What started as a casual conversation about the humble beginnings of Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life” turned into an impromptu press conference last night as host Ira Glass announced the end of the popular radio program’s Emmy nominated television spinoff on Showtime.
“I don’t know if I can say this yet, but we’ve asked to be taken off of television,” Glass revealed.
Glass’ unexpected announcement came in the midst of a Behind the Scenes event hosted at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y. The night’s panel, moderated by NY1’s Budd Mishkin, included the show’s senior producers Julie Snyder, Nancy Updike, Jane Feltes and Sean Cole, as well as film rights producer Alissa Shipp and production manager Seth Lind.
Then, of course, there was Glass — the host and executive producer of the public radio golden child and Showtime program of the same name — who has become ubiquitous on television, billboards and panels alike. His Buddy Holly glasses and graying spiked hair are familiar by now, and his notoriety explains why his introductory applause was by far the most sustained.
Steering the conversation casually, Mishkin lauded the program, giving the night a celebratory feel as the show’s creators discussed its methods and told insider stories to the delight of the crowd. The event began with anecdotes from seemingly slapdash beginnings, as Updike recalled struggling to fill an hour broadcast, even letting Glass wing it live to fill time in the days before the show’s syndication.
The producers reflected on the various media properties that have resulted since the humble inception of “This American Life,” including the forthcoming Steven Soderbergh film The Informant! starring Matt Damon, which is based on an episode.
According to Glass, the show’s relationship with movies was all about supply and demand: “We had no money, but a large supply of ideas, while Hollywood had a large amount of money and no ideas.”
About the move to the silver screen, both Feltes and Updike lamented the difficulty of putting together a television broadcast when accustomed to radio stories. “If it was possible, we pushed it to the TV pile,” said Feltes.
Then Glass revealed that despite the show’s four recent Emmy nominations, they would not be continuing the original series. “Most journalism is about things that already happened, as it turns out,” Glass said with a laugh. “But with television, you want to capture it while it’s happening. Honestly, what the f**k — you understand reality shows because it’s so hard to make things happen.”
The talk was filled with intimate admissions and inside jokes (including an entire portion dedicated to Chicago Public Radio president Torey Malatia), and there was a murmur of affirmation in the crowd every time a specific episode or storyteller was mentioned. Mishkin also noted the launch pad the show provided for some of its most beloved contributors. “They used to be on-call because they didn’t have much going on in their careers,” Glass quipped about David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell and John Hodgman.
When asked about the show’s relationship with New York after moving from Chicago and whether it affected the stories they aired, Glass replied with an emphatic no. “I don’t give a goddamn about New York,” he said, before backpedaling a bit. “I mean, it’s nice to live here.”
Some in the crowd gasped at his candidness, but in all, it was laughs all around. “I didn’t know radio was dying! Sh*t…” Snyder teased, when asked about the show’s future. But Glass insisted public radio is still a viable economic model. “I was 40 before I had any money in the bank,” he said. “This is so solid and it’s continuously pretty amazing.”
In photo above: (left to right) Buzz Mishkin, Ira Glass, Seth Lind, Alissa Shipp, Sean Cole, Jane Feltes, Nancy Updike and Julie Snyder
–by Joe Coscarelli