This American Life is unlike anything on public radio. But what would you expect from a man who once devoted an hour of Talk of the Nation to an imaginary presidential inaugural ball?
The iconoclastic weekly program, on the air nationally since June 1996, already is a success by several objective measures — most notably, a Peabody Award in its first year. ("Holy cow, I've never seen that before!," says an impressed producer.) Within 10 months, 111 stations picked up This American Life, including the big stations in nine of the top 10 markets (D.C. is the holdout). Recently, CPB's Radio Program Fund gave the show a three-year $350,000 award--about twice what the show was seeking. Also, This American Life is graced by much talent--top independent producers, unknowns waiting to be discovered, hot tickets such as David Sedaris, established performers such as Spalding Gray.
And then there's the recent bidding war between NPR and Public Radio International over distribution rights to the show, which is produced at WBEZ, Chicago. PRI won.
"Because of the Peabody and the fact we have nine of 10 top markets in place, we're as hot as we're ever going to be," says Ira Glass, the producer/host. The show and its staff haven't made anyone mad yet, he says, laughing. "We're Bill Clinton in 1992. On election night. Nothing bad has happened so far. Everything's fine."
A wonderful happening
People who love This American Life really love it, and praise it big. John Greene, g.m. of KUER in Salt Lake City, says, for instance: "I've been waiting for a show like this for more than a decade." KCRW producer Sarah Spitz says the program epitomizes the spirit of public radio. "This is the invention, this is the creativity, this is the unique. And that's what public radio is supposed to stand for."
Spitz had Glass telephone a potential station underwriter, who's a fan. "She almost had a heart attack. This is a person — she's dealt with Schwarzenegger. Huge people! And she probably doesn't have any reaction to them."
The show gets "tons" of letters and e-mail, according to Glass. A number of folks have said that when This American Life comes on, they sit and listen to the radio the way families did before TV.
Part of the appeal is that the program surprises. Topics are so eclectic and offbeat as to be entirely unpredictable. Glass devotes each program to one theme, usually treated in four to five "acts" by journalists, writers, artists and entertainers. Themes have included: Sinatra, secret other lives, the media fringe, the biggest lies ever told, obsession, basketball, and--poultry.
Stories vary in tone. "It runs the gamut of emotions," says Greene. "Often it's very, very funny, but sometimes it's absolutely full of pathos and irony and sadness." A show called "Three women and the sex industry," for example, starts off silly, with Glass interviewing a former strip-club dancer. He tells us she didn't hate the dancing. And then she says:
Everyone kept trying to tell me, "Oh, you know you really hate this job, and you just don't know that you hate it." But I couldn't feel that I hated it. I called my sort of closest friend and said, "Do you think it's stupid that I'm doing this?" Like, I don't feel like I don't like this job. I feel like I like it. I feel like I get up in the morning and I go to it and I don't mind. And he was like, "Well, if you feel like you like it, then you probably do." ... I guess what I'm trying to say is there were really really crappy things about it, but it was SO far from the worst job I ever had."
Glass really wants to know what was a worse job, but before she tells him and us, he interrupts the tape to speak to the audience:
I'm just going to come in live to give you a moment to consider what that worse job might be, before she gives her answer.
Okay, are we all thinking now? All right, here we go. . . .
And she responds:
Um, being a grant writer for the Central Park Conservancy.
He is floored, and talks again to the audience:
Being a grant writer! A job I myself have done! She says she didn't like working in an office. She didn't like taking orders. Being naked in front of strangers was preferable to taking orders.
From there, the program becomes investigative. (As in many of the shows, Glass does not remain at center stage for long.) There's a long documentary by producer Sandy Tolan about the disappearance of a New Jersey stripper, mother and journalist named Susan Walsh. Then: psychologist Lauren Slater's poetic and provocative account of treating an angry, violent man obsessed with pornography.
