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.”
The series won a Peabody in its first year, was granted twice the amount it requested from CPB ($350,000), and some have said it is the best thing that has happened to public radio since the invention of A Prairie Home Companion.” Why? Is it really that good?
I had listened to some early programs, the way one hears radio, in fragments during weekend distractions. My first impression: strange, often funny, with a determinedly contemporary style. Then one Sunday I heard, without interruption, a TAL program entitled “Pimping Anthropology.” I was appalled and decided to listen more attentively. I assembled tapes of programs broadcast from Feb. 12 through April 16, 1999, a six-week slice of This American Life, and began listening. Based upon my early exposure and the pimping show, I had decidedly mixed feelings about spending another six hours of my life in close contact with This American Life.
Here’s Glass introducing a show in his signature delivery, a rapid, bored staccato: “This American Life . . . I’m Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and invite a variety of writers and performers to tackle that theme.” The important phrase in his swift, slightly nasal monotone is “of course.” It appeared in all the program introductions I heard, gathering together TAL‘s loyal listeners, inviting new ones. Those of us who have been here before, he seems to be saying, know all this, of course. This acknowledgment is slightly flattering. We’re accepted–in some sense chosen, like the weekly theme. “Of course” is not there for nothing.
Glass is extremely careful with his words -his choice of them and how they are articulated. (His mother is a psychologist, and he majored in semiotics at Brown University.) In one hilarious TAL story, the narrator reports that a man who seemed otherwise quite normal moved through a crowded subway platform saying to one person after another, “You’ll have to move on,” “You can stay,” “You stay put,” “You go.” The storyteller says that though his “maturity” told him otherwise, when a stranger is rating people in a crowd, “You kind of hope he’ll give you the thumbs up.” He even confesses a slight disdain for “those who didn’t make the cut.” “Of course” is a rating, and as each show begins, we all make the cut.
At the end, Glass delivers credits in the same rapid-fire manner. This may account for why I had never heard the spoof each closing segment contains. Torey Malatia, general manager of WBEZ, is always cited as the station’s “management oversight” and credited with a quote, completely out of context, lifted from one of the stories in the program. Thus at the end of a lovers-in-prison story, Glass tells us, seriously, “Torey Malatia … describes managing our show this way: ‘The intensity of the relationship and the intensity of the feelings is beyond anything we’ve ever experienced before.'” This is an excerpt from a heart-felt confession we’ve already heard. Appearing again in the program’s credits it is absurd, altogether ridiculous, off the wall. Each of the shows contained one of these outrageous “Malatia” quotes. They never failed to make me laugh out loud. To discover this sort of imaginative nuttiness was an altogether surprising pleasure.
Each of a program’s stories are introduced as an “act.” (For all its surface simplicity, TAL is fastidiously produced for the largest theatrical effect.) There were 16 stories in the six programs I heard. This is a lot of storytelling in six weeks. Producing radio programs of this kind is especially labor-intensive. To complete a published equivalent of this many thematically arranged essays, short stories, interviews and reports in six weeks would be a considerable achievement. It is therefore remarkable that while a few stories were fatuous or trite, most were successful and some really memorable. The stories I heard were marked by astonishing variety. Many of them strained their thematic embrace, and a few escaped entirely. In “The High Cost of Living,” we meet a man whose pathologically manic condition leads him to frantically support the U.S. equestrian team. We also encounter a sad, young and uncomprehending mistress of a lying, wealthy lawyer, a couple who becomes addicted to baby talk, and a woman whose doctor deliberately misdiagnosed her as HIV-positive. Shoe-horning its stories into arbitrary themes seems unnecessary, except perhaps to confer a distinguishing edge to the series.
