A Touch of Glass

It’s 1995 and Ira Glass stands poised on the brink of a national radio personality

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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.

 

In his North Side apartment, Glass is waiting for Little Slave Girl, his pet name for Emily Hanford, the tape editor he’s hired to help him with the pilots for Your Radio Playhouse. He is a lanky fellow whose clothes always appear to have been thrown on in some haste. With his combed-back black hair, hornrimmed glasses, and wholesomely sweet smile, he resembles a Jewish Clark Kent.

To pass the time, he shows me a magic trick. “See, here’s a nickel,” he says, holding the coin in his hand. Then he seems to open his hand wider and the nickel is gone. It is probably a standard sleight-of hand trick, but Glass’s execution is so precise and disarmingly simple that it seems—well, magical.

“I learned a lot of magic tricks when I was a kid,” he says. “Unfortunately, there is no use for this skill on the radio.”

But then, there are all kinds of magic tricks. “What makes Ira Glass unique is the way he tells a story,” says Larry Abramson, national-desk editor at NPR in Washington, D.C. “He has an almost organic ability to capture not only people’s voices and scenes in his reporting but also to get them on the air—meaning he does it without cutting his tape to ribbons. And his style is very fresh. Most radio reporters tend to develop a voice and then hide behind it. Ira is always stretching himself.” Another NPR editor says that Glass is a joy to supervise “because he approaches his work situation with such profound guilt over not doing enough and such fear of disappointing everyone.”

“Most NPR stories have a certain sound,” says Glass. “Somebody recently characterized it as the reporters sounding as if they’re teaching at a Montessori school for adults.” Glass’s radio voice is instantly recognizable—an earnest baritone punctuated with a step-stutter of self-consciousness. He can sound like a young and likable Woody Allen. “But to me,” he says, “the best radio is full of surprises. The listener has no idea what is going to happen next.”

Broadcast journalism typically has a fairly impersonal style, a dry presentation, and a feeling of authority. In contrast, Glass likes to do pieces that are casual and intimate in feeling, that seem almost to start in the middle of the story and are told with little narration in unfolding scenes. “It’s done a lot in print journalism and fiction writing,” he says, “but in broadcasting, there aren’t a lot of people who try to tell their stories using the traditional tools of drama and fiction.”

A case in point: what Glass calls his “Dead Animals Story,” a seven-minute feature that originally ran on All Things Considered, the 90-minute afternoon news show. It involves one day that Glass rode around with Clarence Hicks, an employee of the Department of Sanitation in Washington, D.C., while Hicks did his job: picking up dead animals. It’s not any bigger than that—and yet a whole world unfolds in those seven minutes.

It starts with Hicks and Glass running across a highway to pick up a dead cat and it continues— with little voice-over narration— through various neighborhoods. Hicks’s conversation is broken occasionally by the sounds of nearby or the gruesome scrape of a shovel against concrete. He tells Glass that he likes this job better than the one he had earlier in the Department of Sanitation—cleaning up alleys—because now my own boss and I do my own driving.” Unexpectedly, the story is more hilarious than grim. And, like Glass’s favorite kind of radio, there are lots of surprises. Such as when Hicks yells out his car window at an unsuspecting stranger, “Hey, buddy, you see a dead cat laying around anywhere?” Or when the “cat” they have been sent to pick up turns out to be a ten-inch silver-colored dead fish lying under a tree.

“The number-one rule of radio is to convey a sense of space,” says Glass. “If you create a space, the listener automatically moves into it. Howard Stern does that, even to the point of keeping some people farther away from the mikes than others. Rush Limbaugh creates a space by rustling papers, moving things around in front of him, hitting his desk. I know it sounds absurd, but you have to give people things to ‘look at’ while they listen to the radio.”

Other rules of radio according to Glass:

  • Put a person’s voice over music where it sounds like there should be lyrics. But stop the music before the most important point: People automatically pay more attention to what’s said next.
  • Don’t start a story with a sound. “Like ‘Whoosh,”’ he says, imitating the sound of a strong wind. “‘Out here on the plains of Nebraska . . It’s hokey; it’s over; you can’t do that anymore.”
  • Always make the people tell you the dialogue, not just the story. “You need people to say, ‘Then I said this and he said that,’” says Glass. “Because if they act out a scene it’s almost as good as having the actual scene.”
  • It’s better to have fewer pieces of music in a story than more. “Just repeating the same one is better, so that when the audience hears it again it’s like the return of an old friend.”
  • People should usually be allowed to tell the first beat or segment of their stories without background music. “Because the first beat of a story has its own momentum,” says Glass. “If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be told.”
 

Glass has also proved himself to be something of a talent scout. “Do you want to do commentaries for NPR?” he asked Margy Rochlin about seven years ago. Rochlin, a contributing editor for The Los Angeles Times Magazine, said, “I don’t know how.” And Glass said, “I can explain it.” And he could.

