It's a Wonderful Life  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 1999

It's a Wonderful Life   

"This American Life," Ira Glass' innovative public radio program, is in the vanguard of a journalistic revolution.

By Marc Fisher
Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist, is a regular contributor to AJR.     



THIS IS A STORY ABOUT a radio show that is helping to spark a new approach to American journalism. A program on the radio. A program run out of three tiny rooms at a Chicago public station located in the shadow of an enormous Ferris wheel at the edge of a pier on Lake Michigan. A program that is, like most endeavors that inspire and challenge, something of a cult, a frenzied pursuit bursting out of a single, fertile mind.
"This American Life" is Ira Glass and his stories. Glass is a journalist who works on deadline--very, very close to deadline--but his stories are almost never about anything that happened yesterday or even this week. They are news stories, but they are not about the news. They are stories that are changing what we think stories are.
More than 800,000 people listen to "This American Life" each weekend on 332 public radio stations. Each show presents two, three, four or five stories vaguely related to a theme, such as Do-Gooders or Pray or Fiascoes or Poultry. There are performance pieces by comedians and essayists, memoirs by unknown voices and reported pieces by Glass, his three producers, several regular contributors and, most remarkably, by some of the country's top magazine and book writers.
The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell on middle-class blacks in New York City and Toronto, Esquire's Michael Paterniti on a man who disappeared from the regular crowd at his local dog run, and other big-name writers, reading their own work or trying their hand at creating a reported piece for radio: authors Gay Talese and Tobias Wolff, The Atlantic's Ian Frazier. People who regularly command $10,000 to $20,000 for a magazine piece, working for public radio at a day rate of $200--just to be edited by, just to be closer to, Ira.
At a moment when the definition of news is up for grabs, "This American Life" is probing the boundaries: In Washington, when WAMU, one of the most listened-to public radio stations in the country, decided to add "This American Life" to its schedule, it put the show on at 6 p.m. Sundays, replacing NPR's "All Things Considered."
On a news-talk station, the new news was in, the old news silenced.

GLASS IS IN HOUR No. 3 of editing Paterniti's script for a reported piece on the dog run near his house. Glass sits in a dark studio, the script splayed out before him. Across the table sits producer Alix Spiegel, one of the three young women who commission, edit, write and report pieces for the show. For this conference call with Paterniti, who is at his parents' home in Connecticut, Glass and Spiegel wear headphones and speak into microphones, which means that in their conversation, they hear themselves as if they were on the radio, which means that they speak in that warm and affected and intimate and knowing and curious manner that is "This American Life."
Moments before this editing session began, Spiegel hurried into Glass' tiny, windowless office to announce, "It's worse," meaning that the rewrite Paterniti has e-mailed after an initial chat with Spiegel is not nearly the quality of his original draft.
Glass: "Worse?"
Spiegel: "It's much worse."
Glass: "We can put some of the old stuff back; let me see."
He closes the door, sits down with the script, props his feet up on the desk. In nine minutes, he makes four tiny jots in the margins. Suddenly, he jumps from his chair, steps over to Spiegel's cubicle, and says, "OK, I see the path."
Together, they bound down the hall to the studio. Glass says, "He should go back to putting the Jeff stuff where it was. He needs to actually make a point. OK, fire up the Batmobile."
Spiegel patches Paterniti into the conversation and the three of them begin a word-by-word dissection. Between sips of Diet Pepsi, Glass approaches the writer gingerly. "I think you should go back to the wording the way it was. Do you feel that, too?"
"Totally," Paterniti says. "Suddenly, it got sort of aimless."
As the conversation wends its way toward a new version, Glass occasionally speaks directly ("Make it feel like something's going to happen"), but more often edits elliptically ("What he's saying here is, this is, you know, this is, in fact, like, you know, he's saying, you could go right there").
Glass listens intently. Very intently. "Is that a dot-matrix printer there?"
"Huh?" Paterniti replies.
"It sounds like a dot-matrix printer in the room where you are."
It is.
Three hours after the edit began, the script is a tad longer, yet much tighter, and in places considerably more artful. The story now has a bit more foreshadowing, a better sense of movement, a clearer statement of meaning. And the script now sounds much more like, well, like Ira Glass.
All of which Paterniti resents not one bit. He has loved every minute of it.
"It's just the most original thing going on," the writer says, "this amazing exercise in aural storytelling, especially for people who grew up in the `Brady Bunch' times." Because of "This American Life," Paterniti says, "writing has become more vernacular. There's an attempt in a lot of what I'm reading now to be more conversational. There's this license now to show more abandon. NPR has loosened up. Even Time magazine is much more conversational, much more willing to be hip and cool."

