”Well, from WBEZ, in the glorious city of Chicago, Illinois. The name of this show is Your Radio Playhouse. I'm your emcee. I'm your emcee, Ira Glass.”
Your Radio what?
It’s true, This American Life was initially called Your Radio Playhouse arguably the kind of chintzy name that harks back to detergent sponsored radio dramas of the 1940s, perhaps starring Orson Welles and although there’s little in these first sixteen episodes that isn’t about this American life, the title does point towards a slightly different tone.
Yet everything else about that first episode is familiar. They choose a theme and present all kinds of stories around that theme, structured in acts, the original Your Radio Playhouse idea explaining why they have acts in the first place. Here’s how Ira describes their mission statement in the opening episode:
“OK, the idea of this show, this new little show, is stories, some by journalists and documentary producers, like myself, some just regular people telling their own little stories, some by artists, and writers, and performers of all different kinds. And the idea is we're going to bring you stuff you're not going to find anywhere else. And there is also going to be music”
That hasn’t change much in seventeen years.
But Your Radio Playhouse, still only broadcast in Chicago and not yet syndicated was still finding its feet. At the top of episode 13, Ira explains that because the show also has music and stories, it's been moved to a new timeslot before A Prairie Home Companion because the schedulers believe the listeners of the latter programme will find this show to be on a similar wavelength.
The collaboration with Planet Money is years in the future.
There’s an even greater emphasis on fiction, found audio and in places, poetry. Episode #7, Quitting, concludes with Ira reading Philip Larkin's poem "Poetry of Departures" and in the middle of #12, Animals, is a whimsical play by David Sedaris about an animal court. Which isn’t to say such things don’t appear later, but they’re rarely the cornerstone of a programme.
Similarly, there isn’t yet a recognisable team of familiar contributors, with Ira very much the primary presenter throughout. The only other “regular” in these early episode is Sedaris and its quite a surprise when Nancy Updike wanders on halfway through #13, Love, to talk “about condom use ... or the lack thereof” in an unscripted piece. Many of these pieces are unscripted.
Surprisingly, there's isn't much in these early episodes which feels especially of the moment. #8, New Year purports to be review of the previous year but the issues raised still have timeless quality. #9 dedicates itself to playing sections of comedienne Julia Sweeney monologues about cancer (hers and her brothers) which also doesn't go away.
What actually dates the shows is the bit after the acknowledgements. To obtain a copy of an episode, we’re told we have to call WBEZ direct or email to an address at The Well, one of the very earliest online communities, the grandparent of social networks. Oh, and said episode is supplied on cassette and there’s no mention of cost.
In project terms it’s worth noting that not all of these episode are called Your Radio Playhouse because a number of them have been repeated in syndication after the name change and its these repeats with rerecorded announcements which are featured on the website. Sometimes it seems as though it might be a comment on the quality of the programme, but sometimes it’s because the content is particularly time sensitive.
One of the not repeated, Love, is almost unlistenable, beginning with Ira taking the piss out of a self-help tape for singletons followed by a twenty minute act about sex surrogates, the aforementioned Updike piece and then at the end ten minutes on a wedding in a basement which has enough material for whole hour and might have later but becomes something of an after thought.
Then there’s #11, Enemies, in which how an accusation of homosexuality at school led to one friend turning on another is narrated around a station pledge drive in which Ira flirts with contributor Shirley Jahad in a phone room, at one point turning into Vince Vaughn in Swingers: “Keep going, baby” He coos, “You're on a roll. You're on such a roll here. Sure.” which is the kind of thing you can’t unhear.
The turning point comes with #16, Economy, which as the title might suggest tosses out much of the freewheeling whimsy and offers the first attempt at the kind of reporting which would be heard in the most recent episode #461, Take The Money and Run For Office, which are more about utilising human stories to provide background on current affairs.
The tone is still relatively loose (there’s a meta moment when Ira comments on his own presenting style) but it’s a clear indication of a new direction of travel, of seeking a less nebulous shape. It's also the first occasion when "the past" really seeps into our story. This is an episode which hasn't been repeated because of the ever changing political landscape.
Economy opens with a discussion amongst voters on the lack of excitement about then-presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Bob Dole (some things really don’t change), then has a couple of temps produce stories as way of illustrating deficiencies in the structure of that industry and investigates employment opportunites at a shopping mall.
At the close of the episode, Ira says for what must have been the first time, “I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life”. Since Ira uses the original title at the beginning, what must listeners at the time have thought? What did Ira mean? They’d have their answer in the following instalment in an episode the website now calls “Name Change / No Theme”.
Five Best Acts in this run:
1: NEW BEGINNINGS:
In which Ira asks Joe Franklin, the longest serving talk show host in history for tips on how to do a good job. It’s adorable and exceedingly prescient considering the ensuing longevity of This American Life.
Eee-thee-oop-eeaa. A perfectly paced piece of the kind which would become the show’s stock in trade as Sandra Tsing Loh describes a family holiday in which parents drag her to the African nation. Her mother’s pronunciation of said nation has now become my own default pronunciation for said nation. Eee-thee-oop-eeaa.
For reasons which constitute a spoiler but are well worth it if you can persevere with the pledge drive and Ira saying things like “Hey, honey.” All I’ll say is that it confirms what I’ve always known. That bullies are rarely aware of the hurt they’re inflicting and how the pain wrought on a child stays with them for the rest of their lives.
14: ACCIDENTAL DOCUMENTARIES:
BERRIEN SPRINGS, MICHIGAN, CIRCA 1967.
As the website says: “A Midwestern family records a "letter on tape" to their son, who is in medical school in California. Three decades later, the recording somehow ends up in a thrift store. The tape gives a complicated portrait of what goes on among the family members.” Funny, sweet and true and with a surprising conclusion.
The story of Dawn Langley Simmons (a writer who’s parents were servants at Sissinghurst Castle, the estate of biographer Harold Nicolson and his novelist wife, Vita Sackville-West) from the point of view of a journalist, Jack Hitt who lived in the small town where she settled in the US. Dawn attracted rumour and scandal for apparently having a sex change and entering a mixed race marriage. Hitt uncovers the truth, or at least some version of it.