May 10, 2013

Ira Glass will tell stories on himself at Mondavi Center event

Interviewing Ira Glass is like listening to him on the radio, only better.

Interviewing Ira Glass is like listening to him on the radio, only better.

Glass' voice on the phone from his New York office carries traces of the qualities that entrance his "This American Life" listeners: the endless curiosity, the quiet astonishment, the casual plainspokenness that's never cloying.

But Glass, 54, is funnier in conversation than he is on the radio. Being removed from the journalistic responsibility of telling other people's stories further liberates the already winning personality he exhibits on air. He laughs often, good humor bubbling beneath everything he says.

He apologizes in advance that Daniel Handler, the "Lemony Snicket" author and noted wit, will interview him onstage May 18 at the Mondavi Center and not the other way around.

"I feel like I will spend the entire evening wondering if (Handler) is the far more entertaining person, and that a great disservice is being done to the audience," Glass said. "I will secretly have a list of questions ready to deploy."

Handler, reached by phone at his home in San Francisco, said it will be clear who's interviewer and who's interviewee at the Mondavi event, during which Handler plans to focus his questions on storytelling.

"If (Glass) asks me any questions that sound like interview questions, I am just going to hit him," Handler said. "I don't think it will happen more than a few times."

Glass said he cannot turn off the interviewing instinct – even when he's the one answering questions – and that he's constantly "editing" in his head, analyzing and appraising quotes while he's talking.

It's a situation that he finds himself in often these days. The popularity of "This American Life" – a weekly news and entertainment program that reaches 1.8 million listeners through 500 radio stations and 850,000 more via downloads – has inspired frequent interviews of Glass and plentiful public appearances.

Some appearances link directly to the show, while others – such as Glass' performance last month in Philadelphia with dancers from the Monica Bill Barnes Company – do so more tangentially.

The show was "a combination of stories I tell onstage and dances they do," Glass said. "Sometimes it is just me telling a story and them doing a dance. Or it is me talking and they are dancing."

Glass danced a bit himself, showing he does not in fact have feet meant for radio. He's not sure of the school of dance from which his routine came.

"It is a dance that is easy enough that a person in his 50s, who sits on his (rear end) all day on the computer, can do," he said. "I don't know what genre you would call that."

His Mondavi appearance will be free of hoofing, but he hopes to someday tour with the dance show. When he first saw the troupe perform, he recognized an aesthetic that reminded him of "This American Life" and sought a collaboration.

He acted from the same thirst for experimentation that inspired a 2006-08 Showtime TV version of "This American Life" that won two Emmys but became too taxing for his radio staff to sustain.

"I am looking for stuff that will amuse me personally to do," Glass said. "The radio show is at its best when I and the staff are out for our own curiosity and amusement. Doing a dance show – there is no demand for that at all. That is really a pure example of 'I am doing this because it could be fun and it could be good.'

"(But) it also feels just as exciting that it looks like we are going to do another Guantánamo story (soon). I feel exactly the same feeling of excitement – 'Oh, we get to do another Guantán- amo show – we found an angle no one else is doing.' "

Whatever topics "Life" covers, host and executive producer Glass "does an excellent job of making journalism entertaining," said Jeffrey Callison, former host of "Insight" on Sacramento's Capital Public Radio.

"What they do on 'This American Life' is journalism," Callison said. "The end result of having listened to an episode is that you feel like you have learned something. (But) it is done in such an interesting way that it makes it easy for you to assimilate dense and complicated information."

The show's three-act structure emphasizes a theatrical arc that can leave listeners on the edges of their car seats. The recent episode "Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde," for example, followed the unusual story of a rural doctor convicted of murder and the (unrelated) physician with the same last name who took over his clinic. The episode combined mystery, drama and an unlikely sleuth in the replacement doctor, who became fascinated by his predecessor's case.

"We all have had the experience of arriving at our destination while listening to 'This American Life' and then sitting in the car and (still) listening to it," Handler said. "We would rather be late to something in real life than have it end."

"Life" flows more easily than most news programs but hews to the same journalistic standards. (Glass was an NPR reporter, editor and producer before starting the show in 1995.) Those standards received a public review last year when the show retracted a popular episode in which mono- loguist Mike Daisey described abuses at Chinese factories that make Apple products.

After another NPR journalist pointed out discrepancies in Daisey's story, "Life" conducted an intense audit of the segment and then devoted a whole episode to laying out the facts and fictions in Daisey's account of visiting a factory owned by an Apple supplier.

In that follow-up show, Glass grilled Daisey in a tension-packed exchange marked by uncomfortable moments of dead air. Daisey admitted certain embellishments and to misleading "Life" fact-checkers, but defended himself by saying his supposed firsthand accounts of underage workers and dangerous working conditions were compiled according to the rules of theater, not journalism.

While Glass took responsibility for the Daisey incident and worked diligently to set it straight, it was a rare misstep for his beloved show, which subsequently changed its fact-checking approach.

"We used to fact-check the way that all daily journalism had done," with the process mostly confined to a reporter and editor, Glass said. "We would spend more time on things where the allegations were more serious, where (there was a possibility) we might libel somebody. We would be very, very careful on stories where we felt like we needed to be."

Since Daisey, "we have switched to a model that is much more like New Yorker magazine," Glass aid. "We have a professional fact- checker go through every single thing that is on the show."

Even the more entertainment-oriented stories?

"Yes, sadly, for the comedians on the show," Glass said. "Like the third week we were doing this, there was this woman telling this story about her parents' divorce. The fact-checker was on the phone with each of her parents. It was very unpleasant."

The new vetting process has not altered the show's content, Glass said, since all types of stories have stood up to the fact-checker's scrutiny. Glass' sense of humor has survived the Daisey scandal, as well.

When The Bee asked Glass if he could discuss how the show changed its practices after the Daisey incident, he first responded like this:

"Wouldn't it be weird if I said 'no,' and hung up the phone?" Glass said, laughing. "Yes, I would be glad to. (But) again, I am editing your piece in my head, and thinking that would be such a better quote. But it wouldn't be true."


What: Onstage conversation with "This American Life" host Ira Glass conducted by author Daniel Handler

When: 8 p.m. May 18

Where: Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis

Cost: $58, $47, $35; subscriber add-on: $49, $40, $30; students $29, $23.50, $17.50

Information:, (866) 754-2787

Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

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