Ira Glass, host of the iconic Public Radio International program â€œThis American Life,â€ took about 40 years to finally impress his mother and father.
â€œMy parents are the only Jews in America who donâ€™t like public radio,â€ Glass said. â€œThey wanted me to be a doctor.â€
What finally won them over was when â€œThis American Lifeâ€ won the prestigious Peabody Award in 1996 and again in 2006.
â€œIt took a tremendous amount of success,â€ said Glass, who will be speaking at the Lincoln Center in Fort Collins on Oct. 30. â€œUnderstandably our parents worry for us.â€
Glassâ€™ 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.
â€œWithout intending to do radio I ended up doing radio,â€ 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 wasnâ€™t really good at much of it.
â€œI was not a great writer or performer on the air,â€ Glass said. â€œBut I was good at editing it turned out.â€
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 â€œThis American Life.â€
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.
â€œIt was such an obvious idea, and I was scared someone else would take it,â€ Glass said. â€œLuckily no one did.â€
In 1995 â€œThis American Lifeâ€ 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 â€œThis American Lifeâ€ 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 â€œThis American Lifeâ€ broke out of this mold.
â€œFrom the beginning the sound of the show was much different,â€ Glass said. â€œIt was casual and out for fun and it had a lot of music in it like the scoring of a movie.â€
He said that him and the other makers of the show just made a program they liked and it turned out listeners agreed.
â€œThe audience responds to the same things as producers,â€ Glass said. â€œThe shows most popular with the audience are most popular with us.â€
When Glass comes to Fort Collins with his presentation, â€œReinventing Radio: An Afternoon with Ira Glass,â€ he will talk about the process that goes into creating â€œThis American Life.â€
â€œItâ€™s a startling, ineffectual process,â€ Glass said. â€œWe follow our curiosity.â€
The program is also known for how it tells stories in an audio format, and Glassâ€™ talk will also focus on the art of storytelling.
â€œHeâ€™s one of the best storytellers around today,â€ said Robert Leja, director of corporate support and marketing with KUNC, the public radio of Northern Colorado. â€œThereâ€™s a lot of people who like the way he tells stories.â€
Leja said when Glass spoke in Denver and Boulder he sold out both venues and expects the same to happen in Fort Collins.
â€œâ€˜This American Lifeâ€™ has become a phenomenon, heâ€™s become one of the stars of public radio,â€ Leja said. â€œHe has cool credibility.â€
And Leja said itâ€™s this credibility that makes college students a big part of Glassâ€™ 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.
â€œThereâ€™s something about listening to â€˜This American Lifeâ€™ and you feel as though youâ€™re the character,â€ McMonagle said. â€œYou create a relationship with the characters and with Ira Glass.â€
Because of her years listening to â€œThis American Lifeâ€ McMonagle decided to study communications at CSU and pursue a career in the same vein as Glass. She even created the KCSU radio show â€œQuite Honestly,â€ which airs every other Sunday at 2 p.m., that draws parallels to TAL.
â€œThereâ€™s a lot of things that Ira Glass is doing we use in our show now,â€ McMonagle said. â€œWe do longer more in-depth, story-oriented journalism.â€
Like TAL, her show tackles a theme every week and incorporates issues and people at CSU and in Fort Collins.
â€œThe show uses music thatâ€™s not often used in radio to evoke emotion,â€ McMonagle said. â€œItâ€™s constituting you as part of the story in the same way as reading a good book.â€
Itâ€™s through characters, music and emotion that McMonagle said TAL connects to a college audience. But itâ€™s not just the content of the show that draws in students, itâ€™s the many ways they can listen to it.
â€œYou can download it in so many mediums college students use,â€ she said. â€œIt can be on your iPod like music.â€
And she said itâ€™s this accessibility in various forms that will be the future of radio.
â€œMediums people can interact with are increasing, like making podcasts and going online,â€ McMonagle said. â€œWe will continue to see the legacy of oral storytelling.â€
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 todayâ€™s society and college students represent a sizable chunk of its audience.
â€œSpecifically, NPR is more important than ever,â€ Landers said. â€œIt provides very intelligent programs on a variety of subjects.â€
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.
â€œ(Public radio) is way more successful,â€ Glass said. â€œWhen I started no one had heard of it. A show like ours wouldnâ€™t have existed back then.â€
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 radioâ€™s staples.
â€œFor people who are thoughtful and want perspective, thatâ€™s a pretty good niche,â€ Landers said. â€œMaybe one sixth of the population appreciates that kind of approach.â€
Radio, specifically public radio, will continue to thrive, Landers said, even though it has struggled because of other media and the recession.
â€œPeople wonâ€™t want them to go away,â€ Landers said.
At Glassâ€™s presentation, Leja said all types of people will attend â€“â€“ those who love public radio, fans of â€œThis American Life,â€ 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.
â€œThe notion of calling oneself a storyteller seems so pretentious,â€ Glass said. â€œWhat the job is is a lot of reporting and editing. Iâ€™m a glorified reporter.â€
_News Editor Matt Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. _
- 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