Looking Glass

Converting radio's 'This American Life' to a TV series has left host Ira Glass proud and a little ambivalent

March 22, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun reporter

Celluloid dreams. They infect the best of us, even those who seem immune. Take Ira Glass, host of This American Life. Early last year, Glass uprooted his innovative, popular public radio show and moved the whole shebang -- staff members, their families and pets -- from Chicago to New York to film a television series.

Glass is proud of the result, but there were costs associated with the transition from an aural to a visual method of storytelling, from lives that were changed, to a lessened involvement -- temporarily, he says -- with the radio show.

Was it worth it?

Even today, as the first episode of the television series is scheduled to air on Showtime, Glass isn't 100 percent sure.

"I think everyone on our staff has mixed feelings," says Glass, a Pikesville native. "I didn't understand enough about the television business to completely comprehend the deal we had made. I didn't truly know what we were getting into."

It's This American Life, and our theme this week is ambivalence.

Act I

Opportunity knocked, and Ira Glass told it to go away.

At least, that's what he did at first. In the spring of 2002, Showtime executives asked Glass to consider doing a series for the cable network, which has been trying to develop quirky, quality programming that can compete with its rival, HBO.

Glass turned Showtime down flat.

"For months, we put them off, assuming they weren't serious and would go away," he says.

After all, the Public Radio International program -- distributed on National Public Radio-affiliated stations -- consumed virtually his every waking moment. The hourlong show, which debuted in November 1995 and airs weekly on public radio stations, is a paean to the art of storytelling.

Glass and his staff organize each broadcast around a theme, such as Living by Proxy, about people who avoid their own problems by diving into the (superficially) messier lives of others, or The Allure of the Mean Friend, about why we pursue those who mistreat us. Each episode also is broken into a prologue and several acts, as if each broadcast were a stage play.

If mainstream media deal with the railroad tracks of daily life -- the war in Iraq, the plight of the public schools -- This American Life deals with the stuff that falls between the ties, such as the cost of stubbornness, or growth spurts.

As the joke goes, Glass has a face made for radio. He also has a voice made for print. It is oddly flat, without the variations in pitch and pace that characterize born broadcasters. Glass retains vestiges of the cadences of his native Bawlamer, sloughing off the more jagged consonants as though he fears they might cut his tongue.

None of it dims by even one iota his formidable charm. Glass' appeal consists not just of his curiosity, which is avid and unquenchable, nor of his wit, which is seemingly tossed off.

Part of the answer is that Glass' interests are wildly eclectic.

In a 20-minute conversation, Glass opines on the media depiction of people with strong religious beliefs ("We had some evangelical Christians working on the radio show. They're really sweet, incredibly smart, dear people, and somehow that never comes across.") to life in Iraq ("Who runs a laundry for a living and decides, `I'm going to do it in Baghdad?'") to Harry Potter ("I'm a big fan of the books, but the first couple of movies were boring.").

By the end of the conversation, you're enchanted.

The show has both male and female fans. But before Glass was married in 2005 to his longtime girlfriend, editor Anaheed Alani, he had been dubbed "the Romeo of public radio" because of his popularity with the opposite sex. "He's engaging and engaged," says Nancy Updike, a producer on the show. "That's a large part of his appeal. He's interested; he's chatty; he'll sit there and ask you about your life."

Perhaps those same qualities attracted what turned out to be a most persistent wooer. Despite being repeatedly discouraged, Showtime wouldn't go away.

"We insisted that they find us filmmakers to collaborate with," Glass says. "We figured we'd never hear from them. And then they came back with all these great people. That posed a problem for us -- suddenly, we had to take them seriously."

On Jan. 20, 2006, Showtime announced that an agreement had been reached to broadcast a television version of This American Life.

The television series, it was decided, would adopt much the same format as the radio show. Glass would appear on the air only briefly, wearing a suit and sitting behind a desk set up in bizarre locations, such as a parking garage or on the Utah Salt Flats.

Act II

Glass and his staff were in for a reality check.

He has worked in radio for more than two decades and has assiduously studied its intricacies.

Think, for a moment, about those brief musical interludes, the bars of melody that separate moments in a story.

"Every now and then, people need to take a break from all the yammering," Glass says.

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