A.D. Ira: Is there life after ‘This American Life’?

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared in the March 2008 AIRblast newsletter.

By Kiera Feldman

Kiera Feldman poses with a fake mustache.Writing in The American Journalism Review in 1999, Marc Fisher asserted that This American Life  “is in the vanguard of a journalistic revolution.” Launched four years earlier, This American Life introduced public radio listeners to a brand of journalism that relied on personal narrative, proceeded scene-by-scene, and used long sound bites that dwarfed the 10-second snippets heard in standard NPR news stories. Since then, TAL has attracted a weekly audience of 1.7 million listeners while maintaining a perfected formula: anecdotes alternating with reflection, ending with a larger reflection about human nature. “You can’t just have an anecdote,” Glass says. “It’s got to mean something.”Just as each story on This American Life hinges on an unresolved issue, so too does mine. Who comes after Ira? Is it Jad? Is it an unknown? Where do new kinds of storytelling originate, anyway? I turn now to examine public radio’s signs of new life.

Act I: Tipping the Hat
Perhaps one of TAL‘s biggest achievements is inspiring an entire generation of young radio journalists. For example, in 2002, Addie Goss arrived as a freshman at Brown University and asked if anyone had heard of a show called This American Life. They had; in fact, Brown Student Radio  producer (and former TAL intern) Paul McCarthy invited Goss to work on Inside Out, a TAL-inspired show that featured distinctly Glassian rhetorical questions, epiphanic endings, and music. Now a Morning Edition host on Wyoming Public Radio, Goss says she “got into radio because of stories about regular people [on TAL],” and not because she wanted to tell stories about “newsmakers.” Ask any young radio producer about their early inspiration and TAL is bound to surface-myself included. Clearly, we need to tip a very big hat to TAL, perhaps of the 10-gallon variety.

Act II: The Next Life
If TAL was the most influential public radio show to come out of the 1990s, what is the TAL of the 2000s? Glass speculates that Radio Lab could inspire a new generation of producers. “I think if I were coming up in radio,” Glass says, “I would hear Radio Lab and just think, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do.'”

Calling Radio Lab “the most beautifully orchestrated hour of radio out there,” Glass says, “If they could manage to be on every week, there really would be no reason for [This American Life] to exist.” Hyperbole notwithstanding, Glass’ comment suggests similarities between the two shows. Most significantly, both Radio Lab and TAL attempt to explain the universal through the particular. TAL uses personal anecdote, while Radio Lab derives life theory from scientific inquiry, often applying the laws of the microscopic universe to the macro universe of human relationships. For example, in the “Where am I?” episode , co-host Robert Krulwich and his wife dramatize an argument over the phone. Afterward, her squabble stamina is explained by a neurologist who says the argumentative part of the brain “turns off more slowly in women than in men.” Subject matter and tone aside, Radio Lab and TAL share a fundamental quality: reflection about human nature.

TAL raised a generation of producers on personal narrative, universalisms, and “bad” radio voices. By comparison, Radio Lab might inspire a new generation of producers with a unique kind of storytelling that is playful, intelligent, and sound rich. While Radio Labdoesn’t adhere to a strict story formula, the show contains readily borrowable narrative elements: off-script host comments, actualities interrupted by narration, and dramatic reenactment.

Radio Lab has roots in TAL, while TAL has roots in two developments of the 1970s. The first was the New Journalism created by the likes of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, and others. Like TAL, the New Journalists’ work was narrative-driven, scene and character-based, and featured lengthy dialogue previously unseen in magazine writing.

Glass downplays the formal similarities: “I had read the New Journalists, but I hadn’t read them all that carefully.” Instead, he names 1970s-era NPR figures such as Keith Talbot, Joe Frank, and Alex Chadwick among his main influences. From early NPR to the New Journalism, we see how the TAL journalistic revolution is more of an evolution. Surveying public radio storytelling across generations, Glass says, “Something doesn’t have to be totally different to sound different.”

Even if Radio Lab is the next show on public radio that will inspire a generation of producers as TAL did, it seems too easy to hold a Radio Lab coronation and call it a day. Instead, wouldn’t we all want to believe in a public radio sleeper hit?

Act III: Searching for Signs of (New) Life
In 2002, WNYC offered Jad Abumrad three late-night hours on Sundays. Abumrad says the word on high was that he could “do whatever the hell I wanted with it.” In this way, Radio Lab was born.
Will the next sleeper hit of public radio come into being in a similar fashion? WNYC Vice President of Programming Dean Cappello says local NPR stations are “natural incubators.” Having birthed a whole bevy of hits, including Studio 360 and On the Media, WNYC is a good example of how stations are able to nurture shows until they’re ready for national broadcast. Naming Fresh Air (WHYY), A Prairie Home Companion (Minnesota Public Radio), Car Talk (WBUR), and This American Life (WBEZ), Cappello says, “If you look at the real hits of public radio, very few of them came out of networks.”

While “hit” shows don’t necessarily require new formats, stations are also potential incubators for storytelling innovation. Cappello sees more stations following in the footsteps of WNYC, partnering with independent producers at earlier stages of project development. A stable funding source and a “creative community” like WNYC attract producers engaged in “interesting work” outside stations, Cappello says.

