When Ira Glass created “This American Life” in 1995, he set out on a simple mission: to create a radio broadcast that could capture the stories of the average American. The sensational podcast has consistently been the most popular broadcast in the United States since its conception; Glass’ brilliant reporting and comfortable approachability make “This American Life” feel more like a conversation than an informative newscast. The stories range from the charming, to the hilarious, to the downright moving, without a breath in between.
For every episode, Glass chooses a topic. While the central theme can be nearly anything, it serves to provide the audience with a sense of purpose and cohesion in listening. A series of stories with a common theme provides the listener with a multitude of perspectives that ultimately engage a greater understanding of the subject. While the podcast doesn’t focus on topics like math or science, it’s informative in that it provides people an idea of what everyday Americans can, and do, experience.
In the words of Ira Glass, “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.” In this, Glass is correct: the show isn’t based around people directly explaining ideas, it’s based around people sharing their experiences and the emotions they create. It’s a listening experience, and one that’s meant to be engaging in a way that radio traditionally isn’t; through each of the stories told on the episode, the listener develops a new set of characters, a new setting, and a new plot.
However, “This American Life” still considers itself, first and foremost, journalism. It’s meant to be a journalistic interpretation of people with everyday lives. As Glass says, “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.” The design of the program is genuine storytelling, but approached with a sense of journalistic integrity.
And it’s clear that Glass’ sense of innovation for radio broadcast has paid off; the show receives and estimated 2.1 million listeners per episode, and an average 750,000 downloads. The shows success has spanned decades–following the show’s conception in 1995, Mother Jones magazine regarded the broadcast as “hip – as well as intensely literary and surprisingly irreverent.” Easily become the most recognizable weekly broadcast of Public Radio International, the show has gained notoriety and a wide following. It’s trendy and intellectual, but maintains a sense of personal accessibility in the fact that it’s the experiences of everyday Americans. Glass’ piece doesn’t play on buzzwords or statistics; it’s simple, to the point, and incredibly charming.
As “This American Life” approaches its 20th year, it’s important to consider just how transformative the piece has been; Glass managed to make a dying medium relevant, informative, and enthraling. The broadcast started as an experiment in understanding the untold stories of Americans, but it has since transformed into a vital part of radio and culture–“This American Life” is a perfect insight in understanding what it means to live in this country.