march / april 2007:
This Glass is Half Full
Ira Glass, the host of public radio's ridiculously popular This American Life, is taking his show to a whole new arena - television. Will his 1.7 million weekly listerers follow? Stay tuned.
Profile by Gerri Miller | Photo by Douglas Barnes
He may lack the authoritative, enunciated intonations of an old schoolbroadcaster, but Ira Glass has one of the most familiar voices in radio. As the host and creator of the Peabody Award-winning public radio program This American Life, now carried on 500 stations nationwide, he has captivated listeners since 1995, now reaching an audience of 1.7 million plus many more who regularly download the show’s podcasts. The irony is not lost on Glass.
“I have an utterly average voice. It’s just sheer repetition that makes it sound like it belongs on the radio. If you compare my voice with a really great radio announcer, I’m just a whiny Jew,” he self-deprecatingly tells me while promoting his latest venture, a six episode, half-hour TV version of This American Life that will premiere on Showtime March 22 at 10:30 PM. But there’s a lot more to Glass than that last self-assessment implies, as became evident in a one-on-one conversation where the storyteller’s own story emerged.
Wearing a pinstripe suit, gray shirt, maroon tie and his trademark thick black glasses, his spiky hair graying at the temples, Glass settled into a chair to recount his program’s journey from the airwaves to television.
“Showtime first approached me in 2002 and for about a year we tried to put them off,” Glass recounts, not sure that the medium shift was possible to do, or if he even wanted to do it. So he posed difficult criteria and conditions including permission to walk away if he hated the pilot and that the show couldn’t be made with anyone else, “but they called our bluff. So we said yes, and suddenly we were thrown into it.”
First came format decisions including whether or not Glass would appear or just narrate the segments, but the consensus was that he should be seen, speaking from behind a desk that would go on location with him. But nothing prepared him for the challenges of adding the visual element to the show, a production schedule that required up to a week to shoot a story that would have taken a day or less to do on radio, and finding stories that would work on TV while preserving the unique essence of This American Life.
“We could have just put people into a studio and filmed them telling their stories. But it felt like that wasn’t ambitious enough. We wanted the pictures to be part of telling the story,” explains Glass. It was no longer enough to have a relatable protagonist and situation and a surprising turn of some sort, and the lack of arresting visuals disqualified many stories, often because of logistics or permission problems with locations or individuals. Writer David Sedaris didn’t want to appear on television, and a Hasidic woman wouldn’t allow the camera crew in her home: “She couldn’t let the neighbors see strange men enter her house.”
But others like the 14-year-old Massachusetts boy who has decided he’ll never fall in love and the Texas rancher who cloned a pet bull with tragic results (a repeat story from the radio show seen in the first episode) were perfect subjects. “The sheer power of seeing somebody’s face as they tell a story and all the information you get, that was something I never expected,” noted Glass, who spent six months on the road gathering footage.
He expects a smaller audience than the radio show attracts, but is optimistic that fans will follow it to TV and new viewers will tune in. “Nothing would please me more than to get people who never heard us on the radio to watch,” he says. While the radio show continues, he’s banking ideas for a possible second round of TV episodes. “If it doesn’t work, it’s not for lack of trying. We killed ourselves trying to figure it out.”
It was a hectic year for Glass, who in addition to both shows wrote a screenplay, edited and wrote the introduction to a collection of essays called The New Kings of Non-Fiction, due from Riverheaad Books in the fall, executive produced the holiday comedy Unaccompanied Minors for Warner Bros., which was based on a story from This American Life, and signed a deal with Dreamworks for more movies adapted from the show. Adding to that, he was a newlywed, having married Anaheed Alani in August 2005.
“We have the entire Middle East crisis in our house,” jokes Glass. “Her mom is Christian and her dad is Muslim, from Iraq.” But any conversations about that issue will never become fodder for stories on the show, “an off the record area” per Mrs. Glass, with whom he is on the same page when it comes to religion: both are atheists.
“It’s not like I don’t feel like I’m a Jew. I feel like I don’t have a choice about being a Jew. Your cultural heritage isn’t like a suitcase you can lose at the airport. I have no choice about it. It is who I am. I can’t choose that. It’s a fact of me,” Glass begins. “But even when I was 14 or 15, it didn’t make that much sense to me that there was this Big Daddy who created the world and would act so crazy in the Old Testament. That we made up these stories to make ourselves feel good and explain the world seems like a much more reasonable explanation. I’ve tried to believe in God but I simply don’t.”
That comes as a disappointment to some of the show’s subjects. Notes Glass, “We do a lot of stories on Christians and whenever I get close to the people in the story they try to convert me to Christianity.”
Glass, whose parents were not raised observant or kosher, decided that he and his two sisters (he’s the middle child) “should get a Jewish education that they never had.” He attended Hebrew school through tenth grade and lived in a neighborhood of suburban Baltimore so Jewish that the signs read NO PARKING ON SATURDAY AND JEWISH HOLIDAYS. He went to Camp Habonim but purposely avoided making aliyah to Israel. “I knew so many kids who went to Israel and that became their whole identity, and I had such a tenuous grip on my own identity. So I waited and went as an adult. Going as a reporter, I met the most incredible people and felt like, ‘Hey, I’m on the team.’ It was a totally corny, very Jewish experience.”
Atheism aside, “some years I have a nostalgic feeling to go into a shul and I’ll go in for a High Holiday service,” reveals Glass, who has fond memories of his childhood rabbi’s enthralling sermons. “Rabbi Seymour Esrog was really funny, a great storyteller. He was so good that even the kids would stay and watch him. He’d tell a funny anecdote, something really moving, and go for a big finish. That’s what the show is,” he compares, acknowledging the rabbi’s influence.
As a freshman at Brown University, Glass was pre-med but had a lot more fun as a summer intern at NPR in Washington D.C. than he did working as a hospital orderly and after graduation continued with NPR as a reporter in Chicago, where he got the idea for This American Life.
Named Best Radio Host in America by Time magazine in 2001, he lives with his wife and a “high maintenance” dog named Piney in New York City, where he’s recognized rarely when he isn’t speaking — a relative anonymity he doesn’t look forward to giving up, but figures switching glasses will help on that score.
He favors jeans, noting that he never wears suits unless he has to. “That’s the advantage of working in radio. But I’m the boss, so I have to watch the casualness. You don’t want to look like a schlump,” he pointed out. He’s a big fan of Frontline and loves Jon Stewart’s satirical Daily Show so much “that I’ve come to turn to it as an actual news source.”
At 48, Glass is proud of the show he created and its successful offshoots that have enabled him to employ more people and reach a bigger audience. “That’s an incredibly lucky thing that I don’t take for granted,” he says, noting that the long hours are worth it.
“In any creative job, when you’re doing it for 12 or 14 hours a day, you have moments of fun and way more moments of grinding through it. It’s both a fantastically wonderful thing and the worst thing on earth at the same time. But you can only blame yourself. Nobody made me do this,” he says, citing a favorite quote from the late comedian John Belushi as we wrap up our conversation. “There are two great tragedies in American life. One is that you never get what you wanted. The other is that you do.”
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