This American Life is one of the original podcasts, so what is it all about?
One of the most popular, influential podcasts of American culture is This American Life. Hosted by Ira Glass, this podcast has been running since 1995, and has been run on several different public radio stations across the States. It is currently being produced by Chicago Public Media, and played by more than 500 stations.
This podcast has steadily been in the mainstream since the 90s, and as of 2019, has a steady listenership of 2.2 million every week, according to the official website.
Who is the Creator Behind the Podcast?
Ira Glass is a 63-year-old radio host and media personality, hailing from Baltimore, Maryland. Working at NPR for 17 years as a host and reporter, Glass was 36 by the time he became the host of This American Life. One of his major accomplishments was hosting All Things Considered, the flagship program for NPR.
How did the podcast come to be?
The original idea of the podcast was for Torey Malatia, the general manager of the Chicago Public Radio, to create a local Chicago-centric radio show with local artists and writers. When Malatia approached Glass with the idea, Glass took the idea and created an entirely new series without Malatia being directly involved. Although Glass still fondly credits Malatia for many ideas of the show, Malatia has stated he did feel betrayed by not being directly involved with the creation of the podcast.
Instead of being Chicago centered, Glass had the idea to turn the show national, have a larger budget, and feature stories of everyday people, not just Chicago citizens.
There would also be works from authors, journalists, and performing artists. For the first year of the show, from 1995 to 1996, the show was called Your Radio Playhouse and featured now-famous authors such as David Sedaris. The show changed its name to This American Life and became nationally syndicated in June of 1996.
What themes and topics are covered?
As per the theme of the podcast, no one episode is the same. Topics that are discussed are vast and diverse, although viewers can always expect some form of humor and good nature, even if the overall topic may be gloomy. Although the target audience for This American Life is middle class, older white liberals, the main goal of the show is to appeal to the average American, so that anyone who tunes in will be able to feel something from the show. You don’t need to listen to any one episode to understand another, and everyone should be able to find one episode they resonate with.
In an episode from January 2023, titled Half-Baked Stories About My Dead Mom, Glass speaks to Writer Etgar Keret with little figments of his memories of his mother, which are intertwined with interview clips from Glass and Keret and Keret speaking on his own accord. This episode will pull at the heartstrings and relate to the audience of those who are dealing with loss.
In another episode from April 2022, titled The Other Front Line, Glass introduces four separate stories from Ukraine during the war with Russia. Although the war was heavily publicized, oftentimes we were missing out on hearing from those civilians who were directly impacted by the effect of the war.
2.2 million people listen to this podcast from across the globe, and the ability to share these stories with the individuals is incredibly important. With such a global reach, the creators of This American Life feel as though it’s their duty to share to their audience of highly educated, middle class people to share stories of those who are struggling to bring awareness to a certain issue or problem.
What is the reach of This American Life?
This American Life has 59,000 followers on Instagram, 2,000 subscribers on Youtube, and there is not currently a TikTok account for the program. Ira Glass has 29,000 followers on Instagram, and does not currently have a personal Youtube Or TikTok.
On youtube, where view statistics are readily available it appears that the average podcast receives between 2,000 views and 1,000 views per episode, though not every episode is published on the site. The most common form of audience receiving the podcast is by their public radio or podcast streaming platforms.
As of January 2023, This American Life was ranked as #6 on Apple Podcast’s United States of America: Society and Culture podcasts.
Based on this analysis we estimated that This American Life receives over 2 million listens each time an episode goes out across Apple, Google, Youtube and Spotify podcast networks.
What is the format of the podcast?
This American Life is performed in acts. If you listen to the show on This American Life’s website, you can even look at the list of acts, seen below from an episode from January 27th, 2023.
Glass always starts each episode with a prelude to the show, providing some context to what will occur this week, perhaps even providing a warning to the audience, or speak of an important event that has happened in society recently, such as an important death. Then the first act of the program begins, following the second, third, and so on. Ira Glass will intertwine his own reporting with the speaker of the story, creating an engaging conversation without it being a typical “interview fashion.”
The nonfiction stories will be told in first person, and are usually culturally relevant, such as the Covid-19 pandemic or current events. Other acts throughout the episode could be works of poetry, fiction, or other stories weaved throughout. Both freelance artists and house staff contribute to producing each episode.
Glass then reads the end credits, and usually provides a humorous ending as well.
Unlike a typical podcast that may interview celebrities or influencers, this podcast focuses on your typical American, the ones struggling through the cost of living crisis or who have interesting, unique lives. And so, guest stars are the everyday artists and people that have stories to be told.
What is the reception and impact of This American Life?
This American Life has been reclaimed wildly since its inception. The show earned a Peabody award 6 months after the first broadcast, a Pulitzer Prize in 2020, and an episode from 2008 was even chosen by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Recording Registry, the first podcast to ever be selected. There have been TV, film, and live tour adaptations of the project, including the 2006 film Unaccompanied Minors and the 2019 film Ode to Joy.
The cultural impact of This American Life is undeniable. As an early adopter of the podcast form, many modern podcasts have looked to the show and it is considered a forerunner of the podcast medium as a whole. Many journalists even credit the show for being the founder of modern podcasting. For all our current podcasts we know and love today, we have This American Life to thank.
To listen and learn more about these stories, you can listen to This American Life, for free below. You can even listen directly on their website.