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Public radio show Is evolving and moving into different media

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CHICAGO - In public radio, three trailblazing hosts are instantly recognizable by their first names: Garrison. Terry. Ira.

Garrison Keillor and "A Prairie Home Companion"; Terry Gross and "Fresh Air"; Ira Glass and "This American Life" are as familiar to their listeners as close relatives; the shows are both distinctive and part of millions of people's weekly lives.

But "PHC," "Fresh Air" and their hosts measure their successful radio formulas in decades. Ten years ago, the question would have been, "Ira who?"

Ten years from now, will "This American Life" have left radio behind?

As Glass and Chicago Public Radio mark the 10th anniversary this week of an offbeat, breakout hit that changed the face (and sound) of public radio, "This American Life" is expanding beyond the public radio waves.

The program has become a full-fledged brand, complete with a pair of movie projects, a record deal with Shout! Factory and a television version of the show awaiting a green light from cable's Showtime channel.

The status of the radio show is in flux, says Torey Malatia, station manager at WBEZ Radio in Chicago, where "This American Life" originates.

"I don't see (Glass) ever really giving this up, but with production of the television show, we may end up suspending live production of the radio show for a while," he says.

Few thought Glass' quirky, narrative-driven radio hour would have either the impact or the longevity it has enjoyed. The show's episodic style tied together by the host's soft-spoken narration was initially a tough sell.

"It's not like people assumed it would be something that has transformed public radio in the way that it has," says Gross, whose award-winning "Fresh Air" has been on the air in its current format since 1987.

"NPR didn't even pick him up," although Glass was a former NPR reporter, Gross points out.

Locally produced by Chicago Public Radio, the program started in 1995 as "Your Radio Playhouse." Sixteen shows later, in March 1996, it became "This American Life." Public Radio International, an NPR competitor, raised the show's profile in 1997 with a distribution deal.

Melinda Ward, senior vice president for PRI productions, was head of the distributor's acquisition arm then. What attracted her, Ward says, was "in contrast to all other broadcast media, it's as if (Glass) draws the curtain back and you see life as you know it."

"Nobody has yet to match him, but everybody aspires to be him," she continues. "He's just a magnet for talent."

With its "movies for radio" approach, "This American Life" has made stars of writers such as David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, David Rakoff and Scott Carrier, to name a few. Today, Glass and his contributors reach an average 1.6 million people via 500 radio stations for a weekly hour of stories, news, humor and heartbreak. The show won a prestigious Peabody Award in 1996 for "weaving original monologues, mini-dramas, original fiction, traditional radio documentaries and original radio dramas into an instructional and entertaining tapestry. ..."

"It's not a result of a focus group, research or anything else," Glass says of the show. "It came from the staff. It's not made as the result of trying to find a formula that is going to be successful. ... (We tell) stories that are narrative stories, in the most traditional way possible. We find characters, we watch them go through things. And we listen to what they think about that experience."

"This American Life" now has seven producers split among Chicago, Brooklyn and Winston-Salem, N.C., and its influence is audible on the radio dial with scores of sound-alike programs popping up.

"The clones, my god," says Ruth Seymour, general manager of Santa Monica's KCRW, the largest public radio market in the nation. "Every young producer has been inspired by this show and the story of this show."

Mike Janssen, associate editor for the radio trade magazine Current, says Glass created a sanctuary and breeding ground for experimental radio with "This American Life," even to the point people mimic the "Ira voice."

"They take pauses, or they sound a little deadpan. It's usually younger people who are doing it. You can hear that influence throughout public radio," Janssen says. "It's also (the show's) way of doing things. The kinds of stories they have, that's been an inspiration."

"It changed everything. Really," says WBEZ's Malatia. "It changed the way in which we heard a host talking to us on the air in public radio. It changed the way in which we were presenting human issues. ... It changed pacing and style and the kind of voice that you would hear on the air."

But, "Fresh Air's" Gross says, if style is all admirers are absorbing, they are missing the point.

"I do think that you can hear a lot of reporters who are the children of Ira Glass," Gross says. "The real message isn't to copy his voice or his style of writing; the real lesson is that there's room to create something new."

It's a lesson within studios of "This American Life" as well. A few years ago, the show radically reconfigured the way it was run, shifting from a feature magazine approach to one pegged more closely to current events.

That led the staff to spend time on an aircraft carrier during the war on terror, following sailors whose jobs included filling vending machines for 12 hours a day. Also aired were the audio diaries of Hyder Akbar, an American teen traveling back to his family homeland of Afghanistan and a recording of a man returning to his hurricane-ravaged house in the wake Louisiana.

"Clearly, we're not the most influential thing on radio itself," Glass says. "Rush (Limbaugh) is still 1,000 times more influential than we are. And Howard (Stern). But I feel like we created a space on the radio for a certain kind of story."

Glass and his staff hope now they can translate "This American Life's" approach - and appeal - to other media as well.

Under the show's "first look" deal with Warner Bros, writer/director Paul Feig (creator of cult TV show "Freaks and Geeks") will begin production in February on the film "Minors," a comedy based on a 2001 "This American Life" segment.

Glass and senior "This American Life" producer Julie Snyder will be executive producers of the story of kids from divorced families who are snowed in the day after Christmas at O'Hare International Airport. According to trade magazine The Hollywood Reporter, the movie was being touted as "`The Breakfast Club' at an airport."

Under the same deal, Warner Bros. gets the first opportunity to produce "This American Life" stories as movies. The deal also requires Glass to submit anything he thinks could be a movie, whether it is related to the show or not.

That's how he has come to pen an adaptation of "Urban Tribes," journalist Ethan Watter's book about groups of friends replacing the model of the American family. Glass is writing the script as a romantic comedy with writer/director Dylan Kidd ("Roger Dodger").

Add to all this activity the record contract with Shout! Factory and a tentative plan in the fall to re-release "This American Life" stories on CD with original music from popular songwriters. "I can't say we're sweeping America," Glass says of "This American Life's" growing brand.

The TV venture, he says, isn't about fame or fortune; its it's about finding media partners with the right sensibilities, to see if "This American Life's" storytelling approach will work outside the mind theater of radio.

"Our TV audience will be smaller than our radio audience. (Showtime's) biggest hit, `The L Word' has 515,000 viewers," Glass says. "On radio, we reach 1.6 million people. In any given week, we're kicking their a--."

Five years ago, an overworked Glass was reassessing the future of "This American Life, not certain he'd continue doing the show from one year to the next.

"It's funny. Now I feel I could easily do it for another 10 years. I feel like there's more material than we can ever get on the air," Glass says. "Even if we do TV, we stay in radio. In the end, we're doing it for our pleasure, as much as anything else."


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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