This American pioneer — an interview with Ira Glass

The radio host has reinvented radio for two decades and isn't nearly finished.

click to enlarge This American pioneer — an interview with Ira Glass - IVONNA BUENROSTRO
IVONNA BUENROSTRO
This American pioneer — an interview with Ira Glass



Reinventing Radio: An Evening with Ira Glass

Sat., Sept. 13, at 8 p.m. at the Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg. Tickets start at $23 but are now sold out. themahaffey.com.


Characteristically nasal and sympathetic, the voice of This American Life host Ira Glass has won over roughly 3 million fans since his first radio show aired nearly 19 years ago. Glass’ weekly storytelling hour takes listeners into the lives of seemingly ordinary people with interviews and narratives, recounting remarkable situations that unfold where least expected. Each segment reveals surprises, twists of fate and moments of suspense, enhanced by the show’s music and clever pacing.

CL caught up with Glass to find out more about his upcoming live appearance presented by WUSF Public Radio 89.7 FM. and his prolific career, which lately involves performing in a stage revue, Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, with dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass. The unique spectacle replete with bubbles, confetti and choreography debuts on Broadway Sept. 12.  

Plus, Glass has created a brand new podcast series with a brand new format, Serial, coming very soon this Fall.

Understandably, his solo live tour, if you can even call it that, isn’t all that rigorous. “Every three or four weeks I go to a public radio station and give a talk as a way to build an audience for the show, and so I give a version of this talk all the time. Just to keep it fresh for me, I’m always swapping in new material, recent stuff that’s happened.”

click to enlarge IRA, THE SHOWMAN: From left, Monica Bill Barnes, Glass and Anna Bass perform in Three Acts, Two Dancers and One Radio Host. - DAVID BAZEMORE
DAVID BAZEMORE
IRA, THE SHOWMAN: From left, Monica Bill Barnes, Glass and Anna Bass perform in Three Acts, Two Dancers and One Radio Host.

What’s involved with the new live show? “Basically I stand onstage and I have an iPad. I have quotes and music and sounds from different stories and I re-create the sound of the radio show. ... I’ll be talking about the radio show and why it’s made so differently from other things on the radio. Really, it’s just an excuse to play really funny and really emotional clips, and tell a set of really great stories.”

Glass may have a knack for storytelling, but he doesn’t have a lot of control in determining outcomes. Many stories just don’t pan out and make it onto an episode of This American Life. A few others hit the jackpot.

One episode, “Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde,” re-aired last month. The show spotlighted a physician who hears there’s another doctor by the same last name who killed his own father.

“He starts to look into it, and it just doesn’t make sense,” recalls Glass. “Everybody says he’s such a sweet guy. How could he kill someone? We started following it with him not sure where it would end up. During the course of the reporting, he and reporter, they crack the case and find out stuff that didn’t come up in trial and could have exonerated him. So sometimes we go into things not knowing if we’re going to find anything at all, and get very, very lucky.”

A tendency to be self-effacing and nebbish intonations aside, there’s more to Ira Glass than meets the ear. He is a force of nature as well as an expert curator of humanity. Glass’ keen sense of intuition and willingness to take risks, and die-hard work ethic, paint a picture of a focused, shrewd and dynamic media pioneer.

His foray into TV land (2007-09) turned out to be a bigger letdown than expected. Glass, however, enjoyed some success while the This American Life TV series lasted. “We did a show for two seasons, won a couple of Emmys and were asked to be taken off of television,” he tosses of with a mock-snotty tone.

In 2009, the Showtime series aired an episode that took place in Tampa, spotlighting a 20-something named Michael Phillips, who had an illness that robbed him of almost all of his motor skills. Glass says he chose not to milk the story for its obvious tragedies. He instead found the universal and the relatable — Phillips was an adult who no longer wanted to live with his mom.

“(Michael) was showing me the only way he could talk at the time,” Glass recalls. “He would type with his thumb, then the computer would say the words out loud,” Glass recalled. “We had some of the stuff he had written in emails — he’s a really funny, wonderful, smart writer (his blog, still current, is at lithiumcreations.com). I asked him on tape, if we could get someone to read your words, who would you want to do it? He said either Ed Norton or Johnny Depp.”

Ed Norton couldn’t do it. Glass can’t remember why. “I didn’t even try for Johnny Depp,” he says. “‘That’s crazy talk, right?’ And then the head of the Showtime Network at the time, Bob Greenblatt, said (voice goes up an octave), “No, no, I think Johnny Depp might be into it!” ... Then he gave me the contact info for how to reach Johnny Depp’s people. And literally it was the sort of thing where, like, I wrote up an email where I said, “Check out some of this writing and look at the way he describes his life. Specifically, we’re not going to do this sort of maudlin, corny, poor-guy story. It’s about the opposite of that. And would you be game? I got an email back in 15 minutes. He was game.”

Glass’ power of persuasion no doubt helped him land two new and unconventional projects. The stage show with the dancers, he says, is “super-fun.” Glass recounted to The New York Times that, when he arrived for a run-through of the finale, he received a warning that there would be “a lot of confetti,” to which he replied, “I welcome that.”

The podcast is quite another departure. “The biggest difference is that instead of coming back to a different theme each week, on Serial, we not only come back to the same theme, but the exact same story,” Glass shares. “We tell you the next chapter of the story. It’s an ongoing, true story. In the case of the first season’s show, it’s about a murder, and the whole thing is one long whodunit. The idea of it is that you get caught up in the characters and the situations and the world of it the same way that you would with House of Cards and Game of Thrones. You just want to find out what happens next.”

When asked how he got his gift of gab, Glass doesn’t have an answer but offers an explanation. “I don’t know. I think that in real life, I’m not as easy and comfortable as I seem on the radio. In real life, I have the same amount of awkwardness, maybe even more. And if you think of someone who’d go to the trouble to figure out how to manufacture a relaxed conversation on the air, it would only be somebody who has trouble doing it in real life. If anything the radio is a controlled space and controllable. ... It’s easier to talk to someone on the radio than it is to stumble through life the way that most of us do, me included. And also, the advantage of being on the radio is that we get to edit so any dumbass thing I say that doesn’t make sense or makes the person go like (imitating a drunk voice), ‘uh, I don’t know.’ If it’s not entertaining or interesting, we can cut it out. So I feel like the person I am is me but it’s an edited version of me, for sure.”

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