On "This American Life," NPR's Ira Glass creates little movies for radio
TROY, N.Y. >> Ira Glass is the creator, a contributor and the producer of "This American Life," one of the most popular podcasts to air on Public Radio. Though you can hear him weekly on the radio, he will be appearing, as they say, live and in person 3 p.m. Sunday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in "Reinventing Radio: An Evening With Ira Glass."
"This American Life" is carried on more than 500 stations across the country and draws 2.1 million listeners weekly, including Albany's WAMC-FM (8 p.m. Fridays; repeated at 4 p.m. on Saturdays) and New England Public Radio — WFCR-FM from Amherst (4 p.m. Sundays).
Glass, who is the creator, a contributor and a producer of the program, said in a recent telephone interview that it is sometimes a problem to explain the show's concept to people who have never heard it. He says the issue is true on the business side as well.
"It is not art, it's not academic, and it's not hard news. We've kind of settled on describing the show as offering stories that are like little movies for radio. The stories we tell are designed to be about experiences we all have or can imagine what it would be like to have them. They can be reported pieces, interviews or performances kind of like The Moth. Sometimes the theme that links them is tightly constructed, others are loosely associated."
His personal popularity is such that he returns almost annually to the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in downtown Troy, to speak to fans and offer what he calls "backstage glimpses of what goes into producing the show." He laughingly compares it to "a DVD extra, but only with me."
Laughing easily is something that appears to come easy to Glass. The success of "This American Life" is directly proportionate to his ease serving as connecting link to the stories that air on the show.
This ease seems to run counter to what sounds like a weekly frenzy to find the right material and organize it so the show appears seamless. "I hope it doesn't look it, but there is not a week that during the hours before our deadline to get the show to the network that we aren't still trying to finalize the show," Glass said.
He explains that sometimes this happens because a news event makes the material irrelevant. As an example, he tells how a story on Ted Cruz's strategy with delegates at the upcoming Republican convention had to be scrapped when Cruz put his campaign on hold days before the story was to air. "It sent us scrambling," Glass said.
Other times the problem is a matter of quality control. Glass says it is usual to work on a piece three or four months before an air date. During the process, other stories will surface that support that feature. A linking theme is created and the form of the entire show takes shape.
Glass tells how his high standards for "This American Life" also caused a crisis.
"A few weeks ago on the Tuesday before our Friday deadline we realized the four stories we had were crap," he said. "We just couldn't let the show air. We threw them away and had to create a whole new show in three days."
Behind the scenes insights like this are what he will share with the audience on Sunday. "I'll explain why we make a show and why it is the way it is. I will also discuss stories that died on the vine and why. We'll also have a 'best of ...' when I use two- or three-minute bits of stories. And, of course, there will be a question-and-answer session, which is often the best part of the show."
Glass says he's learned to enjoy appearing in front of a live audience. He admits the idea to tour was originally an attempt to promote "This American Life."
"When it first went on the air we couldn't afford ads to promote the show so the idea was to visit cities where the show was airing," Glass said. "If the station was involved it meant a lot of mentions for our show during the week. Plus, if people liked my presentation they would leave and tell others."
He admits that, at first, he treated touring as a cost of doing business. "I looked at it as I'm here to do a job. Say the lines and go to the next city.
"It took a while, but I started enjoying standing before large groups of people. I can honestly say I have a lot of fun doing it and interacting with the audience."
What: "Reinventing Radio — An Evening With Ira Glass"
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 30 Second St. Troy, N.Y.
How: troymusichall.org; (518) 273-0038
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