By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
This American Life
KNOW 91.1 FM, Saturdays at 2 p.m.
Roundly praised since its debut on Chicago's WBEZ last November, Ira Glass's This American Life has been described in typical journalistic shorthand as "a slacker Prairie Home Companion." In truth, its rough-hewn mix of monologues, short stories, verité-style documentary, and odd soundtracks is like little else on the air. Minnesota Public Radio began running the weekly suite of radio storytelling earlier this month, and despite the odd time slot, the debut seems to have been well-received--that is, except for the segment on a woman whose husband began having sex with horses.
"Her husband fell in love with horses--it wasn't bestiality, but zoophilia, which is a subtle but important distinction," Glass explains. "It was taken from an Internet posting, and the story is about how she slowly discovers that this is happening. To me it was sort of tragic but funny, in the style of our show."
The segment doesn't reflect the program's regular subject matter, but its mix of pathos and absurdity is very much what This American Life is about. In a recent episode on music fanaticism, listeners meet the "world's biggest fan" of the little-known Seattle rock band Fastbacks, Scott Lee (who ascertains that of the 30,343 seconds' worth of Fastbacks songs to date, 14% of them have titles that begin with the letter "I"), and Dan Gediman, whose brother Mark--single, age 43, and living with his parents--embraces his career as a Tom Jones impersonator at corporate picnics and Kiwanis Club functions. Where many producers would cast such characters as the butt of jokes, Glass and his contributors almost always locate a poignant humanity in their subjects. It's hard not to respect Mark Gediman (stage name Alex Jones) as he knowingly demonstrates the difference between a Ray Charles scream and an Al Green scream, or feel for his brother Dan, who confesses how deeply he idolized his musician brother as a kid. "I'd sneak into his room and try on his clothes... I was sure he was gonna make the big time."
"To me, really beautiful reporting comes out of empathy," Glass says. "Always. To get inside people's heads." He backed into his radio career after an internship led to a job with National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. at age 19, and learned his craft from an apprenticeship with Keith Talbot, a producer whose job was to invent new ways to do radio documentary. Consequently, Glass's work departs from what has become standard NPR formula, where there's always "one person on one side of the issue, one person on the other side, and one person who's affected by the issue, and every minute is like 40 seconds of script and 20 seconds of quote. And because it's NPR, there's some grainy outdoor sound before the reporter says 'Here on Wherever Street is So-and-So's house--whatever,'" Glass deadpans. "Because of the way I came into radio, I was never doing those kinds of stories."
That's one reason why This American Life sounds so fresh. With a storyteller's instinct for building drama through scene-setting and character development, Glass and his contributors (who include author David Sedaris and award-winning radio producer Jay Allison) make radio that's tough to turn away from. This American Life tends to let subjects tell their own stories, keeping the narrator's role to a minimum; it also drafts unconventional narrators, such as Claudia Perez, an 18-year-old cub reporter who covered a local audition for the upcoming bio-pic of Selena that she herself was auditioning for.
This is not to say that Glass isn't very much at the heart of his program. His psychologist mother and CPA father have both been guests (in one memorable segment, he discusses sex with his mom after discovering a Marie Claire article that quoted her as a "sexpert"). And unlike the "sensible" personalities that define public radio's unflappable image, Glass isn't afraid to respond emotionally, as well as intellectually, to the content of his stories. "I strive for fairness--but I'm not on All Things Considered. Radio works best when you feel like you're hearing an idiosyncratic human personality, a complete one with the full range of human emotions, so it's important to have real reactions to stuff. I think reporters on public radio have a license to express amazement or amusement, and to also express confusion."
Sometimes, however, this is at odds with Glass's goal of empathy. "I had a real problem at the Republican National Convention, because it wasn't clear to me who I was supposed to play. Sometimes I play my empathetic self, and other times I just say what I'm really thinking. And sometimes it blows up in my face. I got into an embarrassing conversation with this woman where I asked her 'if you really think abortion is murder, then why don't you think women who have abortions should get the death penalty?' And we got into a real argument. She got very uncomfortable, and I felt terrible about it--in a way that Sam Donaldson would not." CP
This American Life airs Saturdays
at 2 p.m. on KNOW, 91.1 FM. Archived programs can be heard online (using RealAudio software) at http://www.kcrw.org/c/tamlife/index.html, or tapes can be ordered from WBEZ-Chicago (312-832-3380).