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Ira Glass: Radio storyteller for a generation


Ira Glass had spent a good part of the day listening to the voice of the departed.

His friend, author David Rakoff – who, like essayist David Sedaris, built a career from early and continued exposure on Glass’ acclaimed radio program, “This American Life” – had passed away just days before.

Cancer. Glass knew it was coming. But still.

“I am sitting at my desk listening to old stories and crying,” Glass said, on the phone from his home in New York City. “And I am not even someone who cries at stuff. I am not used to having so many feelings.”

His voice is smart and familiar, the genius behind “This American Life,” the unofficial soundtrack of late baby boomers and beyond. The weekly public-radio show is broadcast on more than 500 stations to about 1.8 million listeners. Locally, it airs at 1 p.m. Sundays on Northeast Indiana Public Radio.

Glass, 53, also tours with his stage show, “Reinventing Radio,” explaining how “TAL” is put together; how and why stories are chosen and where they are found. He will tell stories, play clips from the show – basically be in the same room as his listeners as they are listening to the show.

“On the radio, it’s a much more solitary experience,” he says. “We finish the show and say, ‘That was a great one, OK, that’s it, the night is over.’ We don’t even go out drinking because we’re all so old. There’s no celebration moment.

“So it’s nice to be there. You know if something works.”

If Glass wasn’t real, he might be someone Aaron Sorkin would conjure up: an overly observant, fast-moving quip machine, cynical and heartfelt and funny all at once.

Not so funny was Glass’ experience with Seattle playwright Mike Daisey, whose “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” a monologue about Apple’s supply chain that aired on “TAL,” turned out to have significant fabrications.

Glass devoted an entire “TAL” episode to scrubbing the show clean of Daisey’s transgressions.

Glass said people always ask whether the show has changed because of the Daisey drama.

“We have always been fairly aggressive with fact-checking, but less so with the personal story,” Glass said. “We didn’t hold (Daisey’s story) to the same standard. This person is a comedian, a performer and just up there for fun.”

Now, Glass pays fact-checkers to verify everything.

Even David Sedaris, with his crazy family and perverted cabdrivers and toilet-flushing debacles at parties?

“With Sedaris, we don’t know what to do as a staff,” Glass said. “I never believe his stories are 100 percent true. They are written to be funny. You ask him if they’re true and he says, ‘True enough for you.’

Glass also has the film “Sleepwalk with Me” opening nationwide in early September.

The movie – on which he collaborated with comedian, actor and “TAL” regular Mike Birbiglia – is about a bartender who, anxious about his career and relationship, starts acting out his dreams in his sleep. It was designed to feel like a story from the radio show, performed by actors.

“I feel like I am getting to do things I didn’t have dreams of doing,” he said. “My dreams stopped at, well, maybe I would get to do my radio show for a couple of years.”