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Excavating the stories of lives

BRIEF ENCOUNTER

Radio's Ira Glass unearths the unusual in the everyday.

April 25, 2004|Marc Weingarten

Often imitated but rarely equaled, Ira Glass' "This American Life" is a strange and wondrous hybrid of documentary, fiction and music. In documenting the overlooked corners of everyday life through the distinctive voices of contributors and Glass' deadpan, almost affectless reporting style, it's become a public radio institution heard on 470 stations. And that's turned Glass, 45, who's based at WBEZ in Chicago, into an alternative media rock star of sorts.

There aren't too many public radio show hosts who can fill auditoriums around the country and spend quality couch time with David Letterman and Jon Stewart, as Glass has done. On a recent swing through town, he mused on all things radio.

What radio did you grow up listening to?

I wasn't a huge radio fan as a kid, but there was a show called "Radio Mystery Theater." E.G. Marshall hosted it. There was something really dry about the performances that I remember really loving. There was also a proto-shock jock in Baltimore named Johnny Walker whose show was deeply produced, with comic bits in between songs, and canned applause. I wrote him some jokes as a senior in high school, and he sent a limo for me! It was the fist time I ever drove in a limousine.

"This American Life" seems to have an uncanny ability to unearth unusual stories peopled by unusually articulate protagonists. Is this a result of legwork or divine providence?

We talk to a lot of people who don't go on air. We kill between a third and half of what we start. We're different from other documentary media, because we're not pegged to the news, so there's a huge burden to have an element of surprise. You have to delight in the characters, so every story has to have momentum, where the listener says, "I've never heard that story before." The worst interview subjects turn out to be the ones who are fans of the show. They are too self-conscious.

On the new "This American Life" CD, "Crimebusters and Crossed Wires," there's a poignant story about a father who tapes his son's phone calls when he suspects him of using drugs.

The best stories are the ones in which one of the characters has a perspective on the story itself. When the dad makes the kid listen to the tapes themselves, that is a brilliant parenting moment, and it changes the kid; he realizes that he's been a complete ass. Every story we do has to lead to some larger thought. On the bad stories, you can hear the gears grinding.

How do you keep the show fresh?

Like any show, it has its moments where it's great and not so great. It's hard to break new ground in your eighth year, and so we try to have something new in every show we produce. We have a lot more resources than we did when we first started out. We can pay people a decent wage, and we've got eight full-time producers on staff now.

How about other media?

We've gotten offers from two TV networks, but it wasn't the right thing. We're still interested in doing TV, though, if it's appropriate.

What's your take on the recent FCC clampdown on indecency. Do you think it's created a climate of fear?

Yes, there is a climate of fear. I fear! I think that Howard Stern does the best show on radio, and the clampdown is politically motivated. He shouldn't get slapped just because a caller says the N-word on the show; that's just sheer guesswork. Around the country, I think most public radio listeners hear about what's going on with the FCC and Howard Stern, and they don't think it'll affect public radio. Like they live in a nice side of town and they hear about this nasty sweep the police are doing in the bad neighborhoods. But it will affect us and it has affected us. What's most alarming to me is the utter, blatant arbitrariness of the enforcement. Someone on Howard Stern's show says the same thing as someone on Oprah, and they only come after Howard. Bono says a curse word that a TV network had no reason to suspect would lead to a fine, based on previous enforcement and the FCC's own policies in the past, and suddenly they get slapped. What the FCC is proving is that if it's expedient or useful for them, they'll just come after you. That's what their new rules are about. It's frightening.

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