Show: This American Life
Debut: November 17, 1995
Number of Episodes: 565
Welcome to Podcast Spotlight, a new regular feature on Nerdophiles. In every new addition, we showcase a particular podcast, demonstrating what makes it unique and worth your time. We’ve only occasionally written about podcasts in the past, but with this they become a regular part of our coverage.
And it seems only appropriate to start with This American Life, the granddaddy of the industry. It’s what every podcast strives to be, because in a sense, it’s every podcast at the same time. It’s comedic, it’s political, it’s horrific, it’s informative. It uses nonfiction, fiction, poetry, essays, found footage, and more to execute its ideas. It does it all, folks.
This American Life, which Ira Glass has produced on a weekly basis for nearly 20 years now, thrives in its ability to adapt its intentions and scale in this way. One of my favorite episodes is “24 Hours At The Golden Apple,” in which the reporters document a full day in a Chicago diner, interviewing the waiters, the regulars, the drunks, the high school students, the families, all that roll through in the 5 a.m. to 5 a.m. period. It finds the beauty in the lives of every one of these people, those who have never had their story properly told before, and investigates what’s so special about the seemingly mundane. Compare that with “The Giant Pool Of Money,” an in-depth investigation of the housing crisis and the lead-in to the 2008 recession, one pulled off with more journalistic depth and integrity than you’ll see on most televised news.
Every episode has its own theme like this, typically delivering three or four stories within that general idea, but not even that much remains consistent. Earlier this month they broadcasted “The Problem We All Live With,” a fascinating story about the unintentional desegregation of a Missouri school district and the consequences of this change so large it took up two entire episodes. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s “20 Acts in 60 Minutes,” a rapid-fire blast of as many stories as they could manage to fit into their run time.
So how does such a diverse show pull it off without seeming disjointed and unfocused? What do all these unique episodes have in common? I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s monolithic Infinite Jest, which, in the course of over a thousand pages, explores the fundamental principles behind the way that Americans live their lives, from drug addiction to television commercials, from the vast to the minute.
This American Life could perhaps be considered the nonfiction equivalent, one still unfolding to this day. So many episodes of the show speak to a fundamental part of the American life: going to prom, falling in love, breaking up, getting high, celebrating Christmas, amusement parks, dogs, regret, forgiveness. The episodes in between often tell stories you’d never anticipate: discovering what appears to be the closely-guarded secret recipe for Coca Cola; babies who were accidentally switched at birth and must confront that fact in their 40s; just last week, OJ Simpson’s attempts to reinvent himself as a hidden camera prankster. And yet what remains so incredible about these stories isn’t just what makes them so strange, but what feels so relatable, so honest, so American about them.
This American Life has spun off into sister programs like Serial and Invisibilia, and its producers have solo projects like Jonathan Goldstein’s Wiretap and Starlee Kine’s Mystery Show, all fantastic shows that’ll likely get their turn on Podcast Spotlight in their own time. But there’s nothing else quite like This American Life. There may never be.
Primer Episode: “Notes on Camp”