Creative Accounting: This American Life Episode 388

M. Rebekah Otto
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If you are reading this magazine, you’ve probably listened to an episode of This American Life, a radio show which debuted on WBEZ Chicago in 1995. It was nationally syndicated in 1996 and has since been briefly transmuted to television as well. Each episode presents a theme and a few stories on that theme, from babysitting to topography to apologies.

You may have caught the episode in August 2009 in which reporters camped out at the Plattekill Travel Plaza in Plattekill, New York, recording the stories of travellers, rest-stop employees, and everyone in between. The staff reporters included Sean Cole, Ira Glass, Lisa Pollack, Aaron Scott, and Nancy Updike. Four additional freelance reporters were brought on for this episode: Jay Allison, Jonathan Goldstein, Nazanin Rafsanjani, and Greg Warner.

While most episodes include some travel and field reporting, this particular show sent nine reporters to a remote spot in upstate New York. The numbers below are the complete budget from episode 338: “Rest Stop.” The staff reporters traveled eighty miles from New York City to the Plattekill Travel Plaza. The rental cars and coffees were pro forma, but there was one large unexpected cost: the chase car. When reporter Sean Cole got into the car with one of his interviewees, the other producers had to hire a car to follow him and bring him back. The chase-car driver required a number of unexpected costs, outlined below.

In addition to the costs for each particular episode, the radio show has numerous overhead expenses. Every year the staff of This American Life records twenty-six new episodes, so the overhead costs listed below are one twenty-sixth of their annual budget.

This budget is the twelfth installment of Creative Accounting, a series dedicated to the financial ledgers behind the creative industries. In the end, we will compile the accounts into a single volume, published by Believer Books.


—M. Rebekah Otto

TRAVEL $2,734.01


New York State Thruway $16.63

George Washington Bridge $6.00

New York State Thruway $9.00

These additional tolls were paid to the driver of the chase car.

Toll paid by reporter Greg Warner $10.00

Rental cars

two Rental Cars from Avis $973.36

Reimbursed mileage for reporters

Woods Hole, MA, to Plattekill, round trip $341.00

Montreal to Plattekill, round trip $346.50


Hampton Inn $1,031.52

Six rooms

FREELANCE $8,650.00

four Reporters $7,800.00

Chase-Car driver $400.00

Tape Transcriber $200.00

Music Consultant $250.00

MEALS $172.30

Katherine’s Coffee $11.44

Matthew’s Coffee $12.95

two Roy Rogers Burgers $7.46

two Quarter Pounders With Cheese $7.38

Turkey and Brie Sandwich $7.49

VASA 20 oz. Water $1.99

Ira Glass and Sean Cole’s Meal $10.00

Ira had ice cream and Sean had a beer.

Chase-Car Driver Meal $54.50

Unspecified Meals $59.09

SUPPLIES $112.13

Kinko’s Cards $55.00

While at the rest stop, the reporters handed out cards explaining the project.

Batteries for recorders $42.00

The recorders were provided by the radio station.

Umbrella $15.13

Bought at a souvenir shop by Sean Cole.

OVERHEAD $70,487.76

Staff Salaries $51,144.00

Staff Benefits $7,630.00

Office Rent $1,980.76

For New York offices. The show is produced in Chicago.

FedEx and Local Messenger Delivery $308.00

Publication and Arbitron Subscriptions $769.00

Arbitron compiles data about radio listeners from markets across the United States to better inform radio stations and programs about their audiences.

Electricity $615.00

Legal Counsel $462.00

Equipment Rental and Premises Maintenance and Repair $887.00

USPS Postage $38.00

Telephone $577.00

Remote Studio Rental $308.00

Audio Streaming and WEb Hosting $5,769.00


Grand total $82,156.20

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