Fiddler on the Roof changed Ira Glass's life. Growing up in Lochearn, the self-described "theater dork" attended nearly every production of the hit musical that made it to Baltimore. "My mom used to take my sisters and me to the musicals at Painters Mill Music Fair, or the Mechanic," recalls Glass. "Because there are so many Jews in Baltimore, some production of Fiddler on the Roof would come through every year."
And it made quite an impression. "The aesthetics of Fiddler on the Roof are really powerful," says Glass, who studied semiotics at Brown after graduating from Milford Mill High. "It's not rarified at all, and it's designed so that anybody could like it. It's a character-based drama, with characters you care about. It's funny at the beginning, but then it feels like it's about something big, grand, and sad. It totally hooks you in, so you're kind of stuck, and you're there for the whole ride."
Sound familiar? It pretty much set the template for This American Life, Glass's immensely popular radio show, which crossed over to Showtime and won a pair of Emmys last year. "Looking at the work I've done," says Glass, "I've been trying to make stories that have the same feelings I got from Fiddler on the Roof at Painters Mill Music Fair. Until I figured out how to do that, I wasn't happy."
After an unsatisfying stint in straight journalism at National Public Radio (NPR), Glass, 50, got his Fiddler on with This American Life, which he's hosted since 1995. "It was clear from the beginning that he was hip, alert, and in love with radio," says NPR's Susan Stamberg. "Once he left the news department, he not only found the appropriate playground—he reinvented it. This American Life is a magnetic radio confessional, in which personal experience achieves the level of the best literature."
Airing on more than 500 public radio stations and attracting nearly two million listeners, the show centers on a different theme each week and features ordinary people talking about extraordinary facets of everyday life. Like its nerdy host, its charms are wondrous, not folksy; its laughs are chuckled, not guffawed; and its world-view is sincere, not condescending. Its pitch perfect tone allows for the sort of riveting silences that have almost completely vanished from mainstream media. Glass understands that silence, set up properly, isn't dead air; it's actually charged with anticipation.
Silences also punctuate his conversation. Ask Glass about growing up in Baltimore, and he pauses a few moments. "I thought of it as a boring suburban place when I was a kid," he says. "I wanted to get away and go someplace more exciting. In retrospect, I realize how interesting and eccentric it was."
Ask him about relocating to New York after more than a decade in Chicago, and it's an even longer pause. "In New York, I don't feel like I'm living in the United States of America," says Glass. "Just the fact that you don't get to drive anywhere means you must not be living in this country. And you can get food of any nationality delivered to your home any hour of the day or night, which is a crazy miracle."
Another perk was getting to know his cousin, Philip—yes, that Philip Glass, the world famous composer. "He left Baltimore for New York when I was really young, so I'd never been that close to him," he says. "Now, I see him a lot and feel like I really know him. He's the greatest."
But ask Glass about his favorite radio show, and there's no hesitation. "Howard Stern," he says.
Glass says Stern's show is happily anarchic and not the crude, tasteless spectacle some folks perceive it to be. It's a surprising endorsement, until you consider that Glass got his start in radio writing jokes for Baltimore's pioneering shock jock, WFBR's Johnny Walker. "When I was a senior in high school, I thought, 'What would be the most exciting job a person could possibly get?'" recalls Glass. "And it would be to write jokes for Johnny Walker. It seemed to me like he had the greatest job, and his show was so much different than anything else on the radio. It was big, cluttered, and noisy, with lots of little music stingers, crowd sounds, and even a laugh track."
Glass wrote to Walker, who was impressed by the jokes enclosed in the letter. "So I would bring him 30 jokes a day," says Glass. "They were mostly topical things."
Sample joke: "The Maryland State Fair had just gone up that week in Timonium," says Glass, "and I had this joke built around the premise that there was a ball toss, and that Renée Richards—she was an early sex change—was there, and it used to be three balls for 25 cents. But now, it's no balls for something like $1,400."
Another long silence. "Yeah."
"Looking back on it, I think I was a little bit of a charity case," says Glass. "And if you look at my radio show, it is exactly the opposite of his show.
"But the notion of wanting to pierce through the clutter of everything else on the radio. That's the thing that I carried forward from Johnny Walker."
Ira Glass returns to Baltimore on October 10 for a talk at MICA's Brown Center.