The first few minutes after the curtains go up, Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, which airs on more than 500 radio stations across the country, looks at his audience looking back at him and gives them a moment to adjust. They’re not used to hearing his voice come out of a body.
It’s an iconic voice, too, one that’s filled public radio airwaves since 1995, when Glass started This American Life, listened to by 1.7 million people on the radio and another 600,000 by podcast every week.
In between hosting and producing, Glass travels the country to present a behind-the-scenes peek into This American Life, like a DVD extra, just for radio, he said. On Saturday, he brings the sold-out show, “Reinventing Radio: An Evening with Ira Glass,” to the Augusta State University Maxwell Performing Arts Theatre.
It’s one of many Westobou Festival events that’s sold well, said Kelly Thomas, the director of the Maxwell Theatre. The event, presented by Augusta State University Lyceum Series and Georgia Public Broadcasting, has been in the works for more than a year.
“People are really into him,” Thomas said. “It’s come up again and again.”
Glass’ show is so popular because it’s of unusually high quality, he said.
“The stories are just really interesting and really different. It’s the mortgage crisis one week and schools the next,” Thomas said. “They find such fascinating things and they’re done in such an interesting fashion. It’s simple and well-done. It’s not overproduced.”
People are often surprised at what goes into making a good radio show, Glass said.
“A radio show, if it’s done right, just sounds like a bunch of people talking and you don’t really think too much about how it’s made or that it’s constructed,” he said.
Onstage, Glass presents clips from his show.
“I can re-create the sound of the show,” he said. “I can perform pieces on stage so they sound exactly like the radio show, which I know for people who have heard the show, is interesting to see happen. A lot of it is just an excuse to play funny clips.”
The live show started as a “purely business-related” move, Glass said.
“That is, I work for a public radio show and we can’t afford to advertise,” he said. “Really, its goal is so people who are fans of the show will drag their friends who aren’t listeners yet.”
Most shows take three to four months to develop.
“For us to find stories we think are good enough, that often is the most labor-intensive part of it,” he said. “We’ll go through 15 or 20 stories to come to the three or four that end up on the air.”
Each show is built upon a theme, be it immigration law or summer camps.
“A successful show should have a variety of stuff, and a variety of voices, and funny stuff, and more emotional stuff and more analytic stuff,” he said. “A really good show would take you through a range of feelings.”
In recent years, the show has taken a turn toward current events, breaking down the financial crisis or attitudes toward civil liberties with the same emphasis on characters and scenes as Glass’ previous work.
“We had always done occasional news-related shows. But after Sept. 11, like everyone else in the country, we got much more interested in the news, and much more interested in what’s happening overseas, and very interested in what the government was doing at home,” he said.
The show has been met with acclaim, including a Peabody Award and several duPont-Columbia University awards. Glass was named the best radio show host in the country by Time magazine and received the highest individual honor in public broadcasting, the Edward R. Murrow Award.
Glass said he’s hopeful for the future of public radio, which has weathered the recession better than most journalistic mediums.
“I think it’s sort of interesting. Weirdly, public radio is doing OK. I think there’s this perception that public radio is this scrappy, struggling outfit, and I think certain individual stations definitely are. But as a whole, public radio is one of the few areas of journalism today where the audience grows every year,” he said. “I think generally people don’t perceive public radio as that kind of powerhouse.”
In more than 30 years in the business, Glass has done it all. At 19, he interned at National Public Radio headquarters. He’s worked on several NPR news shows and held nearly every production job: tape-cutter, desk assistant, writer, editor, reporter, producer and substitute host.
Storytelling, the thing he started This American Life to do, is still his favorite.
“I like talking to people. I like having a job where I can ask anybody any question that comes into my head and they more or less answer it,” he said. “Just the basic building blocks of doing radio journalism I find really enjoyable. It’s still just really fun for me the way that it was when I was 19.”