Ira Glass is the host and creator of “This American Life,” a weekly public radio show produced by WBEZ-Chicago and distributed by Public Radio International that draws 1.7 million listeners per week. David Mamet wrote in Time magazine that Glass “seems to have reinvented radio,” and the show helped launch the careers of writers David Sedaris, David Rakoff and Sarah Vowell. Glass just finished putting together a “pilot presentation,” a shorter and cheaper version of a pilot, for Showtime, which is interested in turning “This American Life” into a TV series.
(Department of full disclosure: Interviewer Brian Montopoli has reported a story for “This American Life.”)
Brian Montopoli: One thing I’ve always liked about “This American Life” is the way the stories, regardless of the subject matter, make you want to go out and make friends with strangers. And this is true, I’m not just saying it …
Ira Glass: (laughing) I hope you include that in your rendition of this in print.
BM: What? Where I say, “this is true, I’m not just saying it?”
BM: Yeah, well, you guys would, so I guess it’s only fair. Anyway, so to pick up where I left off, I was saying the show makes you feel that way because no matter what the story is, the storytelling just makes you feel like people are worth knowing, if that makes sense. Is that difficult to translate to TV, which doesn’t operate the same way radio does?
IG: I don’t think it’s difficult to translate to TV. The fact is, though, to make it translate, there are different factors that come into play. Just from making this little pilot, I feel like there are characters who come off better on the radio than they do on the TV, and then there are some characters who come off better on the TV than they come off on the radio — simply by virtue of seeing their face.
And so you can still do it, it’s just that the ingredients in the mix are different. Which is exactly what you’d expect if you take a second and think about it. Not that we did take a second and think about it.
BM: But isn’t there something about not seeing someone’s face, on the radio, that allows you to sort of project a lot into whatever you’re hearing? On TV, I don’t know, I just feel like a little of the mystery just disappears.
IG: No, that definitely is true. It’s easier to make someone in the audience love someone on the radio. It’s just easier, because the number of factors you’re dealing with are fewer. You can do it on TV, but you just have to be careful how you handle it. On the radio, because you don’t see the person, you empathize. It’s easy to imagine yourself as them really, really quickly. Whereas on the television, from the get-go they are somebody else, and you have to kind of build up a different sort of bond with them. You can have a very fond feeling for them on the TV, but the first fact you know about them is they are not you, whereas on the radio, they appear to you for the first time as a voice in your head.
BM: So what’s it been like putting together the TV show? In the Times story that came out a couple weeks ago …
IG: You know, there’s a much better story, actually — well, I shouldn’t say that on the record. There’s a very fine story — and the New York Times reporter did a very fine job too — but there’s a very fine story that was in the Los Angeles Times this weekend too.
BM: You seem sort of ambivalent in that [New York] Times story, and I don’t know if that was because of the way the Times framed it, or what. But you talked about how you weren’t sure if you were going to walk away from the TV show or not, and how the heart of the thing wasn’t there, and all this stuff. Is this — are you just nervous? Is there something about the culture of TV that’s just been a little bit frustrating? You don’t really seem like an LA guy.
IG: Well, we wouldn’t be moving to LA.
BM: Right, but still, you’re in that world, I guess. Which is very different.
IG: (laughing) If by “LA guy,” you mean somebody with money, I would heartily agree.