By DAVID WILEZOL
Eagle Contributing Writer
Radio is light years removed from its heyday of the 1930s, when Orson Wells once convinced droves of citizens that an alien invasion was taking place in suburban New Jersey. When people mention the glory days of radio, many think of Frankie furiously trying to decode the Ovaltine message in “A Christmas Story.” But radio today has connotations of pre-programmed, soulless music playlists designed to meet the immediate taste of a fickle public. The shows with the biggest ratings often feature the biggest talkers.
But the show that has made the biggest (radio) waves in the last 10 years has been a show conceived by the greatest listeners. “This American Life” is an hour-long program, which airs weekly on over 500 PRI stations nationwide. The focus is found in the name. TAL wants to literally know about this American life, and whatever aspect or event, however insignificant, is happening to it. Pieces on the military, dish detergent, diners and their personal significance in our lives are standard fare.
TAL is the baby of one Ira Glass, an eccentric knobophile. He’s one part Edward R. Murrow and one part Steve Martin. Glass, dapperly dressed in a gray suit and gold tie, hosted an event best described as a college lecture with the energy of a Metallica concert. Speaking to a packed GWU Lisner Auditorium Nov. 19, Glass easily demonstrated the personal charm, intelligence and performing savvy that propelled his show to such paramount success. He kept the audience eating out of his hand, knew which lines would serve as bait for the biggest laughter and parlayed rambling thoughts into a tidy, improvised conclusion. When the evening’s crescendo passed, he gracefully left the stage and left each listener reverently digesting his every sage word.
Glass discussed the role that personal stories have in our culture in an era in which TV news broadcasts become capsulated, diluted methods of transmitting information. He culled and rebroadcast some of the most profound TAL stories (like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11) and some of the most anecdotal (one tale featured a man, sans glasses, teasing a midget intern for being short because he mistook her for a child of one of his employees). Glass fondly recalled his first days of working at NPR and his other journalistic endeavors.
Most pride-inducing of all his accomplishments, Glass noted, was not that he has been approached with a TV offer, nor his 1.5 million weekly listeners, nor his Peabody award. It was that the average listener spends 48 minutes each week listening to TAL. This, he noted, was the human imagination letting itself run wild to drudge up emotional connections to his work. Because one cannot see the storyteller and because each show is framed with musical selections (often ambient, reflective pieces), it engages the listener to the point of no return. In other words, it’s not boring. If readers ever have an hour to kill on a Saturday afternoon and a full tank of gas, they should tune in to TAL and just cruise around life while listening to someone else’s.
Glass has perfected a way to broadcast those moments where the light bulb goes off, hearts break and voices crack, and does it all with an enthusiasm for entertaining that only someone who loves their work can have.