Radio: Ira Glass playing by his own rules


Ira Glass had lost his voice. That gentle, reliably nasal, public radio staple of a voice had been worked hoarse. On any given day, this would be an issue for Glass, 55, whose award-winning show, "This American Life," is broadcast on nearly 600 stations and is consistently the top podcast on iTunes.

But it was an unusually big problem one recent Friday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Glass and his team were deep in rehearsals. The next night, in two sold-out performances, they would be staging a mini-opera, radio drama and musical, starring 50 performers and hosted by Glass who, less than 36 hours from curtain, could not speak.

So, on the advice of his show's singers, he found himself on the Upper East Side to see a throat doctor to the stars. The office was lined with head shots: Luciano Pavarotti, Celine Dion, Hugh Jackman. An awed Glass snapped photos of all four walls, with close-ups. Then he was given a steroid shot and sent on his way.

By Saturday night, his voice was back to its soft, sinusy self; and the audiences, mostly public radio geeks, cheered. It was yet another performative feat for Glass, a frenetically busy, insatiably curious public radio star who has repeatedly shown that he cannot be contained by the confines of his chosen medium.

Or, as of late, play by its rules. On July 1, "This American Life" became independent, leaving its distributor of 17 years, Public Radio International, or PRI.

That change is partly technical. The program is no longer delivered to local stations through public radio's satellite system, but, instead, over the Internet through the online platform PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

But the big impact is financial. Gone are a distributor's financial guarantees, which in the case of "This American Life," reached seven figures. Instead, Glass will now be responsible for the show's marketing and distribution, as well as for finding corporate sponsors.

"You take on the risk if you have to do the marketing," said Laura Walker, president and executive chief officer of New York Public Radio, which operates WNYC. "I don't think it's a slam-dunk way of making money. You've got to put in a lot of effort and do the work yourself."

Glass, himself, described the move as no big deal: The show will still air on the same stations at its usual time. Listeners will barely notice. He has another project, too: Members of his team are creating a new podcast called "Serial," available this fall, which will unspool weekly chapters of a long-form investigative radio story.

But disruptive change is something Glass has initiated repeatedly since creating "This American Life," under another title, nearly 19 years ago. The show has spawned a competitive storytelling industry, both on radio and onstage, with "TED Radio Hour," "Radiolab" and "The Moth" fighting for the same public radio listeners.

Glass, himself, has proved kinetic in his own interests, helping to create a comic booklet; editing a nonfiction anthology; and co-producing a movie ("Sleepwalk With Me"), a Showtime television series (which prompted his move to New York in 2006) and stage shows, several of which became simulcasts beamed to movie theaters. He has even inserted humor and creativity into those deadly on-air pledge drives, with clever spots and the creation of hip, public-radio temporary tattoos.

So this latest experiment in distribution has radio insiders watching. "If anyone in public radio can pull it off, it's him," said Eric Nuzum, vice president for programming for NPR. "But I wonder what ‘pull it off' means."

One day early in April, Glass and a few colleagues took a conference call with executives at NPR, the 800-pound gorilla of public radio.

After announcing in late March that "This American Life" was severing its relationship with PRI, Glass said, he fielded offers from every public radio distributor, along with SiriusXM Satellite Radio. But NPR had the strongest pitch.

There was karmic symmetry to the call. Eighteen years earlier, NPR showed little interest in Glass's nascent show even though he had first worked for NPR, in its Washington office, at 19. So he and Chicago Public Media (then called the WBEZ Alliance), which produced the show, went to PRI.

This time, Nuzum told Glass that "This American Life" was undervalued; it should be charging stations more and airing at better times, according to Glass. The network also offered, Glass said, to top PRI's annual, seven-figure guarantee.

Glass had gone into the call figuring the show would stay independent, but suddenly he wasn't so sure.

In the end, Glass turned down NPR. But he acknowledged that there is a lot of uncertainty. "That's the one X factor having over our heads," he said. "We could really, really be wrong."

In recent years, shows that sound strikingly similar to "This American Life" in tone and form have arrived on the radio dial. "Radiolab" and "TED Radio Hour," to name just two, are already on nearly 500 stations each. They are both distributed by NPR.

Still, Glass has shown himself adept at marketing. As any listener who has groaned through an on-air pledge drive knows, his pledge spots are the rarest of creatures, managing to be funny while having a dramatic arc. This is no accident; Glass said he gives them everything he's got. "It's every bit as ambitious as the hardest thing I ever do," he said. "It just seemed like a macho act to try to kill it on the pledge drive."


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