Radio host and author
B orn March 3, 1959, in Baltimore, MD; son of Barry (an accountant) and Shirley (a psychologist) Glass; married Anaheed Alani (an editor), August, 2005. Education: Earned undergraduate degree from Brown University, 1982.
N ational Public Radio, summer intern, c. 1978, and audiotape editor, newscast writer, and producer at its Washington, D.C. studios, 1982-89; reporter for WBEZ-FM, Chicago, 1989-95; co-host of The Wild Room on WBEZ, 1990-95; creator, producer, writer, and host of This American Life, 1995—; writer and television host of This American Life, Showtime, 2007—; editor of the essay anthology, The New Kings of Non-Fiction, published by Riverhead Books, 2007.
I ra Glass is the host of the long-running This American Life radio program that has aired on public radio stations across the United States since 1997. A decade later, the program made its television debut on the Showtime cable network but remained a staple of public radio and one of its highest-rated weekly broadcasts. “Glass’ voice, a bit whiny-sounding, inflecting at times like a teen’s, is terrifically idiosyncratic and chummy,” asserted Flo-rangela Davila in the Seattle Times, “and as a host he allows the stories to take hold of him. That, in turn, frosts the radio program with a kind of honesty and truthfulness, making the stories that much more embraceable.”
Glass was born in 1959, sandwiched between a pair of sisters, and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. His father Barry was an accountant, while Glass’ mother, Shirley, worked as a psychologist. Glass entered Northwestern University in the Chicago area following his high school graduation then transferred to Brown University in Rhode Island. He also switched majors along the way, from pre-med to semiotics, which he described to Marshall Sella of the New York Times Magazine as “a sadly pretentious body of theory about language and narrative.”
Glass’ career took shape with an internship he landed at National Public Radio (NPR) headquarters in Washington, D.C., one summer during college. After earning his degree from Brown in 1982, he went back to NPR, working as an audio-tape editor for the rest of the decade. “I cut tape for ten years before I went on the air myself,” he confessed in an interview with Joel Reese of the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Illinois. “It took a long time for me to learn how to write competently for the radio. Like, sort of longer than anyone in the history of broadcasting, I believe . I wasn’t that good at being on the air, and I was really shy about hearing my voice on the air.”
In 1989, Glass relocated to Chicago to be near his girlfriend at the time, cartoonist Lynda Barry (Ernie Pook’s Comeek). Hired as a reporter for NPR’s Chicago affiliate, WBEZ-FM, he went on to produce some notable radio programs for WBEZ in the early 1990s. The first was a pair of year-long reports that tracked reform efforts at two troubled public schools in the city. He also produced a holiday segment by a then-unknown writer, David Sedaris, that aired in December of 1992 on “Morning Edition.” In it, Se-daris recounted his humiliating experiences working as a department store elf in New York City a year earlier. “The Santaland Diaries” quickly propelled Sedaris to a two-book contract with a major publisher.
From 1990 to 1995 Glass served as co-host of The Wild Room, a Friday-night, free-form documentary-style program on WBEZ that showcased Chicago-land writers and artists. That show was an early incarnation of This American Life, which came out of an idea that Glass took to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the entity that funds both NPR and another public radio network Public Radio International (PRI), which operates out of Minneapolis. The show began airing on WBEZ in November of 1995 as Your Radio Playhouse, but after a few months its name was changed to This American Life. Originally featuring local writers and radio-documentary storytellers, Glass’ show took on a more national identity in 1997 when PRI agreed to offer it for distribution to public radio stations across the United States.
From its onset, This American Life attracted a devoted listening audience who tuned in to hear Glass’ unusual, somewhat nasally voice introducing and prodding forward the quirky tales—some true, some fiction—recounted in separate segments. Each hour-long program was arranged around a theme, such as “Other People’s Mail” or “Hoaxes,” and the three or four stories were grouped into acts, much like a stage play. “We’re documenting things with no particularly uplifting social mission,” Glass told Deborah Solomon in the New York Times about the thrust of his show. “The mission is that of an ambitious novel or movie: to point out universal feelings and moments.”
From the outset, This American Life was notable for bringing in new listeners to PRI and NPR affiliates, who called their local public radio stations during semi-annual fund-raising drives to pledge their support for it. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, Michael Hirschorn called This American Life “the voice of a generation too young to buy into the broader public-radio mission (‘This is the sound of Guatemalan basket weavers; their way of life is threatened .’) and too smart or old for the braying of commercial radio.” Glass believed the kernel of This American Life’s appeal was the old-fashioned nature of the format, exemplified by “the fact that there are so many things you can do on radio that are so much harder to do well in any other medium,” he told Cara Jepsen in an interview that appeared in Book. “Certain things are just more powerful, when done as talking, without pictures.”
Sedaris occasionally appeared on This American Life, and the show made some new stars as well, such as author and comedian Sarah Vowell and John Hodg-man, who later personified the Personal Computer in a series of humorous television ads for Apple Computer and began appearing as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. Glass was also courted relentlessly by film and television producers, and once he even penned an article for the Web magazine Slate.com about a trip he made out to Hollywood to meet with television executives. He, along with a television producer and a filmmaker he knew, were taken around by an agent from William Morris, who told the trio that “some execs at these meetings will have actually prepared for the meetings,” Glass recounted in the article. “They’ll have listened to tapes she’s sent of This American Life . But many of them won’t have prepared. It’s our job, she says, to politely ignore it if they know nothing about our work.” As Glass continued in the Slate diary, the agent then told them that “the way one handles this situation is to tell them everything you think they need to know about your work, prefaced with the phrase ‘As you know already.’”