“Ira is extraordinary at taking someone who writes in a different medium and making that person sound good on the radio,” says Rochlin, who had originally met Glass through a mutual friend. Since then, she has written and produced a number of segments for All Things Considered and Soundprint, a weekly half-hour feature show. Together, she and Glass did a series on compulsive liars for NPR’s Morning Edition; part of that series inspired a segment in the Robert Altman movie Short Cuts.

“Over a lifetime, you meet a couple of people who can get inside your head,” says Rochlin. “And Ira is one of those people. It takes a special gift to convince people that they can move successfully from one form to another.”

David Sedaris, public radio’s unlikely new star, agrees. Sedaris’s acidic voice is heard by one million people when he reads from his diaries once a month on Morning Edition. Since his appearance on Morning Edition on December 23, 1992, Sedaris—whose “day job” is cleaning people’s apartments—has signed a two-book contract with Little, Brown and has been asked to write for the magazines Mirabella, Mademoiselle, New York, and Harper’s as well as several soap operas and Seinfeld, the TV show. Alec Baldwin and Matthew Modine have called him just to say they liked his monologues. “So did a New York telephone operator,” says Sedaris with equal awe. “She was the first to call, the minute my first piece went off the air. She just wanted to tell me that she loved it and then she had to go back to work. And I owe all this to Ira; he really changed my life.”

In 1989, Glass heard Sedaris read a short story at a now-defunct Chicago club called Lower Links. “Then I moved to New York,” says Sedaris, “but two years later, Ira calls me up and asks if I have any sort of Christmasy thing I could do for his show The Wild Room.”

What Sedaris had—after working with Glass—turned out to be a nine-minute monologue about his job as Crumpet the elf at Macy’s Santaland. “I wear green-velvet knickers,” the piece begins, “a forest-green velvet smock, and a perky little hat decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform.” Sedaris goes on to describe his elf training sessions, led by veteran Macy’s elves who were “so onstage and goofy that it made me a little sick to my stomach.” He tells of being asked by Santa to lead the assembled children in a Christmas carol; he complied by singing “Away in a Manger” in a deadpan impersonation of Billie Holiday. “Santa didn’t allow me to finish,” he says.

The Crumpet-the-elf piece eventually became Sedaris’s début on Morning Edition. “My whole life changed then,” says Sedaris. “Ira is really wise in terms of taking people’s material and keeping its integrity while making it work on the radio.” At Sedaris’s request, all of his Morning Edition monologues are still produced and edited by Glass. “I trust him completely,” says Sedaris. “I don’t even try to interfere anymore.”

According to those who have worked with Glass, he is a perfectionist. “He’ll think nothing of calling you up and playing endless little bits of tape over the phone to get your opinion—and it’s not even your story,” says Rochlin. “He’ll say, ‘Which one do you like better? This one? Or this one?’ over and over again.”

In the studio, he was tireless,” says Dwight Okita, a Chicago poet who reads a poem on Glass’s first pilot for Your Radio Playhouse. “After do my reading, each time he’d say, ‘That was great, Dwight. But I need you to give me a lot less. Radio is about one person talking to one other person.

It’s one o’clock in the afternoon and Glass is at home. He’s been working on the second pilot of Your Radio Playhouse since 7 a.m., so he’s going to take a lunch break. Which means that he is walking—almost sprinting, actually—down the street and over to his neighborhood Popeye’s, where he orders a chicken breast and a biscuit to go. Back in his living room, he eats the chicken and
the biscuit (unbuttered) while using the paper bag they came in as a plate.

“I eat all my meals now like I’m a fugitive from justice,” Glass says. “The truth is, I’m kind of overcommitted right now, with my regular job, doing The Wild Room, and trying to put the pilots for the new show together. It’s almost like I’m married to NPR and having not one but two affairs on the side.”

When he finishes the three pilots, Glass says, his life will go “from hellish and horrible to moderately OK again.”

Actually, Glass lives a nice—if hectic—life. He has no pets and has never married, although he has had several serious romances with women. “I feel as if I’m getting to be a better boyfriend all the time,” he says. He has been known to express a wish to settle down and get married. His rather modest apartment, located not far from Lake View High School, is decorated with Christmas lights all year round, voodoo bottles, African beaded belts, Mexican Day of the Dead skeletons, and an old LP record album—Jackie Gleason’s Music for Lovers—glued to the wall. (A friend of his, on first seeing the place, said, “You’ve never been on LSD and you still decorated it like this?”) It looks more like a grad student’s crash pad than the apartment of a successful radio producer and correspondent who is pulling down close to $50,000. Glass lives more like a grad student, too; he bought his first TV set three years ago.

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