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His American life 

by Andrea Palpant


He could be your uncle -- telling you a story, playing you a song. He could be the kid next door, talking blithely out his bedroom window. He could even be a muse. But he's Ira Glass, sultan of stories, vindicator of voices and host of the popular public radio program This American Life.


Glass, who produces the show, travels by voice to more than 400 public radio stations every week and captivates more than a million listeners across America. Broadcast from WBEZ-FM in Chicago, the show features a variety of documentaries, interviews and short stories. He likes to call it a "documentary show for people who normally hate documentaries.


"The show has a sort of garage band feeling to it," says Glass. "No one supervises us, so our show's pretty transparent. We're trying to do something new. It's an experiment, and the stories we're choosing have no reason to be on the radio except that we're excited about them. That's not the aesthetic of most news broadcasts."


Although described as a variation on 1940s radio style drama, This American Life isn't just any old show. The style is quirky and personal, the sound raw and rhythmic and the subjects as diverse as the states of this country. A failed play production of Peter Pan? A funky study of "the cringe" or "the cruelty of children"? You can hear it all by tuning in to a public radio station. In Spokane, it's KSFC 91.9 or KPBX 91.1.


On Saturday, Spokanites get the chance to see the voice of Glass incarnate as he delivers "Lies, Sissies and Fiascoes: Notes on Making a New Kind of Radio" for KPBX's annual Volunteer Thank You Event held at Spokane Falls Community College. Those interested or already enmeshed in the TAL following shouldn't miss the event.


"I can recreate the entire show on stage with minimal equipment -- CDs, quotes, a mike," says Glass. "I'm going to talk about how anyone can make a movie on the radio."


So who is this Glass? At 19, he was an intern at the National Public Radio headquarters in D.C. Working as a tape cutter for years, he made his way into freelance reporting and then five years ago snagged the mike as prime host and author of This American Life.


Now with all the static and applause about the show, he might be a radio giant. Then again, he might still be an ordinary guy. Glass's easygoing demeanor on the airwaves -- void of that deadpan professional sound -- is exactly what's earned him status as a strange sort of literary, voice-of-the-people pop icon.


"When I started on the radio, I was kind of stiff and awkward," says Glass. "I sounded like all the other NPR reporters, not myself. So I pushed myself to sound the way I really talk. It's more effective -- I like the way people actually sound."


In sync with the postmodern paradigm, Glass's program literally gives voice to the unheard -- the crass characters of small-town America, the odd urbanites of these United States. No celebrities. No glamour. No big book promos. Just people. Each week, various writers and contributors collaborate on a chosen theme to give listeners a montage of anecdotes, reflections and eclectic tunes.


"Our show aggressively conceives of itself as entertainment," says Glass. "What we don't want is this thing that happens on public broadcasting where people listen because they think it'll be good for them. Our standards should be higher than that. There aren't really other radio shows out there that take as their job to do stories that unfold like little movies, with characters and scenes you get caught up in."


The use of music, too, gives the show another dimension of milieu and movement. With the feel of a well-edited film, it builds from a layering effect of image, story and song. Strauss's "Blue Danube Waltz" plays partner to the tale of an obscure con artist on the Letterman show, and the New York-based band Yo La Tengo accompanies "Hands on a Hard Body," an account of a bizarre car contest in Texas.


While he's mostly the vocal link for other people's stories, Glass lets his own humanity be heard now and then. A recent episode on "The Cringe" featured the host himself airing 20-year-old tapes from some of his first radio interviews. For fun's sake, Glass let listeners hear him bumble his way through a conversation with actors on the set of the television series M*A*S*H so many years ago.


"[This episode] was very popular with my staff," says Glass. "They enjoyed hearing me be so horrible. It's weird -- you'll tell a story to friends, you'll tell it publicly, and then it feels laid to rest. But I still feel as embarrassed of it now as I did then. I'm not completely over it."


Definitely worth a cringe, but Glass only endeared himself more to his faithful audience. Those who haven't experienced This American Life should tune in and be turned on to this intelligent, hip and irreverent show.


"We're providing a perspective on the country you can't get elsewhere," says Glass. "We're putting voices on the air you can't hear elsewhere, and giving you a vision of what our lives are."





Ira Glass, "Lies, Sissies and Fiascoes: Notes on Making a New Kind of Radio" is Saturday, April 28, at 7:30 pm, at Spokane Falls Community College's music auditorium. Tickets: $15; $12 KPBX members. Call 328-5729. This American Life can be heard weekly on KPBX 91.1 Mondays at 9 pm and Fridays at noon, or on KSFC 91.9 Fridays at 8 pm.

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