Radio has always been an integral part of Ira Glass’s life. While growing up in Baltimore, he was advised by his father, who once worked as a radio announcer, to avoid the medium. But Glass was already hooked and began his career interning at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. when he was 19. He went on to work as a tape cutter, newscast writer, editor, reporter, producer, and host for shows such as “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.” At Brown University, he majored in semiotics, which he described to The New York Times as “a sadly pretentious body of theory about language and narrative” that “comes in handy every day.”
“This American Life” kicked off its first program in 1995 at Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ. Each episode is divided into three or four stories or acts, with distinct narrators and styles, and devoted to a single theme. The diverse topics of his show have included: “The Kindness of Strangers,” which described the generosity of strangers in New York City; “When Words Fail,” which explored the effect of deaths in families; and the humorous “Poultry Slam,” which looks every Thanksgiving at turkeys, chickens, and other fowl. “Like a collage artist who starts with carefully chosen pieces and combines them into a single image, Glass manages, through his own commentary, to connect these segments by the end of the hour. In this way, each reveals a broader layer of meaning than was apparent when it stood alone,” wrote Brown Alumni Magazine.
Originally, “This American Life” was called “Your Radio Playhouse.” However, when the show went into national distribution, Glass was asked to change the name of the show. “It was horrible. My staff and I, we generally agree on everything, and on the name there was tremendous [disagreement],” explained Glass. “The names some people would love other people would hate. I was gunning for the name “American Whatever.” ‘Cause it seemed to capture what the show was, if you looked at the content . . . On the other hand, I have come to agree that it’s a terrible name.”
“This American Life” is now heard by over 1,000,000 listeners on 324 stations nationwide. Ira Glass appeared for Seattle Arts & Lectures as a Special Event on October 28, 2000, at the 5th Avenue Theatre.
Excerpt from “This American Life,” Moving Without Moving, June 23, 2000, Episode 162
Stories of people who did not want to move but circumstance forced their hands, and so they tried to move without really moving.
Prologue. Ben Schrank describes what it’s like to work as a professional mover. He says that people often go sort of nuts when they see all their worldly possessions—all the stuff that defines them as people—packed into a van. It’s a humbling experience for people, and just one of the reasons people hate to move. The other reasons: it’s hard starting in a new place; it’s dreadful leaving an old place; and the process of -moving itself is a hardship. So today . . . we have stories of people who were forced to move—but who did not want to—and tried to thwart it. (5 minutes)
Act One. Sleeping in Mommy & Daddy’s Room. This is a story of people wanting to change and not wanting to change at all. A Minnesota family builds the same 1970’s-era suburban house three times, and moves it once, just so they don’t have to live in a house that’s different than the house that contains all their memories. Susan Burton reports. (21 minutes)
Song: The Al Cohn and Zoot Sims Quintet, “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”
Act Two. Deal of a Lifetime. Sarah Koenig tells the story of how her stepsister Rue bought a house—and moved in—but the former owner did not move out. And won’t move out, until he dies. (16 minutes)
Song: Hi Los, “Love Nest”
Act Three. To a De-luxe Apartment in the Sky. One of the producers of This American Life, Blue Chevigny, used to have a job that was all about Moving Day— and people who didn’t want to move. She worked for an agency in New York called Project Reachout, part of Goddard Riverside Community Center, that moved homeless, mentally ill people into their own homes. She tells the story of one of her favorite clients, George, and how it took him eight years to get off the streets and into his own place. Blue records his moving day. (11 minutes)
Songs: Barbara Streisand, “Gotta Move” and Parliament, “Flashlight”
Selected WorkLies, Sissies & Fiascoes: The Best Of This American Life (Radio Anthology) 1999
LinksThis American Life’s offical web siteSalon.com interviews Ira GlassIra Glass commencement speech, Graduate School of Journalism, University of California