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Broadcasting With Bite

by John Rodat on December 6, 2012 · 1 comment

Reinventing Radio: An Evening with Ira Glass
Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Dec. 1


The audience at Ira Glass’s presentation/performance was, evidently, very familiar with the NPR producer and host’s long-running program This American Life: During both of the evening’s question-and-answer periods (Why two? More on that later), they quizzed him on the details of specific episodes, asked where they could find individual shows they missed, and generally displayed a broad knowledge of Glass and his colleagues’ work.

So, it would be fair to wonder how these fans felt about the deviations from format: the blue language, the fainting audience members, the . . . balloon animals.

Glass opened the show in a manner contrived to foster easy recognition, taking the stage in darkness as a disembodied but well-known—unmistakable to the initiated—voice. Wielding an iPad as a remote control for various audio clips and backgrounds, Glass recreated the easygoing focus of This American Life. If you, like a very few (by show of hands) members of the audience, are unfamiliar with it, This American Life is a radio show of journalistic storytelling with a strong emphasis on the faces behind the facts. Though the program often explores current events, it is not, strictly speaking, intended to convey merely data. Rather, it’s a kind of narrative humanism, using reportorial techniques to tease out compelling and cohesive stories from the circumstances of a species on the ground.

When the lights came up, they revealed a suit-and-tied, salt-and-peppered, bespectacled but still distinctly boyish host—and that boyishness held sway. Glass, in his early 50s now, still projects an air of precocious, youthful vitality. He is both erudite and enjoyable geeky: He spoke comfortably about both French semiotician Roland Barthes and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (season 3, to be exact). Perhaps more surprisingly, though, he also joked comfortably about hysterically botched attempts at censorship (an editor responsible for bleeping out the word “cocksucker” missed a beat and deleted the word that followed. The reaction from on high was a single phone call asking, “What could possibly have been worse than ‘cocksucker’?!”); and he recounted the assurance he offered a young woman who wanted to know how to phrase her desire to give her crush a blowjob: “Don’t worry: The message will be well received.”

Throughout, Glass was energetic and enthusiastic; his love for what he does and his belief in the importance and power of story always a palpable force. And if we, the audience, needed any convincing, we were served a double dose:

Glass read from e-mail reactions to a story about a shark-attack survivor, the medical details of which were so affecting to listeners that, they said, they were sickened themselves. One drove himself off the road while listening in his car, and was awakened by an EMT, the broadcast still “blasting.” Telling the story, Glass laughed at the vision of NPR—rather than, say, Jay-Z—blaring from speakers. He believes, surely, in story but seems to take his own power with a grain of salt. And then the guy in the Music Hall audience collapsed.

The show came to a brief halt, long enough for the first Q&A, while professionals attended to the man. (He’ll be fine.) Now, whether the ailment was entirely coincidental or straight-up cause-and-effect attached to a somewhat graphic story, I don’t know. But don’t expect to hear that story the next time Glass comes through. You’ll have to find it in the archives. It was, at any rate, however accidentally, a fitting hospital-bedside touch that Glass twisted up a pink balloon poodle for an audience member celebrating a birthday, at show’s end.

The presentation was advertised as “Reinventing Radio.” It’s as good as another, I suppose, but somewhat misleading. Glass didn’t talk so much about the definition of radio as a medium or an enterprise, per se, as he expressed its fitness for his real interest: deriving meaning from incident. The emotional immediacy of radio—an immediacy, he pointed out, shared by the Internet—is notable for its ability to serve, to serve and share, the story.


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