THE THEORY BEHIND THIS story is that Glass, the spike-haired, baby-faced, adenoidal 40-year-old at the center of the "This American Life" cult, is a revolutionary. The radio part of the story is well told, well accepted: Glass is the boy wonder, a rumpled genius in the minuscule world of radio documentaries, a quizzical character who hides behind trademark oversized black plastic eyeglass frames and takes radio journalism to places it has not traveled before.
"This American Life" has been on the air for more than three-and-a-half years. It won a Peabody Award in its first year. In its second year it snared a $350,000, three-year grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting--more than double the money Glass had applied for. But while Glass quickly conquered the small world of public radio, persuading about 120 stations to pick up the program in its first year, what's happening now is even more remarkable: In ways small but clear, as inspiration if not direct model, TAL is at the vanguard of a shift in American journalism.
From the left, where corporate consolidation is seen as a villain that is homogenizing and softening a tradition of tough reporting, to the right, where the liberal elite is viewed as a force that is skewing and warping news coverage, the credibility of the media is waning. Bumper stickers shout "I Don't Believe The Media." In the disaffected heartland, magazines and Web sites such as Media Bypass and the Onion attract considerable audiences of consumers searching for something unfiltered. The Internet and a generation of nonreaders and surfers are changing the nature of the audience, creating the illusion that each citizen can and should play editor.
And now, slowly, the corporate media are responding to the challenge. George, the slick political magazine started by John F. Kennedy Jr., is disdained as a light failure by many inside the business, but it is typical of a new breed of publications that reject many of the basic forms of journalism: In many issues of George, as in the new front-of-the-book section of The New York Times Magazine, and as in the eclectic new magazine DoubleTake, there are few, if any, stories in the traditional sense. Instead, there are Q&As and transcripts of conversations and reprints of documents and extended quotations and mini-memoirs. The emphasis is on voices without narration, giving the new school of publications an unmoderated feeling, a nonlinear, nonhierarchical, unedited sensibility--just like "This American Life."
For many months, Glass introduced his show with a definition: TAL, he said, was "documentaries, monologues, overheard conversations, found tapes, anything we can think of" to illuminate a theme. Glass himself is a host who sounds as haphazard and un-anchorman as he looks. On "This American Life," Glass and everyone else can be heard doing what everyone else in the history of broadcasting has edited out: swallowing saliva, smacking their lips, sliding over syllables, giggling. What broadcasters usually discard to produce a smooth, authoritative sound is not only left in, but manipulated, highlighted, accented to add meaning, to be a signifier, to be part of the writing.
The intended effect is precisely what is produced: a sense of ease, informality and direct, unfiltered access. You are, the packaging tells you, experiencing something unpackaged, something raw. You are the ultimate arbiter of truth, because the sound is not polished, or, rather, it does not sound polished in the ways we know from TV and radio.
The effect is liberating. The listener somehow feels empowered: It's my show, to make of it what I will. And the effect is spreading: "NBC Nightly News" is now peppered with segments called "In His Own Words," in which the subject of the story, without benefit of narration, tells the tale. It's highly edited, of course, but the theory is that the viewer will not feel that.
TV has been milking the public desire for reality for some years now; witness the orgy of shows like "World's Scariest Car Chases," "America's Funniest Home Videos" and the mother of them all, Fox's "COPS." But what "This American Life" has brought to the table is the notion that reality can be presented without tabloid hype, that stories can be told in old-fashioned ways and then presented in a newfangled format--as pointedly different experiences, juxtaposed in a creative fashion, wrapped together by Glass' unthreatening but hip persona.
The search for a new voice has spread even to the most traditional of media, newspapers, some of which are pushing the limits of their own forms, redefining news in ways similar to TAL: At the New York Times and my own paper, the Washington Post, and at regional standouts such as the St. Petersburg Times, Baltimore Sun and Philadelphia Inquirer, editors and reporters are rediscovering old forms--serials, first-person accounts, experiential journalism, less pyramid writing and greater dedication to narrative. There's even the occasional adventure in fiction (clearly labeled, of course)--a staple of "This American Life."
As disenchantment with government reporting continues to grow, there are more stories about ordinary lives. In some places, quotes are getting longer and richer again, not quite back to 1970s lengths, but at least they're breaking out of the 1980s rut in which newspapers mimicked TV in every possible way--and paid the price for doing so.
Ira Glass didn't invent any of these forms. He generously credits the Readings section of Harper's magazine--a collection of short pieces, documents and photos culled from just about anywhere--for some of the ideas that spawned TAL. "What we do is pretty squarely in the tradition of long magazine feature writing," he says. But Glass has packaged these narratives in a way that is fresh and in tune with the times, a style that looks like random access but works from a clear and arch intelligence.
" `This American Life' at its best really combines the profound with the silly or fun," says Paul Tough, editor of Saturday Night, a Canadian monthly, and a former TAL senior editor. Tough got to know Glass when Tough was at Harper's in the early '90s and wanted to put monologues from Glass' interviews in the Readings section of the magazine. Between the Harper's approach and Glass' own fascination with the world of spoken-word performance artists, TAL evolved.
Now the show is inspiring others, says Tough, who is modeling his magazine's new front-of-the-book section, Canadian Letters, on the program: "It's people writing about the way things are where they live, eight pages of first-person journalism, by professionals, novelists, a former criminal, a mountain biker, a Serb protester."
Glass and other editors testing these waters say the times are just right for this sort of innovation: The post-Cold War lull in government news, America's affluence and the resulting freedom to ignore politics, and the illusion that local issues are secondary to the new online communities--all of this has made it easier for "This American Life's" deeply personal form of journalism to thrive.
Jorge Just, 23, a TAL intern, sought this job and this job only because Glass' show is one of the few that people his age take seriously: "My generation's been constantly fed this idea that we're jaded by media, and even if it's not really true, we come to believe it.... This show was the one thing that was different: It's just more...present."
Glass says TAL's aim is "to tell stories that help us empathize and help us feel less crazy and less separate. And just, you know, go straight to your heart." That's how he ends his stump speech, the one he makes to sell station managers on his show. When the speech ends, the music swells, because as good as his story is, as good as the show is, Glass knows a little music always helps. "Of course our sound is highly manipulated," he says. "It just doesn't sound it."