These early experiences with the corporate giants of the entertainment industry made Glass hesitate before committing to anything, and he has admitted in several interviews that for many years he did not even own a television set. But This American Life continued to attract avid listeners, some with impressive credentials. Pulitzer Prizewinning playwright David Mamet lauded its charms in a 2001 Time magazine article which called it the best program on American radio. Its executive producer and host, Mamet wrote, “seems to have reinvented radio”; he also noted that Glass “finds—uncovers— drama and humor in the most pedestrian of places.”
Glass eventually inked a deal with Warner Bros. to develop stories that originally appeared on This American Life broadcasts. One of the first properties to move forward dated back to 2001 and a story called “Minors” from Susan Burton, a contributing editor on This American Life. It recounted her experiences one holiday season when she and her sister were stranded at an airport during a snowstorm. The result was the 2006 comedy, Unaccompanied Minors, for which Glass served as executive producer. By then he had finally agreed to do a television version of This American Life, which happened only when a network—in this case the Showtime cable channel—conceded to some stringent demands from Glass and his crew. “We insisted that they find us filmmakers to collaborate with,” Glass told Mary Carole McCauley in his hometown newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, about the four years between Showtime’s first approach and 2006, when the television deal was written. “We figured we’d never hear from them. And then they came back with all these great people. That posed a problem for us— suddenly, we had to take them seriously.”
In another interview, Glass explained that he and his team of writers and segment producers were also worried that the quirkiness of their radio show would fail to translate onto the screen. “We asked for assurances from Showtime and got it in our contract with them that if we thought it didn’t work, that at the end of the pilot, even though they would have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, then we could ask them to kill it,” he told New York Times writer David Carr. The final version seemed to click, however, and the television version of This American Life debuted on Showtime in March of 2007. It was a half-hour show, and Glass still fulfilled his role as host, introducing the stories and narrating segues—though in the screen version he did so from behind a desk which improbably turned up on location for each story.
Glass has often admitted in interviews that despite the fact that the audio broadcasts of This American Life seemed to flow almost effortlessly, they were in fact relentlessly edited. Moving over to a visual medium, he soon realized, meant the stories took even longer to complete. Yet he was also pleasantly surprised by one factor, as he told Gerri Miller in American Jewish Life Magazine. “The sheer power of seeing somebody’s face as they tell a story and all the information you get, that was something I never expected,” Glass said.
Glass’ contract for six episodes for Showtime was extended for another six after This American Life earned some enthusiastic reviews. As Davila, the Seattle Times journalist noted, “The best radio stories are already chock-full of imagery, but the rewards here are also seeing a man’s watery eyes, a teen’s shiny forehead, a senior citizen’s shaky hand. It all looks so easily crafted, and it’s hard to imagine these stories told in any better way.” Critiquing it for the New York Times, Carr asserted, “What connects the shows—both the television and radio versions—is an uncommon empathy for subject. Viewers often find themselves rooting for whoever is featured going through the traditional arc of setup, epiphany, and denouement.”
This American Life was still heard on more than 500 public radio stations and by an audience estimated at 1.7 million listeners. Glass, who married in 2005, relocated with his wife,AnaheedAlani, to NewYork City in 2006. In Chicago, he was recognized by voice at least once a day, but “in New York, I’m never recognized ever,” he told Entertainment Weekly’s Ari Karpel. “People here don’t listen to radio in the same way because they’re not in their cars.” He did concede, however, that his new city has “better take-out food.”
Both Glass and Alani are self-professed atheists, though she was raised in a Muslim family and he in a Jewish one; he even attended Hebrew shul as a youngster back in Baltimore. He noted that the rabbi at the temple his family attended on High Holidays made a strong impression on him—and perhaps even inspired This American Life. “Rabbi Seymour Esrog was really funny, a great storyteller,” he recalled in the interview with Miller in American Jewish Life Magazine. “He was so good that even the kids would stay and watch him. He’d tell a funny anecdote, something really moving, and go for a big finish. That’s what the show is.”
American Jewish Life Magazine, March-April 2007.
Atlantic Monthly, September 2007, p. 142.
Baltimore Sun, March 22, 2007.
Book, March 2001, p. 48.
Chicago Tribune, November 15, 2005.
Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), December 5, 2000, p. 1.
Entertainment Weekly, April 13, 2007, p. 27.
New Yorker, April 16, 2007, p. 164.
New York Times, March 4, 2007; March 21, 2007.
New York Times Magazine, April 11, 1999.
Seattle Times, March 18, 2007, p. K1.
“Ira Glass,” for “Diary: A Weeklong Electronic Journal,” Slate.com, http://www.slate.com/id/29923/entry/29924/ (October 29, 2007).
“Radio Host: Ira Glass,” Time.com, http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2001/americasbest/pro.iglass.html (October 29, 2007).