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The Glass Menagerie 

With a stable of brainy producers and pop-star essayists, This American Life host Ira Glass is leading a revenge of the nerds, public-radio style.

When word started getting around the office that This American Life host and producer Ira Glass was coming to New Orleans to talk about his show, two of my co-workers went slightly short of nutso. I'd seen less excitement from them when we learned that Prince was playing Essence Festival. But Prince isn't Ira Glass. And my two co-workers aren't typical pop-culture fans, either. They're both female, one in her mid-20s, the other early-30s. They're both hip in their own way, the kind you'd see at a Modest Mouse show, the kind who know their way around the left end of the dial. And there's one thing they're pretty up front about: One of them flagged me down in the hallway to inform me, wide-eyed, that she was bringing a Sharpie pen to the show to get Glass' autograph.

Minutes later, she shrugged with her confession: "I'm such a geek."

If geeks and nerds are cool -- and there has been no better time in American history for them to be so -- then you could rightly argue that Ira Glass is their leader. With his nasal drone, tousled hair and thick, black, wide-framed glasses, Ira Glass looks and sounds like he could be the lead singer of, say, They Might Be Giants. Not a week after his Feb. 27 appearance at the Orpheum Theater, he will turn 46 -- but he looks and sounds a good decade younger. He doesn't seem like a guy who has helped revolutionize and revitalize the entire concept of radio.

But all you have to do is join the 1.6 million listeners who tune into the hourlong This American Life -- carried by 460 public-radio stations including New Orleans' WWNO (89.9 FM), which airs it at 6 p.m. Sunday evenings -- and you hear storytelling at its most compelling. The format follows a rather formal structure: Producers and contributors present three or four segments ranging from 10 to 20 minutes that speak to a certain theme, whether it's love or loss, heroes or villains, good Samaritans, swing voters, private Iraq contractors or, as the show's 2003 two-disc collection suggests, Crimebusters & Crossed Wires. (Rhino released the first collection in 1999 titled This American Life: Lies, Sissies & Fiascoes.) The segments range from the comedic to the dramatic to a seamless blend of both, from a reportage style not unlike a segment you'd hear on National Public Radio's two news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, to intensely personal essays from some of America's best young writers.

Indeed, This American Life has become so popular that it has transcended public radio to enter the pop-culture mainstream. To date, five stories produced for the show have been optioned for Hollywood movies. The show has played no small role in advancing the careers of humorists David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell, both of whom have become literary pop stars; they are late-night talk-show regulars, particularly on David Letterman's The Late Show and Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. Last year, Vowell took her career one step further by lending her aggressively nerdy monotone to the character of the brooding daughter in the Oscar-nominated animation movie The Incredibles.

Speaking by phone from his This American Life office at Chicago's National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate, WBEZ, Glass stumbles through a humble response about his show's impact on these writers' careers. That's the first thing you notice about Glass, generally acknowledged by many of his peers as being an ace interviewer: He trips over himself while being interviewed. After trying to explain his desire to make radio "surprising and impressive," he laughs nervously: "Yeah Š I feel like I'm doing such a bad job for you here and I so want to give you a good answer."

For his broadcasts, he'll take this natural awkwardness and incorporate it into his narrations; Glass carefully scripts a very conversational tone on his show, half stuttering and flooding his sentences with the "likes" and "so's" of people half his age.

He takes the notion of the show's impact in stride, particularly where Sedaris and Vowell are concerned. "I think in the case of Sedaris Š it certainly helped him," says Glass, who produced segments for Sedaris when he worked at Morning Edition. "But I really believe that if he hadn't been on the radio, he still would be a pretty well-known writer. Like he's really, really, unusually funny. Being on the radio helped him find his audience way faster than it would have if he hadn't been on the radio. And the fact that he reads so beautifully for radio, that certainly helps him.

"With Sarah, it's the same thing, I think, but to a lesser extent. I think that what she does is so particular that there aren't many places for it nationally. It just happened to be a lucky coincidence that it would work with us. And that a huge audience could hear her. But again, even with her, I feel like she sort of would have happened without us. It just happened faster with us."

Glass can be forgiven for hesitating to puff up his show. This American Life has been praised almost to the point of deification, affording him a celebrity status that might not appeal too much to a self-avowed lover of the heroic losers of comic strips and comic books. In an introduction to a McSweeney's Quarterly Concern all-comics issue, Glass professes an affinity for everyone from Charlie Brown to Spider-Man: "It's funny to think these melancholic figures are such national icons. It makes me feel like I have something in common with my countrymen. Apparently we're a nation of losers." Glass even went so far as to collaborate with comic-book artist Jessica Abel on the 1999 comic book, Radio: An Illustrated Guide, in which he explains how the show is made. (See sidebar.)

