This American treasure; Ira Glass's show on NPR has reinvented radio
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 27 January 2009)

The king of American public radio, Ira Glass, sounds on first hearing like an amateur who doesn't know much about broadcasting. Introducing his weekly program, This American Life, he's like a sensitive student applying for a scholarship. He mumbles and hesitates. He speaks close to the microphone, like a clandestine lover, in tones so intimate that he sounds as if he's in a long, relaxed conversation. He doesn't orate, doesn't over-emphasize, never tries to sell you on the virtues of what you're about to hear.

He's no beginner, of course. He's been running This American Life for a dozen years, with great success. He's spent decades in public radio, mostly at station WBEZ in Chicago. Now, just a month short of his 50th birthday, he's an old pro. But he remains so different from most radio performers that you can see why David Mamet, the playwright, said that Glass "seems to have reinvented radio." I never miss This American Life; it runs on about 500 public-radio stations and at I also subscribe to the show's podcast.

The content is as unexpected as his style. Glass and his fellow producers tell entrancing and sometimes appalling stories about unfamous people whose lives turn out to be far more absorbing than anyone could have predicted. When This American Life was mentioned by someone on Fox Television's The O.C., one of the teenage characters said, "Is that that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are? Gawd!" That's one way of putting it.

Glass breaks each one-hour program into four or five "acts," all within a single theme. This American Life has done an hour about lost love, another on what power and powerlessness do to people, another on Americans in Paris. There was one show about 24 hours in a greasy spoon. A recent theme, My Big Break, deals with people who get the chance of their lives and discover it's not all it's cracked up to be. Once in a while a subject is so good it takes over the hour. A show called Twentieth Century Man, produced in 2000 and recently repeated, focused on a daughter's memories of Keith Aldrich, who habitually left his wife, family and job to begin anew, usually with new wife, new job and new children--he eventually fathered nine of them.

Aldrich was successively a Hollywood bit player, a Beat writer, a book editor, a suburban dad with a corporate job in New York, a religious fundamentalist and a record producer. An American myth says you can change your life and recreate yourself as someone you'd rather be. Aldrich's story, told by one of his daughters, asked, "What happens if you're too good at transforming yourself ?" In his case, a lonely and depressing death.

You could call Glass's program a magazine of documentaries, but he considers the word "documentary" boring and avoids it. A favourite show of mine concerned life at a suburban mall in Tennessee. There, the producers uncovered a bitter rift within a small, obscure trade union, the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas. The rift led to a breakaway union, ElfNet ("Santas Serving Santas"). The controversy became, in Glass's hands, the focus of mall culture.

That's a typically quirky subject. Everyone who discusses This American Life mentions its essential quirkiness, defined by one critic as "gloriously meaningful weirdness." There are those who find the quirkiness a little tiresome. Michael Hirschorn, in an article in The Atlantic, wrote: "We're drowning in quirk" and called Glass "The avatar of contemporary quirk." Amusing but not hilarious character juxtapositions, charming personality traits -- these are the essence of quirk, the ruling sensibility of indie culture. To be declared quirky, Hirschorn says, you need only be both odd and endearing.

Defending the pro-quirk position, though without calling it that, Glass edited a book, The New Kings of Nonfiction (2007), focusing on journalists whose approach has been similar to his own, among them Susan Orlean, Malcolm Gladwell, Bill Buford and the late David Foster Wallace. Glass says we are living in the golden age of this kind of reporting, which combines a "cheerful embrace of life with the pleasure of discovery and the attempt to make sense of the world." He loves reporting that shades into fable. When a subject he's working on begins turning into allegory, representing something larger than itself, he emphasizes that part of the story. He believes in the stagecraft of storytelling, the managing of its fable-like qualities. That's made him a virtuoso of radio editing. He understands how to make a narrative work and how to let a character develop through quotations.

His show's interviews sound casual, as if we're hearing them just as they happened, but they're the result of relentless editing. This is labour-intensive radio. He and the other producers, trying to transform raw data into art, create an aural landscape around the material, mostly with deft and original use of music.

He's the undoubted master of this form but he wasn't always. He grew up in Baltimore, the son of an accountant father and a psychologist mother. At Brown University he studied semiotics, which he found "a sadly pretentious body of theory." At 19, he interned in public radio and never again saw anything else he wanted to do so much--though he's been briefly involved in movies and recently did two six-program seasons of This American Life for television.

As he tells it, he took a long time learning how to write for radio -- "Like, sort of longer than anyone in the history of broadcasting, I believe." He recently popped up on YouTube to deliver lessons for young people disappointed with their own performances. He said that if there's a gap between what you accomplish and what you want to accomplish, the only solution is work, huge volumes of it. "Get yourself in a situation where people are expecting work out of you. Turn the stuff out." He played a sound tape of himself discussing U.S.-Mexico trade at age 27, after eight years in the business. It was moronic, he rightly said. No one would understand it. In those days he lacked a feeling for the audience and the ability to make his ideas fresh and clear. No longer.

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