Oct 262011
Authors: Matt Miller

Ira Glass, host of the iconic Public Radio International program “This American Life,” took about 40 years to finally impress his mother and father.

“My parents are the only Jews in America who don’t like public radio,” Glass said. “They wanted me to be a doctor.”

What finally won them over was when “This American Life” won the prestigious Peabody Award in 1996 and again in 2006.

“It took a tremendous amount of success,” said Glass, who will be speaking at the Lincoln Center in Fort Collins on Oct. 30. “Understandably our parents worry for us.”

Glass’ career started when he was searching for any job he could get while pursuing a degree in medicine at Northwestern University. Without knowing what it was, Glass talked his way into an internship at National Public Radio.

“Without intending to do radio I ended up doing radio,” Glass said.

While interning at NPR he got to do a little bit of everything. He cut tape, he wrote, he reported, he produced and he sometimes got to talk on air. But during those days Glass said he wasn’t really good at much of it.

“I was not a great writer or performer on the air,” Glass said. “But I was good at editing it turned out.”

Glass stuck with radio because as an intern he got to do things he enjoyed, and by the time he was 20 years old, he was being trusted to fill in on daily news shows.

It was during his time working on various news programs that Glass got the idea for “This American Life.”

He had spent his time at NPR producing stories with characters audiences could feel for and care about. And Glass wanted a show that only told these stories.

“It was such an obvious idea, and I was scared someone else would take it,” Glass said. “Luckily no one did.”

In 1995 “This American Life” started and a year later became nationally syndicated on Public Radio International. Today it reaches about 1.8 million listeners and has about 700,000 fans downloading its podcast each week. In its 16-year life it has won almost every award for radio, and Glass has won the most prestigious honor in public broadcasting, the Edward R. Murrow Award.

Every episode of “This American Life” explores a different theme, and tackles that theme in different acts that usually consist of non-fiction stories. The program uses journalistic techniques to tell the sad and funny everyday lives of Americans.

The program had tapped into a new vein of radio production; a unique way to tell stories and capture a new type of listener to public radio.

Glass said there is a kind of sound to NPR that some people might find off-putting and “This American Life” broke out of this mold.

“From the beginning the sound of the show was much different,” Glass said. “It was casual and out for fun and it had a lot of music in it like the scoring of a movie.”

He said that him and the other makers of the show just made a program they liked and it turned out listeners agreed.

“The audience responds to the same things as producers,” Glass said. “The shows most popular with the audience are most popular with us.”

When Glass comes to Fort Collins with his presentation, “Reinventing Radio: An Afternoon with Ira Glass,” he will talk about the process that goes into creating “This American Life.”

“It’s a startling, ineffectual process,” Glass said. “We follow our curiosity.”

The program is also known for how it tells stories in an audio format, and Glass’ talk will also focus on the art of storytelling.

“He’s one of the best storytellers around today,” said Robert Leja, director of corporate support and marketing with KUNC, the public radio of Northern Colorado. “There’s a lot of people who like the way he tells stories.”

Leja said when Glass spoke in Denver and Boulder he sold out both venues and expects the same to happen in Fort Collins.

“‘This American Life’ has become a phenomenon, he’s become one of the stars of public radio,” Leja said. “He has cool credibility.”

And Leja said it’s this credibility that makes college students a big part of Glass’ audience. He added that KUNC is one of the top radio stations in Fort Collins.

Glass said that college students and grads are the audience of public radio in general, not just his program. He said part of what draws in college listeners is the ability to get the program in other forms than the radio, like a podcast.

Kalie McMonagle the news director at 90.5 KCSU, grew up listening to NPR. Her mother was a teacher and every morning they would listen to public radio on the way to school. One thing they always bonded over was listening to Ira Glass.

“There’s something about listening to ‘This American Life’ and you feel as though you’re the character,” McMonagle said. “You create a relationship with the characters and with Ira Glass.”

Because of her years listening to “This American Life” McMonagle decided to study communications at CSU and pursue a career in the same vein as Glass. She even created the KCSU radio show “Quite Honestly,” which airs every other Sunday at 2 p.m., that draws parallels to TAL.

“There’s a lot of things that Ira Glass is doing we use in our show now,” McMonagle said. “We do longer more in-depth, story-oriented journalism.”

Like TAL, her show tackles a theme every week and incorporates issues and people at CSU and in Fort Collins.

“The show uses music that’s not often used in radio to evoke emotion,” McMonagle said. “It’s constituting you as part of the story in the same way as reading a good book.”

It’s through characters, music and emotion that McMonagle said TAL connects to a college audience. But it’s not just the content of the show that draws in students, it’s the many ways they can listen to it.

“You can download it in so many mediums college students use,” she said. “It can be on your iPod like music.”

And she said it’s this accessibility in various forms that will be the future of radio.

“Mediums people can interact with are increasing, like making podcasts and going online,” McMonagle said. “We will continue to see the legacy of oral storytelling.”

CSU History of Media Professor James Landers agreed that even with a media landscape of Internet and television, public radio still has a relevance in today’s society and college students represent a sizable chunk of its audience.

“Specifically, NPR is more important than ever,” Landers said. “It provides very intelligent programs on a variety of subjects.”

He said that in the last few decades radio has undergone a drastic change to become a format specifically geared toward talk shows rather than music.

Glass has watched this evolution of the radio landscape firsthand in his years working for NPR.

“(Public radio) is way more successful,” Glass said. “When I started no one had heard of it. A show like ours wouldn’t have existed back then.”

Landers said the role of radio today is moving from entertainment and music to talk show-specific. He said talk shows have always been one of public radio’s staples.

“For people who are thoughtful and want perspective, that’s a pretty good niche,” Landers said. “Maybe one sixth of the population appreciates that kind of approach.”

Radio, specifically public radio, will continue to thrive, Landers said, even though it has struggled because of other media and the recession.

“People won’t want them to go away,” Landers said.

At Glass’s presentation, Leja said all types of people will attend –– those who love public radio, fans of “This American Life,” fans of Glass, people both young and old, writers, journalists and storytellers.

Yet even though Glass has made a place for himself next to the likes of Edward R. Murrow in radio history, he is still reluctant to label himself.

“The notion of calling oneself a storyteller seems so pretentious,” Glass said. “What the job is is a lot of reporting and editing. I’m a glorified reporter.”

_News Editor Matt Miller can be reached at verve@collegian.com. _

  • What: Reinventing Radio: An Afternoon With Ira Glass
  • When: Oct. 30, 3 p.m.
  • Where: The Lincoln Center, Fort Collins
  • Tickets: $100 VIP (includes preshow reception), $65 Gold Circle, $45 Regular
 Posted by at 2:40 pm

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