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This American Life, the podcast giant

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  • This American Life, the podcast giant

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    In broad terms a podcast will into one of two categories.

    The first is the rebroadcast of a radio or television program. It goes to air, then's made available as media on demand. Think Hamish & Andy, or Late Night Live on the ABC's Radio National network.
    Often now if it's a prerecorded program, the release is simultaneous.

    Second is the podcast created to straight online. The Sweetest Plum produced in Australia by Declan Fay and Nick Maxwell a notable success., and one show we'll look at in the future.

    This American Life fits into category one and in many ways it sets the bar for what can be achieved. But it's also got a solid claim to be part of category two.

    Hosted by the person who started it in 1995 Ira Glass, it's produced in the studios of WBEZ in Chicago, and rebroadcast around the US. Those programs are also available as a podcast globally. In the US, the program estimates it has a million downloads a week. If you take into account its fans around the world that number is significantly higher.

    Its format is pretty simple Each show has an idea, or theme. Producers and contributors then come up with their take on that theme. Mostly it's three or four segments, variably an interview, a multi talent package, a monologue, often a mix of all. Different stories, same theme.

    Sometimes one story stands out, and the complete program will be devoted to it. This week, program number 534 A Not So Simple Majority, looks at the battle for control of a New York district school board, parents and lawyers, Hassidic Jews versus Latinos and African Americans, anti semitism, campaigning, lobbying, feuds and standoffs. It doesn't matter if you're in Melbourne or New York, are an elected politician, or someone who'd cross the road to avoid one, what you hear is a story of politics in all its ugly glory. You mightn't like what you're hearing, but you can't turn it off.

    The program's producers have also at times taken their proven model and completely ignored it. In 2003 program number 241, 20 acts in 60 minutes, gave its audiences just that.

    What makes This American Life the success it is, is that it gives its audience great stories, told with passion and compassion. Ignore the fact its name points to a country many people aren't fans of. Stories about those unhappy with the way the USA conducts itself on the world's stage are also told. This isn't an exercise in the patriotic, hand on your heart bullshit which makes people cringe. It gives you a picture of a country, and people, facing the same sort of challenges you face.

    I'd love to be able to tell you that there's a homegrown version of This American Life. I'd also love to be able to say that one's being planned. But if I did I'd be fooling myself and you.

    Australian commercial radio's focus is on footy, talkback, brekky crews, hits of the 70's an 80's and loudly voiced right wing opinion. You can forget about it ever happening there.

    I can remember plenty of people at the ABC talking about their desire to emulate the show, but I feel safe saying it'll never happen. Cuts to the national broadcaster means it doesn't have the staff who can dedicate the time, money and effort needed to recreate the This American Life magic, and the expectation the Abbott government will cut even deeper puts that dream further out of touch.

    But, it could happen on Australian community radio. If someone has the skills to get the sponsorship support, the journalistic know how to find and tell such stories, and the friends to help, there's no reason why not.

    But let's finish close to where we started. rebroadcast radio or dedicated podcast. It's really a rubbish argument. Great radio, means great content. For a podcast it's the same. It doesn't where the starting point is.

    One final point Last year Ira Glass was in Australia for a number of events, including sellout Q & A's in Melbourne. During one of these he asked the audience to indicate by show of hands how many listened to his program when it went to air on Radio National and how many listened by downloading it and online. Those there tell me well over three quarters of the crowd gave a massive hands up to the podcast.


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