"How in the world did you ever hear of it?" It's hard to tell whether he's being modest or just plain naïve, but host Ira Glass sounds surprised that anyone in Australia had come across This American Life before ABC's Radio National started airing it two months ago. Funny, considering how far-reaching the cult public radio show is.
Credited with launching the careers of authors David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell, the hour-long broadcast draws 1.8 million US listeners every week - with a further 660,000 people around the globe downloading the podcast and tens of thousands more streaming the shows.
Largely considered the forefathers of deconstructed storytelling, Glass and his band of producers each week put together a series of tales around a central theme - anything from break-ups to the war in Afghanistan. And while the staff readily admit the format "doesn't sound like something we'd want to listen to ... and it's our show", what results is often the most hilarious and emotionally captivating hour of radio you're likely to come across.
"At its heart they are stories, but we want them to play out like little movies," he says. "We want there to be really strong characters, and really surprising plot twists ... Some picture of the world that you don't know or didn't have."
The show's impact is most easily measured by the increasing popularity of short, narrative non-fiction – a fact not missed by those who stand to benefit from it. "I owe everything to Ira Glass. Everything," says David Sedaris. "It's handy, because that way if I were to win an Academy Award I just have to thank one person."
But while the show and its creator have been consistently hailed as a commercial and critical success, it took Glass's most ardent critics a little longer to come around. "My parents were completely against it from the start - and then for the first 15 years," laughs Glass. "They begrudgingly, after it became a national radio show and the New York Times wrote a story and I was on David Letterman, after all that happened my mum and my dad sheepishly came to me and said, ‘It's okay that you didn't go to med school. We think that was not a bad decision, you did fine.'"
This American Life starter pack!
Download some of the best TAL episodes from iTunes or This American Life
109: Notes on Camp
People who love camp say that non-camp people simply don't understand what's so amazing about camp. In this programme, they attempt to bridge the gap of misunderstanding between camp people and non-camp people.
172: 24 Hours at the Golden Apple
The producers document one day in a Chicago diner called the Golden Apple, starting at 5am and going until 5am the next morning. We hear from the waitress who has worked the graveyard shift for over two decades, the regular customers who come every day, the couples working out their problems, various assorted drunks, and, of course, cops.
Stories of babysitters, and what goes on while mom and dad are away that mum and dad never find out about.
199: House on Loon Lake
The entire show is dedicated to one long story, sort of a real-life Hardy Boys mystery. It involves a young boy, an abandoned house, and the mysterious family who once lived there but seemed to disappear without a trace.
203: Recordings for Someone
All the stories in this week's show center on personal recordings that one person made for just one other person. Including one foul-mouthed mum who takes major issue with The Little Mermaid.
Writer Starlee Kine on what makes the perfect break-up song and whether really sad music can actually make you feel better - with a cameo by Phil Collins! Plus, an eight-year-old author of a book about divorce and other stories from the heart of heartbreak.
361: Fear of Sleep
Mike Birbiglia got used to strange things happening to him when he slept - until something happened that almost killed him. This and other reasons to fear sleep, including bedbugs, The Shining, and mild-mannered husbands who turn into maniacs while asleep.