'This American Life' Goes Visual
Television is also not like radio, which uses sound to build a theater inside your mind's eye.
For all these reasons, Ira Glass has concerns about how his one-hour weekly show, "This American Life," produced by Chicago Public Radio and heard by 1.7 million listeners on more than 500 public radio stations, will translate into a half-hour TV show, premiering Thursday, March 22, on Showtime.
Created by Glass in 1995, "This American Life" presents real-life stories centered on a general theme. The TV show's six episodes do the same, but that's where much of the similarity ends.
"It's harder than I and my co-workers thought," Glass says, "in a bunch of ways. Finding stories that would work for television and yet still feel like the radio show turned out to be a huge challenge. We wanted to find stories where there were characters in situations and compelling plots, stories that would lead to big, surprising thoughts about the world. They'd have to have that then also have something really compelling to look at.
"Truthfully, we ended up pushing back our production schedule because we had trouble finding enough stories that we thought were good enough."
Fans of the radio show can judge how the two compare, but looking at just the TV version, it's quieter than most reality-based television, more wistful and sometimes almost dreamlike.
Further accenting the offbeat quality is the way that Glass' introductions are filmed. With his angular features and horn-rimmed glasses, Glass already looks different from many TV hosts. He sits behind a fairly standard TV-host desk, but it's set in unusual places, from rocky outcroppings to the desert.
"Weird things happen," Glass says. "Like, the light would be too bright behind me, lighting my ears. So they would have to put masking tape on the back of my ears, so light wouldn't penetrate them. I made them take pictures of that, because it was so weird."
He also didn't need many touch-ups with the makeup artist's powder puff.
"There wasn't that much puff. Don't know why. Partly because we were shooting outside and usually it was freezing cold, so sweat wasn't a problem."
Topics covered include a rancher who clones his prize bull only to discover that the same genes don't mean the same animal ("Reality Check," March 22), a 60-something budding screenwriter ("Growth Spurt," April 19), and an animated short about the perils of looking at life from behind a camera, even a cardboard one ("The Cameraman," April 12).
One of Glass' favorites is "God's Close-Up" (April 5), which focuses almost entirely on the story of a Utah man trying to find bearded models to pose in his series of paintings depicting the life of Jesus. Although Jesus is a fairly popular topic among the state's Mormons and others, beards have a much lower profile.
"Everybody's Mormon," Glass says, "so nobody has a beard except the outcasts and the Marxist professor in the economics department of the university. So part of it is just the comedy of watching him trying to sweet-talk people into being in a painting."
Glass feels that this story could not have worked on radio, saying, "Because so much of the story is about watching the guy make the paintings and track down the beard guys, that would just never have worked on the radio. It wouldn't be as compelling."
Similar to that is the story about the late-blooming screenwriter, who teams with a director and her neighbors at a Burbank, Calif., senior citizens residence to shoot her short film in hopes of entering it in the Sundance Film Festival.
"What makes this story so compelling," Glass says, "is partly just watching them go through the rehearsing and the casting and the filming and all the things that happen. It's nice to be there and just watch that with our cameras."
Doing the TV show has made Glass appreciate his regular job. "The radio show has never seemed easier. It has never seemed more straightforward and simple and direct and easy."
Glass has also had to readjust his expectations of success.
"We've been warned by [Showtime] that there's no way we would have an audience as large on television as we have on the radio. Apparently a successful show on Showtime has about a million people watching.
"It's weird, because when we started the process, we went through a phase as a staff of, 'Hey, it's television. It'll be huge.' Then it's like, 'Wait, we're moving from one little corner of the media universe to a slightly different little corner of the media universe,' which is, I've got to say, a nice way to do it."
In this way, television and radio are alike.
"One of the things that's nice about public radio," Glass says, "is that we don't have bosses who tell us, 'You have to do it this way or that way.' We're not answering to Clear Channel. Honestly, we're not answering to anybody but the stations that run us, and they're very supportive.
"With Showtime, we've felt the same freedom. At no point did they say, 'You must do that,' or try to nudge us one way or another."