Crafting Feel-Good Multiculturalism in This American Life

Megan Alpine

What is the cultural appeal—and what are the political effects—of Chicago Public Media’s This American Life? A critique of white liberal middle-class representations of difference.

This American Life: "Funny. Dramatic. Surprising. True."

“I find This American Life to be very comforting in a way. It connects me to people that I’ve never met, but I feel like now know in some special way. I look forward to long drives where I can listen to Ira Glass introduce me to people and their stories. TAL helps me stop and celebrate the small things, that I sometimes take for granted, with [its] stories.”

This American Life listener, 2007[1]

As a radio program that brings together in-depth reporting, compelling fictional storytelling, and meticulous editing practices, it is not difficult to understand why Chicago Public Media’s This American Life (TAL) has attracted so many fans – 2.2 million radio listeners and over a million podcast downloads weekly, the show’s website claims.[1] Among the most common sentiments TAL listeners voice, one study finds, is the way listening to the show makes them feel good; TAL does this, listeners explain, by illuminating “universal” human experiences through stories told from diverse perspectives.[2] As a TAL listener myself, I was drawn to the show each week not just by a desire to hear expert analysis of current events or to learn about a new topic. What moved me to listen was more complex and difficult to articulate: a desire to feel as though I were stepping into another person’s world; to understand a point of view that differed from my own; to become a better informed and more open-minded person, even. In short, I was compelled by the promise of a feel-good experience. Listening casually to the show, it is easy to become engrossed in the stories that comprise each episode—what TAL calls “acts”—without thinking about them critically. However, more critically engaging with TAL allows listeners to see through the show’s feel-good haze and interrogate the significance of the show as a social phenomenon. As TAL has covered a wide range of politically pressing topics (including the 2008 financial crisis, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and US immigration policies, for example), I am led to ask: what kind of politics does TAL produce? In other words, what does TAL “do?”

These questions, of course, assume that TAL “does” something with impact beyond the temporary experience of listening to the show. A closer look at the show’s listeners suggests that part of what TAL does is appeal to a particular target audience. Like public radio more generally, TAL attracts a specific demographic of listeners: its audience tends to be white, middle- or upper-class, highly-educated, and liberal.[3] What about TAL, then, makes it appealing to this demographic of listeners? Looking more closely at how TAL crafts its feel-good tone for its audience, I am struck by several recurring elements of the program: its nostalgic feel, its gestures to multiculturalism, and its universal humanist sensibility. In its “old-fashioned” radio format, the show creates a feeling of “pastness,” appealing to nostalgia even while presenting stories about current events[4]; in its content, TAL brings together diverse, multicultural perspectives to speak to a common, “universal” theme about human experience. Together, these elements provide TAL’s audience with a feel-good listening experience that, at the surface, appears to tell a story about universal human experiences. The show creates this illusion, however, by making its stories assimilable to a white, middle-class perspective. TAL thus produces a troubling politics: it allows listeners to see themselves as tolerant, culturally aware, well-informed, and self-reflexive, though spares them from both recognition of their own privileged position and the more difficult task of engaging in substantive self-reflection, which would interrupt the feel-good experience of listening to the show.

Who listens to This American Life?

First broadcast in 1995, TAL emerged from a particular history of public radio in the US marked by shifts in its organizational values, structure, sources of funding, and targeted audiences. National Public Radio (NPR) has undergone significant structural changes since its founding in 1970; these include a “corporate reorganization” in 1975, federal funding cuts and resulting “debt crisis” in the 1980s, and a growth in corporate and listener funding in the 1990s.[5] Following the debt crisis of 1983, public radio dramatically changed its organization to a more decentralized, competitive model in which local public radio stations purchased individual programs from NPR and from its competitor, American Public Radio.[6] Adapting to this new model, NPR made increased use of audience research in the 1980s and 90s, ultimately leading the organization to move away from its original mission of representing national “diversity.” One audience study, “Audience 88,” found that “no public radio station should try to serve multiple audiences all by itself,” thus encouraging local public radio stations to narrow the types of programming they offered.[7] Public radio managers, following the advice of audience researchers, increasingly designed programs to appeal to a specific demographic of devoted listeners who were most likely to donate money to the station.

