Radio host Ira Glass provides insight
National Public Radio host Ira Glass comes to Ann Arbor on Sunday afternoon as part of the Summer Festival.
Distinct live program is an exercise in radio verite
BY KEVIN RANSOM
News Special Writer
Anyone who’s ever listened to “This American Life” on National Public Radio knows that it is quite unlike anything else on the radio dial.
Considering the sameness and inanity of most commercial radio, that may not sound like much of a distinction. But “This American Life” is a vivid exercise in radio verite that is also distinct from anything else on public radio stations - which are a much brainier and more ambitious lot.
In fact, Ira Glass, the show’s creator and host, says that its perspective is so unique that it took two or three years after the show was rolled out in 1995 before “we had enough producers and contributors who were trained in the show’s style. Most of them had never had a chance to do these kinds of stories anywhere else.”
Glass comes to town Sunday afternoon to recreate the show live onstage at the Power Center, and also to offer some insight into “how we do things, and why we do them different than every other program on the radio.” Sunday’s show is dubbed “Lies, Sissies & Fiascoes: An Afternoon with Ira Glass,” and it’s just Glass, alone onstage with mixing equipment, tapes, scripts of shows and pre-recorded musical interludes.
The hour-long “This American Life,” which airs on WUOM at 1 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, generally consists of three or four stories or segments, usually 15 to 20 minutes in length, connected by a theme. Some of the tales are fiction - short stories, read aloud by their writers, punctuated by musical snippets that are alternately ominous, pensive, wry or tongue-in-cheek.
But most often, the stories are real - as when regular contributor Sarah Vowell and her sister,
"Lies, Sissies & Fiascoes"
Who: Ira Glass.
What: Ann Arbor Summer Festival Show.
When: 4 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Power Center, 121 Fletcher St.
How much: $20-$30. Information: (734) 764-2538.
SEE GLASS, E2
GLASS FROM E1
Show's creators to take one good story and build a theme around it
who are of Native American descent, poignantly retraced the brutal Trail of Tears walked by their ancestors when they were thrown off their land in the 1800s. Or when one writer spent time with teen-aged transvestites in Los Angeles and told of their emotional struggles and humiliation. Perhaps the most chilling was a story of a confessional call-in phone line-in which one man confessed that he would only give food and water to his dying, bedridden mother if she "bought" them from him-$2 for a sandwich, $1 for a glass of water, etc.
"We generally have one story that we really like, make up a theme around that one, and then find other stories to go with it," says Glass by phone from his office at WBEZ in Chicago, where the show is produced.
What makes the show unique are Glass' between-story reflections and the literary construction of the stories-in that they start at one point and then take the listeners to places they didn't expect to be taken. Plus, there is a slightly surreal quality to the proceedings that Glass says is quite unintentional. "But I can see why it would strike people like that, because of the odd range of things we come up within a theme," says Glass. "But I think that it's really an accident of trying to be entertaining.
"We actually think of the show in more traditional journalistic terms-we're looking for stories we can relate to, with characters who are surprising and funny and emotionally compelling," says Glass, 42.
"Radio is so great for telling stories, but it's almost never used that way- and when it is, it's done in this really corny-ass way, like trying to recreate what radio was in 1943," he says. "Any of us who are under 60 did not grow up with radio; we grew up with movies and TV. So we're trying to use the power of radio to do something that has all the feeling a great movie, and tell stories that are compelling for the contemporary person, instead of the trying to do 'The Lone Ranger.'"
Jon Hoban, radio manager for Michigan Radio, says that "This American Life" has introduced many listeners to public radio's distinctive approach to journalism. "Ira is a terrific storyteller, and the show has an exceptional breadth of themes," says Hoban.
"It reveals a vivid snapshot of American life, and it's a great weekend program, because people have more time to listen, and get wrapped up in the show."
Hoban says the show always receives strong support during pledge drives-no surprise, since it is the second most popular news program on public radio, after "A Prairie Home Companion," and is heard by nearly one million listeners on 350 stations nationwide. It also won a Peabody Award in its first year on the air.
Glass says it's "very flattering" to have the show described as being literary in its tone and construction. "It makes a person feel all fancy and all," he says with a laugh.
"But when you say it's literary, I feel a little bit like I don't want to cop to it. Because if I read that in the paper, I would say, 'Oh, that show's not for me, it's just too high minded.' We want to create a show that you listen to not because it's' good for you', or because it's on public radio-but because they are great stories, and because you get caught up in them."
Kevin Ransom is a Detroit-area journalist and entertainment writer.
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