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This American Life

The logo for This American Life, debuted in 2010
Other names Your Radio Playhouse
Genre Radio short stories and essays
Running time c. 60 minutes
Country United States
Languages English
Home station WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio
Syndicates Public Radio International, Showtime
TV adaptations This American Life
Hosts Ira Glass
Creators Ira Glass
Torey Malatia
Writers Various
Producers Alex Blumberg
Jane Feltes
Sarah Koenig
Lisa Pollak
Alissa Shipp
Julie Snyder
Nancy Updike
Exec. producers Ira Glass
Narrated by Ira Glass
Recording studio Chicago, Illinois (1995–2007), New York City, New York (2007–present)
Air dates since November 17, 1995
No. of episodes 398
Audio format Stereo
Other themes "Rumble"
Website thisamericanlife.org
Podcast TAL Podcast

This American Life (TAL) is a weekly hour-long radio program produced by Chicago Public Radio and hosted by Ira Glass. It is distributed by Public Radio International on PRI affiliate stations 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. The first episode aired on November 17, 1995,[1] under the show's original title, Your Radio Playhouse.

A television program of the same name and basic structure of the radio program ran for two seasons on the Showtime cable network between June 2007 and May 2008. The program featured Ira Glass as the host and executive producer. In September 2009, it was reported that Glass and the other creators of the show had "asked to be taken off TV", due to the difficult schedule required to create the show.[2]

Contents

Format

Each week's show loosely centers on a particular theme. The theme of the show is explored in several "acts", usually two to five. On occasion, an entire program will consist of a single act. A notable exception was the show "20 Acts in 60 Minutes", which broke the normal convention by presenting twenty acts in one hour. Each act is produced using a combination of staff and freelance contributors.

Content varies widely by episode, and 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". Listeners may be introduced to novel subjects and issues as well, since the program covers fringe groups within the USA as well as international matters. Often This American Life features stories which explore aspects of human nature, such as "Kid Logic", which presented pieces on reasoning of children.

The end credits of each show are read by Ira Glass, and include a sound clip extracted out of context from some portion of that show, which Glass humorously attributes to WBEZ general manager Torey Malatia. This is referred to as the "Boss Burn" by dedicated fans of the show.

History

Radio

Ira Glass, the creator of This American Life, has served as producer and host since its November 17, 1995 debut. The show's first year was produced on a budget that was tight even by U.S. public radio standards: US$243,000 outfitted a studio, covered marketing costs, purchased satellite time, and paid for four full-time staffers and various freelance writers and reporters.[3] National syndication began in June 1996 when Public Radio International formed a distribution partnership with the program. It now airs on 509 PRI affiliate stations in the United States reaching an estimated 1.7 million listeners each week.[4] The show is also carried on XM Satellite Radio over the Public Radio International block on the XM Public Radio channel. The show is also consistently rated as the 1st or 2nd most downloaded podcast on iTunes for each week.

Originally titled Your Radio Playhouse, the show's name was changed beginning with the March 21, 1996 episode. The reference to each segment of the show as an "act" is a holdover from its original "playhouse theme". TAL helped launch the literary careers of many including contributing editor Sarah Vowell and essayists David Rakoff and David Sedaris.[4]

Television

Discussions of a television adaptation of TAL date back to at least 1999.[3] In January 2006, Showtime announced it had greenlighted six episodes of a new series based on TAL.[5] The announcement noted that each half-hour episode "will be hosted by Ira Glass and will explore a single theme or topic through the unique juxtaposition of first-person storytelling and whimsical narrative."[5]

For budgetary reasons, Ira Glass and four of the radio show's producers left Chicago for New York, where Showtime is headquartered.[4] 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. TAL has a contract for a total of 30 shows over the next four years.[6] Writers for the show include Chris Ware, Ira Glass, and Haruki Murakami. In September 2009, 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.[2] 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.[2]

Film

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.[7] 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".[8] In June 2008, Spike Lee bought the movie rights to Ronald Mallett's memoir, whose story was featured in the episode "My Brilliant Plan".[9]

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".[10][11]

This American Life's 168th episode, "The Fix Is In", inspired screen writer Scott Burns to adapt Kurt Eichenwald's book about business executive and FBI informant Mark Whitacre, titled The Informant, into a major motion picture.[12] The film was directed by Steven Soderbergh and stars Matt Damon.[13] Ira 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.[13]

Live tours

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.

