Unless they spew right-wing propaganda, mind-numbing sports analysis, or shock-jock talk à la Howard Stern, its hard for radio hosts to snag the attention of a vast audience. Not so with National Public Radio's Ira Glass, an unlikely airwave celebrity who's offered countless strange-but-true narratives uncovering the nooks and crannies of mundane American experience since 1995 with his This American Life program.
Sometimes tweaked for its preciosity (a recent headline from The Onion snorted, This American Life Completes Documentation of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence), the show nevertheless succeeds on the merit of its age-old storytelling strengths, first and foremost the primacy of interesting characters. Behind the scenes, Glass has shown an arch producers wisdom, giving a leg up to snide yet cuddly middlebrow hipsters David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, Sarah Vowell, Dan Savage, and many others. In a rare coup for a radio show, TAL transitioned to a television version on Showtime last spring. From the deadly serious chronicling of children coping with life after the death of their parents to the charmingly quirky episode focused entirely on building superintendents, Glass presents an America that's both soothingly familiar and sometimes startling.