TV: A Radio Classic Gets a Look

Last summer, the Chicago Tribune printed a peculiar story about the nationally syndicated public-radio show “This American Life.” The story wasn’t so much about the show, which has a loyal weekly following of 1.7 million listeners, so much as it was about the show’s staff and their struggles to get situated in their new home, New York City, after a decade of happy times in Chicago, where “This American Life” got its start. It contained anecdotes about braving the New York real-estate market, good-natured grumbling about cockroaches and nostalgic sighs over beloved cafes and doggy-care centers that had been left behind in the Windy City. In short, the story had no journalistic merit whatsoever. “What’s funny is, while the guy was writing it, I kept asking him, ‘Why is this a story for a newspaper?’” says Ira Glass, the geek-chic host of “This American Life,” whose clever-but-not-too-clever, folksy-but-not-too-folksy stories about ordinary Americans with extraordinary tales have spawned a whole radio genre. “That story was strange to me.” But in its way, the newspaper story was also deeply poignant. It read like a whimsical dinner conversation between friends, all sharing updates on a dear pal who’d left town for some big new adventure. It was a story about missing someone, or something. That’s what “This American Life” does to its fans: you come to think of the people behind it as your intimate friends, the ones who always have a great story to tell. And for Chicagoans, their friends had moved away.

“This American Life” moved to New York for a good reason: to turn the radio show into a television series for Showtime, which premieres tonight at 10:30 p.m. ET. (The radio show lives on; Glass has gone to great lengths to ensure fans that the TV version is a supplement, not a replacement.) The idea of adapting “This American Life” for television began seven years ago. It suffered through fits and starts, then got put aside entirely for a while. Glass and his cohorts grew determined not to do a TV show at all unless they could get it exactly right. It took a while, but they have. Like the radio version, Showtime’s “This American Life” is refreshing, original and terrifically fun. Glass spoke about how they pulled it off with NEWSWEEK’s Devin Gordon.

NEWSWEEK: What was the local response in Chicago like when you announced the plan to move to New York? Was anyone angry?
Ira Glass:
We were scared that people were gonna be mad. But it turned out to be a totally theoretical thing. I feel like our listeners are rooting for us. There is a certain amount of alarm about whether we’ll end the radio show, but we’ve said—I’ve said, very aggressively, on the air, during pledge drives, wherever—that we have no intention of ending the radio show. The radio show is actually a much bigger audience for us, a much bigger business than our television show could ever be. We’re on pay cable network, so if we get a million people, that would be great. Whereas on the radio we get 1.7 million people every week, and we’re funded for the rest of our lives. So there’s no upside to giving up this job where we have complete freedom, a big audience and funding forever—and where we know what we’re doing—for six or 10 or 15 half hours a year of TV.

I imagine there’s a pretty steep learning curve associated with moving from radio into television?
Certain things were way harder than we expected. There are the things about performing for television that are really different than performing for radio. It doesn’t seem like it would be a big deal, but for the radio show, you’re talking into a microphone that’s four or five inches from your face. And you’re talking at exactly your normal volume. There’s something very intimate about it. Whereas for television—and this may seem so obvious—the camera is really far away. [Laughs.] Like, 15 feet away. So you have speak in the same tone of voice as if you were talking to someone right next to you, but the person is actually across the room. It’s just so … odd. We did this one interview [for the TV series] with this 80-year-old woman. It was outside, and we were getting along like a charm—chatting, laughing. And then the camera goes on, and I go to my spot behind the camera, and she literally couldn’t hear me. Every question, I had to shout to her, and she had to shout back to me. Well, her whole personality changed. We went from two people having a great, friendly conversation to two people shouting each other over a wall. We ended up having to scrap everything from that interview and do it over again.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but the look of the show reminds me of Errol Morris.
We all love Errol Morris. The thing that’s inspiring about him is that he found a way to get people to talk both emotionally and reflectively on camera in a context where you’d be able to listen to them for long stretches at a time. But there are some differences between us and him. I think that Errol’s sensibility is that he tends to view people like bugs under glass. Sometimes he’ll light them in a very clinical way. Our mission is more about empathy. We’re much more touchy-feely. The only reason why most of our stories exist is because we happen to find it compelling or entertaining, and there’s often nothing else to it.