In the early 2000s, historian Michael McCauley finds, these devoted listeners were largely “highly educated baby boomers” who turned to public radio out of a nostalgic longing for “the sense of idealism and community they felt while in college.”[8] NPR appealed to this sense of nostalgia and idealism by presenting “long-form” journalism that stood in contrast to the increasingly abbreviated sound-bite format of commercial media sources. Public radio’s long-form approach, which communication scholar Kevin Barnhurst traces to the 1980s, placed increased focus on journalists themselves, rather than facts, through “interpretative reporting” and “dramatization” of stories.[9]

TAL emerged in 1995 in the midst of a second budget crisis in public radio, in which state funding for public radio declined significantly.[10] In spite of these conditions, the show quickly attracted a devoted following of listeners. Journalist Marc Fisher described the program’s early national success: “It won a Peabody Award in its first year. In its second year it snared a $350,000, three-year grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – more than double the money Glass had applied for.”[11] Arguing that TAL was “at the vanguard of a shift in American journalism,” Fisher found that the program effectively responded to the public’s declining faith in mainstream commercial journalism by offering “something unfiltered,” with “an unmoderated feeling, [and] a nonlinear, nonhierarchical, unedited sensibility.”[12] TAL’s listeners, demographically similar to those of public radio nationally, may be drawn to the show by the same “idealism” and “nostalgic longing” for the radio of their youth.[13]

Like most NPR listeners, TAL’s audience tends to be white, “highly educated, socially conscious, [and] politically active,” and with the majority TAL listeners holding at least a four-year college degree.[14] As of 2007, the average age of TAL listeners was 47.[15] This “liberal” demographic of listeners closely resembles NPR’s targeted audience crafted in response to the public radio reforms of the 1980s. Through its content and form, TAL appeals to the particular demographics of its fans by both facilitating a nostalgic, self-reflexive mode of reception and constructing a multicultural-universalist ideology.

Nostalgia and Distance in TAL’s Form

As a program comprised primarily of present-day nonfiction stories, TAL seems to have little in common with more obviously nostalgic media forms. Unlike the “nostalgia films” Frederic Jameson describes, which recall an idealized 1950s suburban America, the content of TAL makes no explicit reference to a particular historical period.[16] Instead, TAL appears to embrace new technologies; the program attracts a significant portion of its listeners as an Internet podcast, for instance. What makes TAL “nostalgic” is the mode of reception it facilitates. In her analysis of TAL podcast listeners, Kristine Johnson argues that the show encourages listeners to engage fully with and “visualize” its long-form stories; this mode of reception, she finds, harkens back to the “Golden Age of Radio” of the 1930s and 40s, before the rise of television and the transformation of radio into a music-dominated, “background” medium.[2] Even as they listen to stories about the present day, then, TAL listeners engage with the program from the position of an idealized construction of a past era in which listeners devoted their full (rather than partial and distracted) attention to radio programs.

TAL encourages its audience to understand the program as “old-fashioned” storytelling by facilitating a fully engaged, “nostalgic” mode of reception, but also by subtly reminding listeners about the “old-fashionedness” of radio programs like TAL through the stories it presents. In episode 61, “Fiasco!,” host Ira Glass interviews Matt Joseph, host of another public program called “All About Cars.” Joseph tells the story of Wisconsin Public Radio’s decision to move his long-running program to another time slot in order to make room for the more popular program, “Car Talk.” TAL’s story appeals to nostalgia for the past through both its content, the story of the demise of “All About Cars,” and through the “old-fashioned,” idealistic perspective of its host, Joseph. Through Joseph, Glass (who in turn represents TAL) vicariously adopts a nostalgic perspective for a past “Golden Age of Radio” in which local radio programs could appeal to a limited audience that may not match the demographics of contemporary public radio’s preferred audience. In this way, TAL signals its listeners to become self-consciously aware that they are listening to “old-fashioned” storytelling – even as TAL may have more in common with “Car Talk” than it does with “All About Cars.”

