Eye-Opening Radio: 'This American Life' Moves to Television

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 4, 2007

A cardinal rule of American life: Nobody says no to television. Even those who take pride in not watching TV -- those who consider the form evil -- hop to when a producer calls to ask, "Could you cancel that vacation and join us for three minutes at 1:30 a.m.?"

At "This American Life," the public radio show that Ira Glass created to pose an edgy, younger counterpoint to the gently settled sound of National Public Radio's newsmagazines, TV was viewed with disdain -- as an element of American artifice, a temple built by and for money, with only the most tangential relationship to reality.

Then TV came calling, and Glass, who had lured back to radio-listening many members of a generation that had largely given up on the medium, struggled.

He doesn't actually watch TV, he told me a few years ago. On Glass's radio show, the stories are about people whose lives don't generally qualify for coverage on TV. "You can just feel the money on TV, the huge apparatus," Glass said back then.

But Glass, who grew up in Baltimore and until recently did his radio show from Chicago, allowed himself to be drawn into TV's New York-Hollywood sensibilities. He was genuinely, deeply curious about how his uniquely aural show -- a mix of reported pieces that don't sound like news stories, and memoirs that feel more like a friend's phone confessions than any formal performance -- might translate onto the home screen.

"This American Life," the TV show, premieres March 19 on Showtime. The concept is the same as the radio program, which airs Saturdays at noon on WAMU (88.5 FM). In both media, Glass seeks stories with "a character and a narrative that has to lead to some thought about the world." Plus this: "For TV, add this crushingly difficult criterion that it has to be very interesting to look at."

The TV stories -- there are generally two or three per half-hour show -- are very much of the kind that populate the radio show: A Texas rancher tells the story of his passion for his pet bull, which he loves even after the animal gores him. Elderly folks in Burbank, Calif., make a movie and learn that they can do something entirely new even when they are old. A Mormon artist recruits hobos and street people to pose for him because they're the only people he can find in Utah with the beards he needs in his paintings of Bible scenes.

But while the stories Glass tells on TV seem very much like the ones he's been spinning on radio for more than a decade, the truth in the tales sometimes comes out differently on the screen.

For example, the pet bull story, which Glass produced versions of for both radio and TV. In both cases, the great revelation is the persistence of man's love for an animal that has severely injured him. But on TV, in an interview from his hospital bed, the rancher, Ralph Fisher, delivers a startlingly brave speech about how he plans to get back out there with Chance, his bull. And then, as Glass notes, "You see this naked moment of vulnerability," a blend of fear, resignation and determination that might not come across on the radio.

"TV adds artifice," Glass says. "You need way more people, way more gear. When I'm behind the camera, sometimes I'm 15 feet away from the person I'm interviewing and that's really weird. But you can either harness that artifice for good or evil."

"This American Life," or "TAL," appeared on the radio at the very beginning of the popular uprising against traditional media hierarchy, against the notion that reporters, editors and producers were legitimate clergy in some church of information. Glass's show rebelled against the definition of news as something committed by stodgy executives and politicians in suits. The show rejected the ruling ideas about production values that smoothed over the edges of real life. On "TAL," Glass and his fellow storytellers accentuated the sounds radio producers usually edit out -- smacking lips, hesitations, stutters, a hard swallow, an involuntary sigh.

Jump to TV, and the rules change. "I was very skeptical," Glass says. "It just wasn't clear that we could create something that had the feeling of the radio show -- the pacing, the writing. The radio show depends so much on the invisibility of radio." What on radio was the expression of a single personality, of Glass's adenoidal, defiantly un-announcer voice, now had to conform to the collaborative nature of television. "We don't run the machines for the video editing," Glass explains.

So there had to be a director, Christopher Wilcha, whose background was in promos and short films for MTV, PBS and TV Land, and a cinematographer, Adam Beckman. Together, they created a look that draws from Errol Morris, Frederick Wiseman and other great documentarians of the 1970s and '80s, along with a bit of Monty Python.

The TV version is designed to let characters reveal themselves as they do on the radio, by talking, at length. To make that palatable and even riveting on TV, the director called for pictures that are more formal than most TV, using wide shots, very pretty landscapes and a staged, posed aesthetic.

That sensibility is evident from the top of the show, when Glass, 48, appears sitting at an old-fashioned anchor desk that has been trucked to the location of the story. There's the anti-anchor, dressed in a suit, sitting at a desk in the middle of a cow pasture or in the Utah salt beds.

"None of us had seen the Monty Python," Glass says, referring to a famous comedy bit in which John Cleese, spoofing overly formal BBC announcers, appeared as a news anchor seated behind a desk that was being trucked along a busy motorway, or on a residential street. "We were very, very profoundly disappointed to learn that they had already done it."

The disembodied desk was a compromise, a way to settle an argument between the radio people, who wanted Glass to remain unseen, and the TV people, who thought it just batty to have an anchor with no face.

Showtime is happy enough with the first batch of programs that a second season is in the offing. That means fans of the radio program might have to sit through more reruns; to carve out time to make the TV show, Glass and company cut the number of radio hours they produced from 30 to about 18 last year.

There are still many stories Glass says just won't work on TV, such as one about Congress that he abandoned as a TV project because he couldn't get access for the cameras to reach places where members of Congress were letting down their hair, while the same subject felt personal and revelatory on the radio.

"Television cannot beat the intimacy of radio, like a chatty person coming on and just telling a story," Glass says. "But I was naive. I had thought of the pictures on TV as illustration, like the music on the radio. But in one shot, you can totally see a character just through his face."

Still, Glass wouldn't for a moment consider dropping radio.

"Radio is just an easier form of self-expression for me," he says. "I like editing myself. I like writing for radio. To do just TV would be like giving up a job I'm good at for one that I'm okay at."

This American Life will air Thursday nights at 10:30 on Showtime, following its March 19 premiere.

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