Update: On March 16, This American Life retracted "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory," its Jan. 6 broadcast that adapted monologist Mike Daisey's story about working conditions in Chinese gadget factories. Read more. Crunching a two-hour stage monologue into a 39-minute radio piece was a huge challenge for Ira Glass, e.p. and host of This American Life. Glass decided to adapt The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs after seeing monologist Mike Daisey perform the show that skewers Apple and Jobs for the harsh working conditions in factories where adored Apple products are assembled.
Update: On March 16, This American Life retracted "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory," its Jan. 6 broadcast that adapted monologist Mike Daisey's story about working conditions in Chinese gadget factories. Read more. For 16 years, public radio host Ira Glass has charmed listeners with offbeat, quirky stories that captivated minds and won awards. Lately, he’s also been kicking butt, taking names and making a difference. It’s not quite that aggressive.
There’s some heavy-duty soul-searching going on in public radio. The Public Radio Program Directors conference, Sept. 20–23 in Baltimore, sidelined its usual celebrations of pubradio’s audience growth and its journalistic ascendency. Instead, participants grappled with big questions about challenges ahead and wondered aloud about how to move forward after a year of political calamity at NPR. Progress reports about ongoing reforms were freighted with a new urgency: giving exposure to innovative new programs, raising stations’ ambitions for local reporting, opening the field to more diverse voices and listeners.
Ira Glass didn’t know what he was in for when he walked into the post office in the seaside burg of Brunswick, Ga., and asked the first person he met to name the most interesting character in town. Glass and his This American Life production team had given themselves a special assignment: to collect the best stories they could stumble upon far off the beaten path of their day-to-day reporting routines. They followed the standard operating procedure of the Atlanta Journal’s “Georgia Rambler” columnist Charles Salter, who researched more than 500 columns in the late 1970s by roving around small towns of the Peach State in a company car. Nine of the radio show’s producers and reporters adopted Salter’s technique for an episode that aired last summer. They drew the names of their assigned Georgia locales from a baseball cap, went in-country with mikes and recording equipment and, on fast turnaround, collected a trove of human-interest material.
This American Life is hot. The weekly radio program produced by WBEZ, Chicago, and distributed nationally since June 1996, airs on 325 public radio stations. Ira Glass, TAL's creator and producer, has become something of a celebrity. The subject of lengthy feature stories in national magazines, he now turns up in TV and radio interviews to publicize a Rhino Records CD, "Lies, Sissies and Fiascos: The Best of This American Life." His own life, frequently described by himself and others, emerges as one of frenetic activity, a contemporary Scheherazade, obsessively devoted to creating stories that he hopes "will give voice to those outside the mainstream."
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.