Beyond its nostalgic content, TAL creates a vaguely nostalgic “feel” that can be understood in the context of Jameson’s and Slavoj Žižek’s analyses of “nostalgia for the present.”[18] Revisiting Jameson’s analysis of the 1981 movie, Body Heat, Žižek argues that this film presents a story about the present day with the aesthetics of 1940s film noir; he writes, “Instead of transposing a fragment of the past into a timeless, mythic present, we view the present itself as if it were part of the mythic past.”[19] Body Heat thus does not draw from the particular content of 1940s films, Žižek argues, but nevertheless achieves a nostalgic effect by crafting what Jameson calls a feeling of “pastness.”[20] By using a mode of storytelling that listeners readily recognize as “old-fashioned” in order to tell stories about the present, TAL similarly encourages its listeners to understand these stories from a “nostalgic distance” and as “mythic past.”

This “nostalgic” mode of reception introduces a layer of mediation between the listener and the program’s storytellers. In this mode, rather than directly engaging with the program’s stories and storytellers, TAL listeners are invited to self-consciously “see” themselves listening, adopting the perspective of an imagined “‘naive’ spectator”[21] (or, in this case, listener) from the “Golden Age of Radio.” Following Žižek’s analysis, I find that TAL encourages its listeners both to engage with its stories as though they took place in the past and to imagine themselves to be listening to the program in the same way that someone from an earlier era would have listened to the radio. The show thus facilitates a mode of reception that subtly de-contextualizes the events recounted by its storytellers, encouraging listeners to displace its stories to the fantasy realm of “mythic past” rather than recognize their present-day relevance.

TAL further encourages its audience to engage with its stories from a mediated distance because the program assumes and constructs listeners who see themselves as self-reflexive and open-minded.[22] Episode 199, “The House on Loon Lake,” exemplifies how TAL hails a self-reflexive listener. Unlike most episodes, “Loon Lake” tells just one story that begins with Adam Beckman’s discovery of a mysteriously abandoned house in New Hampshire as a young boy, narrated by Beckman himself. During the hour, Beckman traces the 20-year saga of his attempt to solve the mystery of who lived there and why they abandoned the house. He concludes by reflecting on what he has learned from “solving” the mystery of the house and how his perspective has changed since his childhood. Beckman realizes, through critical self-reflection, that his own limited perspective had influenced his understanding of the abandoned house and its owners. Situating himself as an interpreter of other people’s stories, Beckman likens himself to the TAL listener who occupies a similar position listening to the program. Like Beckman, listeners engage in making sense of other people’s lives in listening to the show – and, also like him, they are able to reflect on themselves and be self-critical.

TAL’s facilitation of a self-reflexive mode of reception assumes and appeals to a specific audience: educated and upper- or middle-class Americans. As Pierre Bourdieu and Michele Lamont describe in their analyses of “taste” in French and American culture, educated upper- and middle-class audiences, compared to working- and lower-class audiences, display distinct preferences in cultural artifacts and different modes of engaging with “culture.”[23] Bourdieu finds that upper- and middle-class audiences dismiss immediate, “natural” enjoyment of cultural artifacts in favor of engaging with culture by way of a “decoding” process accessible only to those who (like them) possess the “cultural competence” needed to grasp an artifact’s “meaning.”[24] In the case of TAL, this “meaning” extends beyond the details of any of the stories that comprise an episode; it can only be grasped when, through a process of “decoding,” listeners relate different stories to the unifying, universal-humanist “theme” of the episode.

By reconciling multiculturalism with universal humanism, the program produces a particular political ideology—what I call “multicultural universalism”—to appeal to a liberal, educated, white, and upper- or middle-class audience.

TAL’s facilitation of a nostalgic mode of reception and its hailing of a self-reflexive, critical listener serve to position listeners at a distance from the program’s stories and storytellers. By hearing the program’s stories from a “nostalgic distance,” listeners can sincerely and self-reflexively listen to TAL’s storytellers without recognizing the continuing, present-day relevance of their stories. Further, this distanced mode of reception allows listeners to feel as though they can understand a diversity of “multicultural” perspectives and abstract from these particular stories to grasp the larger “meaning” of the show: a universal humanist ideology. By reconciling multiculturalism with universal humanism, the program produces a particular political ideology—what I call “multicultural universalism”—to appeal to a liberal, educated, white, and upper- or middle-class audience.

