His Life In Radio

Regular guy Ira Glass keeps thousands tuned in with a kindly voice and a rich mix of American tales.

October 07, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Ira Glass is sitting in Lenny's Deli on Reisterstown Road in Owings Mills, chatting with two of his father's City College buddies, when a woman he's never met interrupts to ask him his age.

When Glass tells her he's 44, the woman looks disappointed.

"I have a daughter, but she's a bit younger than you. She's 39," the woman explains.

As the woman appears to ponder how a match could be arranged, Glass politely excuses himself and heads for the counter to order eggs and home fries.

Glass, who has a girlfriend, is pretty sure the woman only knows him as Barry the accountant's son, a nice Jewish boy from the Baltimore suburbs who still has all his hair.

Glass is all those things. But he's also host of This American Life, an eclectic Public Radio International show (airing locally at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WYPR) that draws 1.5 million listeners each week from 472 radio stations nationwide. That's more than the number of people who subscribe to The New Yorker each week. Imagine every person in Baltimore City, Washington, Columbia, Annapolis and Frederick listening to the show at once, and you get the idea of Glass' weekly audience.

Not bad for a one-time Star Trek nerd whose parents were still trying to persuade him to go to medical school just 10 years ago.

But to Glass, who performs at Goucher College tonight, the key number is 48.

That's how many minutes the average listener stays tuned in to his one-hour show. So, all over the country, people are sitting in their driveways once they're already home, or driving the long way around the mall parking lot, or discovering that they don't really mind sitting in traffic.

They don't want to get out of their cars until they find out whether the man in Chicago who placed the classified ad in the Spanish newspaper gets back his stolen toy poodle. They must know what happens to the 10-year-old Michigan girl who became Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega's pen pal after seeing him on television in a cool hat. They find themselves drawn to these tales that unfold like fables, whether they're about poultry or monogamy, Frank Sinatra or the Arab-Israeli conflict.

And in those cars, it's often just listener and Ira Glass - the guy with the soft, nasally, kindly voice who sounds more like a friend than does, say, Dan Rather or even National Public Radio's Carl Kasell.

Glass understands why listeners connect to him, and the feeling is mutual.

"It feels like more of a private act to make a radio show," Glass says. "In meeting the listeners, I think: `These are people like the people I know. I just don't happen to know them.'"

Glass has spent his entire career in public radio, contributing stories about Chicago's public schools to National Public Radio's All Things Considered. But he hadn't been consistently on the air until 1995, when This American Life debuted on Chicago's WBEZ radio, thanks to a grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

From the beginning, Glass held the show to several basic tenets. Each week would have a broad theme - the cruelty of children, the demise of Niagara Falls' wedding industry. Like many of the plays Glass watched as a high-school usher at Baltimore's Center Stage, the show would be divided into several acts. It would not necessarily follow news developments. It would not highlight famous people. Most important, it would tell entertaining stories not heard anywhere else.

This American Life largely still hews to those principles, although the show has recently focused on the aftershocks of the war on terrorism or conflicts in the Middle East. But even now, This American Life puts its own imprimatur on the story. For example, a recent show on the Arab-Israeli conflict delved into the way a group of Israelis go about their lives as though they are living in a normal, peaceful Mediterranean country.

And as for the famous people, well, that went out the window when Glass and regular contributors David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell became stars themselves.

Sedaris was cleaning apartments and moonlighting as a storyteller in the Chicago club scene when Glass met him and invited him on the show. Now, he's a regular New Yorker contributor with a collection of published books, among them Barrel Fever and Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Vowell, whom Glass met when she visited the show while doing research for a book on radio, has written two books: Take the Cannoli and The Partly Cloudy Patriot. Like Glass and Sedaris, she has an instantly recognizable, nasal voice - one that Glass says would have made her a natural star in radio's heyday but probably wouldn't have gotten her a job as an NPR news reader.

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