I suppose the comparison gets made a lot because the show has a very still, cinematic feel, with every shot looking carefully composed.
That was a huge thing to figure out. It took a really long time. We went to Burbank to film one of our first stories—this story about a movie production in a retirement home—and our director of photography, Adam Beckman, and our director, Chris Wilcha, both had handheld cameras and they shot all this stuff. And when they looked at the footage, they hated it. Just completely hated it. It looked like everything else on TV.

We figured out that we’ve got to have pictures that function the way music functions on the radio show. Which is to amplify the feeling of something. So Adam and Chris decided on this look where it wouldn’t be shot like a reality show and not like a newsmagazine show—and not like a usual documentary where there’s a lot of handheld stuff. We decided to shoot it like a movie. The camera is on a tripod. The frame is very still, and people walk in and out of it. It’s widescreen. It’s beautifully lit. So when great moments happen, you can just live in the world and take it in.

My favorite new element in the show is how it opens: you sitting behind the classic, TV-host desk, but the backdrop is always some vast, picturesque expanse. It really evokes the spirit of the radio show. How did that idea come about?
That came out of one of the hardest and longest discussions we had about the show, which was, should I appear onscreen at all? For a long time, Chris and the rest of the staff were convinced that you should never see me. And truthfully, I would’ve preferred that you don’t see me because … well, basically because I didn’t want to be on TV.

What were your reservations about it?
My reservations were, I’m in my late 40s. [Laughs.] I feel like seeing people who are on the radio almost never works out for the person on the radio. Like, seeing Howard [Stern] or Rush [Limbaugh] or any of us—you lose a certain mythic power once you stop being a voice on the radio and you start being a specific person with a specific haircut. And usually if you’re a radio person, it’s not a very well-conceived haircut. That’s why you got into radio in the first place. There just seemed like a lot of downsides and no real upside. I have a job. I don’t need to be famous. I don’t need to get girls—I’m married.

So how did you end up onscreen?
Well, the network very much wanted it. They maintained all along that I’m the product, basically. They kept saying, "Your picture is going to be in the ads, and that’s that." And I actually agree with them. There is a power to not seeing the narrator—just aesthetically, it would be a really nervy choice. But on the other hand, to me, it seemed very artsy to do it that way. And the radio show is really friendly. It’s not an artsy show. It’s all about, "Come here, I wanna tell you this really cool thing." So if it’s going to be that friendly and it’s going to be on television, you have to see me.

So then it becomes a question of how do you see me? What’s hard is that everything has been done. If you put me in a black void, it’s like Charlie Rose. You could film me in my real office, but that’s what they do with that guy on “60 Minutes.” Or you could do it like Rod Serling, where at the very end I walk on the set, cross my arms and nod meaningfully at the camera. That was my favorite idea, but that’s been done, too. Then one day, Chris said to me, “OK, when you get a show on TV, what do they give you? They give you a desk. Letterman’s got a desk. Leno’s got a desk. Jon Stewart’s got a desk. We’re getting you a desk. But it’s not gonna be a desk in a studio. The desk goes anywhere. It’ll be you and the desk in some beautiful panorama, but you’re never gonna refer to the fact that you’re on the side of a mountain or in a parking garage. It’s just gonna be there.” There was something about it that seemed, to us, both ridiculous and visually arresting. It’s about the conventions of television while not adhering to those conventions. It just seemed new.

But now, as a result, your face is all over the place.
I know. I’m entering this three-month period during which I will be photographed more than at any other time in my life. It’s like every day is my bar mitzvah.