Multicultural-Universalist Content

Presenting stories from multiple perspectives on wide range of subjects, and often incorporating several points of view within the telling of one story, TAL constructs an outwardly “multicultural” ideology. Rather than establishing one reliable narrator who provides the listener with the “Truth,” the show offers multiple and often competing points of view in its presentation of a story and does not obviously privilege one voice over another. In this way, TAL seems to challenge the idea of universal “Truth” by instead offering multiple “truths.” Episode 416, “Iraq After Us,” offers the contrasting perspectives of Abu Abed, a leader of the Sons of Iraq, and Colonel Kiel, of the US military, in a way that illustrates the program’s “multiculturalism.”Abed articulates his reasoning for believing that the US would offer him a leadership position with the new Iraqi police force, while Kiel states the US military did not seriously consider Abed for this role. TAL edits in the voice of reporter Nancy Updike alongside Abed’s and Kiel’s voices, but rather than arbitrating “Truth,” Updike’s commentary contextualizes Abed’s and Kiel’s comments without situating one perspective as more credible than the other. Updike presents herself as respecting both men’s points of view and leaves it to the listener to negotiate among and make meaning of these divergent “truths.”

Offering a diversity of perspectives is essential to TAL’s ability to hail a middle-class, white, educated, liberal, and “multiculturalist” listener. Surveying listeners, Johnson found that many respondents enjoyed listening to the program because of the “connection” they felt to a diverse range of storytellers. One respondent wrote, “I love that the show is a cornucopia of knowledge about so many different aspects of life, and different types of people. I find that even with such diversity, the staff manages to create stories that I relate to, every time.” Another respondent similarly emphasized the program’s multiculturalism: “It genuinely helps me to understand different places, people, and perspectives.”[25] Each listener who commented on the diversity of stories, however, also remarked on how the program brought together these different points of view to create a feeling of universal humanism. In the case of the latter comment, the respondent continued: “As a secular humanist, it helps reaffirm my faith in the universality of the human experience.”[26] Multiculturalism in TAL, rather than undermining the program’s feel-good universal humanism, serves to facilitate it.

Central to TAL’s feel-good universal humanism is each episode’s organization around a “theme.” In episode 175, “Babysitting,” Glass introduces the episode and its “universal” theme by describing “a ritual that happens in millions of American families, everyday: parents dropping off kids at the babysitters.” The last of the episode’s three babysitting “acts” features the story of a woman, Carol, who as a teenager made up a story about a fake family that she babysat to escape the restrictions of her overbearing mother. This story, Glass comments, “gets to babysitting in a big, big way.” Throughout the interview, Glass (who reports this story) presses Carol and her brother Myron to reflect on why they invented the family, why their mother acted as she did, and what this fake family “meant.” Offering his own interpretation of their story, Glass expands on his earlier comment that this story is about babysitting “in a big way” by claiming that this brother and sister acted as “babysitters” for mother. Positioning himself as a self-conscious listener and interpreter of their story, Glass draws from Carol’s and Myron’s particular situations to construct a larger, universal humanist message to which listeners can relate.

TAL’s audience can be described as occupying what Žižek calls a “privileged universal position” that allows middle-class, white, educated, liberal, and “multiculturalist” listeners to maintain a “patronizing Eurocentrist distance” from the various “Others” who share their stories on TAL.

Through its use of particular, “multicultural” stories to craft a universal-humanist message that speaks to an episode’s “theme,” TAL reconciles tensions between multiculturalism and universal humanism. TAL highlights details that make its stories relatable to its assumed audience, thus constructing a narrative that reveals more about the program’s listeners than it does about the storytellers presented in each episode. TAL’s audience can be described as occupying what Žižek calls a “privileged universal position” that allows middle-class, white, educated, liberal, and “multiculturalist” listeners to maintain a “patronizing Eurocentrist distance” from the various “Others” who share their stories on TAL.[27] By situating its audience in this all-knowing, “universal position,” TAL enables listeners to feel as though they can understand and critically evaluate a diversity of perspectives without needing to acknowledge the particularity of their own privileged position.

