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Wednesday, September 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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A messy mix: This American Life's Ira Glass reinvents radio onstage
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Credit:Charlie Powell

Here's the thing about Ira Glass: The host of public radio's This American Life seems to be exactly the same in real life (inasmuch as a phone interview constitutes real life) as he is on his show.

During our 25-minute conversation, Glass is friendly, talkative but also inquisitive, somehow simultaneously relaxed and manic, peppering his speech with plenty of "I mean"s and "like"s. He's funny and self-deprecating, but also so sincere it would be almost absurd, if you didn't know this is just the way he does it.

Glass, 52, visits the Overture Center on Feb. 18 at 8 p.m. for Reinventing Radio: An Evening With Ira Glass. He'll talk about how he and his staff put together the weekly program, an hour-long assemblage of humorous, moody and terrifically thought-provoking stories, typically nonfiction, united under a single theme.

Reinventing Radio isn't a live version of This American Life - it's just Glass, rather than a full troupe of that show's contributors - but it's the next-best thing. Glass has been doing a version of the show since TAL went national in 1996.

"Because it's public radio, we don't have any money to publicize anything. So I was told when I started that the way to publicize it was simply to fly to another city and do an event and hope that fans dragged their friends," he says. "And so it's sort of using the technology of, like, the year 1940 to get the word out."

Okay, though it's not quite that archaic anymore. Re-creating the clips from This American Life onstage, at least, has gotten easier. "The last time I came to Madison," Glass says, "in order to do the audio part I needed them to provide me with a full audio mixer and CD player, and now I just basically run all that from an iPad, which means I can just walk around the stage. It's so much, much more satisfying to do."

Before talking to Glass I went back and listened to the very first episode of his radio show, from November 1995, when it aired on WBEZ in Chicago as Your Radio Playhouse. He laughs when I mention that as part of the episode, he called his mother and she warned him that he was in danger of appealing to a narrow range of listeners if the show was too artsy.

"It was funny to hear that," I say, "because when you think of a This American Life fan, I think you think of, oh, you know, erudite."

"I don't think of our fans as being erudite at all!" he says. "No, I mean, I feel like, I go to the shows; I feel like our fans are a pretty broad range. I feel like what we're doing seems so squarely not difficult, and entertainment. I don't know, it's possible that you're right, that we have an erudite audience, but that's not my sense of it at all, from talking to people. People seem like your other normal suburban Americans and others."

Having met more of the show's fans than I have, Glass would know better than I. But I remind him that in 2007, The Onion published an article about how This American Life finally explained life to -

"To white people," he finishes my sentence. (The headline was actually "This American Life Completes Documentation of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence," but close enough.) "It stung! It stung! Truthfully, after that, we're just like, 'okay, gotta get more nonwhite people onto this show - which I think we've done. I mean, I think at different points in the show's history, we've been way more conscious of keeping up with the racial mix of people on the show. But no, it is not our ambition to be like a show for white, elite people. In fact, if that's the show, then I think we're screwing up."

At this point I start thinking about his response last year after a brilliantly spot-on This American Life parody showed up online in which Glass sets out to make a celebrity sex tape with NPR Fresh Air host Terry Gross. The real-life Glass' response was rather muted - not the "Oh, that's great!" that fans seemed to expect. My sense is not that he's humorless - quite obviously he's not - but just that he takes his work pretty seriously.

The work itself took a notably more serious turn, or at least maybe a turn toward harder news. This American Life has dealt with serious subjects its whole run - in recent years when its producers teamed up with National Public Radio reporters to cover the U.S. financial crisis. Those episodes were huge hits, even garnering praise from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

"The storytelling is actually more difficult when we're doing something like a story about finances, because the subject matter is inherently uninteresting. So it contains a lot of words and phrases that turn people off," Glass tells me. "A month ago, we did an hour on the euro. And I feel like we did the most entertaining, engaging - like, if you listened to the first 30 seconds of the show, I feel like we held you to the very last minute. But I think if you were to say to most people, including me, 'Do you want to hear an hour about the euro?' I think I would say no. And that's actually the fascinating challenge of these things."

In Reinventing Radio, which changes from performance to performance, Glass will touch on a wide range of the topics that This American Life has covered. At this week's show, Wisconsin politics will most definitely be on the slate. The state of our state is a subject Glass is personally interested in.

"There are some stories I get super-involved in, and then others I'm more of a spectator on," he says. "And so the Wisconsin stuff I've done, I would say I've been a very active spectator. The person who's been doing our reporting about Wisconsin is this reporter named Ben Calhoun, who's from Milwaukee. He's one of our producers, but for his Wisconsin coverage I've been his editor, and I've been very, very involved with him in thinking about it."

Even though I'm certain Glass gets asked all the time how they pick stories for This American Life - it's essentially the equivalent of asking writers where they get their ideas - I'm still curious. It seems like, especially for the episodes with a looser theme, you have to either pick one story and then build around it by specifically seeking out others, or shoehorn in some with a semi-tenuous connection.

"I get asked this a lot, where do we get the stories," he answers, confirming my suspicions. "It really is a disturbingly messy mix." Sometimes, Glass says, a producer will notice something like Alabama's new immigration law, and then they'll all put their heads together to figure out what they can do that other news shows aren't doing.

"But much more often it'll be, one of us stumbles on a funny story, or somebody emails us a funny story, and we just think, 'Oh, we gotta put that on the show,'" he says.

That means that to end up with the three to five stories that make up a typical This American Life episode, they have to gather far more material than they can use. In fact, for the Valentine's Day episode they're working on as he and I speak, he says, one of the pieces they originally constructed the show around will most likely get held.

That there's always way more going on than there's room for is sort of a recurring theme in our conversation. Glass definitely sounds like he's got a pretty good life - he's doing what he loves, and he got to take Reinventing Radio to Australia in January, which is, like, the best time to be in Australia.

But, you know, I tell him, it's still a job. There must be things he doesn't like about it.

"It's funny, some of the things I think some editors find very, very difficult, for whatever reason, don't seem to bother me. Like when we have to kill somebody's piece, I always feel like if we're killing it, we've got a good reason and we can explain it," he says. "It's not the greatest thing to say to somebody, but I feel like it's a pretty clear thing to do."

No, his big personal professional challenge, he says, is - fittingly - something that's surely common to many American lives.

"I'm afraid the thing about my job that is annoying is very prosaic," Glass says. "And that is just that most days there's too much to do, and it's almost, like, nauseating. Like everything that has to get done and my fear that it's not gonna get done. That's a really palpable and disturbing feeling that I have almost every day. Almost every day I leave here feeling inadequate."

There is a pause. It's uncomfortable for me, because he's being really genuine. It's kind of like, you know, having a natural emotional response to a heartfelt story on This American Life - except that this time, Ira Glass is actually listening to me, too, and now I have to say something.

"That's sort of sad," I say. Thank God, he laughs and moves on to happier subject matter, like the fact that the movie he wrote with TAL contributor Mike Birbiglia, Sleepwalk With Me (based on a story from the show), just won the Best of NEXT Audience award at Sundance.

And then our time is up. I can tell things are winding down, and I want to sign off, because I don't want him to have to uncomfortably interrupt me to say he has to go. "I know you've got stuff to do, and I don't want you to end the day feeling inadequate," I say, joking.

"Oh, that'll happen no matter what," he says. "Don't worry. There's absolutely no question about that."

Now I am sad again. "God, I'm so sorry, man. You know..." I begin.

Thank God, he laughs. "Nah, nah, don't worry - it's been this way my entire adult life. So apparently this is just the way I do it."

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