  • "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.
  • "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.

Digital cinema

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.[14] 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.[15]

On April 23, 2009, This American Life broadcast a second theater event. This program is entitled This American Life - Live!, with a the episode title of Returning to the Scene of the Crime. Contributors included Mike Birbiglia, Starlee Kine, Dan Savage, David Rakoff, and Joss Whedon.

Podcast

From 1998-2005, American Life could be accessed online in two formats: A free RealAudio stream available from the official show website, and an DRM encrypted download available through Audible.com, which charged $4 per episode. In early 2006, the show began to offer MP3 copies of each episode, which could be streamed from the show's website using a proprietary Flash player. While users were not given a direct link to the streaming MP3 files, it was possible for savvy users to save these files to their computer for later playing.

Since October 2006, This American Life has offered a free podcast feed to the public. Under this arrangement, each show is made available to podcast subscribers on the Monday following its national broadcast. 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 predictable location.[16] 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.[17][18][19]

According to statements made during fund-drives, the show is downloaded by more than 400,000 people each week. These millions of downloads consume significant amounts of bandwidth, which costs the show $130,000 per year. The show has inserted a number of requests for financial assistance into the beginning of podcast episodes, requesting help, in order to pay for the bandwidth costs.

Response

Early response to This American Life was largely positive. In 1998, Mother Jones magazine called the program "hip--as well as intensely literary and surprisingly irreverent."[20]

Awards

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."[21]

George Foster Peabody Award

Third Coast International Audio Festival

  • 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".

Livingston Award

  • 2002 Alix Spiegel: National Reporting for episode 204, "81 Words".

Scripps Howard Foundation

  • 2004 Nancy Updike: Jack R. Howard Award for episode 266, "I'm From the Private Sector and I'm Here to Help".

Edward R. Murrow Award

  • 2005 Nancy Updike: for News Documentary for episode 266, "I'm From the Private Sector and I'm Here to Help".

Dupont Award

  • 2007 Alix Spiegel: for "Which One of These is Not Like the Others?" for episode 322, "Shouting Across the Divide".

New York Festivals Award

  • 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".

George Polk Award

In other media

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.[23]

The Onion, a parody newspaper, published a satirical story on April 20, 2007, entitled "This American Life Completes Documentation Of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence".[24] The average age of This American Life listeners is 47.[25]

Music

Episodes of TAL are accompanied by music, in the form of interludes between acts (credited in the episode guide for each show), and incidental background music during acts. Background music is typically not credited, but provides important thematic emphasis.

Some songs and artists that have played a role in TAL background music include the following.

Key themes

Recurring themes

Other media

Some of the show's episodes are accompanied by multimedia downloads available on This American Life's website. One notable mention is a remake of the Elton John song "Rocket Man" that was produced for episode 223, "Classifieds", and released as an MP3. The song was performed by a "one day band" composed of musicians looking for work in the classifieds. The band, consisting of various performers (one played a Theremin), met and practiced for only one day before recording the song.

Three 2-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; 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.