TAL is often at its best when its first-person stories and reports cast a new light on a subject you thought you knew well, sometimes kicking the topic into an unsuspected dimension. In “Cowboys of the Apocalypse” a southern cattle breeder and part-time evangelical minister is shown to be hell-bent upon hastening the destruction of the world by supplying 19 especially bred red heifers to orthodox Jews in Israel to meet an essential biblical requirement for the Apocalypse. The story makes a plausible, if somewhat improbable, case for what the reporter tells us may be “a religious war, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Crusades.” To which Glass responds, “Really?! I was with you up until that very last sentence!” Later, when the cattleman says his actions may precipitate the end of the world, and that’s what God wants, Glass remarks quietly, “You’re lucky that you’ve got that kind of faith.”
This story might have sounded surreal, easy to dismiss. Instead, partly because of its rigorous structure, and perhaps profiting from an earlier appearance in The New Yorker magazine, it emerges as something worth pondering. It is helped along by speculation concerning U.S. foreign policy and questions about political and financial ties between Christian fundamentalists in America and orthodox Jews in Israel. The fanatics, says the report’s author, Lawrence Wright, have nothing to lose because “they’re outta here at the Rapture.” It is a grim and slightly ghoulish tale, in the best TAL tradition. The endpiece music is-what else?-“I’m Headin’ for the Last Round-up.”
In the same cluster of apocalypse stories was “The Cost of Misunderstanding.” This is a straightforward, reasonable explanation of how and why 74 Branch Davidians died during the stand-off at Waco, Texas. Most of us watched on television as the Davidian compound went up in flames, thinking we knew what was going on. But according to this interview with a professor of religion, few of us fully understood. As the professor describes the cult’s convictions and zeal the inevitability of disaster seems clear. The story, advantaged by hindsight, underscores how the Davidians would act if threatened. The larger cautionary explanation reminds us how easily ignorance can direct the course of confrontation.
There is a pervasive element of irony in TAL stories. “The Humanitarians” describes how volunteers frequently provide relief to both instigators and victims of war, finding themselves, often not unwittingly, supplying aid to those who continue to commit atrocities. A companion story “You Can’t Go Home Again,” features a retired, middle-class couple. They return to their hometown, one that has become a wreck since they left, and try to shape it up. Their efforts meet with a singular lack of success. The town has gone to the dogs and the people who live there like it that way. This is a classic TAL contrarian report: true love is not rewarded, persistence and patriotism don’t pay off, good work is for naught. The couple, Kenny and his wife Jackie, arrives in this unlovely flea-bitten southern town with high hopes and plans for doing determinedly good deeds. She organizes a ladies’ auxiliary, but the Christmas baskets they leave on porches receive only complaints. Kenny tries to encourage people to keep their lawns free of junk, and meets a lot of hostility. He runs for mayor, thinking he’ll be an easy winner, and loses to a totally unexceptional entrepreneur who wants no change at all. After three years of civic activism, a sniper fires a bullet into their bedroom and, pathetically perplexed, they plan to leave town.
It’s a fine, never-give-a-sucker-an-even-break sort of story. And Glass is all over it as he is in most of the productions, introducing them, interviewing, commenting upon events as they happen, laughing, expressing wonderment. This is, he says, to share how he feels with the audience as well as to keep the story moving.
“Then what did you say,” he asks Kenny. “And what did you do?” “How did that make you feel?” At one point he asks the hapless couple, “Ever hear the phrase, ‘No good deed goes unpunished?'” Kenny asks him to repeat it. He does. Kenny then replies forlornly, “Maybe it was what we wanted, not what they wanted.”
Here he’s in the field, scouting around, giving us his impressions, talking to the mayor and other residents, to himself, thoroughly enjoying the situation. This is a welcome departure from much public radio reporting (except that of NPR’s Susan Stamberg) in which seriousness is a substitute for insight, and levity is rarely tolerated. In a 1998 Macalester College journalism lecture, Glass described an NPR report he once made on the Exxon oil spill in Alaska. At some point one of the environmentalists says that Dawn is the best detergent for cleaning oil out of birds’ feathers. In the finished report Glass brought music up under this comment, making it sound like a soap commercial. He says that he and his fellow reporter, Daniel Zwerdling, kept it in “because it amused us.” They also thought it would amuse listeners, and it did.
