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A Touch of Glass

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

(page 2 of 2)

He grew up in Baltimore, the son of an accountant (his father) and a clinical psychologist (his mother). Radio didn’t hold much interest for him as a kid; he thought he’d like to be an astronaut. But at 19, he took a summer job as a tape editor for NPR in Washington, D.C., and he was hooked. His college career had started at Northwestern University, but he was unhappy there; after a couple of months off, he transferred to Brown, where he graduated, with honors, with a degree in semiotics.

He went back to NPR in Washington, and over the years he has worked on nearly every news program and done virtually every production job in NPR’s headquarters. In 1989, he moved to Chicago because his girlfriend at the time, cartoonist Lynda Barry, was having a play she had written produced here.

Shortly after arriving, he, Barry, and freelance radio producer Gary Covino—a former producer of several NPR programs in Washington, including All Things Considered—came up with the idea for a freeform, mix-it-up live radio show that would take on any subject that interested them.

“The idea came out of us griping about all the wild, great stuff that we couldn’t get on the air,” says Covino. “So we made a proposal to WBEZ, and although WBEZ said that it greatly admired the work of these three talented people who were willing to do the show for free, it took the station a year to make up its mind.”

It also took a new vice-president of programming. In 1990, Torey Malatia was installed with the mandate of raising the quality of the station’s programming. One possibility that interested him: The Wild Room. “It is an attempt to show that art is not disconnected from the human experience,” says Malatia. “It’s truly radio without rules. Now, it doesn’t always succeed— Gary and Ira will admit that some shows turn out to be duds——but it always stretches the boundaries of what radio can do.”

Since its beginning in 1990, The Wild Room has evolved out of the personalities of its cohosts, Glass and the 38-year-old Covino. (Shortly after its inception, Barry spun off with her own interests.) The result is an odd and exciting chemistry between the two men, a sort of cross between My Dinner with André and Siskel & Ebert minus the movies. “There is a lot of arguing,” admits Covino. “We love to throw ideas at each other. Our conversations tend to follow this road between seriousness and satire. And sometimes we get on each other’s nerves—and that gets played out on the air, too.”

What can be exhilarating about listening to The Wild Room is that the show goes out over the airwaves live. All the music, the hits, the guests, the call-ins—it’s all done live. But surely it must be planned?

“Well, I plan my parts,” says Glass. “And Gary plans his, I guess. But his plans seem a lot looser.”

“The Wild Room is a rarity in that it combines certain elements—namely music and storytelling—that you don’t normally hear together on radio,” says Cara Jepsen, media critic for Illinois Entertainer and a staff writer at the free weekly New City. “Plus, there is the dynamic between Ira and Gary: Ira is sort of the voice of reason and Gary is very much fly-by-the-seat-of-his pants. And even though they talk, they’re not mean—unlike most of talk radio.”

Some memorable moments include an obsessive, almost psychedelic program that ran on the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. Then, shortly after the Democratic National Convention in 1992, Glass brought in outtakes of his travels on the Clinton-Gore bus tour. He would play some; then Covino would counter with beat luminary Neal Cassady reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.

“Ira tends to do more personal stuff,” says Covino. “I tend to do more political or social stuff. When we first started, I tended to act up more on the air and be more provocative with callers, but I don’t really do that anymore.”

“He said that?” says Glass when told of Covino’s analysis.

“I think the important thing to remember is that The Wild Room is a performance,” says Malatia. “It’s not talk radio. It’s an experience.”

 

Early on Saturday morning, Glass and Emily Hanford (a.k.a. Little Slave Girl) are working in Glass’s apartment. He sits in front of a computer, except when he rolls his chair over to the Otari, a reel-to-reel tape deck he is using for editing; Hanford, 24, a former Amherst, Massachusetts, NPR correspondent who recently moved to Chicago, sits in front of a desk. For the moment, the floor is swept clean of all the little snippets of tape that covered it last night as Glass obsessively played different cuts back and forth, trying to whittle down his choices (“Which tape do you like? This one? Or this one?”).

Today’s project is a section of the second pilot for Your Radio Playhouse; it deals with a 21-year-old computer hacker who recently spent six months in jail and is now serving six months of home confinement. “Except that he can tap into the computer that’s monitoring him,” says Hanford with a laugh.

Glass has already conducted a three-and-a-half-hour interview with the hacker, who is simply being called Eli. He has spent two hard days organizing and then cutting the material. He and Little Slave Girl (“Hey, I call myself that now,” says Hanford) will spend another four or five intensive days coming up with a finished 20-minute radio piece.

“The vehicles on NPR are only for nonfiction,” says Glass. “There are all these writers who have something to say out there, but there’s not a way to put it on the air because it’s fiction.” Glass is hoping that Your Radio Playhouse can help solve that problem. “The idea is that it will be more adventurous than what’s out there now. You know, I read this thing once about the creation of Saturday Night Live. One of the smart things they did is, they tried to create a show that they could stand to watch. That’s what I’m trying to do: create a show that I could stand to listen to.”

He says he’s not worried about threatened funding cuts from Republicans. “Oh, I get periodic missives about this—all written in a tone of subdued hysteria, a sort of ‘This is your captain speaking’ kind of thing. WBEZ went so far as to suggest that I write my congressman in protest, as if hearing from one who benefits from the funding would have any impact. The important thing is that public radio doesn’t get that much money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—only about 17 percent of its budget.”

Glass thinks that the money for his proposed show will turn up. “Or it won’t. And then my life will be much more simple.”

Those around him don’t believe that, of course. “If Your Radio Playhouse doesn’t work out, it’s only a matter of time until Ira breaks through with another show,” says one editor at the NPR headquarters in Washington. “He’s too smart and too good not to.”

After a long, tedious process of trying to find a certain perfect moment in the interview with Eli (“Which one do you like? This one? Or this?”), Glass and Hanford have come to an agreement. He switches reels, splices tape, rewinds—and then the lights flicker and the power in the apartment goes dead.

It is one of those nineties moments, when you are thrown out of a high-tech world, only to see how truly powerless you are. a moment of frozen panic, Glass reacts instinctively: He pounds on the side of the Otari with his fist. And the lights come back on, the edited tape is saved, and everyone sighs with relief. “And that should be the end of your story,” he says.

And it should have been. But then Glass and I have another phone conversation. “I keep thinking of all these things that I should tell you that are really the key points,” he says. “But then I remember how when I’m doing a story and the subjects call me up and tell me all these ‘key points,’ I always think they are so off the mark that it’s unbelievable. So I’ve been trying to resist.”

But he can’t for long. “The way I see it, you have a couple of leads. You could lead with me and Little Slave Girl, you could lead with me eating chicken or—uh, I guess you could lead with me telling you how you could lead.”

I have a question, I tell him. How does it feel to be poised to be a new kind of Garrison Keillor?

“It’s funny, because I’ve thought about it in exactly those terms,” he says. “If Your Radio Playhouse is consistently good, it could be something like Prairie Home Companion. Only it would be more like Prairie Home Companion crossed with The Ed Sullivan Show. But, hey, there are worse fates than to end up being a new Garrison Keillor.”

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