App Review: “This American Life” finally releases content-heavy app

Many regular listeners of the long-running, popular NPR narratives show “This American Life” heavily depend on the show’s free iTunes podcast to keep up with the weekly programs. But for the past few years or so, it’s been hard not to notice that the show seems to be struggling finance-wise, as the host, Ira Glass, regularly pleads (or suggests) that listeners contribute or donate money to the show to help get the iTunes podcast free.

Well, it’s surprising that it took them this long, but the crew over at “This American Life” may have hit a small money jackpot, as they have finally released a “This American Life” iPhone app. At a seemingly pricey $2.99, the app is chock full of content and extras, and will be worth the price for any diehard fan or even a newcomer looking to ease their way into this cultural landmark of a radio show. (Can you tell this writer is a fan of the show?)

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Archive of Shows

Perhaps the biggest and most important feature in this app is its full archive of “This American Life” shows. This is a fairly big deal, as we’re talking about hundreds of shows, dating back to the very first broadcast in 1995. Though these are streams of the shows, not downloads, this is still a rather impressive feat and a sticking point for fans of the show who want to listen to a specific show on-demand.

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A very helpful tool for newcomers to the show is the “Favorites” and “By Contributor” options for searching broadcasts of “This American Life.” The producers of the show have put together lists of their absolute favorite shows they’ve done, more favorites, early show favorites, topical favorites (based on what’s going on in the news), and favorite shows that happened entirely in one place (for example, in the “Rest Stop” show, nine producers spend an entire weekend at one rest stop on the New York State Thruway interviewing workers, vactioners, and the like…it’s definitely a recommended show). Searching “By Contributor” lets you view and choose a show to listen to by the writers and performers who are featured in the show. You can narrow this down further by “The Short List” of favorite contributors, “Other Favorites,” or “Famouses,” featuring famous authors and personalities like Dave Eggers, Dan Savage, and David Sedaris. This is a great tool for fans of the show who can’t quite remember which show their favorite contributor did “that one essay” on.

Once you find a show to stream through the app, you also have the option of purchasing the show through iTunes. Furthermore, you can create your own Favorites list in the app by tagging specific shows as your Favorites, and you can share a link to a show with your friends by using the “Share It” option to post the show to your Twitter or Facebook feeds. The link goes back to that specific show’s page at ThisAmericanLife.org, where there is also a full archive of the radio shows. All of these options are incredibly fast, efficient, and without bugs, as far as I can tell. The audio streams hiccup from time to time, but never for more than a few seconds. The audio quality is slightly less impressive than that of the podcast, but it’s still not bad for what it is.


TV Shows

The radio show also launched a popular TV show spin-off on Showtime a few years back. It only lasted two seasons, with just six episodes each, but it definitely ranks up there with great nonfiction shows. The app features tidbits from the TV show, as well, though it’s not much to bark about. You can view a trailer for the season and/or the episode you’re looking at, but you can’t view the entire thing. There is a link to purchase the episode in iTunes or share it on Twitter or Facebook, but there’s not much about this feature that can’t get elsewhere.

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Extras

The TV Shows feature may not be all that great, but the Extras feature does include some cool bits from the TV show that most of us haven’t seen before. You can view both audio and video extras in this section, which are mostly time capsule sort of pieces, including David Sedaris’s very first broadcast ever with NPR that launched him into literary and critical success, Ira Glass’s first broadcast ever, and an interview Ira Glass did live with Terry Gross in 2000. Some of the cooler audio pieces also include an early early version of “This American Life” that Ira did before the show had been invented, and a shoutout from the production manager who gets a shoutout at the end of every “This American Life” episode, Mr. Torey Malatia.

The video extras are equally as cool, with video clips from some of the live productions the show has done in theatres over the years, deleted scenes/pieces from the TV show, and behind-the-scenes talk from the show producers about the adventures they had filming the TV show. I’m admittedly a huge fan of the show, and though I thought I had seen all there was to see about the show, much of these things were new to me. Note: You do need a wi-fi connection to view the video clips, for some reason, though the audio streams will work without one.


Blog

The “This American Life” blog is updated fairly frequently, and you can view the feed of blog posts through a tab included at the bottom of the app. Though this theme is carried throughout the app (like when sifting through the archive of shows by date), I love the “cards”-style of the blog, which allows you to flip through the blog posts from left to right. It’s a small detail, but it’s a fun one that exemplifies the overall attitude of the show itself.

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Live Stream

And probably one of the coolest parts of the app that might get overlooked is the option to live stream the “This American Life” show on Friday nights. But you can also live stream the rest of the content on WBEZ, the NPR station in Chicago that produces the show. There is a ticker at the top of this feature that counts down to the Friday live stream, and you can even set the app to remind you when the stream if airing.


Recap & Conclusion

Price: $2.99

Released: Feb. 1, 2010

Our Grade: A

Though the “This American Life” crew may be a bit late to the iPhone app game, this is a stellar app, in terms of using an iPhone app for true content to its full potential and in terms of pleasing fans of a specific media with more than just what they can get online. This show has been the No. 1 podcast on iTunes for years and years, and it’s sure to be a popular app for fans and an app that will lure newcomers into the show. And, hopefully, this app will help fill some financial hole and get Ira to stop begging us (those of us who haven’t donated yet, ahem) for cash.






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