Call it the revenge of the nerds, public-radio style.

Before an appearance at NOCCA/Riverfront's Center Stage series last spring, Vowell confirmed this camaraderie of the bookish. "I would like to think it's maybe [This American Life] loosened things up a little bit," she told me. "There are things that Ira Glass, David Sedaris and I have in common with a lot of the show's other contributors -- one being we don't sound like we should be on the radio. We have a particular voice. One thing that always bothered me as a public-radio listener, that voice-of-authority sound in the voices, it didn't sound like someone you would know or want to know. Sometimes they want someone as clear and neutral as possible, and I can understand why that would be. But when people like us are on the radio, maybe the radio sounds more casual."

Now in the middle of its 10th season, This American Life follows a template that Glass has set forth in monthly appearances like the one he will be making in New Orleans. It's a template that shows radio's potential to return to its pre-television era position where storytelling and narrative reigned -- instead of the current morass of redundant music programming, talk-show vitriol and morning-show shock jocks.

"What we're doing is a throwback in that people don't do Œstory' on the radio," he explains. "When TV came in, story basically moved from radio to TV. And so what ended up on radio is talk and news and politics and music and like that. And what we're doing is basically saying there's a way to do this other thing that radio's really good at, which is stories. And there's a way to do it that doesn't sound corny, that doesn't sound like someone is trying to recreate Orson Welles' War of the Worlds, or radio drama. There's a way to do stories on the radio which seems completely alive and contemporary."

FOR IRA GLASS, ALIVE AND CONTEMPORARY radio includes several key elements, which he has laid down both in the Illustrated Guide comic book and his appearances. The most important is the strategy of presenting an anecdote followed by a reflection -- but the anecdotes must have an element of surprise to keep the listener hooked.

In one segment that was included in the Crimebusters collection, Glass decided to try something rather unremarkable on its face: tag along with a private detective who is tailing a woman suspected of cheating on her husband. In the introduction -- one that sounds fairly extemporaneous but is painstakingly scripted -- Glass confesses his preconceived notions about a private eye's job: "I expected that, contrary to what you see on TV or in the movies, real detective work was going to turn out to be, you know, mundane, dull, long hours, not terribly glamorous. And in fact, the first day I spent with detective Jonathan Rosenberg Š I was not disappointed Š ."

As the segment proceeds, Glass notices little wrinkles in Rosenberg's routine beyond typing up statements and waiting out endless stakeouts. For example, Rosenberg had to figure out how to prepare for his stakeout, how to find the car, what the suspect looks like, the proper spot to park his car, changes in the suspect's behavior, how to properly "tail" the suspect, and so on. Glass marvels at how young the woman is, how happy she looks in the photo provided, how hard it is to find the parking spot for the stakeout.

"Who ever thought this would be this complicated?" he asks the listener, before conceding that the stakeout is so boring that, just like in the movies, you talk about anything to pass the time. Glass even tries to invoke a scene from Pulp Fiction by asking Rosenberg what they call a Big Mac in France. Glass wonders aloud if the suspect really is cheating, and about the general uncertainty of Rosenberg's job. "In most jobs," he muses, "you know pretty much what is going to happen when you arrive at work this morning, and it occurred to me at that moment that, for Jonathan, that is simply not true.

"I gotta tell you, you're blowing the premise for my story," he tells the detective. "I was going to come out with you, I was going to say, ŒWell, you know, this private-investigative work, you think it's really glamorous, and really kind of interesting, the way you see it on TV and movies, but really if you hang out with the guys, it's kind of boring.' But now I'm out with you and I think, I'm wrong. It is actually pretty interesting."

After 17 minutes, Glass has taken the listener through the life of a private eye, confirming some suspicions, contradicting others. By the end, Glass admits, he has a new-found appreciation for the job, and has taken to his own form of private-eye note-taking, "just in case. In case of what, I have no idea."

The segment illustrates how much of an imprint contributors can make on their own material. Sometimes those reflections feel a bit forced; other times, they make everything work. Oftentimes, it's all in the delivery, which is perhaps why Glass scripts his spontaneity so intricately. It's probably both a blessing and a curse, he says, but he sees it as a way to go against the grain of the more stentorian public-radio tone.

