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ON THE MEDIA

Ira Glass, storyteller

On 'This American Life,' he transforms the mundane into the magnetic.

February 17, 2010|James Rainey
  • Ira Glass plans two shows in L.A.
Ira Glass plans two shows in L.A. (Tina Fineberg / Associated…)

It started with the voice. The first time you heard it -- too nasal, muffled, verging on meek -- you knew Ira Glass was not reading from the standard radio script.

Over the last 15 years, his "This American Life" has become a public radio institution, as Glass has continued to defy convention. He took his quirky feature program and aimed it at hard news. He beguiled enough solitary radio listeners that they came together last year, en masse, to watch his live show in movie theaters. He defied the notion that "This American Life" would lose its soul on TV, producing shows of little compromise and substantial heart.

When Glass comes to Los Angeles late next month for two live shows at UCLA's Royce Hall (tickets: www .kcrw.com/radiostories), it will be at a time of rededication to his radio roots.

The producer-host said in the fall that "This American Life" and its staff of eight were tired and overextended conceiving stories for both television and radio. So, after a run of two years, 13 episodes on Showtime and three Emmys, it's back to radio full time, at least for now.

That does not mean that Radio "TAL," as loyalists call it, has reined in its ambitions. In the next few months, Glass said, the show will present "a huge, groundbreaking investigative piece of journalism" that it's producing with the public-interest journalism site ProPublica.

When I spoke to him this week, Glass didn't want to go into any more detail about the impending scoop. But he also wanted to make it clear that the show's staff, not to mention its core audience, felt a lot like I have -- that it's important to balance the weighty, policy-driven shows with ones that simply catch the world a little off-kilter.

Glass and crew have won our loyalty via a certain alchemy of subject, point of view and tone that can turn the mundane into the magnetic.

Yet, there have been times in the last year when the program tilted toward its public policy brain and away from its storyteller's heart.

I'll listen to the guy who sold mortgage-backed securities, but please, never lose the view of, say, the subversive department store Christmas elf. (That early classic on National Public Radio came from humorist David Sedaris, who later extended it for "This American Life.")

"We know we have to always bring back the funny," Glass told me. Later, in an e-mail, he added, "We get tired of the show when it's just newsy stuff. We like the mix of personal stories and fun stories . . . It's not more sophisticated or thought out than that."

After a year in which it has explained the banking debacle and the roots of the healthcare crisis, the "This American Life" crew used its 400th episode last week to do something more personal. The producers each created a segment out of an idea -- no matter how obscure or half-baked -- that family members had floated them over the years.

The "This American Life" stalwarts somehow found an angle, plenty of chatter and laughs pursuing such tips as "the Erie Canal" and "funerals that are funny."

Who knew, until a recent episode, that underwater archaeology and the roots of the Byzantine Empire could be riveting?

In another episode, the search for hidden riches in abandoned storage lockers celebrated a hunter-gatherer, get-rich-quick subculture.

Some doubted whether embracing the wonder of banality could succeed in TV land. But Glass & Co. quieted many of the doubters over the last couple of years with a tried formula of small stories telling large truths.

One of the Showtime pieces featured an Iraqi exchange student, Haidar, who set himself up in a little wooden booth labeled "Talk to an Iraqi." Everyone from soldiers to students to retirees approached the human sounding board.

Many of the Americans came to have Haidar forgive their country's failures in Iraq. The Iraqi immigrant listened politely, but needed to ask only a few mundane questions ("What freedoms have we won?") to make it clear our escape from the kill zone won't make his country whole.

One of "This American Life's" most moving forays into TV came in an episode last year that focused on a young man, Mike Phillips, pushing to move away from his mother, despite the spinal muscular atrophy that had left him bedridden and unable to speak on his own.

The episode eschews what Glass calls "the typical crip story" by addressing Phillips, 27, as a full human, struggling to maintain a measure of independence and to carry on a romance with his able-bodied girlfriend.

Phillips fantasizes that Johnny Depp could fill in his computer-animated voice. In a happy pivot point in the story, we learn that "This American Life" has gotten the actor to do just that. He reads Phillips' words through much of the piece.

I suspect there weren't many dry eyes by the end of that piece, when Phillips reunites with his girlfriend and determines that he "only recently became aware of how tenuous my life is. So I don't really have time to waste on fear."

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