IRA GLASS IN A MINUTE: His father is an accountant and his mother a clinical psychologist. "They're money Jews, not book Jews," Glass says. "Growing up [in Baltimore], I knew no one who had read `Franny and Zooey,' no one in the subdivision." He did theater in high school. He was groomed to be a nice doctor. He hated science. He spent two years at Northwestern and two at Brown, where he studied semiotics. He hardly listened to radio as a child, but he wrote jokes and got his first radio work selling one-liners to a Baltimore shock jock. After his freshman year in college, he looked for work in TV, radio and advertising; when he found nothing, he volunteered to edit promotional announcements at National Public Radio. He worked that post into a real job and was soon working on documentaries. He spent the next 16 years at NPR as a producer and reporter, eventually making riveting long-form pieces such as a series based on a year spent in a Chicago high school.

GLASS ON A "THIS AMERICAN LIFE" MOMENT: "There is just something about the judgment of strangers. When the cashier in the record store examines your choice of CDs and gives you a look like, `You are so lame.' When the cute host or hostess in the restaurant seems to be rendering some judgment on you in some way as they walk you to your table.... Then there's the part of the story where I make some really big statement, like there's something about the kindness of strangers. Because you can't just have an anecdote. It's got to mean something."

SOME SHOWS: A 57-minute tale called "Twentieth-Century Man," the story of a preacher-in-training who becomes an actor, then a Beat writer, then a man in a gray flannel suit, then a hippie, then a born-again Christian--as told by one of his daughters. A half-hour documentary by Alix Spiegel on her journey to Colorado Springs, where she, a secular Jew, attempts to understand a group of evangelical Christians who spend their days praying for strangers. "Careful Who You Pretend To Be," a show about people pretending to be something they're not, such as a historical interpreter who plays a slave-owner and spends his days screaming at "slaves." "Do-Gooders," in which Glass travels to a poor Missouri town where a middle-class couple moves and tries to improve things--with very bad results.

WHO LISTENS: For the most part, your average public radio listeners--better educated than average; slightly more men than women; very few minorities; average age: 43. The show does best in places like Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, New York City, Portland, Oregon, and in college towns--your basic NPR America.

WHO PRODUCES THE SHOW: Unmarried, childless 20- and 30-somethings with impeccable smarts and hardly any radio experience except for immersion in the Church of Ira Glass.

WHAT'S IN GLASS' BLACK BAG: Books, magazines, videos, CDs, cassettes, radio scripts, "The Collected Works of Veronica Geng," "The Best of Chet Baker."

WHAT'S ON HIS BULLETIN BOARD: A phone message from Rolling Stone magazine asking for a list of his favorite Web sites. A letter from Warner Trade Paperbacks offering him $400,000 to write two books.

WHAT'S ON HIS DESK: His stump speech, a list of story ideas, a pile of papers about his pilot TV show, three copies of the new Rhino Records "This American Life" CD. (His desk chair wobbles. Badly.)

WHAT'S IN HIS HEAD: Worry, vision, a thousand stories, angst, fun, a determination to cross the line between high and low, between his semiotics-major academic inclinations and his boyish love of the extraordinary, between his Baltimore Jewish neuroses and the Midwestern base for his national ambitions.

