Monday, March 12, 2007


Showtime is taking my favorite raido show This American Life and turning it into a weekly series.

If you've never listened to TAL...

One of the problems with our show from the start has been that whenever we try to describe it in a sentence or two, it sounds awful. For instance: Each week we choose a theme and put together different kinds of stories on that theme. That doesn't sound like something we'd want to listen to on the radio, and it's our show. In the early days of the program, in frustration, we'd sometimes tell public radio program directors that it's basically just like Car Talk. Except just one guy hosting. And no cars.

It's easy to say what we're not. 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. There are people in dramatic situations where things happen to them. There are funny moments and emotional moments and – hopefully – moments where the people in the story say interesting, surprising things about it all. It has to be surprising. It has to be fun. There are shows on public radio with no sense of fun or surprise and we hate those shows.

The program is on more than 500 public radio stations across the country. It's probably airing this weekend on a station near you, or you can just listen to the show here on this site. You can podcast or download last weekend's new show for free, stream older shows for free via any of our archive pages, or buy CDs. There are Greatest Hits CDs and other merch.

We have the themes because mostly they make it sound like there's a reason to hear a story about, say, a contest where everyone stands around a truck for days until one person is left standing ... or a grown man trying to convince his friend that he has heard the greatest phone message ever made ... or a man who's obsessed with Niagara Falls, lives minutes from the Falls, writes and thinks about the Falls all the time, but who can't bring himself to actually visit the Falls, because, as he says, "they've ruined the Falls." If you're not doing stories about the news, or celebrities, or things people have ever heard of elsewhere, you have to give people a reason to keep listening. The themes make it seem like there is a reason.

We think of the show as journalism. One of the people who helped shape the program, Paul Tough, says that what we're doing is applying the tools of journalism to everyday lives, personal lives.

Which is true. It's also true that the journalism we do tends to use a lot of the techniques of fiction: scenes and characters and narrative threads.

Meanwhile, the fiction we have on the show functions like journalism: it's fiction that describes what it's like to be here, now, in America. What we like are stories that are both funny and sad. Personal and sort of epic at the same time.

Some of the writers whose work has been on the program: David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, Russell Banks, Dave Eggers, David Rakoff, Tobias Wolff, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anne Lamott, Michael Lewis, Michael Chabon, Nick Hornby, Alex Kotlowitz, Dan Savage, David Foster Wallace, Spalding Gray, Chris Ware, Gay Talese, Haruki Murakami, Aimee Bender, Lydia Davis, Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie, Bill Buford.

We view the show as an experiment. We try things. There was the show where we taped for 24 hours in an all-night restaurant. And the show where we put a band together from the musicians' classified ads. And the show where we followed a group of swing voters for months, recorded their reactions to everything that happened in the election up through their final decision. And the show where one of our contributors went on a fast to find out if, in fact, fasting leads to enlightenment as promised.

We sometimes think of it as a documentary show for people who normally hate documentaries. A public radio show for people who don't necessarily care for public radio.

We're also producing a television show for the Showtime network, which will debut in 2007.

I can not tell you how much I love the idea!

Preview it here.

1 comment:

Skylar said...

This tells you how far out of the loop I have been...
TAL has a TV show? Well, rock my booty...people are always having good ideas when I'm not around.