Staff

Current production staff

Host

Senior Producer

  • Julie Snyder

Producers

  • Alex Blumberg
  • Jane Feltes
  • Sarah Koenig
  • Lisa Pollak
  • Robyn Semien
  • Alissa Shipp
  • Nancy Updike

Contributing editors

Production Manager

  • Seth Lind

Music Supervisor

  • Jane Feltes

Music Consultant

  • Jessica Hopper

Web Manager

  • Adrianne Mathiowetz

Intern

Other contributors

References

  1. ^ "This American Life: the television show!". This American Life. http://www.thislife.org/pages/home_070226.html#tv. Retrieved 2007-03-03.  
  2. ^ a b c WBEZ official blog: "Exclusive: Ira Glass dishes on end of TAL TV. Will he return to Chicago?"
  3. ^ a b Ira Glass (June 1999). "A weeklong electronic journal". Slate. http://www.slate.com/id/29923/entry/29924. Retrieved 2007-03-03.  
  4. ^ a b c Chris Ladd (1 May 2006). "A Chicago Radio Hit Moves to New York, and TV". New York Magazine. http://nymag.com/arts/tv/features/16762/. Retrieved 2007-03-03.  
  5. ^ a b Showtime (19 January 2006). "Showtime greenlights TV Adaptation of This American Life". Press release. http://www.sho.com/site/announcements/060120amlife.do. Retrieved 2007-03-03.  
  6. ^ Michael Miner (3 February 2006). "Going Coastal". Chicago Reader. http://www.chicagoreader.com/hottype/2006/060203_1.html. Retrieved 2007-03-03.  
  7. ^ Mike Janssen (2 September 2002). "This American Life negotiates 'first-look' deal with Warner Bros.". Current. http://www.current.org/people/peop0216glass.html. Retrieved 2007-03-03.  
  8. ^ Peter Sciretta (23 November 2006). "Six Minutes of Paul Feig's Unaccompanied Minors". /Film. http://www.slashfilm.com/article.php/200611223minorsclip. Retrieved 2007-03-03.  
  9. ^ Wenn.com (18 June 2008). "Lee To Make Movie About Black "Time Traveler"". Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/news/ni0249463/. Retrieved 2008-06-19.  
  10. ^ Curly Oxide and Vic Thrill at the Internet Movie Database
  11. ^ Mike Janssen (22 September 2003). "Hollywood finds kernels for movies in This American Life". current. http://www.current.org/radio/radio0317tal.html. Retrieved 2007-03-03.  
  12. ^ http://www.flickdirect.com/movies/movie-reviews-detail.aspx?id=239
  13. ^ a b This American Life episode #168: "The Fix Is In".
  14. ^ Current.org | Popcorn available with this Ira Glass show, 2008
  15. ^ PRI.ORG | This American Life - Live!
  16. ^ Soghoian, Christopher (2007-01-17). "New location for This American Life Mp3s". Slight Paranoia. http://paranoia.dubfire.net/2007/01/new-location-for-this-american-life.html. Retrieved 2008-09-28.  
  17. ^ Benedict, Jared (2006-06-21). "Unofficial This American Life Podcast is no More". the future is yesterday. http://redjar.org/jared/blog/archives/2006/06/21/unofficial-this-american-life-podcast-is-no-more/. Retrieved 2008-09-28.  
  18. ^ Udell, Jon (2006-06-20). "A takedown request from This American Life". Jon's Radio. http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2006/06/20.html. Retrieved 2008-09-28.  
  19. ^ Soghoian, Christopher (2007-07-17). "An Emotional Blackmail Takedown: Remove The Podcast, Or We Shoot This Puppy". Slight Paranoia. http://paranoia.dubfire.net/2007/06/emotional-blackmail-takedown-remove.html. Retrieved 2008-09-28.  
  20. ^ Cox, Ana Marie; Dionis, Joanna (September/October 1998), . "Ira Glass radio turn-on". Mother Jones. 23 (5):83
  21. ^ "Peabody Award Archive of Winners". Peabody Awards. 1996. http://www.peabody.uga.edu/archives/. Retrieved 2007-03-03.  
  22. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/17/nyregion/17polk.html
  23. ^ Episode 328: What I Learned From Television | This American Life
  24. ^ This American Life Completes Documentation Of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence, The Onion — America's Finest News Source
  25. ^ Fisher, Marc. Something in the Air. Random House. pp. 266. ISBN 978-0-375-50907-0.  

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