In the often ridiculously super-serious world of public broadcasting, a soupcon of self-indulgent humor might amuse an audience fully capable of understanding what’s what. On the face of it, one might think that public broadcasting’s audience is the nearly perfect one to appreciate wit, humor and sophisticated comedy. Yet when A Prairie Home Companion first ventured into some mild satire in its early days, the then-president of NPR pronounced it “offensive to the middle class.”
In his 1994 book, The Sound and the Story, Thomas Looker quotes long-time NPR producer, Art Silverman, on this subject: “NPR,” says Silverman, “broadcasts far fewer non-news pieces these days . . . If a young, new Ira Glass showed up on our doorstep, somebody full of creative energy, I don’t think we’d recognize it, if he or she didn’t have sharp journalistic credentials.”
Glass structures the storytelling with an anecdote-reflection, anecdote-reflection rhythm. This is observable in the stories created for TAL by writers like David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell. Sedaris first wrote and performed the “Santaland Diaries” for Glass when he worked at NPR. His personal accounts of working as an “elf” in Macy’s Santaland were, Glass discovered, unintentionally divided into 45-to-60-second thought segments, thus mimicking the timing Glass believes “public radio listeners are trained to expect.” The content, however, is well out of the NPR mainstream. Glass describes Sedaris as “funny, and at the same time you can feel the serious undercurrent in his writing.”
Although Glass tells more off-beat stories than are found elsewhere in public broadcasting (you sometimes have the feeling you’re moving through the pages of a Diane Arbus photo collection), his narrative structures are in the most conventional (and compelling) literary tradition, little different from those employed by public TV’s far more conservative The American Experience and Frontline. “This happened,” explains Glass, “then this happened. You just want to know what happens next. It’s irresistible.” Compare this with David McCullough, historian and narrator for The American Experience, whose measured cadences could hardly be further from TAL‘s quirky-jerky style. Here’s McCullough on presenting history: “It’s the unexpectedness that draws us in. What happened . . . and then, of course, what happens next, and why. Our need to know is as real as gravity.”
During an interview with Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air, Glass admitted to being uncomfortable with his radio persona, but not his writing: “Being on the radio,” he told Gross, “is a lot less important than editing, getting the story right.”
Of TAL‘s regular writer-performers, Sarah Vowell, who also writes for the online magazine, Salon, has the most distinctive voice. In a steady nasal monotone with street-smart inflections not unlike Glass’ own delivery, she reads personal essays that consistently spin off penetrating insights into contemporary life. She is also very funny. It is difficult to remember what Vowell has written without hearing her voice, a unique vocal-text relationship, perfectly suited to radio. (A similarly talented writer-reader is Bailey White, the down-home NPR commentator and author of Mama Makes Up Her Mind and other books.)
In Vowell’s piece on the apocalypse program, she recalls “going to the end of the world” several times, initially in a recurring childhood dream when she lived in eastern Oklahoma: she discovers that her mother has been whisked away to heaven in the Rapture. “That means,” she says, “my sister and I will have to suffer through the lake of fire, the river of blood, and our father’s cooking.” But she has found a loophole . . .”a get-out-of-tribulation-free card, which I learned about in church.” She goes to Gibson’s, the local supermarket, loads up with groceries, is told she must take “the mark of the beast,” she refuses and is gunned down by uninformed troops . . . “Then poof! I’m in heaven, harp in hand.”
“Armageddon,” she reflects, “is kind of a lot to lay on a kid. I could have done with more seven dwarfs and less seven seals. Still,” she goes on in a deadpan philosophical tone, “this was eastern Oklahoma-snakes, guns, murders, drunks, drownings, superstitions. Armageddon appeared to me refreshingly thought out.”
