BY JONATHAN VALANIA For nearly half a century television has had to bear the “barren wasteland” rap. But even a cursory, static-smeared twist of the radio dial reveals a largely fallow garden. Corporate consolidation and play-it-safe programmers have conspired to increase the emphasis on the obvious, the ordinary and the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t have to be like this. “When correctly harnessed, radio can be as emotional, as funny and as satisfying as the best motion pictures and television shows,” says Ira Glass, host of public radio’s This American Life. “But sadly, few radio programmers even shoot for that.”
For the past 12 years, Glass — and his coterie of whipsmart writers and producers — has been waging a regime-change insurgency to free radio from the tyranny of mediocrity. And here’s the good news: He’s winning. In 2001 Time magazine lionized him as “America’s Best Radio Host” in a glowing honorarium penned by David Mamet. This American Life has already snagged a Peabody Award, which is to broadcasting what the Pulitzer is to print. Each week 1.8 million people tune in to hear This American Life, heard locally on WHYY 91FM, Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. and Sundays at noon. More recently, Glass has created both TV and book versions of the radio show (the DVD of the second season is out now).In the process, Glass has become something of an egghead sex symbol. If the audience that turns out for his public appearances is any indication, a large portion of his listenership is comprised of willowy, well-read hotties sporting stylish eyewear. Tragically, for them, he is happily married.
On paper, like so many things that come alive on the radio, This American Life’s magic is based on what seems like a flat and ordinary premise: telling stories. Each week has a theme, which three or four writer/reporter/narrators explore in all its tangential glory, teasing out nuances, revelations and more often than not, laughs. Two of the show’s main attractions — the wry, lisping drollery of Sarah Vowell and the wicked, acid-bath wit of David Sedaris — have spun off into media stars in their own high orbit. This American Life eschews the typically stilted, lacquered-haired syntax of broadcast locution. It’s all about the art of the carefully calibrated um. Where most radio editors see it as bad form to air the loose-lipped sputter of conversational English — the verbal tics, pauses, breaths, ums and uhs — Glass weaves them into broadcast, lending the storytelling a compelling casualness and a resonant, this-is-how-people-talk verite.
Listeners are made to feel like they are eavesdropping on some juicy conspiracy or have gained entree to a really good inside joke. Not everybody gets it. When Glass first pitched the show to NPR back in 1997 — after two years of grooming the show, scaring up production funds and self-syndicating to more than 100 stations from his perch at WBEZ in Chicago — the comfortable-shoed public radio bigwigs in Washington politely declined. “They just didn’t get the show, like, they really didn’t understand what was good about it,” says Glass.
The 49-year-old Glass — who has managed to maintain the youthful aura of a postgrad slacker despite the 12- to 14-hour workdays — grew up in Baltimore, the son of a therapist mother and an accountant father (composer Philip Glass is a first cousin once removed). “Both of my sisters went to Penn,” he says. “Philadelphia always seemed like the glamorous downtown version of where we lived.” He went to Brown and majored in semiotics, a highfalutin branch of literary criticism he’s dragged kicking and screaming out of the nebbishy world of academia and applied to everyday life. “Semiotics is a fantastically pretentious body of theory that, um, gets really interesting when it talks about stories,” he says. “Old-school literary theory would look at a book or a movie and ask, ‘What did the author or filmmaker intend?’ Semiotics is utterly uninterested in what the author intended. What semiotics is interested in is the machinery of the story that keeps you reading. What is it about this story that keeps you reading where that story doesn’t? How can you create those effects? And for someone who is interested in telling stories, it’s like a nuts-and-bolts guide to making them compelling. I use it every day.”
PHAWKER: So, in the spirit of ‘boxers or briefs?’, are you for investigating and prosecuting the Bush administration or moving on?
IRA GLASS: Hmmm, since we have and will continue to report on all this, I am going to have to say that officially I am neutral on this issue.
PHAWKER: I am assuming you are an Obama guy, when was your ‘Eureka!’ moment, what was the tipping point for you?
