My lunch with Ira Glass

"This American Life" has become a public radio sensation. And that's amazing because the host is basically just protein.

Published July 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Americans are once again arranging their schedules to hear a radio show. And it's no mystery why: Listening to Ira Glass' public radio phenomenon "This American Life" is much like reading a good novel. There is character and scene and plot. At the end there is change, a subtle hint that the character will go on to live her life differently from that moment on. There is vision. There is inspiration or sadness or pain, but there is always something -- always, as Glass would put it, a place for your heart to go.

One such moment occurred during a recent show in which a woman who had been married for a long time ran into her ex-boyfriend at a yogurt shop. She found herself thinking about him night and day. She looked forward to his calls. She considered meeting him. And finally she told her husband how she felt. What we expect is anger, or pain, or tears, resentment or the tallying up of the years her husband stood by her unfalteringly. What we expect is
outrage. Instead, the husband wraps his arms around his wife and says, "Honey, I am so sorry I can't do that for you anymore." He holds her, then she calls the ex and tells him she can never speak to him again.

That's transformation.

"The husband, the wife, the ex -- who, among us, has not been every character in that piece?" Glass asks.

As the medium's coolest commodity, "This American Life" -- which began airing on public radio in 1995 and falls just behind "Car Talk" and "Prairie Home Companion" in popularity -- captures the listener's imagination by mirroring our culture and society through the individual stories of people and the poignant, strange or luminescent moments in which they find themselves. Each week, "This American Life" presents "a bunch of stories," as the program's Web site explains; "some are documentaries, some are fiction, some are something else ... we choose a theme and invite different writers and performers to contribute items on the theme." Today the show reaches nearly a million listeners on more than 300 stations.

I spoke with Ira Glass recently at Zinfandel, a restaurant in Chicago's River North area, not far from Touristville, with its Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe. After more than a dozen e-mails attempting to pinpoint the wheres and whens, we settled on this place because Glass, who recently turned 40, feels a special affinity for it. Zinfandel, an ochre-walled nouveau American cuisine bistro piping in Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, opened right around the time "This American Life" began. Zinfandel employees are unwavering fans of the show. So loyal are they that each month the restaurant chooses a culinary theme in honor of "This American Life's" weekly themes, and offers special menus around that theme. "There's something so loopy about that," Glass says. "They've chosen, as their medium, food. I love that."

"The most surprising thing I can tell you about this place," he says, leaning conspiratorially toward me, "is the shrimp cocktail. Because shrimp cocktail is not a thing you think would ever be good, but in fact it's completely ..." He thinks a moment. "It makes you think that shrimp cocktail can be something." I stare at him. It's true. Shrimp cocktail is just shrimp cocktail. "I think you'll be surprised," he says, then looks up toward the ceiling and mutters, "please, God, let it be good."

I attempt to not look charmed. In Chicago he has a reputation for dating lots of women -- an unlikely Romeo, one article called him -- though pieces written about him mostly suggest he works too hard to maintain a shred of a social life. "If you date one woman a year," he says with an air of exasperation, "times 10 years, and that's 10 women ..." he trails off. It's a tired topic -- and one that, with his growing fame, is bound to get more tiresome. I refrain from telling him that many of my highly educated, highly articulate female friends were reduced to schoolgirl giggles and the throes of groupiedom at the mention of my meeting him.

In jeans, Converse All-Stars, green T-shirt and unbuttoned button-down, Glass could be anybody -- the Wrigley Field frat boy going gray, the roadie for an Elvis Costello tribute band, the tourist come to the big city for a weekend of megastores and theme restaurants. It's precisely this regular-guy feel that allows him to penetrate worlds most of us would be barred from: a father-and-son exploration of the elder's Alzheimer's disease, a young daughter's feelings of betrayal upon discovering her father and her imaginary friend are one and the same, an African-American who journeys to the homeland and in the process discovers where home is not, a pimp who fails because he is not brutal enough, a man's violent boyhood pranks.

Glass withholds judgment completely and consistently, even with the inmates and the prostitutes. This refusal to judge, a trait that would both win him votes and make him a terrible politician, is part of the universal appeal of "This American Life." It compels us to want to tell our stories in ways, perhaps, that we've not had the courage to tell before -- ways that evoke audience empathy for everyone, victims and villains alike. We've all been down there with the liars, the thieves, the hacks. But we've also been heroes and saints.

He arrived exactly on time, which startled me. I assumed he'd be late, 10 or 15 minutes at least. I assumed things at the radio station would have been frantic and he'd appear panting with disheveled hair and rumpled clothing -- the clichid marks of genius. In many of the articles I'd read about him, he'd sounded the part: busy beyond human capacity, the crackpot intellectual operating on two hours of sleep every night, the neurotic compelled to edit everyday conversations (somehow it's easier to swallow a successful neurotic than a regular guy with a good idea). Though we would prefer him otherwise, Ira Glass is not, insofar as I can tell, troubled, compulsive or obsessive.

When he was 19, Glass began working at National Public Radio, first as an intern, then as a tape cutter and eventually as a reporter and producer for "All Things Considered." (In a May airing of Terry Gross' "Fresh Air" we heard an earlier Ira during a six-month stint as host of "Talk of the Nation" -- now Ray Suarez's gig. He sounded as odd in that position as Tom Brokaw would doing stand-up.)

