Sunday, June 01, 2003

"One thing I like about radio is the invisibility."

This is how Ira Glass opened last night's performance of "This American Life, Live Onstage: Lost In America.," at Chicago Theatre. Then the lights came up and I got my first glimpse of the face behind the voice as they say. Ira has the most unlikely great radio-host voice, light in raspy, permanently stuck in those last moments of male puberty. A voice that doesn't need to fluctuate much to connote pain, humor, incredulity. Without revealing too much, his face matches his voice perfectly, adorably nerdy, young yet venerable, totally unembarrassed. WBEZ would make a killing producing Ira Glass stuffed dolls.

My mother got me into “This American Life” a long time ago. I think this is the way most people get into programs on Public Radio. They hear them accidentally before they really start listening to Public Radio all on their own. I’m a Public Radio addict. I started listening to it regularly when I found that I could no longer stand TV news and didn’t always have time to read the print. Whatever you might think of the bias over at NPR you can’t argue with their format. It’s news that doesn’t scream, or whoosh, or flash.

“This American Life,” really uses the format well. They pay attention the each aspect of sound, sniffs, the coughs, the sound of a car slowing to a halt in front of the house the guy from Peoria hasn't visited in fifteen years. Going to a live show loses something of this nuance because you aren’t paying attention to the sounds anymore. But I didn’t really miss it since the point was for the radio team to see the listeners and vice-versa. Ira really seems to enjoy it despite claiming to prefer “invisibility.” He sits at his mock desk, making running a radio show look more like conducting than DJ-ing.

NPR has the rather unfair reputation of being the station of old 60s lefties. Judging by the audience last night, and sporadic anecdotes I collect, a lot of Chicago listeners are pretty young; my age or not much older. Likewise the TAL staff doesn’t have a single gray head in the bunch. There’s a definite lack of racial diversity, but to their credit, their programming doesn’t reflect it.

This is the type of thing that restores my faith. It’s very easy to get caught up in being upset and only looking at the worst. Take my previous post. I got myself wound up over a pretty minor article by someone I would’ve probably never heard had I not been fishing for it. I don’t regret it and I wanted to make those points, but I don’t enjoy feeling like that. Lately I worry that some future incarnation of humanity we’ll hold this piece of history up as an example of how not to do things. I hope they find the TAL archives before writing us off completely.

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