Ira Glass has a story to tell you. Actually, he has lifetimes' worth of stories to tell you. And there are a lot of people who enjoy hearing them. Beginning on Chicago's public radio outlet in late 1995, This American Life is now heard on more than 350 stations. The audience is estimated at more than a million listeners, a huge number for any public radio program.
A description of the show doesn't really explain its appeal: one hour, four stories of everyday life, a little background music and a host with a fondness for extended pauses. It almost shouldn't work, but once heard, the show quickly becomes an old friend. Glass' vision of the medium of radio is remarkable in its simplicity. He makes you want to pay attention and just listen to people, their stories and their lives.
Valley fans of the show's weekly broadcast on KJZZ (91.5 FM, Saturdays at 2 p.m.) will have a chance to catch a glimpse behind the radio curtain this Thursday at 8 p.m. when Scottsdale Center for the Arts presents Ira Glass live and in person with Live Sissies and Fiascoes: Notes on Making a New Kind of Radio.
By phone from the show's home studio at WBEZ in Chicago, Glass spoke at length about his connection with the medium of radio. He says he's not a student of radio history, and had "no special feeling" about radio at all before he did an internship at National Public Radio in Washington.
"I was like most people and never thought about [radio]. I feel like everything I know about it I learned on the job. A lot of it was literally just listening to people's stories and thinking about the pieces I was working on to see what gave them more feeling. It was a process of thinking about why does this work better than that, both in listening to other people's work and putting together my work. That's where I came to everything I understand about it and everything I believe about it."
One of the most interesting qualities of This American Life is the show's use of "nonradio" voices. No one tunes in to this program to hear smooth DJs or newsreaders lulling audiences with trained tones. The voices you hear here sound exactly like what they are, real people with an interesting tale to tell. Was this a conscious decision? "Yeah, oh yeah. Part of that is just the idea that you want to get people on the air who haven't been on the air. To get something that's not like everybody else. There's a lot of really interesting stuff that people can say on the radio, and these are the people saying it so you've got to use their voices," says Glass.
The connecting theme of any given show could span the known universe. Some examples of past shows range from "The Kindness of Strangers" to "The Cruelty of Children."
Asked if there are themes he's wanted to do on the show but hasn't been able to, Glass' answer is immediate. "Yes! There's been one on our story list for over two years, that I think is a really beautiful idea for a show, that we've never aggressively made happen -- I think because I'm the only one on staff who likes the idea." He laughs and continues to explain. "The show would be called 'A Million Bubbles.' The notion of it is that each story would take you into somebody else's car, and then there would be something that happens in each car.
"So we would sit with a group of kids who are car-pooling to music lessons, then we would be with a couple who are fighting about something. I got the idea when I was in a cab and there was this music playing. The driver was from Senegal, and the tape was incredibly beautiful African music. After a while, I asked what we were listening to because it was so beautiful, and he said this is his wife. 'She plays in a band back home and she sends me tapes.' "Then he said all he does all day long is drive around in his cab listening to this tape of her voice and miss her. And for me the idea of that show that I really like is that when you stand on any street corner and look into each passing car, each one is itself a contained little world completely unlike the bubble of the car in front of it or the car behind it. Since most people listen to the radio in their car, it's like we would be saying look around you at those other cars and we'll take you inside of all of them."
Ira Glass is scheduled to appear at 8 p.m. Thursday, October 28, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 East Second Street. For details call 480-994-2787 (SCA), or 480-784-4444 (Ticketmaster).