This American Life

This American Life
Other names Your Radio Playhouse
Genre Radio short stories and essays
Running time c. 60 minutes
Country United States
Language(s) English
Home station WBEZ
Syndicates Public Radio Exchange,[1] CBC Radio One (Canada), ABC Radio National (Australia)
TV adaptations This American Life
Hosted by Ira Glass
Created by Ira Glass
Torey Malatia
Written by Various
Senior editor(s) Julie Snyder
Produced by
Executive producer(s) 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 601
Audio format Stereo
Other themes "Rumble"
Podcast TAL Podcast
For the television adaptation of the same name, see This American Life (TV series).

This American Life (TAL) is an American weekly hour-long radio program produced by WBEZ and hosted by Ira Glass.[2] It is broadcast on numerous public radio stations in the United States and internationally, 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,[3] under the show's original title, Your Radio Playhouse. The series was distributed by Public Radio International[4] until June 2014, when the program became self-distributed with Public Radio Exchange delivering new episodes to public radio stations.[5]

A television program of the same name ran for two seasons on the Showtime cable network[6] between June 2007 and May 2008.


Each week's show has a theme, explored in several "acts." On occasion, an entire program will consist of a single act. The most acts were in the episode "20 Acts in 60 Minutes." Each act is produced by a combination of staff and freelance contributors. Programs usually begin with a short station identification by Glass who then introduces a segment related to the theme which precedes act one. The segment will then lead into the presentation of the theme for that week's show.

Content varies widely by episode. 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." Often This American Life features stories which explore aspects of human nature, such as "Kid Logic," which presented pieces on the reasoning of children.

The end credits of each show are read by Glass, and include a sound clip extracted out of context from some portion of that show, which Glass humorously attributes to previous WBEZ general manager Torey Malatia, who co-founded the show with Ira Glass in 1995.

Glass has stated he is contractually obligated to mention both station WBEZ, and previously, distributor PRI three times in the course of the show.[7]


Glass, the program's creator, has served as executive producer and host since its November 17, 1995, debut. The program's first year was produced on a budget that was tight even by U.S. public-radio standards. A budget of US$243,000 covered an outfitted studio, marketing costs, purchased satellite time, and paid for four full-time staffers and various freelance writers and reporters.[8] National syndication began in June 1996 when Public Radio International formed a distribution partnership with the program. It airs on 509 PRI affiliate stations in the United States reaching an estimated 2.1 million listeners each week.[9] The show is also carried on Sirius XM Satellite Radio over the Public Radio International block on the XM Public Radio channel. The program consistently rates as the first- or second-most downloaded podcast on iTunes for each week.[10]

Originally titled Your Radio Playhouse, a local show on WBEZ, the program's name was changed beginning with the March 21, 1996 episode.[11] It was picked up nationally by PRI in June 1996.[12] The reference to each segment of the show as an "act" is a holdover from its original "playhouse theme". The program helped launch the literary careers of many, including contributing editor Sarah Vowell and essayists David Rakoff and David Sedaris.[9]

Early response to the program was largely positive. In 1998, Mother Jones magazine called it "hip  as well as intensely literary and surprisingly irreverent."[13]

In January 2011, the series was picked up by CBC Radio One in Canada.[14] The program is shortened slightly for the Canadian broadcast to allow for a five-minute newscast at the top of the hour, although this is partly made up for by the removal of mid-program breaks, most of the production credits (apart from that of Malatia), and underwriting announcements (CBC's radio services being fully commercial-free, except when contractually or legally required).

In January 2012, This American Life presented excerpts from a one-man theatre show by Mike Daisey as an exposé of conditions at a Foxconn factory in China.[15] The episode was entitled "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory" and became one of the show's most popular episodes, with 888,000 downloads and 206,000 streams. WBEZ planned to host a live showing and a Q+A of "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" in Chicago on April 7, 2012.[16]

On March 16, 2012, This American Life officially retracted the episode after learning that several events recounted both in the radio story and the monologue were fabrications. Daisey apologized for presenting his work as journalism, saying it is actually theatre, but refused to acknowledge that he had lied—even in the face of obvious discrepancies. WBEZ canceled the planned live performance and refunded all ticket purchases.[16] The same day, This American Life devoted their weekly show (titled "Retraction") to detailing the inconsistencies in "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs".[17] The show includes interviews between Rob Schmitz, the reporter who discovered the discrepancies and Daisey's translator in China, Cathy Lee, as well as an interview between host Glass and Daisey. The podcast of this episode became the most downloaded in the show's history.[18] However, the Harper High School series broadcast in February 2013 surpassed it in number of downloads.

