This American Life (~17 years)
In the end, nothing else comes close. I’ve listened to This American Life almost every week since I was 16 years old. Not only listened, but for many of those years, obsessed. It’s followed me across a half-dozen formats. I used to tune in Saturday nights at 11 p.m. on 89.3 WFPL on my little radio alarm clock back at my parents’ house my junior year of high school. More recently, I recall listening to that Mike Daisey episode on iTunes, on a MacBook, on an airplane traveling from Minneapolis to New York. None of these concepts — Apple computers, laptops, podcasts, Minneapolis, New York, air travel — meant anything to me in 1996, as far as my day-to-day life was concerned. Almost no aspect of my life bore any resemblance to the way it looks now. Yet TAL remains essentially the same show, then as now. That’s incredible continuity.
Unlike other long-lived cultural influences listed here, TAL has actually been a direct, very easy-to-spot influence on my own work. Salon Saloon, for example. I pointed this out on last year’s radio-themed show (and again on the recent show with Alison Pebworth): the tone, the thematic organization, and probably even, to a certain extent, my own vocal cadences on Salon Saloon wouldn’t necessarily exist without Ira Glass. That’s not just me, either. Salon Saloon is a tiny, tiny little dribble in an ocean of contemporary cultural experiences — podcasts, radio programs, YouTube series, live performances, comedy, theater, storytelling — that can be drawn pretty directly back to This American Life. I was talking to a radio producer I know the other day about how surprising he found it that the incoming resumes he sees from recent college graduates wanting to get into radio still cite Glass as their primary inspiration. Generationally, there’s a whole sub-group of artists and entertainers that think about Glass and TAL in the same way you always hear boomer-aged artists and entertainers talking about Johnny Carson.
For example, did you see that recent Carson documentary on PBS where Drew Carey actually started crying when he recounted the story of how Johnny called him over to his desk after his first appearance? It seemed vaguely silly to me, at first blush. I mean, I suppose it’s exciting to get some personal attention from Carson, but really, what’s the big deal? However, if I ever managed to somehow insert myself into a professional situation where Ira Glass called me over to his desk (or whatever the radio equivalent of that would be), I’d probably start crying while recounting the story, too. You don’t start crying about things like that when it’s some entity you just have a passing professional familiarity with once your career is rolling along; you start crying when it’s something or someone you’ve obsessed over since your adolescence. Many performers and entertainers born before 1965 would tell you they started doing what they do because of Carson. For many born after 1975, I imagine they’d say the same of Ira Glass. It’s certainly true of me.