All of this can be off-putting to program directors who believe listeners like consistency and expect public radio to be more or less gentle. Says Glass: "The biggest problem we have with stations is that our content is racier. And darker. And more emotionally laden than they commonly get. And especially if they're running the show at 9 on a Saturday morning, and one week it's funny and light and goofy, and another it's our "Shoulda been dead" show (about people's near-death stories) — you know, that's pretty heavy. Stations legitimately question, 'How's this going to go?'"
The producers have each station launch the series with a suggested set of five or so tapes that are safer but also representative of the series' eclecticism. The idea is to more or less train listeners, adjust them to the character of This American Life.
Shows that sometimes deal with sex and sexuality are always a challenge in the public radio system, says Glass. So when stations sign up, Life staff ask the p.d.'s if they want to be alerted about riskier content. Staff members will actually call a station ahead of time, discuss that week's content, and send another tape if the station prefers. About five stations are on the alert list.
Part of the show's appeal, too, is Glass himself. With his infectious laugh, he sounds 10 to 15 years younger than he is (37). Compared to the polished delivery of some public radio hosts, his is a bit hurried and tentative. Instead of being warm and smart Daniel Zwerdling, or cool and intellectual Robert Siegel, Glass is the public radio listener's favorite nephew--clever, funny and mischievous. Listeners respond to his confessional pieces and his way of bathing pain and small personal failures — his own and others' — in the light of humor. In one show, "Get Over It," Glass kvetched about breaking up, and the futility of trying to be "just friends." Afterwards, every day for over a month, women from different parts of the U.S. would write or call him, just to say "Hi," and see if he'd found another girlfriend. "It was wonderful," says Glass. "It was one of the most wonderful things that's ever happened."
Give us money, you bum!
Glass recently applied his art to fundraising, lightening up the drudgery a bit for stations. He sent them new versions of pieces he'd produced for WBEZ, while reporting for NPR out of its bureau there. Back then he'd set out to produce pitches in a way he'd find personally amusing. So he took his mike out into the streets, trapping coffee cup-laden people in front of Starbucks and, if they were listeners and hadn't pledged, making them feel really, really guilty.
In one clip, a nice-sounding guy admits he hasn't given, and says he's sorry and practically calls himself slime, and eventually--Glass keeps at him a while — breaks out into beads of sweat. The host tells listeners that in his years with public radio, he's interviewed people who've done profoundly wrong things. "You know? People who've exploited their own employees. Gang members. Murderers! I've interviewed actual murderers. And I have to say, I have never interviewed anybody who has gotten as nervous as this man, when approached by a public radio employee." In other spots, Glass tries to see if any businesses besides public radio — the phone company, a local hot dog vendor, the New York Times — will deliver 9-out-of-10 of their products for free.
The pitches, which also had Glass' typical layering of up-tempo music and talk, were popular with listeners, say some station managers. "People didn't care how many times you played them," says KCRW General Manager Ruth Seymour. "The Starbucks spots are not to be believed."
This American Life itself pledged well for KCRW--90 calls during an hour. In Dallas, KERA says This American Life has broken its pledging record. WHYY in Philadelphia increased the number of pledges more than six times over the previous program in the same hour (Weekly Edition from NPR). Greene in Utah says This American Life netted more contributions than any other hour--more than $3,000 worth. Experience with past shows had taught him to expect $100 to $150 in the Sunday evening hour, he says.
This reported fundraising success is one of the reasons PRI was eager to pick up the show. "There's quite a lot of buzz about this show coming from stations," says the network's program chief Melinda Ward.
He's not so great
So why would NPR — still subject to ribbing about passing up PRI's A Prairie Home Companion because at least one exec thought it too parochia — be ambivalent about distributing This American Life?
For one thing, though Glass has plenty of fans and friends inside NPR, not everyone likes his on-air persona or techniques. Sources say Murray Horwitz, head of NPR's cultural programming, believes Glass is a poor host, and lobbied against acquiring the program. Horwitz wasn't available for comment.