IRA GLASS: At the beginning I was not such a fan, though I was not a fan of Hillary either. But the way he conducted his campaign — taking the high road, even when he didn’t have to — was what won me over. The night he won, I was impressed with the look on his face. It was a look that said ‘I take this very, very seriously,’ and I appreciated that look.
PHAWKER: When movie stars run into people on the street, they usually get ‘you look so much taller on TV’ or some variation thereof, what do you hear when people recognize you on the street?
IRA GLASS: For the longest time, people would always say ‘you look much younger than I expected.’ Now that I’m gonna turn 50 in a few months, people seem to think I look exactly like they expected.
PHAWKER: What is the secret to great radio?
IRA GLASS: Establishing an emotional connection with the listener, even in a news context. The best way to do that is sound like a person, not a robot.
PHAWKER: When the show was first starting out, was there resistance to your casual, conversational style amongst the old heads of public radio?
IRA GLASS: Yes. Nobody was hosting a national show that talked as casually as I did. To my mind, it cut through the clutter and opened all this space for, well, feeling. At the time, I think the consensus among station managers was ‘he’s a really good reporter and producer, but when is the adult going to show up.’ It’s funny how radical the show was considered in the beginning, and now it’s just another brand on NPR. We took off faster than any show I know of. The first year we were carried on 112 stations, and 200 stations by the second year.
PHAWKER: You won a Peabody Prize — which is sorta the Nobel Prize of broadcasting — the first year, that must have helped.
IRA GLASS: Oh, it did. But the other big leg-up we got came from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting. I remember we put in a funding request for one year, for something like $200,000, which seemed like a million dollars to us. And CPB was like ‘No, no, no. You have a political problem you don’t even know you have: Most stations don’t think you will be around in another year or two.’ So they insisted on funding us for three years right out of the gate to signal that we were for real and not going away any time soon.
PHAWKER: Why do you think the CPB went out of their way to get you over the hump?
IRA GLASS: I think they were eager to make something new work on a national level. Prior to us it had been a decade since a new show broke nationally. And that show was Fresh Air.
PHAWKER: Was Howard Stern’s move to satellite radio a mistake or a stroke of genius?
IRA GLASS: Not a mistake at all. It’s the greatest show on radio. And a different show than he had been doing for decades. Plus, they sound so much happier now.
PHAWKER: So you are a satellite subscriber?
IRA GLASS: My wife listens every day, mostly I experience the show through her.
PHAWKER: You got married well into your 40s, would you recommend waiting that long to others?
IRA GLASS: If I knew it was going to be like this I would have done it decades ago, but I was just too immature. I literally had no positive image of it in my mind.
PHAWKER: Not even your parents?
IRA GLASS: Not to trash my parents’ marriage, because it worked for them, but I never understood what either of them got out of it.
PHAWKER: So, you are going to turn 50 in a few months, how does that feel?
IRA GLASS: It feels OK. Having said that, I think Barack Obama has put all of our lives in perspective. He knew a long time ago what he wanted and he went out and got it. He’s 47, he is the President of the United States of America, he’s got a beautiful wife and beautiful children — I mean, compared to that, what are any of us doing with our lives?
PHAWKER: The Internet is widely perceived as having wrecked the music industry and the newspaper industry. What impact has it had on radio?
IRA GLASS: Radio is well-suited to the intimate experience of the Internet — one person talking to another person. The curious thing is that even though radio lost the battle to television a long time ago, a lot of radio shows these days have much bigger audiences than TV shows. I know that’s true in our case, and our TV show is considered a success by industry standards. Our radio audience is four times as large as our TV audience — 1.8 million listen each week and another 500,000 download the podcast. Every week we are in the Top 10 on iTunes, which, if anything, says that people who listen to podcasts are always looking for another one.
PHAWKER: Who would play you in the movie of your life?
IRA GLASS: Miley Cyrus…with glasses.
PHAWKER: Your distinctive Buddy Holly glasses are sorta central to your image. How long have you been rocking that look and what’s the make and model?
IRA GLASS: Going on 17 years… [takes glasses off and looks for a logo]…it says BADA on the arm. I am bored with them, to be honest. And I would be happy to look different but the idea of finding a new look is even more boring to me. That’s the beauty of turning 50, you just don’t give a shit anymore.