Glass showcases radio days for a night at the Hop

by Christopher Moore | 10/1/01 5:00am

We all wish our lives had a theme-song -- or at least musical interludes between the serious-sounding appointments. Our wishes do not come true. For NPR personalities, however, they do.

It is surprising the positive effect background music has on spoken narration. Ira Glass, host of "This American Life (TAL)" and career public radio producer and journalist, often uses folksy Philip Glass for his monologues. Had one never heard his hour-long show -- each time a collection of stories circumscribing some theme about life as we live it -- just a moment of listening should give, however subconsciously, enough information. The folksy implies the local, and personal, and American, and beyond the Top-40 reach of big cities. The Philip Glass (relation: they're cousins) implies the new, and countercurrent, and brilliant, and urbane.

Thanks not so much to his theme song but to his enormous wit, story-telling mastery, documentary insight and wonderful radio voice, Ira Glass and his weekly program (played on Saturday and repeated on Sunday, in the Upper Valley) are big. Quite big. Spaulding Auditorium, mecca of the visual performing arts, sold out early, fans eager to watch a guy sit and talk behind a routine table of amplifiers and CD players (for the first minutes of the show he sat in darkness: what is there, after all, to see?).

A fellow in the audience, during an enlivening Q & A period at the end of the show admitted to owning seventy tapes of "TAL." Some acquaintances of mine hold "TAL" get-togethers every Sunday evening.

These acquaintances of mine, what do they do? Take a drive in the car and hit the preset button? Or sit around a radio and watch the power-meter oscillate? More closely the second: they sit on sofas and stare off into the distance, smiling at the funny points, making eye-contact at the clever ones, looking at their hands at the somber ones. Since non-commercial radio plays no commercials, they vow silence for 55 minutes: just listen, don't talk.

Like a movie, unlike a television program, in good radio passivity works. Glass's narratives, his pieces of tape, his music, his correspondents' (like David Sedaris) essays, enrapture his audience. The goal of good radio is the driveway scenario: a driver pulls up to his house, has to go to the bathroom, but can't turn off the radio. He has got to know what'll happen!

Glass' rare achievement is his understanding of stories. There are two main principles of good story telling: a sequence of events (this happened, then that happened, then this other thing happened), and a recapitulation, perhaps rather didactic, about what lesson to draw from the sequence of events. The former engenders suspense; natural curiosity about the novel drives one to wonder, as soon as several things happen, what will happen next. The latter principle seems counterintuitive: wordiness spoils the fun of drawing one's own conclusion, is antithetical to good art (should we expect an explanation of the smile at the bottom of the Mona Lisa?), and is pedantic.

Yet, Glass made his point well that, for whatever reason, humans simply get satisfaction, or relief, or affirmation out of seeing a general conclusion explicitly drawn from a well-described anecdote. Attend to a good sermon, or a good "National Geographic" story, to realize this.

Several secondary principles belong to great stories: and some of Glass' stories -- "Fiascoes," the crab-walker, the subway platform stranger, the makers of the best and worst songs -- are so great. The presence of surprise makes a story more than a pleasant thing to listen to to pass the time. The focus on characters, rather than ideas, entreats our preference for concrete rather than abstract complexity.

Glass' show, "Lies, Sissies, and Fiascoes: Notes on Making a New Kind of Radio," mirrored the structure of his radio program. n the first two and last two acts, he asked, in a way so polished it sounded as if he were coming up with the digressions and jokes on the spot, "why radio?" sampling in bits of music and interview, occasionally muttering to himself about queuing up the right tracks.

In the third act, so moving because of its lack of rehearsal, its impromptu-ness, he asked the question all media and media-watchers have wanted to ask: what do we do now? Is the world still an as endlessly fascinating, humorous, ironic, and touching place as it was 19 days ago? Talking, endlessly talking: for what end?

In one of the best recent Spaulding shows, so different from what one might have expected, maybe something out of Spaulding Gray (no relation), Ira Glass, who, by the end of the show, was literally loved by a healthy percentage of the audience, spoke about what radio can do for us.

Man, so lonely every day, so distant from other men, yearns to hear. Radio is talking, endlessly talking.

If people on the radio have the courage to ask the questions they would ask when at home or with friends -- to talk through the most intractable problems, to make sense of the gravest of situations, to hear others who live totally different lives but experience the same exact worries -- then we as listeners can have the courage to answer our own problems and situations and worries. Who knows whether radio is, somehow, the "most visual medium."

It doesn't really matter. Glass hopes it's the most I'm-chatting-with-the-most-interesting-people medium, and he may be pretty much right.