Ira Glass is the fashionably geeky, sympathetic and bemused heart of "This American Life," helming one of radio's great shows in the mostly blighted twilight of the medium. The show, from Chicago Public Radio/PRI, is a weekly anthology of unpredictable, human-scale stories: an Iraqi prisoner of war and his female GI guard fall in love; a mega-church minister catches hell when he preaches that hell does not exist; an elegant older woman offers a young man the once-in-a-lifetime chance to invest in the performance career of a snowman (yes, a snowman) who can bench-press 300 pounds.
The contents of a single hour can encompass hilarity and heartbreak, meaning and mystery, with the enthralling, dreamlike power that is radio's great and largely forgotten charm.
The magic, according to Glass, is in the telling. "We want the stories to have a kind of drama to them," he says. "There has to be a plot in an old-fashioned storytelling kind of way. There has to be someone at the center of the story who one can relate to, and because it's radio and we are not doing stories about famous people or the news, we generally need the stories to be pretty surprising. Sometimes the facts of the story are interesting, but the people telling it aren't so interesting and that kind of kills it as far as radio is concerned."
Finding material for the show is a daunting challenge. When reached at his New York City studio, Glass and his producers were sorting through a morass of 30 story ideas with the hope of finding four that would work on the air. For a reported story, as many as 30 or 40 hours may be recorded and edited to 20 minutes of airtime.
The finished pieces are masterfully concise, the narrative shaped with artful pauses. "We use music as scoring," Glass says, "the way you'd have it in a movie or a television drama. Something dramatic can happen and we just sit with it and the music will play for five to 10 seconds and we can go on to the next piece of action in the story."
The approach is so successful that it's gained a second life as a consistently popular podcast (350,000 downloads a week) and a third as a television series on Showtime. (They're just finishing the first shows of the second season.)
"It's both exciting and, you know, a dreadful amount of work," Glass says. "And truthfully there hasn't been a tremendous overlap. The public radio stations would like it if more of the TV people would come over to public radio, and vice versa, the TV network would like to capture the immense audience that is the audience for public radio in this country, which is larger than the audience for any cable network now."
The television show captures much of the radio show's quirky pleasures, complemented by images that are both illustrative and oblique. Glass thinks it would appeal to his larger audience, if only they would see it. "DVDs of the first season are just coming out," he says, "so we are crossing our fingers and hoping." (If he can work out the electronic logistics, he'll show an excerpt of the upcoming season during his Modlin Center appearance.)
Perhaps the most distinctive quality of the show is the texture provided by the unconventional voices of its contributors, such as Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris, whose idiosyncratic vocal tone, like that of Glass, is far from the standard broadcasting ideal.
"If we have someone like Sarah Vowell on the show, people will complain about the way that she performs," Glass says. "I always feel like, well, that's what makes her great. She only sounds like herself. I like the fact that all the people on the show seem like regular people, including me. I've tried to train myself out of all the ways of reading a script on the air that I had learned when I was a regular NPR reporter on the daily news show, and I really just try to talk to the audience directly."
In the preface to his recent book, "The New Kings of Nonfiction," Glass tells about a reporter who found that a right-wing radio personality had the same provocative persona in an interview as he did on the air; the reporter couldn't tell if it was real or just a continued professional act. I ask Glass if, when he hangs up the phone, he'll go back to speaking in his "real" voice, with the portentous, dulcet tones of Golden Age broadcaster Eric Sevareid.
"I wish that that were true," Glass, says with a laugh. "I wish that that was all a front. But sadly, you know, this is my actual voice and this is my actual personality. I almost want to tell you that that's true just so you could print it. It would be a much better story." S
Ira Glass brings his "Radio Stories and Other Stories" to the Modlin Center's Camp Concert Hall Saturday, Feb. 2, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $18-$36. 289-8980.