I am a huge fan of This American Life. I like it better than any current show on television. I listen to its podcast religiously. I have assigned certain episodes to students as homework. In one of my classes we created a podcast called The Global Issues Initiative, and I have said that if we can be even 1/100 as good as This American Life, I’d be happy.
So it’s not fun to write something critical of This American Life. And I don’t mean critical as in “wow that last episode really sucked,” but I mean critical that in some ways questions the journalistic integrity of the program. It all starts with this, the opening words on every podcast:
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As far as I can figure out, the radio broadcast of This American Life has only one sponsor, Saab. And I must say, I do enjoy how sincerely Ira Glass plugs for Saab when he reads them as their sponsor. However, the podcast episode, downloadable for free weekly, has two additional sponsors: audible.com and Anheuser-Busch.
So this is where I’m going to start sounding like a prude. Unfortunately, it is difficult for me to be honest about my thoughts on drugs and alcohol without sounding Puritan, prohibitionist, whatever-else-you-may-want-to-call-it-but-it-will-definitely-be-skeptical-and-critical, since I do not consume any drugs or alcohol. So be it.
My complaint is this. This American Life is hugely popular. It has been the top ranked podcast on iTunes for years, maybe occasionally getting bumped down to 2nd or 3rd, but it’s always in the top 3. They are so popular that I remember Ira talking about this idea to do a live television broadcast of This American Life’s TV show with radio extras thrown in, across the country in movie theaters. And they did it. I wanted to go but I wasn’t free that night. Either way, pretty ambitious for a free radio show.
So as far as I’m concerned, there is no way the show is in dire financial straits, regardless of how desperate Ira may sound when he’s begging people to donate so that they can keep providing the podcast free of charge. With this being said, it comes down to just 3 advertisers, and one of them happens to be America’s biggest beer company.
And this is where I think it gets down to integrity. This American Life is not filled with a bunch of dummies. They are incredibly media savvy and know what is going on in the advertising world. And yet they choose to give their podcast almost monopolistic advertising rights to a beer company? When I think of all the other more neutral wealthy companies that could have pitched in to support TAL, and that I am sure must have gotten into the bidding war, they choose as their opening spot Anheuser-Busch. Why?
Of course beer is not evil, and neither is Anheuser-Busch. But they do get criticized, and I think rightfully so, for doing everything within their advertising and marketing power to make beer consumption as cool, sexy, and hip as they possibly can. Their commercials at the Superbowl are hilarious and get kids fired up to start drinking beer, their beer. Now they are working on cornering the hip intellectual market as well, and it’s kind of disappointing to see This American Life step right into line. And as an aforementioned teacher who uses TAL episodes in class, it’s definitely a bummer to see that this is the company they’ve chosen to broadcast.
I’m not going to stop listening to the podcast, and I’m not going to stop playing it in my class. It’s too good, and it sums up things too well. The recent episodes on the economic crisis were particularly good, thanks in large part to Adam Davidson from Planet Money. But I am left with the disappointed disillusion that comes almost every time you find out that something you thought of as so cool is, like everything else, flawed.