On Sunday, while the Fox network was working damage control with its super-sanitized Super Bowl, This American Life, National Public Radio's weekly slice-of-life program, featured, for its Valentines Day-themed show, a segment narrated by Griffin Hansbury, a transgender male (formerly female) who describes the difficulties he and his transgender pals often have forming romantic relationships. Near the end of the segment, Hansbury interviews a couple he knows, Ray and Amy-another transgender male and his straight girlfriend, who've been dating for a year.
TAL host Ira Glass had prefaced Hansbury's segment with a warning to listeners that “they do talk about sex in this story.”
The preface was almost unnecessary. Hansbury's delivery is so engaging, so authentic, that it normalizes the unconventional subject matter. When Amy says of the couple's sex life, “I miss the simplicity of it, not the actual body part,” you don't giggle. You get it. You envision her, quite clearly, sitting on a sofa in her apartment (though the narrator never actually tells you where the interview takes place), struggling just slightly to verbalize her feelings. With TAL's signature use of background music-in this case an appropriate acoustic guitar-you can't help but connect with her.
But did Glass catch any flak for the segment? Sort of-but not really.
“You know, we did get a couple” of complaints, he said the day after the show aired. “Somebody says the word ‘nipple,' and somebody wrote to us-I just got the e-mail today-saying, ‘How dare you!' Like, a year after Janet Jackson, you can't even say the word nipple.”
The listener must have missed it when Amy said the word “penis.”
It's not that TAL listeners are so easily offended. For a decade now, This American Life, a show that began as Glass' lab rat to find the perfect narrative formula, has operated-and thrived-in the esoteric realm of public radio, a medium that attracts both listeners who complain when reporters get lazy with their subject/verb agreement but also where TAL contributor-turned pop-culture icon David Sedaris won over fans with his eerie, dead-on impersonation of Billie Holliday.
The show's 1.6 million weekly listeners trend young-albeit only three years younger than the average public-radio listener, who's around 48. But then how many 20-somethings regularly tune in to public radio? Glass points out that public-radio shows with youth appeal, like Minnesota Public Radio's Pop Vulture or, one of Glass' favorites, On the Media, are canned or relegated to a sure-death time slot (here, KPBS moved the truly stellar On the Media to 6 a.m. Sunday).
“You have to be kind of a weird young person to start listening to public radio,” Glass admits, though he started out as an intern with NPR at 19. “I feel like a lot of our listeners-sad for them-had to be in the car with their parents driving around listening to [public radio], and those people invariably hated it for years as kids. It's sort of boring for a kid. But eventually, you know, like people raised in places with a really bad smell, at some point they can't smell the bad smell.”
Here Glass hesitates for half a second before censoring himself. “God, that's a really terrible thing to say.” Then he's back on-topic.
“So some [young listeners] come in, but public radio can't actually advertise... to pull people in.”
Glass has periodically taken his show on the road, first with an ensemble cast, including TAL regulars like author Sarah Vowell and Sedaris, and now solo. On Saturday, Feb. 12, Glass will be at UCSD's Price Center, as part of the university's ArtPower! series, where he'll talk about TAL and, with the aid of an on-stage mixing console, reconstruct segments of the show. It's an anachronistic way to advertise, he says.
“It's very old-fashioned, like radio techniques from the 1920s to get people to listen to your show-you go out on the road and you have an event and basically people drag their reluctant friends.”
Glass has been called an unlikely sex symbol-the rock-star of public radio-a label that comes partially from his goofy charm (he's a boyish 45 years old with thick-rimmed glasses) and also from the devotion listeners have to the show. His commentary and storytelling-which ranges from keenly perceptive to slightly sappy, but always sincere-provide the segue between the three “acts” that comprise TAL's hour-long broadcast.
In its 10 years on the air, the show has gone from its late-'90s cult-like status to NPR's No. 3 ranked program (behind Car Talk and A Prairie Home Companion). One NPR plug for TAL, has a devotee saying she'll eat only “quiet” food when the show's on-no cereal, nothing that crunches. And Glass, an admitted late bloomer who says it took him an inordinate amount of time to learn his craft, has appeared on The Daily Show, given the commencement speech for UC Berkeley's esteemed graduate school of journalism and, more recently, has been courted by Hollywood folks like Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt who'd like to turn a TAL segment into a feature-length film. Right now there are five film projects in the loop, Glass says, but he insists that he and his reporters, as well as the people featured in the original TAL stories, will maintain some control over how a film is made.
Glass understands that some listeners might be wary of Hollywood getting its claws into the show, but he said that so far it's been fun hashing out the stories with filmmakers. But he's also pragmatic. “I think we're on the verge of something getting made,” he said, “but if that doesn't happen, well, it paid a lot of money we won't have to ask listeners for.”
To grasp what makes the show so successful isn't easy-you kinda have to give it a listen. But to put it rather reductively, TAL tells real stories about real people, like the segment Glass and his team did aboard the U.S.S. John C. Stennis in January 2002. While other media focused on, as Glass put it, “rah-rah” patriotic news bytes, TAL profiled a 19-year-old enlistee whose job it was to fill the ship's vending machines.
“We opened our show with this girl... away from home, halfway around the world, who was trying to serve her country, and her job in the war on terror was [filling] vending machines for 12 hours a day with candy,” he explained.
This style-finding an angle that no other news reporter would consider, and one that he himself found terribly interesting-is something Glass started doing as a general-assignment, public-radio reporter in Chicago, where, for example, in covering floods that filled the tunnels under the city, he found a family of Iowa tourists who'd just pulled into town and who were floored by Chicago's traffic problem. Glass, on tape, explains to them that this wasn't normal-that there was actually a flood.
There's a measure of hedonism there, Glass admits-amusing oneself first and hoping it'll appeal to the audience second.
But with a growing audience, especially one that increasingly includes younger folks, does Glass ever feel compelled to editorialize, beyond the subtle social and political commentary that infuses some shows.
“I'd be lying if I said we don't feel a little bit of that, but it's just not a very big part of what we think about when putting together the show,” he said.
“There's occasionally when we find something that's just shocking that we feel like we need to do a story about,” such as a segment on touch-screen voting machines, early on when that issue was largely being ignored. “That was completely because we felt like, This is wrong, and somebody should say more about this. But it's got to be pretty excitingly wrong for us to want to do it.”
In his UC Berkeley commencement speech, Glass said TAL is, first and foremost, entertainment-he wants people to listen not because they “feel it is going to be good for you, but because it draws you in, you stay with it, it gives you pleasure, you want to find out what happens.”
Statements like that have earned him the title of Pied Piper of Public Radio, a label he doesn't care for-the kids in that fable come to no good, he says. Rather, he hopes younger listeners will follow him when it comes to producing their own radio shows, a “This American Life, Jr.,” for example, that might one day, inject some life into the NPR scene because, as Glass admits without hesitation, public radio can be awfully boring at times. B
Ira Glass appears at UCSD's Price Center Ballroom on Feb. 12 at 8 p.m. Tickets $36 ($18 for UCSD students). 858-534-TIXS. This American Life airs Sundays at 2 p.m. on KPBS-FM 89.5.