Is it buzz or merely cultural white noise that “This American Life” keeps popping up on our radar and not just on our radio? So far, the Chicago-based show (produced by WBEZ and Public Radio International) has drawn the attention of Brill’s Content, been instituted as a regular forum topic over at Salon, and this month there’s an article by “TAL” host and producer Ira Glass in—of all places—ESPN The Magazine. Not bad pickup for a show that once devoted an entire hour to Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality.
Of course, it’s hard to stay obscure when you’re as funny and engaging as “This American Life,” a show whose meticulously structured narratives about such topics as “Liars,” “Fiascos,” and “Taking Money from Strangers” thread together both humor and meaning. Consistently entertaining and often quite moving, “This American Life” ‘s unashamed enthusiasm is contagious: It’s the kind of show that prompts well-meaning evangelism, converts instead of fans. Already attracting more than half a million listeners weekly, its word-of-mouth push assures “This American Life” cultural dominance by the year 2000. Or at least some kind of talk-show appearance in the near future.
So forgive us if we feel the need to prove that we were into the show before it was cool. This exchange with unlikely “babe magnet” (according to the L.A. Weekly) Ira Glass is the most interesting part of an interview that will appear in the September/October issue of Mother Jones.
In the past year, you’ve started touring, performing the show live in front of an audience. How does performing the show live affect it?
It’s tricky, performing the show live. Because when you’re in a big auditorium, in front of 700 people, the natural tendency is to want to talk louder. You want to project. I don’t know why this is. Maybe it’s just a desire to win over the people in the room, a desire so powerful that it makes you ignore the simple fact that your voice is already being amplified, so you don’t have to shout. If you succumb to this temptation— to talk louder—then you hurt the radio show. Because radio works best in a conversational tone of voice. Radio’s one-on-one.
In the theater, it’s hard not to be seduced by the crowd, easy to forget the one-on-one. Whenever we do these live shows, before we start, I tell everyone on the show to keep the performances small, to talk to the half-million people listening at home, not the thousand people who happen to be in the room.
One reason I do the live shows—and the monthly speeches at public radio stations—is to remind myself that people hear the show, that it has an audience, that it exists in the world. It’s so easy to forget that. We’ll kill ourselves putting a show together—my three producers and I— commission lots of stories, gather all sorts of sound and interviews, write and rewrite, mix and remix, try all sorts of things hoping that something will develop that takes our breath away, and it’s always late hours and a lot of pressure and fear that it won’t all come together and finally we hit our deadline and get the thing on the air and it goes out over the public radio satellite and the 59 minutes end and it’s quiet a moment and you think, “Did anyone hear that?”
A few weeks ago we did a show about Niagara Falls that I’d invested a lot of time in—months of work, literally months, including a truly harrowing last week of production. We restructured half the show the day before it went on the air, adding a full segment, killing another. And for days afterwards, all I wanted was someone to tell me that they heard it, and give me some sort of reaction. I called my voice mail at work over and over all weekend. Checked my e-mail. Visited Web sites where people talk about the show sometimes.
In some theoretical way I know that a half-million people hear the show. But in a day-to-day way, there’s not much evidence of it. My staff and I don’t make much money. My job feels not very different than it did when I was an anonymous (and happy) tape-cutter on “All Things Considered.” I try to come up with story ideas. I edit. I write.
You’ve said that you will say something on-air that’s completely untrue just for the grandeur, or just because it’s funny. Do you think good radio is rooted in the art of fiction?
I think good radio often uses the techniques of fiction: characters, scenes, a big urgent emotional question. And as in the best fiction, tone counts for a lot. But a lot of effective and interesting radio is based on one character who reacts to the world. That’s Dr. Laura. Or Rush. Or Howard. Though Howard’s more complicated, because he actually has a cast of characters who have their own dramatic dynamic. “The Howard Stern Show” is designed like “The Jack Benny Show,” but with different concerns.
Where radio is different than fiction is that even mediocre fiction needs purpose, a driving question. But you can make good radio, interesting radio, great radio even, without an urgent question, a burning issue at stake. Terry Gross interviewing Elvis Costello—he’s smart, she’s smart, they say one interesting thing after another, he plays songs you know and ones you don’t, he tells little anecdotes, there are some laughs. It’s totally compelling radio, even though the ideas and questions are smaller. And there’s drama in certain interactions on the radio—the teenagers who call “Loveline” for sex advice—there’ll be a real tension, a real drama about their situation, and in their interaction with the hosts. And that drama has more to do with theater than with fiction. It’s two characters with different points of view, put into collison, working something out. It’s more David Mamet than David Foster Wallace.
Though of course many of the best radio moments, the most compelling moments, will have something big at stake, some dramatic story someone tells, using all the tools of narrative art—characters, and some issue at stake, and something that gets learned from the whole experience.
I suppose I shouldn’t go around admitting I speak untruths on the radio. When I say something untrue on the air, I mean for it to be transparently untrue. I assume people know when I’m just saying something for effect. Or to be funny. But sadly, one of the problems with being on public radio is that people tend to think you’re being sincere all the time. You say something, and then it’s like, “I heard it on public radio.” Which, at one level, is great. And, at another level, is an odd kind of burden. I think it’s why the network sometimes has the reputation of being the home of the humor-impaired.
What stories and novels have inspired you?
It’s not a terribly original thing to say, but I love Raymond Carver. For one thing, he’s fun to read out loud. “That morning she pours Teacher’s over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window. I go, ‘Holly, this can’t continue. This has got to stop.’ ” That’s the beginning of the story “Gazebo.” If you read it the right way, out loud, you can actually get a laugh. Despite the utter grimness of it. I love the offhand casualness of the writing, the feeling of yearning that suffuses everything in his stories.
