Media Circus

Quirky, intelligent and unpredictable, "This American Life" is the best thing on the air waves

By Julia Barton

Published July 23, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Ira Glass may be producer and host of the hottest new show on public radio, but he can't score a free lunch. Taking a break from our interview in his cluttered office at WBEZ in Chicago, the creator of "This American Life" eyes the sacred stack of sandwiches for volunteers manning the pledge drive phones. Could he, maybe, have one? The volunteers shake their heads no -- a refusal for which Glass, whose hour-long program drew over $8,000 in pledges the night before, has only a low-blood-sugary shrug. There are no gods in public radio.

Still, this hasn't kept Glass's program from attaining a cult following among both public radio listeners and his colleagues in the field. Now heard on 137 stations nationwide, the show features material -- long-form documentaries, monologues, fiction, found tape -- rarely heard these days on the lower end of the dial. The premise of the show is simple: Each episode centers around a single theme, something that in a bizarre way evokes the gamut of American life. The cruelty of children. Fiasco! Frank Sinatra. An eclectic group of writers and artists -- from monologist Spaulding Gray to Salon music columnist Sarah Vowell to TV-harper Danny Drennan to New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell -- "take a whack" at the theme (though Glass admits he'll often come up with a theme just to fit a piece of writing he especially loves). The flexible formula allows "This American Life" to accommodate a dizzying array of voices. One week, you might hear poetic producer Scott Carrier interviewing polygamists in the Utah desert. Next week, it's wicked essayist David Sedaris describing his boyhood quest for the criminal who wiped his ass on the family's fudge-colored towels.

But even the best writers and performers can fall flat on the air -- the key to the show's success is Glass himself, a 19-year veteran of public radio who worked his way up from intern to award-winning reporter at National Public Radio. Glass' perky delivery prompted Current, a newsletter for public broadcasters, to dub him "the public radio listener's favorite nephew," and most writers cant help but point out the way his horn-rimmed, boyish looks belie his 38 years. But his casual demeanor also conceals (a little less successfully) the mind of a serious and shrewd perfectionist.

Glass has an obsession with avoiding the typical back-and-forth, sound-bite stories that make up much of public radio's sound. Instead, he looks for characters, scenes and transformation. "We reject a lot of stuff," he says, citing a "beautiful" radio essay by assistant producer Nancy Updike that didn't make the cut recently. "There just wasn't enough of a narrative arc."

Within his "traditional" notion of story, though, Glass says he's constantly trawling for surprises. The Frank Sinatra episode -- one of his favorites -- originally started with a musicologist telling the story of how Sinatra got his persona, but typically, Glass rejected the segment at the last minute. ("I thought, this sounds like the fucking Discovery Channel," he muttered in a phone interview after the show came out last February.) Instead, Glass started the program with a freakish 1962 recording of Sinatra, at first crooning beautifully, then launching into a racist barrage of jokes about Sammy Davis Jr. "Your jaw just drops," Glass says. "And that's the first four minutes of the show."

"This American Life's" relentless irresistibility hasn't been lost on the bigwigs in the broadcasting world. This summer, the program got a prestigious Peabody Award and a $350,000, three-year grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And after a bidding war with NPR, Public Radio International won the rights to distribute the program -- a remarkable battle for a show so young, and one that, in part, made "This American Life" the buzz of this June's Public Radio Conference in Chicago.

The buzz isn't an accident, if you ask Glass. Over the past year, he's promoted the show incessantly, and now that it's started reaching a critical mass of stations, he says he'll do whatever it takes to keep it on the air. Is an episode too racy for some program directors? He'll send them another program to replace it. Is a station manager obsessed with fund-raising? Glass has been known to hit up potential underwriters, and he already offers some of the funniest and most effective pledge breaks in radio ("Look in the mirror, my friend," he wheedles in one. "Look in the mirror. You are listening to a pledge drive. You have a habit").

As someone who works in public radio, I know how important these little team-effort touches can be for the success of a program. But more important is the psychological boost "This American Life" has given the ranks of a creatively depressed system, simply because it's good radio -- the very well-produced, hypnotizing fare we'd all like to be doing if we had the budget and the time. "It has what drew many people to work in public radio in the first place, those in-the-driveway stories," Doug Fabrizio, news director at KUER, Salt Lake City, says (and it's true -- we want to mesmerize commuters so badly we've developed a shorthand expression for it).

Ironically, Washington, D.C., is the only major market where the show doesn't air -- but "This American Life" tapes make the rounds at NPR each week, says "All Things Considered" producer Ellen Weiss. "Ira has a gift for hearing," she says of her former reporter. "He's definitely influenced us."

I hope that influence will result in more than just a surge of "This American Life's" Brian Eno-esque ambience on "Morning Edition." What Glass really offers the inertial public radio system is a model for creative survival. As a reporter, he tells me, he tried to give editors what they wanted, just as he now tries to meet the needs of the stations that run his show. But he builds that cooperative framework in order to allow room, a great deal of room, for his own vision -- a word he characteristically tries to retract as soon as it's uttered.

"Not even my vision," he equivocates. "That makes it sound so grand." But sometimes a mixed metaphor is the right one. It takes vision to make good radio.

Julia Barton

Julia Barton is a writer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her website is

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