Why I Bought the ‘This American Life’ iPhone App

A few weeks ago I bought the This American Life app for my iPhone. It was an easy sell; as soon as I found out about it, I went to the App Store and downloaded it — happily, even — for $2.99.

This isn’t the first time I’ve paid for an app — I crossed the near-infinite desert from free to paid months ago — but in buying and using this one, I’ve learned some things that could shed some light on why someone would decide to pay for content rather than get it free.

I bought the app without hesitation because I made a quick calculation: The convenience of being able to stream any episode, without having to sync my iPhone with my computer, was worth a few bucks.

I’ve since realized that I also bought a better experience, one that probably will strengthen my relationship with the “This American” Life brand.

I already knew and trusted the brand. Off and on for about 12 years, “This American Life” has brought me stories that I wouldn’t hear anywhere else and made me think more deeply about how people live.

My problem was listening when it was convenient. I’ve never scheduled my weekend around the broadcast time, so I missed a lot of shows back when the radio was the only way to listen.

Podcasting changed that. If I planned ahead and synced my iPod, I could pass hours in the car immersed in interesting stories. At this point, I was a loyal listener, but an irregular one — I could go weeks without hearing Ira Glass.

When I moved to Tampa a few years ago, my long commute rekindled my connection with the show. With a half-hour drive each way, it fit perfectly into my schedule. Updating the podcast was part of my routine.

Then I moved closer to work, and my podcast habit fell victim to my shorter commute. (“It’s not you, Ira — it’s me.”) Now that I’m out of the syncing habit, I have to make sure that I have a store of shows built up for car trips.

Here’s what the app does:

Helps me find the best content

I could see that the app finally would solve the convenience problem: any show, any time.

It also makes it easy to find the best of “This American Life.” As good as the show is, there are occasional broken-bat singles among the home runs.

The app sorts episodes in several ways: staff favorites, current events, based on a single place, by contributor, even famous contributors (which the app calls “famouses”). Every episode I mark as my own favorite is kept in one place, too. I can find what I want to listen to rather than just listen to the latest free podcast.

The app enables users to share links to stories via Twitter and Facebook, which also could be used to surface quality content. I’d like to be able to browse by the most-shared. What if users could rate the shows and I could browse by the top-rated ones? Or if I could see which shows my Facebook friends recommended, a “This American Life” version of Times People?

Changes how I experience content

The podcast never changed how I experienced “This American Life” stories. The app, however, encourages me to browse the content by reading the blog, browsing the categories of stories, flipping through the “extras” (which includes early stories by Glass and longtime contributor David Sedaris) or watching clips of the TV show that aired on Showtime.

The Web site has some of these features, too, but I’m rarely in the mode to hunt for more shows at my desk. I’m more likely to flip through these features while I’m waiting in line somewhere. And the app makes that easier because it …

Pushes content in front of me

The app has a countdown that tells me how long I have until the next episode streams live. That may be a bit much, but remember that I never managed to schedule my weekend around the broadcast time.

The countdown does serve to remind me that a new show is on the way. If I’m really interested, I can have the app pop an alert on my phone when the new show is ready. (I do wish it told me what the next show is about.)

Helps me be the consumer I wanted to be

This app enabled me to act on a good intention that I’ve never followed through on before: to support the show in some way. Periodically, Ira Glass opens the podcast by pleading listeners to donate just a small bit — even a dollar — to offset the $130,000 it costs every year to supply the podcast. I’ve meant to contribute, but I’m rarely near a computer when I’m listening. (Remember: convenience.)

I bet there are more listeners like me. I saw this comment posted to the YouTube video in which Glass shows off the app: “Always felt guilty about not contributing. I feel good about buying this app.”

If there were a “donate” function within the app, I’d probably use it. It could even rely on text messaging, the same way that millions were donated for relief in Haiti.

I realize how little I contributed; Apple took its cut, and developing a good iPhone app isn’t cheap. But even if my $2.99 supports only this delivery method rather than the overall storytelling, doesn’t that help “This American Life”?

Doesn’t cannibalize other delivery platforms

As content producers migrate content to other devices, they worry they’ll erode the existing audience.

Yet I’m not in the market for the on-air show. I have no idea when the local radio station airs “This American Life.” For me, the choice was to listen to the podcast or not to listen. Now it will be listen to the app or not at all.

That’s not the case with everyone. As others change their consumption habits, local TV and radio stations may get squeezed.

I can see, however, that the people who designed this app made some careful decisions about what it can and can’t do. For instance, I can only watch clips of the show that aired on Showtime, unless I click the button to “own” (as in “buy”) the show.

And I can’t save any of the radio episodes to listen to them offline, like when I’m on a plane. To do that, I need to buy the show. The price is the same as it is online: 99 cents.

I admit, I’ll probably continue subscribing to the podcast for that reason — which means they still need some of my money to support all that bandwidth. Keep up those appeals, Ira.

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