He forgot to say, “I’m Ira Glass.” Down-lit from above, seated and surrounded by audio gear, Glass sports Clark Kent-style glasses, a checkered shirt and curly graying hair. He adjusts his headphones, says, “Stand by,” then launches into the show’s prologue, concluding with “WBEZ, Chicago, This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International.”
The fact that anyone knows he almost always tags the end of that phrase with, “I’m Ira Glass” is evidence enough of This American Life’s cult-fetishist following—and reason enough to attend a live Sept. 12 broadcast fed to more than 400 public-radio stations for about 1.4 million listeners. The show is to writers what Saturday Night Live is to comics. Two writers from the show—Sarah Vowell and David Rakoff—will read their work at Kingsbury Hall.
More than just a constant voice over radio airwaves for 25 years, broadcast-journalism legend Glass reported for Talk of the Nation and All Things Considered. Since his brainchild TAL went on the air in 1995, The New York Times, Vogue, Entertainment Weekly and Time have featured Glass. He’s also launched a few careers: Vowell, Rakoff, David Sedaris and Salt Lake City resident Scott Carrier contribute regularly. Divided into four acts, the show’s theme encompasses audio clips, live interviews and radio reporting, while featuring personal, creative nonfiction or essays.
As Vowell put it, describing national parks “always sounds so hack.” Likewise, labeling Vowell and Rakoff “funny” does injustice. Pick up their books or upload TAL files from www.thislife.org to “be there.”
Both writers have postmodern pastiche and a knack for relaying strange happenings. A characteristic Vowell piece, for example, concludes a visit to a Salem, Mass., witch tourist trap with the realization that a Starbucks’ mocha represents “imperialism, genocide, invention and consumerism served with whipped cream on top.” In another story from The Partly Cloudy Patriot, she compares the 2000 Gore-Bush presidential election to Revenge of the Nerds: Nerds vs. Jocks.
“Sarah has staked out this territory of writing about history and patriotism in this way that you don’t see many young people do,” said Glass. “Not many people who are under 50 are that interested in writing about the idea of America.”
As contributing editor for TAL, Vowell works on everything from self-described “puff” pieces to hourlong documentaries.
“[TAL] really changed my life,” Vowell said. “I’ve been working for the show for seven years. And before I met Ira, I was a writer, and I had a nice little career getting started as a critic. I’d write about music, movies, books [for San Francisco Weekly], and that’s all I ever wanted to do. And that’s all I knew how to do.”
She met Glass by writing a story about radio. She then wrote a few music stories for radio, and found that she liked to play songs with her stories. The rest is history: three books, a speaking tour and a David Letterman appearance. She now lives in New York City and contributes to Esquire, GQ, Village Voice and Spin.
That’s not to say she has it easy. Vowell recalls one TAL story she wrote that saw 23 drafts.
Rakoff agrees the editorial process is meticulous and painstaking. He began writing for TAL after his fan letter to David Sedaris revealed the two were neighbors. “He lived at number 64, I lived in 32,” Rakoff said.
After getting his start on TAL, Rakoff wrote for The New York Times Magazine, Outside and Harper’s Bazaar, as well as published a book, Fraud.
Rakoff’s humor comes from placing himself in oddball situations—like climbing a New Hampshire mountain with diehard outdoorsmen, while admitting he’s a tried-and-true, gay New Yorker who hates the outdoors. In another story, he infiltrates a Steven Seagal-led Tibetan Buddhist seminar to bring dirt home to readers.
“He’s just amazingly funny,” said Glass. “His stories are surprisingly emotional for funny stories. A lot of people who write funny stories can’t make them emotional.”
Glass, in a recent show themed “jobs that take over your life,” admitted TAL had taken over his life. While that may be true, he’s ushered in a new genre of writing—“a kind of feature story,” he said. “But because it’s applying the tools of journalism to such personal stuff, it’s, like, so far into the world of feature reporting that it’s almost somewhere else.”