The phone call catches Ira Glass by surprise. He was waiting for a producer to answer his query: "When can you say 'pussy' on public radio? Like, if you have someone saying, 'Come and get it, pussies,' is that all right?"
Glass's guileless musings are familiar to fans of This American Life, the public-radio anthology program he writes, hosts, and produces. Glass acknowledges that the hour-long show (heard locally on WKSU-FM/89.7 on Fridays at 7 p.m. and WCPN-FM/90.3 on Saturdays at 3 p.m.) is hard to categorize.
"We have described it as 'documentaries and original fiction,'" he says. "Every word of that sounds bad." The program artfully blends contributor essays and music, centered around a personal-experience theme: fiascoes, sissies, jobs that take over your life--to name a few.
"For this to work, there has to be some moment that's astonishingly amazing, moving, and great," he explains. "A lot of it seems to be funny and sad both. It's kind of pretty that way."
Glass, 39, is a wellspring of witty anecdotes. There was the time an NBC producer courted him for a Seinfeldesque sitcom based on the making of This American Life ("something I would never do"); and the woman he dated who asked him, "Well, what do you do the other four days?"
Radio's apparent intimacy, Glass thinks, obscures its technical complexity. "We edit so aggressively. It's very painstaking--manipulating the pauses, knowing which kind of breath comes before which intonation. We want it to seem effortless."
Armed with mixing board, CD players, and tape deck, Glass will demonstrate the making of This American Life in a WKSU-sponsored live presentation Saturday. "It's an hour and a half of stand-up disguised as radio," he says.
The Baltimore-bred Glass was not one of those kids who dreamed of a broadcasting career. At nineteen, he stumbled into an internship with National Public Radio, where he rose from tape splicer to award-winning writer-producer. Ten years later, he followed his then-girlfriend to Chicago ("It seemed nice. Lots of hot dog stands.") and co-created a program called The Wild Room at WBEZ-FM, which became This American Life in 1996. The program, heard on more than 250 stations, is public radio's fastest-growing show.
"We're talking about a TV version," he reveals, "but it's unclear how that's going to happen. One certainty: Glass himself will not appear. "I think if you want to be on television, it's creepy."
"An Evening With Ira Glass" starts at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Ohio Theatre, Playhouse Square. Tickets are $15; call 216-241-6000.