Mr. Personality Mr. Personality
Issue 003

Mr. Personality

by Adam M Bright Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

February 16, 2007

Ira Glass narrates his way from radio to television.

When he first started out, Ira Glass was a good tape cutter and a bad reporter, so he spent a significant chunk of his life planted in an editing booth-a perfect place, as it turns out, to invent an entirely new style of radio. As he listened to raw tape, Glass, 47, noticed his attention being drawn to one specific pattern in all the interviews he was editing. "Somebody would be telling a real story and then periodically they'd sort of jump out of the action and say, ‘Here's some thought I have about this.'" It hooked him every time. "And I was like, well, what if you started to game that?"The result, the Peabody Award-winning radio show This American Life-still a revolution in its 12th year-has been widely credited with helping to mold the modern, conversational sound of public broadcasting. It's an eclectic program. Glass hosts each week, but the contributors vary, and the stories are only ever tangentially related. There is no set style-you may hear monologue, fiction, or interviews-though the signature pieces are a uniquely reflective kind of reportage, an amalgam of documentary, essay, and short story.Because the form and content are so diverse, the TAL aesthetic can be difficult to describe. Glass' account is as good as any: "There are characters and a plot and thingshappen and people have feelings about them and, you know, fade to black." But these characters are rarely names you'll recognize. Instead, you find yourself empathizing with people whom, under normal circumstances, you'd probably discount. It's a pleasantly humbling feeling, and it's exactly what Glass intends. "Our mission is a mission of understanding," he says. "Our ministry is a ministry of love."
There are characters and a plot and things happen and people have feelings about them and, you know, fade to black.
As host, Glass suffuses TAL with a tone that's intelligent and heartfelt at the same time-never an easy thing to do. In fact, only one other medium consistently manages to be both poignant and savvy: cable TV. "We are living through the golden age of television," says Glass. "It's happening right now. In any given week, there are honestly like five or six great things on television-and that's before you count The Daily Show."After March 22, when the TV version of This American Life premieres on Showtime, there may be one more. Glass insists that the new show will not be a corruption of the original. He will still host (he will continue the radio show, too), and he and his producers will keep telling the same sorts of stories they always have, just with images.The first episode looks, and feels, just right. It contains a story about a prize bull. It is poignant and beautiful, and every bit as difficult to describe as its radio counterparts. There is this bull, and this farmer, and his wife, and some things happen to them and you have some feelings about them and then, you know, fade to black.LEARN MORE
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Mr. Personality