On Stage

Turn Up Your Radio

An evening with Ira Glass


Lore goes that when public radio personality Ira Glass attended Maryland’s Milford Mill High School, he was active in a variety of extracurricular programs—among them student theater, student government and yearbook. Additionally, he was the co-editor of the school’s literary magazine.

It’s not often that people build enormously successful careers based largely on lessons they learned in the hours after school lets out for the day, but, judging by the longevity of This American Life, that’s exactly what Glass did.

Almost 20 years after the first episode aired on National Public Radio, the program continues to draw listeners in with its clever mix of education and entertainment. Whether the focus is on stories that elicit guffaws or ones that bring tears to your eyes, the aim of each one is to tell compelling tales.

Much like a theatrical production, most of the plot-driven 60-minute broadcasts are broken up into four or more acts, all related to the original theme. A glance at the first season of This American Life included episodes dubbed “Poultry Slam” (decrying the wonders of fowl, both on the farm and in the stewpot), “Christmas” (highlighting a radio play with longtime collaborator David Sedaris), and “Quitting” (wherein stories are featured about people who both quit, and didn’t quit, things they hated).

So far this season, themes have included “Good Guys,” “Stuck in the Middle,” “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” and “Bad Baby,” with subsequent acts dubbed “The Road to Badness,” “The Devil Went Down to Jersey,” “This Is Gonna Hurt Me a Lot More than it’s Gonna Hurt You,” and “We Are Fine Parents.”

For those who’ve long wondered just how these hourlong programs come together in a way that makes those sitting by their radios turn up the dial instead of turning it off, Glass will return to Bellingham Sat., May 3 at the Mount Baker Theatre to help explain the magic.

Those who attend will find out what makes a compelling story for This American Life, where Glass and the other producers find the oh-so-interesting subject matter, and how he and his staff are attempting to push broadcast journalism to do things it doesn’t typically do. (Hopefully, he’ll also talk about the 2012 kerfuffle that ensued after an episode’s subject, an actor named Mike Daisey, was found to have fabricated much of his story about conditions at an Apple factory in China.)

While you’re listening in, you might want to ponder all the ways in which Glass has taken lessons he learned in high school and incorporated them into his professional life. Sure, he may have been a drama geek with strong reasoning talents and a bent for creative writing, but he worked hard to hone those rudimentary skills into something tangible—something that people want to listen to, week after week, year after year.

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste,” Glass wrote a few years ago in the introduction to New Kings of Nonfiction. “But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.”

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