Just because Ira Glass, radio’s sexiest nerd, is straight doesn’t mean we love him any less
Our theme this week: Ira Glass, host and creator of the best program on radio, This American Life. Our article will be presented in three acts. Act 1: I introduce Ira. Act 2: I call him, making a fool of myself over the phone.
Act 3: He says great things until you feel compelled to dash out and buy tickets to his show at the Winspear on Saturday.
Our article will begin after this paragraph break.
That might not make for a compelling lead in print journalism, but trust me: If you’ve ever heard Glass’ weekly series of ideas — and if you haven’t, what the eff’s wrong with ya?!? — you know it’s the drum-roll for the most riveting hour of your radio week. And it was all born by Glass, who never really even thought about a career in radio.
“I was a normal American — I watched TV,” he says from his New York office. “I had never listened to public radio or even heard of it. [In my defense], it was 1978 — no one listened to Public Radio; it was a tiny operation.”
On the telephone, Glass’ voice has the same qualities — both hyper and soothing, where his stumbles and pauses provide as much breathless anticipation as a movie cliffhanger — as it does on the radio. It’s both exciting and disconcerting, like the radio is talking back.
“I wish there was something I could do about that, have more of an offstage voice,” Glass laughs. “It would be really amazing if it had a thick Rasta accent or squeaky cartoon voice.”
Alas, we have to be content with that rushed erudition, the kind of voice that makes you feel smarter for listening. That’s, strangely, a characteristic of many of the contributors who have made This American Life the best program on the air. Imagine it without the nasal drawl of David Sedaris, or the pinched, kewpie doll squeal of Sarah Vowell.
“A kewpie doll who’ll punch you in the face,” Glass says, quickly adding: “ That’s not a bad quality! That’s an awesome thing. But we all so have nontraditional radio voices.”
One voice Glass will have to do without from now on, however, is David Rakoff, the gay author who died last August of cancer.
“I’ve been thinking about him a lot the last two weeks,” Glass says wistfully. “He’s somebody I’d known for a long time, and one of the people we built the sound of the show around. He finished his new book — a novel in rhymed couplets — soon before he died, and I agreed to do the audio book for him. He was in the studio just 13 days before he died. The deadline [recently] came due [to turn in the edited audio version] and I had nine hours I had to edit down and it was the most meticulous surgery to make his [labored] breathing less noticeable.”
Even something as ordinary as recounting an editing process becomes captivating storytelling in Glass’ hands.
It’s the principle, in fact, This American Life was founded upon.
“When we began, it really was a show that applied the tools of journalism to personal stories,” he says. “As time went on, the mission of the show has changed. We are also tackling the news [but telling them] as narrative stories. And that just turns out to be enormously difficult.”
It’s also how he will spend this Saturday at the Winspear: Demonstrating for the audience how he goes from the raw material to the inimitable sound of his show.
“I have an iPad with a mixer and clips and music, and I can create the sound of the radio show around me as I speak,” Glass explains. “It’s a combination of me playing excerpts that I can play live and funny moments and emotional moments from the show. And that’s why we’re making a show different than anything else.”
It’s the geeky confidence about the effectiveness of the formula Glass created that has earned him the sexy nerd label. He chuckles at the idea.
“I can assure you, no one at the program was shooting for ‘sexy nerd’ in any way — not in any way,” he emphasizes.
But doesn’t he embrace it? Isn’t that the consequence of a technology age, where The Big Bang Theory is a hit show and Apple is the most valued company in the world? Glass has his own opinion.
“I actually feel bad for the guys at Exxon, looking at Apple as the ‘most valuable’ company [even though Exxon is the most profitable]. What they do seems really hard — moving heavy equipment and drilling through the earth. It seems only fair that they should be ahead of Apple … and I’m not saying that to pander to a Texas audience.”
We believe you, Ira. We always believe you.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 31, 2013.