Ira Glass, host of This American Life, performs in Juneau Tuesday

Posted: Thursday, April 22, 2010

Before becoming host and executive producer of This American Life, Ira Glass worked for many years as a reporter for National Public Radio. Surprisingly, it's a position he claims he wasn't very good at; he has said in more than one interview that it took him 10 years to get it right.

Photo By Richard Frank
Photo By Richard Frank

And yet, given the spectacular success of This American Life, a radio program lauded for the ways it is different from other shows, it seems plausible that Glass' issues with the job stemmed from the fact that he had not yet found space within the structure of traditional news broadcasts for his narrative style, a unique combination of journalism and storytelling.

This American Life has a reported weekly audience of 1.7 million listeners and is, most weeks, the most popular podcast in the country. Fans say the true stories featured on the show have the narrative pull and emotional impact usually associated with fiction.

"He brings familiarity and a realness to storytelling that is really a departure from the more typical public radio sound," said KTOO Radio Manager Cheryl Levitt.

Levitt said she'd been trying to get Glass to come to town for years without success until this year, when the public radio star was able to wrap Juneau in with stops in Anchorage and Fairbanks. He'll perform in Juneau Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at Centennial Hall. Although she'd like to take credit for his appearance, Levitt said the reality is that Glass' wife, editor and writer Anaheed Alani, made the call.

"His wife has a very good friend in Juneau, and she really wanted to come here, so that was the final deciding factor," Levitt said.

Levitt, who met Glass in 2003 at a public radio fundraiser, said that she appreciates Glass' humor and sincerity, and the way the show balances personal stories with broader themes.

"Even if the story is coming out of Afghanistan... there is some sort of universal theme that really hits home," she said.

Glass started his career as an NPR intern at 19 in 1978 and worked in a wide array of positions before becoming a full-time reporter. This American Life first aired in 1995 on WBEZ in Chicago and went national the next year. In a lecture he gave at Macalester College in St Paul in 1998, Glass said that though the show has a unique approach, he feels his job as a journalist didn't change that much in the new context.

"I still feel like my job is like it was then - to document these real moments that surprise me and that amuse me, and that just gesture at some bigger truth."

But as his listeners know, This American Life is a different type of radio show. In many typical public radio broadcasts, Glass said in the same lecture, the audience is prevented from developing a sense of real empathy with the subjects of the news stories because of the journalist's analytical approach, dull narrative rhythm and use of quotes that illustrate ideas rather than a subject's character.

In This American Life, Glass' main focus is true stories about regular people, delivered in the subject's own words. Though he is the show's host, Glass often spends large portions of the show in silence, allowing the narrative to unfold through the first-hand accounts of his guests, and only occasionally steering them with a question or observation. Part of the impact of the narratives also comes from the way the stories are edited, Levitt said.

"He might talk to someone for three hours and we'll hear six minutes of that interview," Levitt said.

Another difference between his show and others is the way the weekly shows are structured around a theme. The episode that aired locally this past Sunday was called "Babysitting," and played out in three acts, as the shows are typically divided. In the first, an older brother describes routinely terrorizing his siblings while babysitting for them; in the second, a pair of sisters recount being stranded without their parents in O'Hare International Airport the day after Christmas (a story that was later picked up and made into the movie "Unaccompanied Minors"); and in the third, a brother and sister explain how they created a fictional family to baby-sit for in an effort to escape their mentally unstable, verbally abusive mother. Each of the stories is interesting on its own, but finds resonance over and above the individual accounts through interweaving common threads, which in this case include how kids cope with incredibly difficult circumstances in the absence of parental guidance and how the forgiveness and lasting love between family members can sometimes defy reason. The mood of the show can range from funny to grim, depending on the story.

Local graphic designer Annie Kincheloe listened to the "Babysitting" broadcast Sunday night on KTOO while driving home, and said she became so caught up in the stories that she had what is commonly known as a "driveway moment" when she got to her house.

"I sat in the car for 10 minutes, listening," she said. "I do that a lot. You're just so captivated by some of the stories you hear."

She said one of the draws for her is the way the stories often surprise her, or lead in unexpected directions.

In his performance on Tuesday, Glass will describe what he looks for when composing the program with the show's other producers: what makes a good story, how he draws people out and how the show is edited for narrative momentum. He'll be set up with a sound board, Levitt said, and intersperse his comments with audio clips. He'll also take questions from the audience toward the end.

KTOO has also scheduled a "meet and greet" with Glass for a limited number of K3 station members at the City Museum prior to the show, open to 50 people. Names will be selected in a random drawing at noon on Friday. To participate in the drawing or find out more, visit the station's website at www.ktoo.org.

Tickets for the show at Centennial Hall are $25, a price Levitt said was set to allow broad attendance.

"We really felt like this is such a treat for our audience, having someone of his caliber coming here, that we wanted to make it accessible to as many people as possible," she said.

Distributed by Public Radio International, This American Life is available for download as a podcast on both PRI and NPR, www.npr.org, and through the show's own website, www.thisamericanlife.org. Locally you can hear the show Saturdays at noon and Sundays at 9 p.m. on KTOO, 104.3 FM.

• Contact Arts & Culture editor Amy Fletcher at amy.feltcher@juneauempire.com



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