"There's a pro and con to it," he admits. "The con to it is, with my actual speaking voice, I rush the words together. And over the radio that can be hard to understand what the hell I'm saying. So there's a downside, too. The upside is that I think that radio gets to us the more that it mimics real human conversation, and so in narrating, for the narration to really get to you, I think it's best if the narration just sounds like somebody talking. And so that's what I'm trying to do. And that really is based on listening to other people on the radio and just thinking like, just noticing when I felt the most attentive to what they were doing."

TO FIND AND THEN SHAPE stories like the one on Jonathan Rosenberg, Glass and his staff of producers and contributors begin a process that lasts as long as four months. They sort through countless pitches and story ideas until they can group several together into a given theme. They'll consider as many as 20 ideas, then start researching and doing interviews for about seven, and then whittling it down to the three or four for the broadcast.

After listening to writers like Sedaris or Vowell read their hilarious essays, it's easy to assume that any writer with a sense of humor could get on the show, but Glass says it's much more complicated than that. As is often the case with This American Life, what at first sounds like a natural segment lacks a crucial ingredient.

"Churning out surprise as an industrial product ends up meaning you end up commissioning a tremendous amount of work that never will make it onto the air," Glass says. "Last week we killed a story where a reporter's classmate from high school was shot by the police. So she was looking into that story, and then it turned out to be so unsurprising. It turned out the guy had a mental illness after he got out of high school. He ended up a street person. It wasn't interesting. It's horrible to say that about somebody's tragic story, but it wasn't surprising at all.

"The needs of being on a radio show are so very particular. Things have to move at a certain pace to be read out loud. The stories have to be a certain length. Like, there's a certain type of story that can work on the radio, and often we're in the situation where there will be a story that we as a staff really, really love, but we cannot figure out a way to make it short enough or quick enough to work on the radio. So that happens, too. It has to be a certain type of writer. One of the things that makes Sedaris' work play so well on the radio is that, in the pacing of it, he hits his plot points quick enough."

This speaks to one of the most impressive aspects of a This American Life segment: rhythm. And it's no wonder: tucked inside Glass' long public radio resume -- he started as a 19-year-old intern -- are years of experience as a tape cutter and editor at NPR. He more than most appreciates how to keep a story moving along at a brisk pace. He even employs what he calls the "45-second rule," in which the average radio listener expects something different every 45 seconds or so -- whether it's comments from a reporter, a quote from a source, whatever.

ONE OF MY FAVORITE ALL-TIME This American Life segments, included on the Crimebusters & Crossed Wires compilation, is Jonathan Goldstein's "The Greatest Phone Message of All Time," in which Goldstein's brow-beating friend Josh convinces him that a phone message became the talk of Columbia University one year. Goldstein's exchanges with Josh (who refers to his supposed friend as a "bitch squealer") and his investigation into Josh's typically boastful claim is the stuff of pure comedic charm. So it came as no shock that Goldstein, a former show producer who still contributes to the show, has branched out to produce his own radio program for the Canadian Broadcasting Company called Wire Tap.

A distant cousin to This American Life, Wire Tap blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction storytelling. "One story was about a guy who watched a channel way up in the cable band that simply was a closed-circuit image of a building, and he doesn't know where, which is a true premise," Goldstein explains. "It sounded like the perfect opening to a short story, but nothing really happened, but in the story he becomes obsessed with a woman he sees on the camera."

Goldstein readily admits Ira Glass helped him hone his craft on This American Life, and appreciates Glass' approach to the medium.

"He just has tremendous energy," says Goldstein, author of Lenny Bruce Is Dead and Schmelvis: Searching for Elvis Presley's Jewish Roots. "There were evenings where we'd be hanging out in his office at 11 at night with no acknowledgment of how late it was. It might as well have been noon.

"I think Ira has a great sense of story structure, having a sense of what helps a story become richer and fuller. He and the rest of the staff have this ability to be highly attuned to their own sense of taste, of what they find to be honestly good as opposed to something they should like. They're right a great percentage of the time about what's going to work. All the people who work at the show, and Ira, when you're pitching the idea, if it gets laughs from them, you know you've got something. They're your real audience."

One of Glass' favorite new radio programs is on New York's NPR affiliate WNYC, titled Radio Lab. Hosted by Jad Abumrad with frequent help from ABC News reporter Robert Krulwich, Radio Lab presents what it calls a magic realism approach to radio, providing a more sonic backdrop for its exploration of reporting, storytelling and conversation.

"It's trying to experiment with form in a way that's immensely interesting," Glass says. "What they're doing is changing the way that you narrate the hour so that the narrator is doing things a narrator doesn't usually do, if that makes sense. I'm incredibly curious about it."

