To really get to know Ira Glass, you need to meet him on the radio.
It's not just that he hosts a show that culls 1.8 million listeners weekly on more than 500 stations. Or that his nerdy-meets-cool voice is as recognizable to listeners as his name.
It's the stories that "This American Life" tells - personal stories, odd stories, aha stories - that often are so micro and timeless that most media outlets won't pursue them.
His touring take on "This American Life," which is called "Reinventing Radio: An Evening of Ira Glass," comes to the Pikes Peak Center Saturday.
Many of the stories are like this one. It's Glass talking. He's introducing an episode called "Switched at Birth," a tale of two women who find out that the hospital made a mistake and they subsequently were raised, according to a letter by one of the moms, in the wrong families.
And part of what makes it so strange is that this wasn't the sort of thing where Mrs. Miller figured this out to her surprise after decades of wondering and pondering and painstaking detective work. No, no, no. She knew it the day she got home from the hospital in 1951 - that she had the wrong baby, a baby born to a woman named Kay McDonald. And she kept it quiet all those years.
The New York Times called the stories "minor chord epiphanies." The show's website says they are "movies for radio." And the show, said the American Journalism Review, is at "the vanguard of a journalistic revolution."
Glass simply says, "A great story is a great story." And it has to be fun.
"Goony and idealistic"
If you've read anything about Glass, you'll know the legend. He started at National Public Radio in 1978 as a summer intern. He was 19. He worked on every NPR show and did about every job, including tape cutter, desk assistant, newscast writer, editor, producer and reporter.
When he finally pitched the concept for "This American Life" (then called "Your Radio Playhouse"), the old-school minds behind NPR weren't buying it. He didn't have a radio voice: His was crackly, animated and earnest in a way that implies personality, not authority. It also wasn't exactly a tried and true formula.
He ended up making a deal with Public Radio International, a competing network. Glass also picked up a $350,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, guaranteeing the show three years on the air.
It debuted in 1995 and was syndicated a year later. In a 1999 interview with the New York Times, Glass called the show's mission "goony and idealistic."
"We were applying the tools of journalism to stories that were so small and personal that journalists wouldn't have bothered with them," Glass says. "Stories about people's families, stories about feelings people have growing up, things like that."
Over the years, "This American Life" won about every major award. Glass has won the Edward R. Murrow Award for Outstanding Contributions to Public Radio and the Medal for Spoken Language from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was named best radio host in the country by Time magazine. More than 850,000 download the podcast each week. And about a half- dozen stories are being developed into films.
It was even a Showtime TV show for two seasons.
He exhales wistfully when it's mentioned. The show never culled the kinds of ratings that the radio program did, he says. It was also a challenge to translate the storytelling language of radio into words and picture. And the workload just about killed him. He asked Showtime to drop the show.
"I don't usually meet people who mention the show," he says of his reaction. "That was a response of 'Oh, look. See, it did happen.' That's what you're hearing in my voice."
The journey of a story
Here's how the program works.
Most episodes offer several stories tied together by a theme. For instance, "The Right to Remain Silent" (Sept. 27) featured two stories about people who got themselves into deep trouble because they refused to keep their mouths shut. "How I Got Into College" (Sept. 6) also taps into two stories: In one, an admissions officer talks about the dumb things students do to be accepted; the other describes how a stolen library book got one man into his dream school.
Whimsical. Funny. Sometimes profound. Always profoundly human.
Glass opens with a short prologue. Sometimes he reports a story, which means you'll hear his voice as well as those from the characters in his story. Often, though, he turns them over to staff reporters.
Finding the stories is "as disturbingly random an array as you can imagine," Glass says, adding that producers find many themselves. "And then people pitch us stories. ... Honestly, a tremendous number of the stories come to the show just from random people who emailed our website."
When the staff finds a tale they love, they invent a related theme and look for other stories that fit.
"We have to generally look at 15 to 25 story ideas and then research those and see who the characters could be and see how it could be done and how feasible it is and is it as interesting as it looked at first blush? And then we'll go into production on seven to eight stories, which means we'll send out reporters, we'll set up interviews, we'll start writing stuff and then we'll kill all but the three to four that end up on the air."
Unlike his radio persona, Glass often speaks in tumbling sentences cobbled together by "ands." He riffs on topics easily, tossing off references to William Jennings Bryant, concluding that celebrities are "disappointing in their utter ordinariness" and explaining that having groupies are like having someone try to give you a puppy ("Sure you want a puppy, but what are you going to do with one?").
"I have groupies in the public radio sense," he says. "They're very polite, glasses-wearing grown women who are happily married and shake my hand."
His one real groupie, he says, sent him homemade mittens.
Clearing the way
While it's not the first program to feature true stories, "This American Life" created a renewed focus on the true, personal story in this country.
Grass-roots programs sprang up, such as The Moth, a nationwide movement of "true stories told live," Radiolab and NPR's own Storycorp, which has recorded and archived stories of more than 88,000 people. It could be argued that Colorado Springs' own Story Project is a direct descendant of Glass' creation.
"He has both participated and was at the front edge of the revival and renaissance of the storytelling movement nationally and internationally," says Sharon Friedman, creator of the Story Project.
Craig Richardson calls Glass' show the "standard bearer" of the form, adding that it has influenced his own work as an on-air reporter for KRCC and now executive producer of that public radio station's "Off Topic." "That there's time for someone to tell a story and take that veil of cynicism off and actually relate to someone on human level? I think humans deep down have an appetite for that."
Ask Glass about his impact on American culture and he downplays its influence.
"The biggest things in the culture are still vampires, reality shows, hardheaded people yelling at each other about politics, professional sports and porn. I don't see how we've made any dent in any of that.
"I think we're more like an independent movie, but a successful one: If you like this sort of thing, you'll like our show a lot. And there's nothing confusing or hard to get or obscure or demanding to it. It's designed so that anyone can related to the stories. But most people don't even know we exist."
“REINVENTING RADIO: An evening with Ira Glass”
What: “This American Life” creator Ira Glass takes audiences behind the scenes of the show
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.
Tickets: $35-$55; 799-4139, pikespeakcenter.com
ON THE RADIO
“This American Life,” noon Saturday on KRCC 91.5 FM