In the car tonight I listened to a recording of Allen Ginsberg reading “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” which I’ve tried to work into one of our shows about every six months, but it always drops out. “I’m an old man,” it starts, “and a lonesome man in Kansas. But not afraid to tell my story in a car.” I love that. Like of course the car is the most natural place for anyone to tell the big personal story. There you are, with your loved one, staring ahead, not looking at each other, which frees you up to speak, the not-seeing. Every element of that is very radio—the car, the talking, the not seeing. Another moment I always get excited about when I hear the poem is where he says, “I lift my voice aloud. Make mantra of American language now.” To me, that’s very radio. Very close to the mission of public broadcasting.
Were you at all inspired by J.D. Salinger’s fictional family of Glass children, who had their own radio show?
I was inspired not by the radio show but by the fact that they were all so super-smart. The fantasy of being in a family like that is thrilling. We’re Jews, my family, and Jews break down into two distinct subcultures: book Jews and money Jews. We were money Jews. Growing up in suburban Baltimore, I didn’t know many real book Jews, not in the New York City, Franny and Zooey sense of it. That’s part of what was so thrilling about the Salinger books, that idea of people who read stuff and it means so much to them.
What radio shows do you listen to?
“Morning Edition,” “Car Talk.” We had the “Car Talk” guys on the show and it was an odd experience to actually talk to them, these characters I’d only heard on the air. To hear them say my name, my actual name. They are such perfect radio characters, those guys, classic radio characters. You can imitate them, that’s how original they are. So having them say my actual name, it was like having Bugs Bunny strike up a conversation with you.
I’m a big Terry Gross fan. I think she does the most consistently good program in public broadcasting—TV or radio. The other day she asked a question of Ricky Jay, the magician and actor, that I just loved: “I’d expect,” she said, “that being a magician, a huge part of you wants to keep the secret of the tricks secret, and another part of you, just as big, wants to shout, ‘This is how it’s done! Isn’t it cool?’ ” I thought it was such a smart attempt at understanding someone else’s experience, and he totally lit up, said she was absolutely right. She amazes me, the amount of work she does and the quality of it.
I like Harry Shearer, who does a show on KCRW in Santa Monica that’s syndicated to some stations around the country. Listening to his show taught me that it’s okay to pause however fucking long you want to in the middle of a sentence on the air.
How do you pick the music for your show?
It’s stunningly random. The instrumental music that runs underneath the stories is chosen by all the producers, as they assemble the pieces. Each week we get to the part of the production process when we have to score the stories with music and every week we realize that once again, we haven’t found new instrumental music. Like we had no idea this moment would arrive.
Then there are the songs that come between the stories. Sometimes the people in the stories will specify which song they want after their story. Usually we choose that music while we’re on the air. Sarah Vowell, our contributing editor, who’s also a music critic, comes to the studio with a stack of CDs and, as the stories are playing, she and I will audition and decide on what songs will come after each story.
What have you been listening to lately?
Lately … I’ve been listening to Morcheeba, which is a guilty pleasure. I find the words almost unlistenable in most of their songs, but the texture of the music is irresistible. Such a light touch. The way the scratching just edges in quietly between the verses in the first song on the CD, the lightness of the drumming. I love that.
Also in my car—the only place I hear music outside of work—these Venezuelan guys called Los Amigos Invisibles, who do a kind of Latin-inflected ’70s funk. Big and fun and loud. And a CD of Congolese-Zairean pop music from the ’60s. I’m a sucker for African pop of that era: S.E. Rogie’s a favorite. It’s the sweetest music ever, sweet and happy and yearny all at the same time. With this guitar sound that’s so un-American yet rooted in American music.
Also been listening to, um, how honest do I get here? Aerosmith’s Pump album, specifically the songs “Janie’s Got a Gun” and “Tell Me What It Takes.” Oh, and when I bought this car two months ago, after being carless for a year, I bought Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits to play in the car, though I have to say that he’s the rare musician who’s better in the jukebox or the radio, where he always stands out, than he is in your own personal CD player.
I’ll listen to a song obsessively over and over like a 10-year-old. There’s a Ben Lee song I just went through that with … about a girl he could’ve gotten involved with, but just stayed friends. But every now and then their eyes meet—one of them looks away—he usually looks down. I’m sure this’ll look absurd and stupid if you print it in Mother Jones, but rendered in his clear teenage voice, in that Jonathan-Richman-plus-alternative-cool melodic style, it’s affecting.
A friend told me a story about the Frank Sinatra movie The Tender Trap which got me obsessively listening to the song “The Tender Trap,” trying to memorize all the words. Paul’s favorite lyric, and mine: “And then it seems it’d be so nice. The folks are throwing shoes and rice. You hurry to a spot, that’s just a dot … on the map.” That spot, dot thing, that kills me and I don’t even know why. The absurdity of it, I guess. I’ve actually been listening to a lot of Sinatra since he died, and have been hearing it differently than I ever did. Lately I’ve been noticing his restraint in so many of the songs, how carefully he’s just laying the words out there, not making more out of it, not reaching for melodrama, even when the words would support it. He’s so easy about it. Never really heard that before.
What should people do while they’re listening to the radio?
Drive! Radio is for driving. Though we’re getting all these letters from people who now say that they stay home and listen to “This American Life” the way people listened to radio back in the days before TV. They sit around the living room, stare into the mid-distance, and listen to the show.
Weird that there’s no name for that. You’d think that radio was around long enough that someone would have coined a word for staring into space.