Many years later she travels to California to explore the Y2K phenomenon and meets a Bay2K group, “not the young computer programmers I’d hoped for. Instead the group felt very hippie, very New Age, very Marin. If nothing happened on January 1st, they thought it was a good excuse to meet neighbors and have a good dialogue.” But the goals were pretty fuzzy. “They don’t make apocalypses the way they used to,” she says. “In the old apocalypse, we knew exactly what would happen; now we know the date, it’s what will happen that’s up in the air.”
She grows increasingly alarmed by the group’s utopian-agrarian, post-Y2K worldview. One man suggests buying a communal tiller. “They seemed more interested in Y1K.” There was talk of neighbor with neighbor, at one with the earth, canning, gardening . . . “This is Oklahoma, minus God, the one thing that gave it all some dignity.”
Throughout it’s her performance that gives the essays their punch and no printed description does their uniqueness much justice. Try thinking of a relaxed Betty Boop reading Joan Didion.
She creates prose from which it is difficult to lift excerpts. You begin looking for highlights and end by copying out an entire essay. This is partly because her writing is spirited, amusing and thoughtful. Also, possibly, because the pieces are tightly constructed, composed to be performed.
Vowell’s piece ends with a recitation of her personal New Jerusalem. “Behold, my revelation: I stand at the door in the morning, and lo, there is a newspaper in sight, like unto an emerald, and holy, holy, holy is the coffee which was, and is, and is to come. And hark! I hear the voice of an angel round about the radio saying, ‘Since my baby left me I found a new place to dwell . . .'” and so forth.
And then there was “Pimping Anthropology,” the program that caused me to listen closely to all the others. For an artist who can succeed so often, we should not be surprised that Glass is also capable of a huge failure of judgement.
The program is a lengthy interview with “Keith,” who had been a pimp in Oakland in the ’60’s and ’70’s. He still seems enthralled -as does Ira Glass-by “codes of conduct” and “laws among thieves” in a plainly seedy criminal environment. Much is made of a 1968 pimping rulebook written by someone with the appropriately Dickensian name of Iceberg Slim.
“Being a business,” Glass tells us, “if there are rules it doesn’t even seem like crime.” We learn about “turning out a girl” (how to transform a girlfriend into a prostitute), how to punish a whore who’s “playing” (i.e., deceiving) you . . . and more. Keith, it develops, is a failed pimp because he was too easy on his girls–something he and the producers appear eager to advance as a moral of the story.
One thing is clear: Keith is a small-time crook, a sometimes drug-dealer who has now gone straight and is selling jewelry to rap stars. No philosopher, he nonetheless seems to have a little more insight into the pimp’s life than most of his friends. A little, but not much, which is both intriguing and very sad. Glass, however, seems fascinated. He tells us with enthusiasm, “What’s so amazing about [Keith] is the details that he gets into.” It’s true. We learn, in considerable detail, how a woman, looking “robotic,” is commanded to pull down her underpants and, bending over, has her naked bottom whipped with an extended wire coat hanger until it is bloody. Keith describes how he knocks one of his women to the floor then beats her with a pool cue until it breaks. Keith keeps reminding us that “it was great” and “there was a purity to it . . .a love of the game . . . there was rules . . . adhered to like laws.”
Toward the end, perhaps in an effort to invest the story with some sort of “meaning,” Glass compares the now-vanished pimps with “American icons like cowboys or astronauts.”
This is claptrap. I doubt that even Keith, for all his self-deception, would have indulged in such hokum. It’s possible that Glass set out to write a hard-boiled story about some mean streets in Oakland, but as it progressed, the piece got out of hand. But it doesn’t work. As cowboy-astronaut-pimp, Keith doesn’t have enough of the right stuff. He’s just amoral and seedy and doesn’t know it.
Throughout the program, something romantic, alluring and sentimental seems to be insinuating itself, pumped up by catchy, and sometimes seductive, music. Tabloid stuff perhaps, but it misses the mark because Glass still wants to play the social scientist. He wants it both ways. “Pimping Anthropology” is no Maltese Falcon, nor is it a Margaret Mead production. It is simply cruelty as entertainment.
