NPR’s Ira Glass brings show to LSU Union Theater
“I think that’s my job. I think I’m there to make the audience think. It might appear to be one way, but then I’ll ask a question that changes it.” Ernest Ourso, Balladeer
Sometimes a story starts out about one thing, then segues to another and ends with a surprise.
Those are the greatest.
It doesn’t matter that the original story was supposed to be that of a 24-hour diner. Or a family’s visit to New York. Or a young man’s plan to crash a U.S. president’s press conference with the intention of getting thrown out.
Well, the young man’s plan in that last story didn’t exactly go as intended. It went awry; in fact, the president at the time yielded the floor to the young man after he managed to cause a scene. And because the young man had planned for the Secret Service to throw him out, he hadn’t planned anything to say.
No cause for which to stand. No speech. Nothing. He simply walked away in a shroud of embarrassment.
His was one of the many stories to be told during the 17-year history of NPR’s This American Life, a program filled with real stories about real people not usually heard on news programs.
Many times, those stories aren’t found in newspapers or magazines.
And the show’s producer and host, Ira Glass, will bring many of those stories with him to the LSU Union Theater on Sunday, Aug. 26, when he performs the one-man show, Reinventing Radio: An Evening with Ira Glass.
The program will open the Union Theater’s 2012-13 Great Performances Series.
He’ll talk about This American Life and play excerpts from the show. Perhaps one of the excerpts will be that of the press conference crasher.
Or perhaps not.
“We’ve done so many stories in the years that we’ve been on the air, that it’s hard to remember them all,” Glass said.
He spoke from this office in New York immediately after finishing up an interview for the show’s next episode. He didn’t say what or who the story is about, but that doesn’t really matter, because his listening audience knows it’s going to be something different.
And they know it’s always going to be something interesting.
Who knows? Maybe the story will go awry as did the plans of the press conference crasher. But awry in a different way. Because the press conference crasher’s story stayed on target, though it didn’t end quite the way he’d planned. It was a good story. In fact, it was great. But it didn’t fall into Glass’ “best” category.
That category is reserved for the stories that go awry by changing course. The subject starts out talking about one thing, but the story shifts into something totally different, unexpected and always captivating.
“Those are the kind I love,” Glass said. Why? Because those are the stories that capture the imagination. That’s what it’s all about, after all. It’s why radio is still a popular medium in a world where technology seems to become more advanced by the minute. “I think it’s because people still drive cars, and they’re basically lazy,” Glass said, laughing. “It’s true that we have all of this new technology coming at us every day, but it’s almost too much. People don’t want to have to learn to program something new; they want something that’s already programmed for them. “And radio is already programmed. All you have to do is turn it on and listen.”
That’s where the imagination kicks in, because the only pictures offered by radio are those conjured in your mind.
Think about how elementary school students eagerly gather around their teacher at story time. Now think about how, when those elementary school students grow into adulthood, they’ll almost always stop to listen to a good story.
It’s something that sticks with people through life.
And the best part? The stories don’t have to be earth-shattering. They can be something that happens in everyday life. Or they can be something that takes an unexpected turn in the road. Yes, Glass is right. Those really are the best stories. But those kinds of stories usually require a good interviewer, someone who knows when to ask questions and when to stand out of the way. Listen to Glass’ program today, and he sounds as if he’s always been an expert interviewer. He’s the first to admit differently.
“I had to learn to do a good interview,” Glass said. “I was a good editor, but I wasn’t a good interviewer. I had to learn how to put an interview together. For me, it was like putting together an engineering project. And if you were to listen to my unedited interviews, it sounds like I’m flying around.”
But that’s OK. The finished product usually doesn’t reflect the raw materials used in the beginning. It happens that way in most art forms.
Is it accurate to refer to Glass’ show as an art form? Well, his audience may think so. Maybe Glass doesn’t think of himself as a good interviewer, but he knows where to find the good stories.
He’s always open for suggestions. “When I bring the show to different cities, the public radio stations there usually host receptions,” Glass said. “Sometimes, people will come to those receptions and give me suggestions for stories. They seem to have become a little shy about doing that lately, but I’m open to suggestions. I’d like to hear them.”
Glass has been listening to such suggestions since 1995, when This American Life premiered on Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ. The show is produced by Chicago Public Media and distributed by Public Radio International to more than 500 public radio stations and heard by some 1.7 million listeners. The show also airs weekly on the CBC network in Canada and on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio network. This is where new technology comes in handy: most weeks, the program’s podcast is the most popular in America. As for Glass, he began his career as an intern in 1978 at National Public Radio’s network headquarters in Washington, D.C.
He was only 19 years old at the time, and through the years he worked on nearly every NPR network news program and in almost every production job in NPR’s Washington headquarters.
The list of jobs on his resume includes tape cutter, newscast writer, desk assistant, editor, producer and fill-in host for Talk of the Nation and Weekend All Things Considered.
Then came This American Life. The format is simple. Each show has a theme and features a variety of stories illustrating that theme.
“It’s mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always,” it’s explained on the show’s website, http://www.thisamericanlife.org. “There’s lots more to the show, but it’s sort of hard to describe. Probably the best way to understand the show is to start at our favorites page, though we do have longer guides to our radio show and our TV show.”
Yes, there’s also a TV version of This American Life. It was produced on the Showtime network between 2006 and 2008. But it doesn’t stop there. About a half dozen stories from the radio show are being developed into films, one on which Glass will be working the day before flying into Baton Rouge.
“I’ll be spending two days in the editing room before flying out to Baton Rouge,” Glass said. “And after leaving Baton Rouge, I’ll be flying out to Los Angeles.”
But then comes a thought. Glass has visited New Orleans many times, and some of This American Life’s stories have been based in Louisiana. “You know,” he began, “this will be my first trip to Baton Rouge. I haven’t thought about that. It’ll be my first time visiting there, and that’s a shame, because I should have visited there already.” That’s OK. He’s coming now, and he’s bringing his story-filled show with him.
“I started bringing the show to cities when I started the radio show,” Glass said. “It’s good for the public radio stations in those cities. I’ll be on stage, and I’ll use my iPad to put quotes from the show on the screen.” Other than that, the stories will take center stage. Stories that grab listeners’ attention and play out in their imaginations. Stories that generate smiles, laughter and sometimes tears.
And stories that sometimes take different paths in the middle and deliver unexpected surprises in the end.
These are the best of all.