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January 25, 2006

Love this life: How do they get those stories?

Like sands through the Ira Glass, you can look behind the curtain

It’s been more than 10 years since Ira Glass debuted his offbeat public radio show “This American Life,” and the seemingly ever-chipper and loquacious host — a veritable rock star in the world of public broadcasting — shows no signs of losing his enthusiasm. During a recent phone interview in advance of his visit to Louisville, he sounded exactly like the bemused narrator you hear on the radio every weekend.

For the uninitiated, the best way to begin to describe “This American Life” may be to say what it is not. It is not a newsmagazine. It is not talk radio. It is not a morning zoo. It is, simply, a show about stories. Stories largely by and about average people, arranged around a weekly theme, which prove that, yes, truth is stranger than fiction.

It’s quite likely the only show where you could hear about a guy ordering a live prawn for dinner but having second thoughts because the prawn seems to be psyching him out. Or a comedy duo that appears on Ed Sullivan’s show on the same night as the Beatles and spends the rest of their careers wondering if they sucked. Or two slacker American dudes with entrepreneurial tendencies who go to Baghdad for the adventure. And so on.

In short, by injecting a little dramatic technique — voice-over narration, plot-driven tales that unfold in an arc, strategic musical interludes and large doses of humor, pathos and poignancy — Glass and Co. have created an entertainment model by making regular folks sound profoundly interesting. That’s what he’ll talk about this weekend — he’ll show listeners, bit by bit, how he and his team of producers find and assemble the stories that make it to the air (and some that don’t).

But if he sticks to his script, chances are he won’t discuss the other big news in “This American Life” land. So LEO will. After filming a television pilot and shopping it to Showtime, just last week the cable network announced it has given the green light. Do tell, Ira.

“You know how Howard Stern did a TV show and they put cameras in his studio?” Glass says. “We’re not doing that. Basically, we’ll go out into the field and find stories that will have something to look at and film them. We went in skeptical, me and my staff, that you could create something that would have the feeling of the radio show. But we found this guy who’s a great director and they invented a style where it doesn’t look anything like a TV newsmagazine. It looks like a movie. It’s widescreen — it’s beautiful. There’s a feeling to the way they shot it that exactly matches the style of the radio show, to our surprise.”

The TV show should begin airing this fall or winter. Sounds like enough to turn Charlie Rose green with envy.

“This American Life” airs on Saturdays at 1 p.m. on WFPL-FM (with a repeat at 4 p.m. Sunday).

For more information, go to www.thislife.org.