WHAT HE'S SAYING: "I do leave a bit to be desired." He is talking about his voice, his persona, the character he has created for both the radio show and--equally important to the nation's public radio station managers, maybe even more important--the incredibly effective fundraising spots Glass produces, funny and even moving bits in which he does things like promise to deliver pizza to your door if only you will phone in a pledge.
"The voice of the host is the voice of the show. I think my character has to be a certain kind of person to make the stories go. What is he? He's not as irritable as I am, to start. Anybody who writes does a version of himself, only thinking a lot more. The character is me at my most interesting and curious, with a level of intensity that nobody could sustain.
"He's never really mean. He's better than me in every possible way. One of my failings as a performer is the manneredness--I'm trying to sound like I'm just talking."

WHAT VOGUE MAGAZINE CALLED HIS RADIO VOICE: "The aural embodiment of Sensitive Guy Who Is Friends with All the Girls."

HIS ACTUAL VOICE: There's a slight stutter, not a speech defect, but a verbal tic, a device. There aren't a lot of complete sentences. Many of the attempts, especially when he's in boss or editor mode, begin with the words "I feel like...," as in "Um, I feel like you're, um, like that word wants to be, well, you know, I feel like you have to play that pause, um, let that thought happen."

MOST PROFILES OF GLASS and "This American Life" focus almost obsessively on Glass' meticulous and absolute command over every tiny morsel of sound or silence on the program--how he stretches a pause, clips a word, adds a breath, insists on an intonation.
That is the heart of Glass' production method. But the heart of "This American Life" are the stories, and especially the reported pieces. The best shows take you someplace you've never been and make you see something you've always seen, but never noticed.
The show's weekly story meeting is a two-hour bull session, Glass and three producers yakking about, reveling in and dismissing stories, writers, entire realms of American life. Ideas are floated: Domino's Pizza sales shoot up during national tragedies (maybe), a person who advises churches on marketing themselves (only if it's about which theology sells, rather than how to be more family-friendly), a New York waiter who tries to sell actual garbage to customers by making it sound chic. ("That's very, very beautiful," Glass says.)
When one story strikes Glass as phony, he trashes it with a one-liner: "That's so Hydrox, man."
The weakest parts of the program are those that sound too self-obsessed, too indulgent, too much a product of our tell-all, look-at-me-I'm-a-victim society. For every couple of breathtaking tales of some cluttered alley of the nation's life, brought to life in captivating voices, there is a whining, pointless memoir by the likes of the show's resident cloying artiste, Sarah Vowell. There is a bit much of a rock aesthetic to a show that is essentially a jazz form--a highly controlled performance that sounds utterly improvised but is actually based on strict rules and firm tradition.
"We are so bombarded by manipulated narrative--every ad, every movie, every TV show," Glass contends. "So it's hard for people to get out from under that. So of course people are reading from their diaries in public. They want something real."
The real pours in daily at the studios of WBEZ, the Chicago station where Glass is based. This day's mail brings a large package from a New York man who has sent Glass the originals of his entire correspondence with his ex-wife, all their love letters, every scrap documenting the rise and fall of a marriage.
"Utterly banal, nothing new," Glass concludes after sifting through the packet. "It's hard to see what we'd do with it. Send it back."
Now Glass is looking to expand the franchise. There's a new CD of the show's greatest hits. He says he's doing Hollywood, meeting with network executives, talking about putting TAL on TV.
TV? How can that be? Can Glass' quirky, quiet manner translate to the big brash world of the tube? Could he succeed in a medium of four-second sound bites, a medium that Glass says "does not trust the power of narrative"?
"You can just feel the money on TV, the huge apparatus," Glass readily concedes, adding that, of course, he doesn't actually watch TV. "Whereas people hear the radio and it just sounds like a bunch of people talking. But I have an idea for a TV show that would be really, really good."
He proposes to do the same kind of stories he does on radio, using a tiny, handheld camera with no light, in the hopes that the camera will not alter events. Maybe the TV show will happen, maybe not. Glass professes not to care. "Opportunities are being offered to me, and I don't really see any reason to do anything but radio. But I don't want to wonder later what might have been."
Glass has not acted on most of the offers, in part because he loves the relative anonymity of radio. Radio, a fixture of our solitary commuter lives, operates more as a subculture than as the defining cultural force that television is. And if the proliferation of media on the Web, on cable and at the newsstand has undermined the sense that the country has one clear, common culture, that's OK with Glass. "When you have no one dominant thing," he says, "it's easier for a subculture like this show to exist."
Like many editors, Glass sometimes wonders whether he wouldn't be happier going back out on the street. But like many journalists, he's had his moments of thinking that perhaps there is nothing left to conquer. In the end, though, there are still enough moments out there: "I feel the stories in my heart. There's still a huge, undiscovered country."

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