The nation’s storyteller

Ira Glass, host of ‘This American Life,’ hits the road to promote public radio

(Nancy Updike)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / February 4, 2011

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If you go to see Ira Glass at Sanders Theatre tomorrow night, you’ll only hear him at first.

“I begin in darkness, just because it’s the radio audience,’’ Glass says. “It’s nice to start it so it feels like the radio show, even if it’s just for a couple of minutes.’’

The radio show, of course, is “This American Life,’’ the weekly public radio hit Glass executive produces and hosts, which is heard on more than 500 stations by more than 1.8 million listeners. “This American Life’’ is also a popular podcast, with another 660,000 regular listeners. They all seem to have a different idea of what Glass looks like.

“I’m often told, I thought you’d be shorter, taller, younger, fatter, thinner, more Jew-y, less Jew-y,’’ he says with a cackle. “The glasses are never a surprise to anybody. Something about my character on the air is definitely communicating short-sightedness. But I think everything else is completely up for grabs.’’

Produced by Chicago Public Media and distributed by Public Radio International, “This American Life’’ is a compendium of stories, from the wry to the hilarious, and the mundane to the highly dramatic, loosely centered around a single theme. It airs on numerous public stations in Massachusetts, including WGBH (89.7 FM) and WBUR (90.9 FM).

The Glass road show coming to Cambridge tomorrow is called “Radio Stories and Other Stories,’’ and features a changing mix of show segments and behind-the-scenes tales. He uses two CD players and a mixing console for the audio bits, but says he’s increasingly tempted to do the whole thing from his iPad.

“We’ve got a lot of member stations out there, and it’s important if you have a radio show to go out and publicize it, so I had to invent something that would be easier to do on the road than mounting an entire show. It’s something I do about once a month,’’ Glass says.

If that sounds like he’s protecting the franchise, maybe so. With Republicans in Congress vowing a fresh assault on the public broadcasting budget, he’s optimistic but wary.

“I’m told by people who do the lobbying on this that we’re expecting the fiercest battle since Newt Gingrich tried to de-fund public broadcasting in the 1990s, and possibly much more fierce than that,’’ he says. “But radio is really, really strong. The audience continues to grow year to year, revenues continue to grow.’’

Most people don’t understand that federal funding is a small part of most public radio stations’ budgets, he says, and the crisis in corporate underwriting that struck stations during the nation’s financial meltdown has now largely abated. “This American Life’’ is healthy enough to have spent tens of thousands of dollars to send two journalists to Iraq for a month this summer. Public radio is “the one part of journalism where things are still pretty healthy,’’ he says.

What clearly bugs him now is the way public radio is responding — or not — to conservatives’ charges that its shows are biased to the left.

“Weirdly, my betters in the public broadcasting community have decided they’re not even going to argue about that,’’ Glass says. “Instead they have this kind of vanilla ad campaign based on the idea that 170 million Americans watch public TV or listen to public radio, and these Americans are from all walks of life and are conservatives and liberals. That’s fine, but I feel what’s being said about us is a branding issue about the product that we make.

“I feel like, [Republicans] want to have a discussion about the content we make, let’s have that discussion. We have nothing to be afraid of,’’ he says. “The notion that we’re not actually going to say, ‘No, you have this wrong,’ that this coverage is not biased . . . I find completely dispiriting.’’

“This American Life’’ is very much about people telling stories in their own words. There’s an intimacy and a point of view that often begs comparison to the culture of blogging, Facebook, and Twitter that has arisen since the show debuted on Chicago public radio station WBEZ in 1995.

“I don’t think we’re that smart that we were anticipating anything,’’ Glass says. “In my case there was just a kind of story that I enjoyed telling that involved applying the tools of journalism to things that were very personal and that journalists weren’t usually covering. And there were people like David Sedaris, David Rakoff, and Sarah Vowell who were telling personal stories. They just needed somebody to put them on the radio.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at


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At: Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, tomorrow at 8 p.m. Only $53 obstructed view seats remain. They are available by calling 617-482-6661.

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