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.
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.”