Others inside NPR, too, are critical. Says one source: "Ira Glass keeps the audience at arm's length. He's got a hipper-than-thou kind of presentation. In focus groups ... people [say they] look for the friendly expert. Nobody wants cutting-edge." This source also criticized Glass' voicing.
A few NPR managers were also worried that early Audigraphics audience data indicate This American Life is losing some core NPR listeners. Audigraphics is a research tool, developed by David Giovannoni, that measures how well stations are keeping core audience members program-by-program. WXYZ's core audience is comprised of people who listen to it more than any other station.
NPR wound up bidding for This American Life because Chief Operating Officer Peter Jablow became convinced it was a good show, sources say. Also, NPR appears to be stalled on the Saturday entertainment package it promised stations last fall. Having This American Life in the weekend line-up would have given NPR something to showcase during the upcoming Public Radio Conference in Chicago.
Glass ultimately chose PRI, because he felt NPR was giving him mixed messages and wasn't forthcoming with information about pricing. The decision was painful, he says. After all, he'd been with NPR since he was 19--cutting tape, reporting and hosting, you name it. He has many friends there. "I wanted to have an NPR show. But at some point, to deal with it emotionally, I just decided that NPR's the greatest producer of network shows in the country, but it's not set up to distribute an independent show."
CPB Radio Program Fund Director Rick Madden and PRI's Ward say it's too early to use Audigraphics to judge how well the program is doing; the show hasn't been on the air long enough. "The first thing we do in choosing a program is look at its concept and creativity and quality," says Ward. And this show is "brilliant."
KCRW's Seymour has no patience for people in the system who badmouth This American Life, those who say its content is too hit-and-miss, or that Glass shouldn't be hosting. "It's totally nonsense," she says. "There are always pieces you adore and those you could live without." But ask people what parts of the program are weak, she says, and they won't have an answer, because they've only heard 10 minutes of the show.
Determined not to repeat the story of Heat — a much-acclaimed daily public radio show that crashed because it was so expensive--Glass produced three pilots of This American Life, to test the limits of his anticipated budget. Glass and his small staff — Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike and Julie Snyder — keep the cost of the program to $400,000 a year, 46 hours at $9,000 each. This cost is in the ballpark of CPB estimates for performance programs and documentary shows, Glass says.
PRI will charge stations between $1,000 and $4,000, depending on market size.
Beyond this budget testing, the development of This American Life has been a "stunningly unscientific" process, Glass says. No focus groups, for example. But Glass suggests that he has tested his approach to radio over about 15 years of work for NPR's newsmagazines and during his years writing and hosting WBEZ's The Wild Room with co-creator Gary Covino. He's quite practiced, for instance, at sounding as if he's speaking spontaneously, even though he's reading from a script. And he'd already developed a style of documentary production in which stories are anecdotal, funny and "emotionally present."
Glass says he is relaxed on the air now, but wasn't when the program first went national. Because he does live transitions between edited material, it's important to him to sound relaxed. This calmness has descended despite the fact that producing the show and its ancillary jobs — promotion and grant-seeking and hiring staff--keep him working 70 to 80 hours per week.
So, it can't be the show is still fun to do, right? He takes a moment to respond. "There are usually moments of fun," he says, "combined with incredible fear all the time."
The only other way This American Life has changed since its inception is that its producers have raised the bar in terms of material they'll accept. They reject many submissions, especially essays that lack the pull of good narrative. This includes the staff's own produced pieces, Glass says — at least one per week goes in the trash. Material has to be compelling, he says. There is work that is perfectly acceptable, but too much like "normal" public radio stuff — "It doesn't grab our hearts."
KUER's John Greene expects this process to continue, making even better the show for which he's been waiting a decade. "As more public radio types hear this," he says, "it will become more of a magnet for people who have good material." After all, he points out: there are lots of people out there with stories to tell.