Though he's never worked with Glass, Abumrad sees This American Life as highly influential in contemporary radio, while noting Glass' idiosyncrasies as a host: "It's funny, when you first hear him, he stumbles, seems off the cuff. But you quickly realize that the man understands pacing and narrative flow down to his DNA. As an editor, he's absolutely brilliant. And he's innovated a very particular style of telling stories on the radio -- with the music posts and perfect moments of reflection -- which has been so successful that the challenge for the rest of us is to not sound like him, frankly. Because no one does Ira better than Ira.

"Our challenge is to find new forms and styles," Abumrad says. "He did kick the door open, and a whole lot us wouldn't be doing this had he not."

Glass knows better than anyone else that radio -- particularly public radio -- has the potential to kick down even more doors. Not that NPR is exactly struggling; listenership has been expanding consistently over the past five years. The problem is, considering what public radio has to offer -- and what it yet could become -- that increase should really be exponential. As popular as it is, NPR does a horrible job of marketing itself, often preaching to the choir and not doing enough to reach beyond itself. Indeed, you could argue that a clique is at play, borne innocently enough out of collaboration and what feels like a mutual-admiration society. For example, for the 25th anniversary of Terry Gross' interview program Fresh Air in 2000, Glass interviewed Gross for a CD. The second track features a Fresh Air interview by Gross of Glass. The man who introduces the whole thing: David Sedaris.

Perhaps the club needs new members.

HENCE APPEARACES LIKE THE ONE Glass is doing in New Orleans, in which he says only half-jokingly that "if you don't have any money to publicize your show, what you do is go out and you rent a hall, and basically your fans each drags one reluctant friend or family member kicking and screaming to the hall to see the show. And then they're forced to sit there for an hour as they listen to you tell funny stories, and they'll hopefully be willing to listen to the show."

But then, once those new listeners are hooked, public radio has the dubious task of overcoming what Glass, Vowell and others admit is a sometimes stuffy tone. It takes radio's hippest geek, its most accessible nerd, to see through the problem. Maybe, he wonders aloud, newscasters could deliver the news in the more conversational tone of The Daily Show.

"I think there's a tone to what public radio is doing that puts off certain people, younger people, people who aren't white, people who Š I dunno, I've heard complaints from some friends. It sounds a little more pretentious than it should."

Glass prefers to focus on keeping his own show fresh and reinvigorated. He probably knows more than anyone that the structure of his show threatens to become formulaic, so there has been constant experimentation, like spending 24 hours at an all-night diner, cramming 20 stories into one hour, stuff like that. The idea, he says, is to keep being surprised, to stay fresh. He and his staff have even collaborated on one of those five Hollywood scripts in development: the segment in which convicted murderers put on Shakespeare's Hamlet, a play about contemplating murder. It was a stunning piece, and Glass says he'd like to do a riff on the movie Shakespeare in Love, in which a character contemplates murder while getting to play Hamlet onstage.

Back in Chicago, he says he's trying to freshen up a segment he's currently working on about an Asian kid who literally doesn't speak his parents' native language and therefore is struggling to come out to them as gay. The trick, Glass explains, is to make something that might be a plot for a sitcom sound interesting. "You just can't expect to have that much punch by itself," he says. "So hopefully the other elements will add something to it."

I can hear him sigh over the phone. He pauses, tapping once again into his inner nerd, before admitting: "This is a really bad example." Somehow, I get the feeling he'll rebound.

click to enlarge  
click to enlarge This American Life has helped advance the - careers of popular humorists David Sedaris and Sarah - Vowell. "When people like us are on the radio, maybe the - radio sounds more casual," Vowell says.
  • This American Life has helped advance the careers of popular humorists David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell. "When people like us are on the radio, maybe the radio sounds more casual," Vowell says.
click to enlarge cover_story-11120.jpeg
click to enlarge The popularity of This American Life led to the - release of two separate two-CD collections: 1999's - Lies, Sissies & Fiascoes and 2003's - Crimebusters & Crossed Wires. -  -  - Ira Glass makes appearances like the one in New Orleans - roughly once a month, and sometimes produces an - entire episode before a live audience.
  • The popularity of This American Life led to the release of two separate two-CD collections: 1999's Lies, Sissies & Fiascoes and 2003's Crimebusters & Crossed Wires.

    Ira Glass makes appearances like the one in New Orleans roughly once a month, and sometimes produces an entire episode before a live audience.

click to enlarge cover_story-11120.jpeg


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