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John Lamb, Published August 14 2013

Venue changed for Ira Glass radio show in Fargo

FARGO - Asked if he ever thought his show “This American Life” would get so big he would bring it to Fargo-Moorhead, Ira Glass offers the nervous laugh with which public radio listeners are so familiar.

He paraphrases his cousin, the celebrated contemporary composer Philip Glass: “Playing New York, San Francisco and Chicago, you’re not big. You’re really big when you’re playing Fargo-Moorhead. When they want you in the small market, that’s when you know you’ve made it.”

Glass and his radio show “made it” shortly after its debut on Public Radio International 18 years ago, winning legions of fans, a handful of awards and a place in pop culture.

The host talks about and plays clips from the show in a program called “Reinventing Radio” Saturday at the Fargo Theatre.

“Truthfully, I feel like I’d be more at home in Fargo-Moorhead than some of the other places I’ve played,” he says.

Glass visited Fargo 20-some years ago while he was still a producer for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” accompanying economics reporter John Ydstie, a native of Wolford, N.D.

Glass describes “Reinventing Radio” in the familiar, stilted pattern he introduces “This American Life.”

“I stand on stage. I have an iPad. On the iPad, I have clips from the show and quotes and music and ambient sound and basically it’s a combination of me talking about the radio show and greatest hits or very funny moments or very especially emotional moments from the show.”

It not only summarizes his upcoming performance but also encapsulates why “This American Life” is so successful. What sounds so straight-forward and potentially mundane has turned into an evocative weekly radio documentary, thanks to a good eye for stories, a sharp ear for dialogue and skilled editing that lets stories unfold through home, car or now, cell phone speakers.

Themed shows and their stories are in development for months leading up to one last week of final editing and voiceovers before going out to public radio stations each Friday night.

“It’s a very messy process and messy by design,” Glass explains. “When you don’t have the excuse of the news to put something on the air, it really has to be a lot more sparkly. There’s a lot more burden on it to be really great. So we tend to go through a tremendous amount of material to find the three or four stories that end up on the air.”

“He seems to be exceptionally skilled in making everyday life interesting,” says Ashley Thornberg, a producer at Prairie Public Radio and a fan of the show. “There’s a really nice slice of humanity portrayed in that show. Not everything has to be over the top and fantastic, but everything can be appreciated.”

Glass was already a veteran of public radio when he started the show and did so with modest goals. The show aired its 500th episode last month.

“We thought if we could last three years that would be incredible,” he says. “I don’t think I ever anticipated the show would last this long or do this well.”

Nor did his parents. On the show, he’s often talked to his parents who, while supportive, didn’t understand why he didn’t take a more traditional career path.

He recalls the Peabody Award ceremony at which the show, only a few years old at the time, had won an award. Among the award presenters was Tom Brokaw. His father was unimpressed and grumbled to one of Glass’ colleagues, “I don’t know why he’s doing this with his life.”

What his parents didn’t see, their friends heard. Enough became fans that eventually his folks came around to it.

Others took to it immediately and devotedly. “This American Life” now has a cult-like following, but a very public radio-like cult.

“There definitely is a core group of hardcore fans of the radio show, but they seem to be unfailingly very polite and utterly normal people,” Glass explains. “They seem like smart, lovely people who if I lived in town, they could be my friends.”

“I had a picture of Ira Glass up at my office before I ever had a picture up of my husband,” Thornberg, a self-professed NPR nerd, admits.

And that would be one of the more outrageous signs of devotion.

“The weirdest thing that ever happened to me, some girl knitted me mittens,” Glass says. “Which is really a weird thing to give somebody if you’re a fan. It’s the most maternal possible thing. It’s the least sexy gift in the world. Your fingers don’t even exist.”

(He must’ve never Googled “Ira Glass tattoo.”)

The host says it’s often harder for fans to finally come face-to-face with the disembodied radio voice than it is for him to meet random people. Occasionally, after a short conversation, the fan will ask if their interaction will end up in a show.

“Something really dramatic would have to happen for things to end up on the show. And they rarely do,” he says with a laugh. “Almost nothing that happens in my life is dramatic enough to end up on my own show. That’s the sad story of it. I feel like everybody has a story, but everybody doesn’t necessarily have a story for the radio, including me.”

Yet Glass has found himself on TV, in part because of his willingness to poke fun at himself. He’s mocked his fascination with the everyday on “The Simpsons” (“Today in five acts: Condiments…”) and in January had comic actor Fred Armisen co-host “This American Life” impersonating Glass after the comic impersonated the radio host on “Saturday Night Live.”

While he’s willing to laugh at himself, he takes the show seriously.

Over the past decade, Glass and the producers have made a conscious move toward more news, tackling weightier issues like climate change and a man who may be wrongly jailed for murder. In February, two shows aired about a high school in Chicago at which 29 current or recent students were shot.

“When the show began, it was very much about applying the tools of journalism to stories that were so small and personal that journalists would never pay attention to them,” the host said. “And now I feel like we’re taking those storytelling chops and stories with themes and characters and emotional moments and funny moments and applying them to things other people cover as well.”

So how will the show continue to evolve over the next five years?

“Honestly, I don’t know,” he says. “Any broadcast is better when it’s following the personal interest of the people putting it together and this happens to be my and the staff’s personal interest now to do this.”

Location moved

“Reinventing Radio: An Evening with Ira Glass” has moved to the Fargo Theatre at 314 Broadway, says Jade Nielsen of Jade Presents. The promoter says they were hoping to pack the Bluestem Center for the Arts Amphitheater in Moorhead, but a Saturday show in the summer was proving a difficult sale. “We want to make it a great experience for Ira,” he says, so the decision was made to move the show to a “more intimate space” at The Fargo Theatre

If you go

What: Reinventing Radio: An Evening with Ira Glass

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway

Info: Tickets are $22, $35, $45 and $99.50, the latter includes a meet-and-greet reception. Fees may apply. (866) 300-8300. A picnic will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. featuring food vendors and live music.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533