The show also removed three stories by Stephen Glass (no relation to Ira Glass) in the week following the retraction of the Daisey episode due to less-than-truthful content. These were noted to have been previously removed, but had resurfaced in episode streams due to a website redesign. Though the segments are cut from the streams of the episodes, the transcript of the contents were kept accessible on the This American Life website. These were from the episodes "57: Delivery", "79: Stuck in the wrong decade", and "86: How to take money from strangers".[19]

In 2014, it was announced that PRI would stop distributing the show in July. After a few months, in May, Ira Glass announced that the staff would be distributing the show themselves, with Public Radio Exchange doing the technical legwork to deliver the audio to the radio stations.[20] On October 1, 2014, the show produced a spinoff, Serial, a season-long exploration delivered as a podcast series.[21]



Discussions of a television adaptation of TAL date back to at least 1999.[8] In January 2006, Showtime announced it had greenlighted six episodes of a new series based on TAL.[22] The announcement noted that each half-hour episode would "be hosted by Ira Glass and [...] explore a single theme or topic through the unique juxtaposition of first-person storytelling and whimsical narrative."[22]

For budgetary reasons, Glass and four of the radio show's producers left Chicago for New York City, where Showtime is headquartered.[9] 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. Originally the series had a contract for a total of 30 shows over the four years,[23] but after two seasons 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.[24] 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.[24]


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.[25] 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".[26] In June 2008, Spike Lee bought the movie rights to Ronald Mallett's memoir, whose story was featured in the episode "My Brilliant Plan".[27] 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".[28][29]

This American Life's 168th episode, "The Fix Is In", inspired screenwriter Scott Burns to adapt Kurt Eichenwald's book about business executive and FBI informant Mark Whitacre, titled The Informant, into a major motion picture.[30] The film was directed by Steven Soderbergh and stars Matt Damon.[31] 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.[31]

This American Life's 361st episode's, "Fear of Sleep", section "Stranger in the Night" featured an excerpt from Mike Birbiglia's one-man show, "Sleepwalk with Me". This inspired Glass to work with Birbiglia for two years on a movie based on this segment. The film version of Sleepwalk with Me screened at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2012, to favorable reviews, winning the "Best of NEXT Audience Award".[32]

In May 2011, Walt Disney Pictures announced it was adapting a movie from a 2009 episode titled "The Girlfriend Equation".[33]

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.

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.[34] 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.[35]

On April 23, 2009, This American Life broadcast a second theater event, titled This American Life – Live! Returning to the Scene of the Crime. Contributors included Mike Birbiglia, Starlee Kine, Dan Savage, David Rakoff, and Joss Whedon.

On May 10, 2012, This American Life broadcast a third theater event, titled Invisible Made Visible. Contributors included David Sedaris, David Rakoff, Tig Notaro, Ryan Knighton, and Mike Birbiglia, who made a short film with Terry Gross.

On June 7, 2014, This American Life recorded a fourth live event titled The Radio Drama Episode. Contributors included Carin Gilfry, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mike Birbiglia, Joshua Bearman, and Sasheer Zamata. The episode was broadcast on radio and the podcast on June 20, 2014.


From 1998 to 2005, the program could be accessed online in two formats: a free RealAudio stream available from the official show website, and a DRM-encrypted download available through, which charged $4 per episode. In early 2006, the program began to offer MP3 copies of each episode, which could be streamed from the show's website using a proprietary Flash player.

Since October 2006, the program has offered a free podcast feed to the public. Under this arrangement, each show is made available to podcast feeds and aggregation programs Sunday evening at 8 p.m. ET, allowing radio stations a 43-hour window of exclusivity to carry the episode. 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 location. 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.[36][37][38]

As of March 2012, a typical podcast episode was downloaded 750,000 times.[39]

Mobile apps

In February 2010, Public Radio Exchange launched a mobile app on Apple's iTunes Store. This app contains MP3 audio of the podcast.[40][41]


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".[42]

Ira Glass at the 73rd Annual Peabody Awards

George Foster Peabody Award

Third Coast International Audio Festival

Livingston Award

Scripps Howard Foundation

Edward R. Murrow Award

Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Award

New York Festivals Award

George Polk Award

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.[45]

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".[46]

In 2011, comedy writer Julian Joslin (with Michael Grinspan) released a parody of This American Life entitled "This American Laugh"[47] on YouTube, wherein a fictional Glass makes a sex tape with Fresh Air's Terry Gross.[48] The spoof was viewed over 100,000 times in one week but was met with a cool reception by Glass himself.[49]

Fred Armisen parodied Ira Glass for a skit on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" in 2011.[50] The skit was cut from the show on the grounds that Ira Glass was "not famous enough" to be parodied on Saturday Night Live.[51] Glass then invited Armisen to impersonate him as a guest co-host for an episode of This American Life in January 2013.[50]

In 2012, in Season 6, Episode 12 of "30 Rock": "St. Patrick's Day", Ira Glass's voice appears on the radio, apparently presenting TAL, with his studio having been overrun by drunken thugs.[52]

