This cable life
IRA GLASS, a friendly gray man in a gray suit and gray tie, looked equally pleased and alarmed on a recent evening at UCLA’s Royce Hall where he was surrounded by a swarm of die-hard fans. The mostly middle-age devotees had attended a panel on his new venture, a television adaptation of his popular public radio show “This American Life,” which will premiere Thursday on Showtime.
But they didn’t want to talk about TV. Instead, they pressed in to tell him how the radio show had changed their lives, or assure him, as if he needed to hear it, that his work was really important.
Still, the Los Angeles audience had seemed more accepting of his foray into TV land during Glass’ live performance at Royce. OK, not exactly enthusiastic, but at least no one yelled “Judas” as did one ardent fan in Minnesota. Change doesn’t sit well with the public radio crowd.
“I think I didn’t understand how much of the public radio audience is comprised of people who haven’t caught up with the fact that television has changed in the last 20 years,” Glass said later over the phone, in his instantly recognizable hip, arrhythmic urban drawl. “They had no reason to turn on a TV, and they never did. They have a very old school feeling that television is the cause of our national problems. Everything from kids getting chubbier and people being more materialistic to presidents being elected they don’t personally approve of.”
These folks prefer the theater of the mind as presented in “This American Life,” a collection of themed interviews, produced and hosted by Glass, that elevates ordinary people’s lives and thoughts to the level of a three-act play.
Showtime approached Glass with the idea of translating his show into television terms in 2002. “Ira Glass is a master of this genre,” said Bob Greenblatt, Showtime’s president of entertainment. “He’s sort of an institution, a kind of rock star of the intelligent set.” An unscripted show based on “TAL,” as it’s known, could expand the network’s already eclectic original programming (“Dexter,” whose hero is a serial killer; “Weeds,” whose heroine is a suburban pot dealer) and hopefully interest a new group of viewers to Showtime, he said.
The transition from radio to television or film is full of terrible failures and quasi-successes, such as Rush Limbaugh and Rick Dees, said Michael Harrison, editor of the radio industry magazine Talker. “TV and radio are different media in many ways,” he said. Still, some personalities have a multimedia talent that can work across the board, such as Sean Hannity, Larry King or, back in the day, Arthur Godfrey. Judging from Glass’ “talent and smarts,” he said, “there’s no reason why it might not be successful.”
Still, Glass, 49, didn’t rush in. The bad example that came to his mind was Howard Stern, the shock jock who made an ill-fated foray into TV.
“As a Howard fan, I was concerned it would ruin the show,” Glass said. “In the same way, there’s something about our show that is so deeply embedded with all the feelings and things you can only do on radio that the notion we would leave radio is like a betrayal of one of the premises of what we do.”
But Showtime persisted, putting together a team that included Christine Vachon (the force behind many independent movies, including “Far From Heaven”) as executive producer and Chris Wilcha (“The Target Shoots First”) as director and co-executive producer. Glass, who co-wrote the film “Urban Tribes” and executive produced “Unaccompanied Minors,” decided to give it a try.
The result is a six-part, half-hour series about dreams, faith, innovation and catharsis, using stories about pet bulls, a son making a documentary on his mother, a 14-year-old’s view of love, a famous Chicago hot dog stand, religious artists and more.
The challenge was to translate the radio show’s dreamlike sensibility, witty, wistful observations and humorous digressions into visuals. Glass, who has produced public radio for the last 29 years, said he has relied on the basic broadcast guideline: “You go out and get people to say stuff, and you notice the good parts, and then you put those parts on the air.”
More than half the series was shot before he realized it wasn’t going to be that simple in television.
“An image is such a blunt instrument,” he said. “It’s so weirdly literal and symbolic at the same time. I’m looking at a 14-year-old girl, but she’s also a symbol for what it was like to be 14 -- in a girl. The radio has nothing like that. The radio exists in a dream already. You are conjuring the images in your head.”
One solution was to make images more “impressionistic” or tweaking the standard image of a television show host, he said. For instance, it was decided to let Glass introduce the show as he does on radio, at a traditional desk -- complete with microphone and coffee mug. But each week, the desk appears in a different landscape: the Rockies, say, or a neighborhood next to a nuclear power plant.
In the segment on a 14-year-old boy, who articulately defends his intention never, ever, to fall in love, the atmosphere of junior high is evoked through a slow motion shot of his classmates that highlights the pseudo-sophistication of the girls, and the smaller, scruffy, mystified boys. The kids are also interviewed in a flower field next to the school. “The field makes them look very innocent,” Glass said, waxing a bit lyrical. “It’s springtime. They are budding flowers....”
In that case, the visual meaning was a total accident, he said. “We just thought, ‘We can’t shoot another interior in this school.’ ”
Glass believes the episodes became funnier about halfway through the series as the crew became more relaxed. The junior high episode was the first one “where it felt that everything was happening in an organic way, where the interviews felt exactly like one of our radio interviews with all the little moments, pleasing digressions and funny character moments to discover along the way.”
Considering that “TAL’s” core audience may be hostile to television, it’s unclear who the audience for the show will be. “This American Life,” distributed by Public Radio International, typically draws 1.7 million listeners each week. It is one of the most popular podcasts on iTunes. “Dexter’s” first-season finale drew 1.1 million viewers, Showtime’s largest audience for an original series in years.
Glass is hoping the show will attract both camps. “There are nice things about TV that fans of our show would adore and vice versa. If Showtime viewers like the show, hopefully some of them will migrate over and check out the public radio station.”
Though his face now appears in magazines and billboards to promote the show, Glass rejects the notion of becoming a television celebrity.
“We’ve had a great experience. I would do it again in a second. I would recommend it to anybody,” he said. “But they’re a much smaller TV network than the radio network we work for and our audience will be half on television what it is on radio.
“Being on public radio, we’re a sideshow to the main culture. And going on Showtime, we’re going to another little pond....”
And that’s the way, he -- like his most ardent fans -- likes it. “I don’t want to meet famous people,” he said. “It makes me really nervous.”