Ira Glass ranks right up there with Woody Guthrie and Studs Turkel among the chroniclers of American lives. The very name of his Chicago public radio show, “This American Life,” conveys his simple belief that interesting human stories, told well, are the best entertainment.
Glass is having a huge moment right now. He’s taking This American Life and his passion for interesting stories to television with a new program and weekly slot on Showtime. (tagline: “Funny. Dramatic. Surprising. True.”) With the effort it seems possible he could bring a revolution to TV voice-over and personality of the sort he visited on radio (read: understated to a fault), and could perhaps even return a small degree of artfulness to the reality meme, trashed long ago and in successively greater measures by Real World, Survivor, My Super Sweet 16 and The Real Housewives of Orange County.
His embrace of the boob tube has inspired some and angered others (One fan shouted “Judas!” when Glass recently discussed the project in front of a live audience). The effort has garnered lots of attention, including multiple stories in The New York Times this week. If television really is in the midst of a Golden Age, and if pop culture is going to continue to meld with the rising tide of personal media, then we’re going to need more alchemists. And the creator of This American Life is nothing if not an alchemist.
The thing about Ira Glass though: some people love him and others don’t. His nasally voice—faltering yet incisive, whimsical yet calculated—has been widely imitated by hundreds of young public radio aspirants, and these days sounds a little rote. (I should say it sounds rote to me, longtime listener that I am. And now, whenever I hear any radio program where the young host pauses frequently, lingers wryly on a thought which may or may not be meaningful, and seems to be working through a complex intellectual process on the spot despite the fact that the SCRIPT IS RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF HIM, I just think, well, this is the new hegemony. Being uncontrived is now a contrivance. Another possible criticism is that Glass insinuates himself overly much on his subjects’ stories (Even NYT’s Heffernan bites: “Only one person really has a story to tell here.”) Still and despite all, Glass belongs in SMITH’s Book of Saints. And so he is. See? Entry 24: Glass, Ira. Right there between Geldof, Bob and Gore, Al.