Likewise, Julie Shapiro identifies independent producers as a main source of creative storytelling. As co-director of the Third Coast International Audio Festival, Shapiro is privy to a wide range of audio outside the realm of mainstream public radio. Pointing to PRX , Transom , and podcasts like Big Shed  and B-Side, Shapiro notices a rising tide of audio work that “pushes the storytelling envelope.” She attributes this to two factors: First, independents are forging more bonds with one another both online and offline-the result of which is “stronger, braver work.” Second, there is a bigger producer pool thanks to new technologies and more opportunities to acquire production skills (e.g., Transom, universities, and youth radio groups ). Granted, it might not be a more diverse pool, and it’s uncertain just how much innovative work is able to make the leap from audio to radio. Nonetheless, Shapiro says audio production is now “coming from a more textured cloth,” which bodes well for the emergence of “more textured” story forms.

Act IV: Looking Elsewhere
Then again, there are those who have little hope for the evolution of storytelling on public radio. “Public radio has spent the last 25 years refining its game,” says Jesse Thorn. “There isn’t any more juice to be squeezed.” Thorn is the 26-year-old host of The Sound of Young America  – a podcast that was picked up for distribution by PRI in July 2007. Each week, Thorn interviews a variety of guests, including the likes of Nick Hornby and Miranda July. Describing TSOYA, Thorn says, “Think of it like Conan O’Brien on public radio, or Fresh Air, but more fun.”

Thorn echoes Glass’ comments about new storytelling’s continuity with the old, saying he doesn’t see his show as a radical departure from Fresh Air. That said, The Sound of Young America still serves as a model for new public radio talent from non-mainstream origins.

Like Thorn, Robin Amer is a twentysomething producer who says to look outside public radio for signs of new life – to listeners, in fact. Amer is Host/Producer of, a radio station and web community launched as a second service of Chicago Public Radio. Listeners post audio content to the Web site  from which its 17 hosts make selections for broadcast. There are no pledge drives and no newsbreaks; instead, features local stories and music (including hip hop – a perennially shafted pubradio genre).

If a This American Life story boils down to the word “surprising,” the story format boils down to “authentic.” Even if sounds “bad” from time to time, it’s fine with that – as long as it sounds authentic. The hope is that a new sound will reach new audiences, and has an ambitious goal: 65 percent nonwhite listenership (compared to WBEZ’s 9 percent). In Amer’s view, public radio is “on the precipice of a crisis” – and diversifying audiences is the only hope for the future.

Act V: Can Public Radio Support New Life?
“In a proper version of public radio,” Glass says, “[Dan Savage] would have his own national show.” Savage hosts Savage Love , a raunchy, hilarious, and highly political sex advice podcast. Glass thinks the show would be widely popular on public radio yet has little chance of syndication. “I think [Savage] would frighten programmers,” Glass says.

Beyond issues of decency, public radio doesn’t cope well with fear. Cappello says, “As an industry, we like to think, ‘How can I make an investment that has absolutely no risk?'” To Cappello, this approach is “the complete opposite of what great creative companies do.” Instead, he says, the proper way to develop good programming is “to try 10 things before one of them hits.” The problem is that funding structures make this difficult (if not impossible).” In Cappello’s mind, the consequence is that – for the most part – public radio “does a terrible job” at encouraging creativity and innovation.

Similarly, former Open Source  producer Brendan Greeley laments the lack of shelf space in public radio. “I started with one start-up show that I really believed in,” Greeley says, adding, “I wasn’t interested in the amount of work and the likelihood of success of trying to convince enough program directors to open up an hour slot to make a new show viable.” Some months before Open Source went off-air in June 2007, Greeley left public radio to serve as multimedia editor at The Economist.

Act VI: The Afterlife
Like all titular rhetorical questions, the answer is yes: There are signs of new life in public radio. Yet, there are also plenty of signs that the seeds of this new life are planted in rocky soil.

Perhaps the story of This American Life itself could offer insight into the bigger story of public radio’s life-support issues. In its 13-year history, TAL has shown a stunning lack of evolution. The story formula has remained utterly unchanged, and even the instrumental music is heavily recycled. On a formal level, TAL exists in a time capsule, broadcasting from a soundproof booth in 1995.

It is a shame that TAL is so consistently excellent – a complaint that could be extended to all of public radio. To fail is to take risks, to try out new things, to grow and change and become something different and possibly better.

Maybe “the next TAL” will forge a new kind of storytelling, and maybe not. Either way, nascent public radio hits will undoubtedly show signs of TAL‘s influence. It seems fitting to end with a Glassian realization about the nature of change. “Isn’t it funny,” Glass might conclude, “how the new is always rooted in the old?”

• Kiera Feldman will graduate in May with a degree in American Civilization from Brown University where she has been a peer writing tutor, a co-op member, and a Brown Student Radio producer. Kiera hosts YouthCast, the Generation PRX podcast through alt.NPR. Currently, Kiera is working on an audio documentary about Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan.