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When the phone rings, it is 7:30 p.m. and Ira Glass is calling to make a confession. “I’ve always imagined that Garrison Keillor would call me up,” he says. “But he never has.”
Glass loves the phone almost as much as he loves radio, which is his medium of choice; both, the 36-year-old Chicago-based radio correspondent believes, are intimate vehicles for communication. That whisper-in-the-ear quality infuses Glass’s feature-style reporting on National Public Radio, whether he’s hanging out at a Chicago high school for a year or following a Department of Sanitation worker for a day as the man picks up dead animals. That since-it’s-just-you-and-me tone lights up his artsy monologues on The Wild Room, the radio-without-rules show featuring him and Gary Covino on WBEZ every Friday night at 8 p.m.
So it is not surprising that he would choose to reveal over the phone rather than face to face his fantasy about Garrison Keillor, the writer and public-radio storyteller par excellence who created the imaginary world of Lake Wobegon on the clever show A Prairie Home Companion. After all, Glass believes that radio succeeds precisely because of what is missing. “If you see too much of a person,” he has been known to say, “you can’t really see him at all. But if you just hear the voice, it’s almost as if you’re inside his head.”
“I mean, Keillor has absolutely no reason to call me,” admits Glass with a laugh. Still, he has imagined it. “You know, there are times when Keillor is in town working, and I know this, and I imagine that the phone will ring and he’ll say to me, ‘Hey, man, we’re working the same beat. Let’s go have a beer.’ And I’d feel happy.
It’s only natural that Glass would be thinking of Keillor lately. They do work the same beat in that they both view radio as the means to tell a story, creating a distinct, even visual community through spoken words and music. But while Keillor celebrates and parodies nostalgia in A Prairie Home Companion, Glass has homed in on such approaching-the-millennium real-life characters as computer hackers, apartment dwellers who tape the male Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? neighbors next door, and a woman who has made an art out of quitting and writes The Quitter’s Quarterly about it (unless she has quit that now, too). And while Keillor’s radio work has been concentrated in A Prairie Home Companion (thus enabling him to build an audience), Glass’s efforts have been catch-as-catch-can on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Talk of the Nation. His only consistent venue has been every Friday night for the past five years on The Wild Room, which has a loyal following but can be heard only in Chicago on WBEZ. (Figures from Arbitron, the ratings service, show that 9,200 listeners stay tuned for all 59 minutes of the program, and during recent fundraisers it netted more money than NPR’s All Things Considered did the same night.)
But all that might soon change. With a $6,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Glass is currently preparing three pilots for a proposed national radio show, tentatively entitled Your Radio Playhouse. It will follow the distribution models of other successful public-radio shows (Fresh Air, Car Talk, Whad’ Ya Know?, and A Prairie Home Companion); that is, first pilot the idea at the local level, then take the show national—where other public radio stations can run it free of charge for several years. If the funding comes through (at least $300,000 is needed for a trial run of 17 local and 26 national shows; Glass has already applied to the MacArthur Foundation for a $150,000 grant), Your Radio Playhouse will be a weekly, hourlong program showcasing writers, monologists, and composers who explore a chosen theme: American fables, longing for love, fear of Starbucks, antisocial behavior. And with such a proposed venue, Glass stands poised on the brink of becoming an innovative and compelling national radio personality. Sort of like a hipster version of Garrison Keillor.