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Peddling precious slices of 'Life'

Remember the rookie cop and the squirrel? Ira Glass' new CD includes some of his show's quirkiest stories.

November 07, 2003|Steve Carney | Special to The Times

Simplify your Christmas shopping and explain what he does every week on 400 public radio stations nationwide: Ira Glass is trying to do at least two things at once in his job as host of "This American Life."

On Tuesday, the public-radio show releases its second compilation CD, "Crimebusters + Crossed Wires," which follows 1999's "Lies, Sissies, & Fiascoes." The new double-disc set features 10 stories chosen from the hourlong weekly program, including the story of a father who tapped his teenage son's phone when he suspected him of dealing drugs, told through the tapes themselves; Glass' diary of shadowing a private detective investigating a cheating wife; and the tale of a hapless rookie cop who burns, bloodies and breaks up a house chasing an intruding squirrel.

"For every single person who's a big fan of the show, they have at least one person to whom they've been saying, 'It's great. You have to hear it,' " Glass said. Now those frustrated folks can simply hand over the CD.

It makes a perfect gift, Glass says, because it's much easier to get someone to sample the show than to describe it. He said he continually finds himself at gatherings talking to someone unfamiliar with public radio and having to explain his job, and the content of his show -- definitions he still struggles with. Mini-documentaries? Vignettes about everyday people? Stories that transform and transcend the characters in them?

"The one that seemed to get it across the most is that they're like little movies for radio," said Glass, 44.

The show is populated by some of the most idiosyncratic correspondents in radio, people with voices or styles far removed from the stentorian ideal found elsewhere on the dial. Like humorist David Sedaris, reedy and wry, who sounds like he always has a cold. Or writer Sarah Vowell, whose small, sardonic voice comes across like a cynical elf.

"Or like me," said Glass, speaking in the familiar style that opens every show -- earnest, a little nerdy and nasal, interspersing pauses with torrents of words, like rain collecting on, and then cascading off, a leaf.

Every show has a theme -- "Garbage," "Allure of the Mean Friend," and this week's "The Annoying Gap Between Theory and Practice" -- but choosing the theme usually comes last when Glass and the show's staff start planning the show. They begin with a couple of good stories that seem related, then try to figure out what the theme could be and find other stories to fit and round out the hour. As he said in one of the program's early episodes, they "invite a variety of writers, performers and radio producers to tackle that theme, with radio monologues, mini-documentaries, overheard conversations, found tape, anything we can thing of." And depending on the topic and the person handling it, each of a typical show's four segments can be funny or poignant, enlightening or just bizarre.

"We're very careful to be sure we don't have the expected point of view," Glass said.

The show won a Peabody Award in 1996, after its first year on the air, when judges at the University of Georgia said it "captures contemporary culture in fresh and inventive ways that mirror the diversity and eccentricities of its subjects."

The recognition was nice, but Glass said he could hardly enjoy it: "I mainly saw it from a business point of view." It helped the show, co-owned by Chicago public radio station WBEZ, expand beyond the 100 stations carrying it. Within three months, that figure had doubled, as Public Radio International -- which also carries shows such as "Marketplace" and "A Prairie Home Companion" -- began distributing the program.

Now "This American Life" has an audience of about 1.5 million people a week on 400 stations nationwide -- including KCRW-FM (89.9), on Saturdays at 10 a.m., and KPCC-FM (89.3), on Fridays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 8 p.m.

Glass started his broadcasting career in 1978, as a 19-year-old intern at the then-fledgling National Public Radio, a job he took because he "wanted to do something in media, because it seemed like fun."

He worked his way through a series of off- and on-air jobs at NPR, including stints on "Morning Edition" and "Talk of the Nation," before landing in Chicago as a correspondent. There he immersed himself in a pair of award-winning, yearlong features that highlighted the lives of high school and elementary school students. After that, WBEZ contacted him about starting the show that became "This American Life" in November 1995.

"What we like is when the stories are completely personal and intimate" and listeners get invested in the characters they're following, Glass said. "And like a good movie, you watch them go through something."

Some of the stories are not only like movies, they're going to be movies, thanks to a development deal the show recently struck with Warner Bros. Though the mix of Hollywood and public radio might seem incongruous, Glass thinks it's only natural; as he told the public-broadcasting trade paper Current: "We've got a lot of stories, and we need money. They've got a lot of money and need stories." The cash, both from the movie deals and the best-of CDs, keeps the show on the air.

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