In the early stages, Glass worked with Keith Talbot, a former documentary producer for NPR now working in television in New York, who germinated the seed for what would later become the genius of Glass' show. "His job was to find new ways to structure an hour of radio and to do that in documentary," Glass recalls. "So he thought a lot about how you listen to something and why you stay listening; he was very inventive about structure and what structure does. And later I would find that I could actually structure stories based around the principles that I had learned."

Our grinning waitress comes to the table for the entree order. I figure she knows who he is; except for one moment near dessert when he is away from the table, she does not make eye contact with me at all, but keeps her eyes trained toward him. He is insouciantly handsome -- in the way that someone who ignores mirrors is handsome, or perhaps in the way that someone who makes you feel important is handsome, or maybe in the way that someone who hasn't changed his manner of dress in decades and whose style has finally come around again is both handsome and hip.

Glass' role as host of "This American Life" shifts. Sometimes he is the unbeliever and sometimes the cheerleader, but he is always the one who gives a context for each story, within each week's theme and within the world as well. He tells us not only why we should listen to the story, but why we should take pleasure in it. "Often it's just creating desire," he says. "You say something like 'the city schools in America' and it's just like saying 'Vietnam' or 'public housing.' It's faceless, it just seems unfixable till you put a face to it and say it's way more complicated than you think you know. In that way, broadcasting has a role in the way we think of ourselves and in our picture of the world ... my staff and I do the shows we do because they're entertaining and moving to us and we assume they might be to someone else. There's a value to that for me."

Glass is a writer's writer, or more aptly a writer's radio host. He understands how narrative works, how to build tension, how to place words within sentences and sentences within paragraphs, how at the end of a story a character must be transformed. Every good writer knows that the most important, most evocative information should come at the end of a sentence or paragraph, and even in conversation he does this. Take his earlier words, for example: "They've chosen, as their medium, food. I love that." He doesn't say: "I love that they've chosen food as their medium." Because he knows -- probably instinctively -- that what comes last will carry the most weight; he knows where inside a sentence the power lies -- or rather where inside a sentence lies the power. And so even in his speech you hear the pregnant pauses, the places where, if he were writing the conversation, he would use colons, semicolons and dashes.

Our food arrives. Glass has ordered something geologic, a layer of hash browns, halibut, eggs and tomatillo sauce. I am less adventurous: I'm eating chicken and stuffing, which rivals my grandmother's. "The stuffing's always better than the rest," he says after a sampling. "Grease and starch just always win over protein. In food as in so many things. Look around you, that's what our whole country is based on. It's amazing that Michael Jordan can be an iconic figure because he's basically just protein."

One of Glass's strengths is that very few of the stories on his show are what they seem to be at first listen. The sidewalk Sinatra impersonator, for example, is not merely another member of America's wacky fringe, but rather he embodies how life can surprise us, the accidental moments and meetings that color our lives -- the profundities and reminders of things inside us, the pieces we may have left along the way or the places we've forgotten to find joy.

But despite his clarity in pinpointing the nucleus of a story, Glass is hardly skulking around every corner searching for material. There's enough material sitting in boxes at the station, he says. He doesn't need to look for it in everyday life; most conversations aren't that interesting, anyway. Though he did admit to a recent moment when, on a rare sunny day in Chicago, he sat on a deck overlooking Lake Michigan with NPR's president and WBEZ's station manager -- all three in dark suits. "Suddenly, I felt like I was in some Tom Clancy novel!" he shrieks. "I wanted to say, 'Don't you guys think this is really weird? We're sitting outside in the sun and we're wearing suits as if we're plotting the overthrow of Belize!"

Which, I tell him, would only take the three of them.

Lately, Glass has toyed with the idea of "This American Life" as a television show -- he's even had offers. The format would be similar to the radio show, with weekly themes and segments. Though part of the magic of radio is how it allows individual imagination to bloom, Glass feels confident that he could capture this as well in a visual medium. "Each story would be shot in a different style," he explains, "some with a hand-held camera in available light, some shot with a director and lighting and beautiful in the way that an Errol Morris film is beautiful. A lot of the images will be" -- he pauses a moment -- "I've been warned not to say this in front of TV networks because they take it as a little more arty and threatening than I think it is ... The images will be more impressionistic. They won't directly represent, but will gesture at ideas in the story."

In a recent piece he wrote for Slate magazine, Glass mentioned the possibility of putting the radio show on hiatus for a year and exploring television. "The next morning I woke up with [something] like a bad hangover," he shakes his head, "like 'what did I say that for?' That's not what I want to do. What I want to do is keep doing the radio show and also do some television." It's a scenario that, on his current high, seems entirely plausible.

In the world of "This American Life," Glass believes that art is anything that gives us pleasure, anything that evokes some sort of emotional or visceral response. The stories that air on the show are chosen with this in mind. John Gardner once defined art as seeking to improve life, not debase it, as seeking "to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us ... Art rediscovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness," he wrote. It is arguable that Ira Glass may have brewed our latest, greatest example of the marriage between art and humanity. Or, as he himself might put it, a surprisingly perfect concoction of grease, starch and protein.

By Rachel Louise Snyder

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