In 2013, Stanley Chase III, Mickey Dwyer, Ken Fletcher, and Matt Gifford launched the parody podcast That American Life on iTunes, which is hosted by "Ira Class".[53][54]

In two episodes of Season 1 of Orange Is the New Black, Robert Stanton portrays a radio personality, Maury Kind who hosts an NPR show called Urban Tales, a fictional portrayal of This American Life.[55][56]

The 2014 motion picture Veronica Mars depicts the character of Stosh "Piz" Piznarski working at This American Life. Host Ira Glass appears in a cameo role as himself, and many This American Life staffers appear in background roles.[57]


Episodes of TAL are accompanied by music. Some songs are used between acts and are credited in the episode guide for the show. Other songs are used as thematic background music for stories and are not credited.

"Over the years, we've used hundreds of songs under our stories—and in some stories, we use a number of different songs in different sections. We tried to answer these emails for awhile [sic?], but often it was impossible sometimes to pinpoint which song people were asking about...".[58]

Other media

Some of the show's episodes are accompanied by multimedia downloads available on This American Life's website. For example, a cover version of the Elton John song "Rocket Man" was produced for episode 223, "Classifieds", and released as an MP3.

Four two-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; Davy Rothbart: This American Life was released in 2004; 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.

The cover of "The Lives They Lived" edition of The New York Times Magazine published on December 25, 2011 read "These American Lives" after a special section of the magazine edited by Glass and other staff of the show.[59]

Glass had a cameo appearance in the 22nd season premiere of The Simpsons, entitled "Elementary School Musical". Lisa plays This American Life on her iPod and Glass introduces the theme of the show, "Today in Five Acts: Condiments".[60]

In the American Dad! episode, "Honey, I'm Homeland," Ira Glass provides his own voice when members of an Occupy group kidnap Stan after he tries to infiltrate their group. To brainwash him, they play This American Life for him while in captivity in which Ira talks about a dog and his owner, who also happens to be a dog. Stan objects to Ira's pauses between lines, questioning why they are necessary if he already has them written down in front of him. When Stan has been fully brainwashed and is released, he continues to listen to Ira as he touts the benefits of paying for radio.


