book, Radio: An Illustrated Guide (ISBN 0-9679671-0-4), documents how an episode of TAL is put together. It was drawn by cartoonist Jessica Abel, written by Abel and Glass, and first published in 1999.
The cover of "The Lives They Lived" edition of The New York Times Magazine published on December 25, 2011 read "These American Lives" after a special section of the magazine edited by Glass and other staff of the show.
Glass had a cameo appearance in the 22nd-season premiere of The Simpsons, entitled "Elementary School Musical". Lisa plays This American Life on her iPod and Glass introduces the theme of the show, "Today in Five Acts: Condiments".
In the American Dad! episode, "Honey, I'm Homeland," Ira Glass provides his own voice when members of an Occupy group kidnap Stan after he tries to infiltrate their group. To brainwash him, they play This American Life for him while in captivity in which Ira talks about a dog and his owner, who also happens to be a dog. Stan objects to Ira's pauses between lines, questioning why they are necessary if he already has them written down in front of him. When Stan has been fully brainwashed and is released, he continues to listen to Ira as he touts the benefits of paying for radio.
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The response to the original episode, 'Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,' was significant. It quickly became the single most popular podcast in This American Life's history, with 888,000 downloads (typically the number is 750,000) and 206,000 streams to date.
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