This American Life does more than entertain and inform; it constructs a particular “liberal” political ideology that reconciles multiculturalism with universal humanism. Through its deployment of an “old-fashioned” storytelling form and multicultural-universalist content, the program hails a white, middle-class, liberal, and educated listener who engages with its stories from a nostalgic and self-reflexive distance. This distanced mode of reception reflects the aesthetic preferences, described by Bourdieu and Lamont, of educated upper- and middle-class audiences. Rather than encouraging immediate, unmediated engagement with its stories and storytellers, TAL facilitates a self-conscious mode of listening in which listeners must “decode” the stories in order to grasp the “meaning” of each episode’s theme. This mode of reception assumes a particular demographics of listeners: those who possess the requisite “cultural competence” to “get” the meaning of the program.[28]

The case of TAL illuminates both the techniques by which a distanced mode of reception is crafted and its ideological effects. The superficiality of the program’s engagement with diverse perspectives allows listeners to reconcile “multiculturalism” with universal humanism, suggesting that, in spite of our differences, there is a shared “Truth” about humanity that unites us. This implied common humanity glosses over difference in order to privilege a white, liberal, middle-class perspective that reflects the demographics of the show’s listeners and facilitates their ability to identify with the stories and storytellers on the program. TAL’s glossing of difference is particularly problematic because it gives the appearance of presenting multiple truths and providing insight into other people’s lives, but ultimately undermines this “multicultural” multiplicity by making its stories assimilable to a white middle-class perspective.

Unpacking the ideological work in TAL highlights the ambivalent, uneasy place of multiculturalism and self-reflexivity in the landscape of mainstream liberal values in the US. In order to be made palatable to a white, upper- and middle-class audience, these values must be emptied of their critical content. More critical engagement with multiculturalism and self-reflexivity in the program would have the potential to implicate the show’s audience as complicit in the reproduction of the social inequalities they claim to oppose. Rather than facilitating meaningful self-reflection among its audience, however, TAL absolves its listeners of potential guilt and discomfort through its construction of a feel-good tone.

Here, TAL misses an opportunity to provide more critical, if uncomfortable, analyses of complex political issues, which might inspire listeners to take action to address social problems. Instead, in bringing together a multicultural-inflected version of universal humanism and an overarching feeling of “pastness” that encourages listeners to hear stories about the present as though they took place in the past, TAL quietly produces a politics that draws in white, liberal, middle- and upper-class listeners. Precisely because of its widespread popularity and lack of controversy, the case of TAL exemplifies the insidious ways media forms that outwardly appear to be politically neutral can re-inscribe status quo relations of domination. Rather than act, all that listeners need to do to make the world a better place, the show implies, is listen.

References and Footnotes

  1. As cited in Kristine C. Johnson, “Imagine This: Radio Revisited through Podcasting,” (M.S. thesis, Texas Christian University, 2007), 36.
  2. “About Us,” Chicago Public Media, accessed July 8, 2015,
  3. Johnson, “Imagine This,” 3, 48.
  4. Marc Fisher, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” American Journalism Review 21 (1999): 44; Johnson, “Imagine This,” 76-7.
  5. Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 19.
  6. Michael McCauley, NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 39; 57-64; 84.
  7. Ibid., 76.
  8. Ibid., 9.
  9. Ibid., 2.
  10. Kevin Barnhurst, “The Makers of Meaning: National Public Radio and the New Long Journalism, 1980-2000,” Political Communication 20 (2003): 18,21.
  11. McCauley, NPR, 89.
  12. Fisher, “Wonderful Life,” 42.
  13. Ibid., 42-3.
  14. McCauley, NPR, 2.
  15. Fisher, “Wonderful Life,” 44; McCauley, NPR, 2; Johnson, “Imagine This,” 76-7.
  16. Marc Fisher, Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation (New York: Random House, 2007), 266.
  17. Jameson, Postmodernism, 19.
  18. Johnson, “Imagine This,” 3, 48.
  19. Jameson, Postmodernism, 279.
  20. Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 112.
  21. Jameson, Postmodernism, 19.
  22. Zizek, Looking Awry, 112.
  23. See Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Oakland: University of California Press, 1984); Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).
  24. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984); Michele Lamont, Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and American Upper-Middle Class (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  25. Bourdieu, Distinction, 2, 5.
  26. Johnson, “Imagine This,” 37.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Slavoj Zizek, “Multiculturalism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism,” New Left Review 225 (1997): 44.
  29. Bourdieu, Distinction, 4.