This American Life (TAL) is, without exaggeration, one of the best radio shows out there. It’s a staple of US public radio, and I’ve been listening to it for about seven years. This used to be more difficult; first of all it was satellite radio (which meant being there at the ‘right time’ or a little later, rigging up a VCR to capture the audio), then online streaming (similar, although given the range of stations it aired on, you could have a better choice) and compressed RealAudio stuff, briefly through a subscription at Audible.com into my iTunes, and most recently through a one-week-window MP3 (thankfully available through a podcast feed, meaning that I get all the MP3s even if I can’t listen within the week). The style is instantly recognisable; each episode takes three or four loosely related stories on a theme, either narrated by host Ira Glass or by the contributor (many of whom are unknown). Instrumental music, and sometimes ambient audio/effects complete the package. It’s basic but brilliant.
Anyway, today (Thursday) marks a new venture for the TAL team – the TV show. For an icon of ‘intelligent’ radio (that also has written the template for music-and-words 60-minute-sort-of-documentary radio shows, not just for NPR but more broadly), going to TV is tough. (Even the live, before-the-audience show gives me mixed feelings, as I associate the show with high production values and no laughtrack…). It’s US-only for now (Showtime is the network), which is a pity, although there’s a promise of DVD/iTunes in the future. Even the on-demand is US-only. (Borderless Internet? Give me a break). Such is the way of the market, but I still wish them well and hope that it’s a successful leap.
To mark this, last week’s show (‘What I Learned From TV‘, MP3 still available, but get it quick!) was that most interesting of combinations: the team of a radio show launching a TV show dedicating their radio show to a discussion of TV. The four topics (‘acts’ in the TAL tradition) were a guy who doesn’t really watch TV, TV treatment of Thanksgiving/the pilgrims, host Ira Glass talking about The OC, and finally Dan Savage on portrayals of sexuality and such business.
Two of them demand further comment. I did, in a way, understand the first depiction quite well – I have a TV that I basically don’t watch all that often, and I listen to about 20 times more radio (about half of which is speech radio) than TV in a week. (This is due to a lack of TV channels, a long-standing grá for radio and the spoken word, and (paradoxically, or perhaps not) consuming a lot of Web content). I even watch DVDs, on those rare occasions, on my computer screen (I’m in the tiny group referred to by David Pogue who are unmoved by an Apple TV or similar, as I don’t have a computer v TV / work v leisure divide). And GooTube etc is definitely playing an enhanced (but minor) role in my media consumption habits. In any event, our hero did get through his mission of reengaging with TV, or so it seems.
The other thing that stood out was Ira Glass’s meander on television; he talked about his odd love for the show The O.C., and how (wonderfully) he was watching one day and TAL was mentioned (the actual line is the subject of this post) people are? And then the band sings ‘California’ (the theme from the show, which is derived from/samples California, Here I Come), which Glass confesses to singing along to on the sofa at full volume … it’s all very (and typically) whimsical. Go listen.