  1. Public Radio Exchange only handles the delivery of the program to public radio stations. Radio Distribution Announcement
  2. Abel, Jessica; Glass, Ira (1999). Radio: An Illustrated Guide. WBEZ Alliance Inc. ISBN 0-9679671-0-4.
  3. "This American Life: The Television Show!". This American Life. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved March 3, 2007.
  4. "Public Radio International Dropping 'This American Life'". Deadline. 2014-03-21. Retrieved 2014-08-13.
  5. Torey Malatia (January 2, 2006). "This American Life Radio Program To Air Television Series on Showtime" (PDF) (Press release). WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. Retrieved March 4, 2007.
  6. "This American Life episode 428: "Oh You Shouldn't Have" transcript". This American Life. Retrieved April 11, 2012.
  7. 1 2 Glass, Ira (June 1999). "A Weeklong Electronic Journal". Slate. Retrieved March 3, 2007.
  8. 1 2 3 Ladd, Chris (May 1, 2006). "A Chicago Radio Hit Moves to New York, and TV". New York. Retrieved March 3, 2007.
  9. "iTunes Store Top 10 Podcasts". Top 10 Podcasts Chart - US. Apple Inc. Retrieved 24 December 2012.
  10. "This American Life: 17 - Name Change / No Theme". This American Life. Retrieved October 16, 2013.
  11. McGrath, Charles (2008-02-17). "Is PBS Still Necessary". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-15.
  12. Cox, Ana Marie; Dionis, Joanna (September/October 1998). "Ira Glass Radio Turn-On." Mother Jones. 23 (5):83.
  13. King, John C. P. (January 4, 2011). "CBC Radio One to air This American Life". Toronto Star. Retrieved September 8, 2013.
  14. "454: Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory". This American Life. January 6, 2012.
  15. 1 2 Glass, Ira (March 16, 2012). "Retracting 'Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory'". This American Life. Retrieved March 18, 2012.
  16. "460 Retraction". This American Life. March 16, 2012. Retrieved March 17, 2012.
  17. "Retracting 'Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory'". This American Life. March 16, 2012. Retrieved August 24, 2012.
  18. "'This American Life' Pulls Three Stephen Glass Episodes - Business Insider". Business Insider. March 29, 2012. Retrieved October 13, 2014.
  19. "Radio Distribution Announcement". This American Life. Retrieved 2014-08-13.
  20. Larson, Sarah (October 9, 2014). ""Serial": The Podcast We've Been Waiting For". The New Yorker. Retrieved October 12, 2014.
  21. 1 2 "Showtime Greenlights TV Adaptation of This American Life" (Press release). Showtime. January 19, 2006. Retrieved March 3, 2007.
  22. Miner, Michael (February 3, 2006). "Going Coastal". Chicago Reader. Retrieved March 3, 2007.
  23. 1 2 WBEZ official blog: "Exclusive: Ira Glass dishes on end of TAL TV. Will he return to Chicago?"
  24. Mike Janssen (September 2, 2002). "This American Life Negotiates 'First-Look' Deal with Warner Bros.". Current. Retrieved March 3, 2007.
  25. Sciretta, Peter (November 23, 2006). "Six Minutes of Paul Feig's Unaccompanied Minors". /Film. Retrieved March 3, 2007.
  26. (June 18, 2008). "Lee To Make Movie About Black "Time Traveler"". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved June 19, 2008.
  27. Curly Oxide and Vic Thrill at the Internet Movie Database
  28. Janssen, Mike (September 23, 2003). "Hollywood Finds Kernels for Movies in This American Life". Current. Retrieved March 3, 2007.
  29. "The Informant Review, The Informant". FlickDirect. September 16, 2009. Retrieved March 19, 2012.
  30. 1 2 Episode #168: "The Fix Is In". This American Life.
  31. "Sleepwalk With Me | This American Life Blog". This American Life. Retrieved March 30, 2012.
  32. "Disney getting romantic with THE GIRLFRIEND EQUATION". Entertainment News Site - Geek Tyrant. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
  33. | Popcorn available with this Ira Glass show, 2008
  34. PRI.ORG | This American Life - Live!
  35. Benedict, Jared (June 21, 2006). "Unofficial This American Life Podcast Is No More". the future is yesterday. Retrieved September 28, 2008.
  36. Udell, Jon (June 20, 2006). "A Takedown Request from This American Life". Jon's Radio. Retrieved September 28, 2008.
  37. Soghoian, Christopher (July 17, 2007). "An Emotional Blackmail Takedown: Remove The Podcast, Or We Shoot This Puppy". Slight Paranoia. Retrieved September 28, 2008.
  38. Glass, Ira (March 16, 2012). "Retracting Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory". This American Life Blog. The response to the original episode, 'Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,' was significant. It quickly became the single most popular podcast in This American Life's history, with 888,000 downloads (typically the number is 750,000) and 206,000 streams to date.
  39. "This American Life By Public Radio Exchange (PRX)". Apple Inc. Retrieved 2014-10-16.
  40. "This American Life". Retrieved 2014-10-16.
  41. 55th Annual Peabody Awards, May 1996.
  42. McFadden, Robert D. (February 17, 2009). "For Their Risk-Taking, Journalists Garner Polk Awards". The New York Times. Retrieved March 28, 2010.
  43. "Polk Press Release Feb 20 2012 - Long Island University". February 20, 2012. Retrieved March 19, 2012.
  44. "Episode 328: What I Learned From Television-This American Life". Retrieved October 13, 2014.
  45. This American Life Completes Documentation Of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence, The Onion
  46. "This American Laugh". YouTube. Retrieved October 13, 2014.
  47. Koski, Genevieve (October 10, 2011). "Today's Show, in Two Acts: The Ira Glass Sex-Tape". The A.V. Club. Retrieved August 11, 2012.
  48. Rao, Mallika (October 14, 2011). "The Ira Glass Sex Tape: Ira Glass Responds". The Huffington Post.
  49. 1 2 "Fred Armisen Co-Hosts With Ira Glass". This American Life. Retrieved 20 December 2013.
  50. Glass, Ira. "Dopplegangers". This American Life. Retrieved 20 December 2013.
  51. Retrieved April 4, 2016. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  52. Keel, Eli. "THAT American Life: Homegrown parody podcast hits 100K downloads, reaches no. 6 on iTunes comedy charts". Insider Louisville. Retrieved 8 February 2014.
  53. "4 Predictions About Podcasting For 2014". Forbes. 2014-07-30. Retrieved 2014-08-13.
  54. Weber, Lindsey (2014-05-15). "Ira Glass Was Asked to Be on OITNB". Vulture. Retrieved 2014-08-13.
  55. "Orange Is the New Black (TV Series 2013– )". IMDb. Retrieved October 13, 2014.
  56. Glass, Ira. "We're In The Veronica Mars Movie!". This American Life Blog. Retrieved 16 March 2014.
  57. "This American Life FAQ, General Questions, What's that great music you're playing under the stories?" Website". This American Life. Retrieved May 5, 2013.
  58. "The Lives They Lived". The New York Times Magazine. December 22, 2011. Retrieved December 20, 2011.
  59. "Ira Glass Has a Cameo in the Season Premiere of The Simpsons!". This American Life Blog. September 9, 2010. Retrieved March 16, 2012.
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