Glass Half Full

‘This American Life’ host visits Queen City

by Alison Woo

Ira Glass, seen here, will be in Charlotte Sunday, Oct. 2, for a show. Glass used to use a mixing console during shows, like what is shown here, but will use an iPad this time around. (Photo courtesy of Blumenthal Performing Arts Center)

As the host of “This American Life,” one of the most popular radio shows on National Public Radio, Ira Glass is a household name for many.
With almost 2 million people listening to the show on more than 500 radio stations, Glass has given his show a reputation for quirkiness and innovation. Each show has a theme, and the stories follow suit.
The popular host is on his way to the Queen City this weekend to share more behind-the-scenes observations about what it takes to produce a show that has won every broadcast award in its time. South Charlotte Weekly had a chance to chat with him to find out more.
You’ve chronicled so many amazing American stories. Is there one that stands out to you?
“This problem has come up before when we made a list on our website to list the shows. We wanted a few but came up with 60! We had to narrow it down, but there are a number of favorites that are audience favorites, too.
“Among the older ones is a story about doing missions over Afghanistan that was funny. There were some random ones like the one we did at an amusement park in Kansas City, profiling a worker who started visiting the park as a child and then stayed there to run the games department. I never met anyone who was so well suited for the job. He was an artist … but also like ‘The Office’s’ Michael Scott.”

What’s the common link between the stories you’ve covered?
“There’s no common thread. We tried to figure it out. If you look at the ones on our website, you’ll see that the variety of it was disturbing. There are newsy serious ones, weird funny ones and random bits that David Sedaris would do, which are all huge.”

What are the elements that you feel make up the hallmark American story?
“I don’t think there is one American story because you would have heard the story one week and would never come back. What we do are old-fashioned narrative stories, with a character you can relate to and crazy plot twists. We set out to do a show on public radio for people who don’t normally like public radio.”

Are Americans and their stories substantially different from any other people, such as Parisians or Australians?
“It’s funny because the name of the show, ‘This American Life,’ has been a hindrance to marketing the show overseas. But we have a large and growing international following. We have a huge fan base in Australia, where we … just toured over a year ago, and now, 25,000 Australians visited our website last month.”

Though you focus on traditional stories, your show has taken advantage of new technologies such as podcasting. How has new media and social media boosted awareness and enjoyment of the show?
“We have a huge Internet audience of 1.8 million people over the last eight years. What we’ve done is add another 600,000 people just on the Internet who download our podcast weekly.  When we started in 1995, radio was just beginning to make the transition from editing tape with razor blades to digital editing. I went to computers because it was so much cheaper. It is kind of amazing how much can change in such a short time.”

You also use some of that new technology in your stage shows. What will your appearance in Charlotte be like?
“It used to be I would go on stage with a mixing console and music and all that, but now I do it all on an iPad and play clips and mix music. I even run a real mixing console on the iPad. I recreate the show on stage, I play clips and we talk about why we are doing it so fundamentally different than any other show on the radio. “

What do you think “This American Life” will look like in 2020?
“It’s been surprising that the show has lasted this long. In the first three to four years, our staff would talk about and wonder if this was an idea that would have played itself out like ‘Seinfeld.’ But somehow, every year we find new things to do differently that are very interesting. But if the day comes and I stop enjoying it, I’ll leave the show.”

See Ira Glass
“An Evening with Ira Glass: Radio Stories and Other Stories” comes to the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Oct. 2, at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $19.50. Find more information or purchase tickets at http://carolinatix.org.

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