Driving in my car, waiting for my next class to start, or resting at home after a long day there’s a good chance that I’m also listening to an episode of This American Life. Throw on some earbuds or plug in the auxiliary cord and get introduced to a wide range of topics. If you are the type of person that enjoys listening to human interest stories, who doesn’t by the way, you’ll also enjoy this show. This American Life with its varying list of contributors, engaging acts, and huge influence on the industry is a must listen on your way to work or while waiting for your next class to start.
First, let me explain just what the show is all about, This American Life is an hour long weekly podcast that also airs on National Public Radio across the country. It usually provides three or four stories, which the show calls acts, that hover around a central topic. These acts can be anything from a fictional short poem to a long form journalistic report on a given subject. Ira Glass, the show’s creator and host, introduces each act and then hands the show off to a contributor. This is where the magic happens, we then get to hear a well put together recounting of a story from award winning journalist and authors. In the article “Why You NEED to Listen to This American Life.” Pete Strauss added, “Every narrative on the show, both the fictional and non-fictional, is constructed masterfully with a meticulousness that makes it near impossible to resist becoming emotionally invested in the stories.” In other words, you will become immediately addicted and will be impressed by the way they cover many topics.
What’s so special about this show is that it can tackle giant topics like the global economy or tiny stories like a family’s play toy and still capture your interest in the same way. My favorite is an episode from 2008. In this episode Alex Blumberg came and gave the best explanation of what exactly took down the global economy in 2007. Hint, it was collaterized debt obligations. We got to hear from the bankers who took part in selling trounces of risky mortgages, and the borrower who took out a loan he knew he couldn’t pay off. In a more recent episode we were taken back in time to a small town in the heart of America where one family with several children built a wooden ship to play on in their front yard. The narrator explains how this ship served as entertainment, babysitter, and lesson on responsibility for the children.
Another important piece to the winning recipe is the wide range of characters that add to the show. Comedians like Tig Notaro who came on the show and shared the story of a set she did moments after being diagnosed with cancer. Also long form journalist like the team from Propublica, who has teamed up on occasion with the show. The more you listen to the show the more you will begin to recognize the voices and look forward to their style of storytelling. In the article “Ira Glass, Storyteller.” James Rainey said, “Glass and crew have won our loyalty via a certain alchemy of subject, point of view and tone that can turn the mundane into the magnetic.” This is a great way to summarize how the contributors are a big piece of the show’s success and because of it the show has had a ton of influence on the industry.
Now let’s discuss the influence this show has on the podcast industry, movies, and beyond. This American Life is constantly on the top of iTunes podcast list and it also broadcast to nearly 600 stations. Mike Birbiglia along with Ira Glass made a movie based on an act on the show. In this act Mike explained how he discovered he was sleepwalking and getting into dangerous situations in his sleep. Sleepwalk with Me, the movie, won the 2012 Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival. Another example is a longtime Georgia Judge Amanda Williams who lost her job. A story about her corrupt practices aired on an episode in 2011 titled “Very Tough Love”. Eventually, she was forced to step down from her post. A hugely popular podcast Planet Money got its start on This American Life; they were the main contributors on the episode on “The Global Pool of Money.” In 2014, Sarah Koenig launched a widely successful spinoff of the show called Serial. It was a national sensation. Serial took the recipe of incredible story telling from This American Life and stretched it out to twelve episodes that were like candy for your ears.
Even given all these reasons to listen to the podcast, I still get blank stares when I encourage friends to listen. Many argue that listening to a talk radio show is old fashioned or dead. I run into this objection all the time when I recommend the show. People prefer to listen to music when they turn on the radio or put in some earbuds. Others argue that the acts on the show tend to go long or that are long winded. Another objection is that you can get all your news from the local 6 o’clock broadcast. However, podcasts are very popular around the world; they give more people the ability to tell their stories without having to compete for air time with large television networks. Acts on the show go into every subject in depth covering all possible angles of the story; sometimes causing them to be longer a than a normal news report. Very often they get firsthand accounts of the events from both sides. Even if you think an act is not to your liking, there is an archive with 20 years’ worth of stories to go over. I began listening a few years ago and thanks to this giant archive I still have not run out of episodes to listen to.
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of the show. If you take my advice and add it to your weekly routine, you will also love it. Every chance you get you’ll be recommending it to your friends and family. The way the stories are told make it easy to become emotionally invested on the people being reported on. You will also find yourself checking Google to see if there have been updates to the story. Week after week the producers of the podcast This American Life give a unique look on a wide range of topics delivered in engaging acts. Their work has been felt across the industry, and influenced the next generation of podcasters.