In the program’s introduction, Glass says, “I should say that if you are listening with small children, there is no sex in today’s show, none at all: no graphic descriptions, no sex acts are even named. There is a scene or two where men hit women . . .”
When the program was broadcast (at 6 p.m. on a Sunday evening), several persons I know-intelligent, far-from-prudish adults-turned it off in disgust. No sex. Just turning girls into whores and beating them bloody, in a largely black community where a lot of women were essentially slaves. In retrospect, I suppose, purveying violence while vigorously denying any sexual content is in the strongest tradition of this American life. Still I wish that This American Life could have resisted this unattractive American proclivity.
The pimping story seems strangely out of place now as I reflect upon all the other pieces. Thinking about this reminded me of a New Yorker article about the Metropolitan Opera by David Remnick. In it he quotes Herbert Breslin, an agent for opera stars: “Artists are strange cats. They don’t consider the consequences, they just do it.” (Thank God.)
Ira Glass, an undoubted artist with high intelligence and a lot of energy, is much needed in public radio. I hope his presence will encourage other, similarly talented people to join him. As a 19-year-old production intern at NPR more than 20 years ago he was encouraged to go his own way. It was here, he says, he learned (from a venturesome producer, Keith Talbot) to take the authoritative voice out of the center of the story. Later, when he joined WBEZ and was assigned to make some lengthy documentaries in an inner-city high school on the subject of race relations, a filmmaker he admired told him to trust his instincts. He did, and still does. He says the experience “completely radicalized my reporting style.” Now, long after the school documentaries, he is much more confident. “The idea is to more or less train listeners, to adjust them to the character of This American Life.” Whose American life is this? Clearly Ira’s: it is kinky, clever, at once disingenuous and innocent, fanciful, rarely too serious. TAL is like a precocious child with too much and too little experience of the world. Above all, it is compelling.
In making programs Glass admits “to consciously manipulating the facts to provide you entrance.” This may result in dramatic stories. It may also prove distracting. Some years ago Steven Glass (no relation) wrote phony nonfiction articles for Harper’s, The New Republic and other magazines. Ira Glass interviewed him about the Harper’s story (it concerned becoming a telephone psychic) for a TAL piece. Later Ira Glass said he was suspicious (” . . .it was so corny. I thought he could have done better . . .”), but ran the story. Steven Glass contributed two more stories to TAL. In one of these, Ira subsequently said, he felt that Steven had “finessed” some of the material. The other he described as “substantially true.” In a 1998 interview with Current’s Jacqueline Conciatore, Ira asserted, “I would absolutely put [Steven] on the air [again], no question, and not be ashamed of it.” (TAL no longer distributes the programs to which Stephen Glass contributed.) “It’s not just documenting everyday life,” Ira has said, “it’s documenting drama.”
Several of the 16 stories I heard caused me to wonder whether they were “true” or to what extent they had been “manipulated.” And whether, in our present TV culture of docudrama, it matters to anyone. Putting aside whether it’s a good idea to “fake” a story, doing so may introduce some distraction: if you are thinking about whether it’s “real” or not, you may not be giving a story the full attention the producer hoped for.
Glass interrupts his story of Jackie and Kenny doing good in their small town to make an observation that may help us to understand much of his work: “You have to have a vision of the way you want things. There is a ruthlessness about changing the world, about imposing your will upon how the world is. And the danger of having a vision, of course, is that the vision can cloud your eyes about what’s really there.”
For Glass, causing his audience to “relate” to his stories is a chief goal, especially relating to TAL‘s often weird characters. At the close of his revealing 1998 journalism lecture at Macalester College, he says, “Because we are so various as a nation, it’s hard to remember to feel for people around us who are so separated.” More must be done, he says, than telling the facts and analyzing the news. (You can begin to hear music now in this lecture, under his words.) “It’s the mission of public broadcasting to tell us stories that help us empathize and . . .feel less crazy and less separate and that, you know, go straight to our hearts.” (Music swells, and ends.)
Copyright 1999 American University