If you've never heard This American Life, our staff's favorites page provides a great introduction to what we do. You might want to start there. After a few episodes, we're sure you'll figure it out. Or, if you're looking for a written introduction, here goes:
One of our problems from the start has been that when we try to describe This American Life in a sentence or two, it just sounds awful. For instance: each week we choose a theme and put together different kinds of stories on that theme. That doesn't sound like something we'd want to listen to on the radio, and it's our show.
So usually we just say what we're not. We're not a news show or a talk show or a call-in show. We're not really formatted like other radio shows at all. Instead, we do these stories that are like movies for radio. There are people in dramatic situations. Things happen to them. There are funny moments and emotional moments and—hopefully—moments where the people in the story say interesting, surprising things about it all. It has to be surprising. It has to be fun.
Each episode has a theme. That's mostly because a theme makes it seem like there's a reason to sit and listen to a story about a contest where everyone stands around a truck for days until only one person is left on their feet...or a grown man trying to convince a skeptical friend that not only has he heard the world's greatest phone message, but that it's about the Little Mermaid...or a man who's obsessed with Niagara Falls, lives minutes from the Falls, writes and thinks about the Falls all the time, but can't bring himself to actually visit the Falls because, as he says, "they've ruined the Falls." If you're not doing stories about the news, or celebrities, or things people have ever heard of elsewhere, you have to give people a reason to keep listening. The themes make it seem like you should.
We view the show as an experiment. We try things. There was the show where we taped for 24 hours in an all-night restaurant. And the show where we put a band together from musicians' classified ads. And the show where we followed a group of swing voters for months, recording their reactions to everything that happened in the campaign, right up through their final decision. And the show where we had a story for each of the Ten Commmandments. Or the one where our producers all collected stories for a weekend at the same rest stop. We also occasionally do our own versions of stories that are in the news, including award winning economics coverage that spawned another entire program called Planet Money.
We think of the show as journalism. One of the people who helped start the program, Paul Tough, says that what we're doing is applying the tools of journalism to everyday lives, personal lives. Which is true. It's also true that the journalism we do tends to use a lot of the techniques of fiction: scenes and characters and narrative threads.
Meanwhile, the fiction we have on the show functions like journalism: it's fiction that describes what it's like to be here, now, in the world. What we like are stories that are both funny and sad. Personal and sort of epic at the same time.
We sometimes think of our program as a documentary show for people who normally hate documentaries. A public radio show for people who don't necessarily care for public radio.
Some of the writers whose work has been on the program: David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, Russell Banks, Dave Eggers, David Rakoff, Tobias Wolff, Anne Lamott, Michael Lewis, Michael Chabon, Nick Hornby, Alex Kotlowitz, Dan Savage, David Foster Wallace, Spalding Gray, Gay Talese, Aimee Bender, Lydia Davis, Junot Diaz, Mike Birbiglia and Shalom Auslander.
This American Life started in 1995 in Chicago. It went national in early 1996 and in the years since, it's won a lot of awards—the Peabody, the duPont-Columbia, the Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club, to name a few. Ira Glass, the host of the show, was named best radio host in the country by Time Magazine and received the highest individual honor in public broadcasting, the Edward R. Murrow Award. The American Journalism Review declared that the show is at "the vanguard of a journalistic revolution."
The program is produced by Chicago Public Media, distributed by Public Radio International, and airs on more than 500 public radio stations across the country. They say 1.8 million people listen to us on the radio each week, which sometimes is hard to imagine. It's probably airing this weekend on a station near you. Most weeks This American Life is also the most popular podcast in the country, averaging 850,000 downloads.