Going Coastal

It was common knowledge that Ira Glass was negotiating with Showtime to do a TV version of This American Life. What his fans didn’t get was that Glass would do it in New York. The announcements January 20 by Showtime and the next day by WBEZ, which co-owns the show with Glass, omitted this detail, and even general manager Torey Malatia’s January 20 memo to the WBEZ staff fuzzed the fact. It said the This American Life staff would work on the TV show in New York for the next several months, the radio show would continue, and next winter “This American Life is planned to be relocated on the fourth floor” of WBEZ’s rehabbed studios. That space will sit there waiting for Glass the way bedrooms at home sit empty waiting for kids who have moved out.

News of the Glass-Showtime deal broke on a Friday, to the annoyance of Sun-Times TV-radio columnist Robert Feder, who wasn’t scheduled to write again until Wednesday. But in the interim, he says, “I ran into somebody who told me, ‘Did you know Ira’s moving to New York?’ And I was flabbergasted. I was floored.” Not even the long interview with Glass the Tribune posted online January 23 reported that. Feder’s coverage brought up the rear on January 25, but he had the scoop.

Mourners read Feder and gathered at gapersblock.com. “What a bunch of crap! Like New York needs it!” somebody protested. “I should kick Ira’s ass I know where he lives.”

An elegiac discussion of This American Life classics followed, peppered with outbursts. “NYC? It is such a different place,” someone moaned. “It is almost impossible that it will not change the feel of the show.” Somebody else reminisced about Friday afternoons spent shopping at Marshall Field’s, followed by a sandwich at the Berghoff and a mai tai at Trader Vic’s. “I’d be home in time for the friday night broadcast of TAL. . . . O, what a litany of loss.”

Even “Ira” was heard from. “Let me just say, we love this town and we pack our bags with tears in our eyes and lumps in our throats.” But “Ira” was soon exposed as an impostor.

“We were not scheming to keep it a secret,” the real one told me. Glass said the focus, when the announcements were prepared, was on stressing that the radio show would continue. “There would be consequences if our stations didn’t understand that,” he said. “We have 500 member stations carrying our show, and we didn’t want them either to be taking us off the air or moving us to bad times because they thought we were going off the air.”

Where This American Life would originate was less important–though not inconsequential. “I would just as soon downplay the fact we’re not in Chicago,” Glass conceded, “because I think, psychologically, if you know the show is coming from Chicago it gives you a nice feeling–and not just if you’re from Chicago. People around the country tell me that’s part of the show’s charm. It’s not coming from New York, Los Angeles, Washington. It comes from a place that most broadcasting isn’t done from.

“I cannot begin to explain this, but there’s something about the sound of the show, a feeling of ‘Hey, there’s all these interesting people out there that we don’t usually hear from.’ . . . I felt that way about the Onion–well, of course it comes out of the midwest.”

But that’s that. “In practice,” Glass said, “we are so very much on our own path in terms of story selection that what determines what gets on the show has very little to do with geography and way more to do with what we’re interested in and who’s pitching us. For the first four or five years of our show, Sarah Vowell lived in Uptown. Then she moved to New York, and her stories sound basically the same.

“But we’re still a production of WBEZ, so the word Chicago will be all over the show. So my hope is people who hear about the news won’t care that much–and lots of people won’t be hearing about it.” Besides, he said, “It’s not like I’m hanging around the Back of the Yards or something. I work 70 hours a week. Sometimes it feels like I’d be doing the same program if I lived on the space shuttle.”

Showtime and Killer Films, which will shoot the TV show, are both in New York. “When we were doing the pilot,” Glass told me, “I insisted for a while that everyone come here [Chicago], the editors especially. It turned out to be very expensive, and we wouldn’t be able to get some of the people we wanted.” That spiked any idea he had of fighting for Chicago. “When the series planning started I didn’t even bother to bring it up.”

WBEZ already has a small working space–a converted laundromat in Brooklyn Heights–shared by three This American Life producers. Now the station will have to find something bigger. “I don’t think it’ll hurt for us to have a presence in New York,” says Malatia. “It’ll be modest by any measure, but a place where we can hang our hat and people can see us if they need to. The staff is very much our staff. Ira’s optimistic that we can get some radio done while the TV is being done.”

Malatia’s not so sure. He thinks Glass might find out that a better idea is to do all six shows he owes Showtime this year before switching back to radio. At any rate, if a gun’s pointed at Glass’s head, Glass is the one holding it. A couple of years ago, after negotiations with Showtime got under way, the contract between This American Life and its distributor, Public Radio International, was rewritten to let Glass deliver only 20 new shows a year instead of 26 if he found himself trying to create a TV pilot at the same time. Last year he created the pilot and did the full 26 shows anyway. Now, says Malatia, PRI has agreed to let Glass go 12 months without creating any new radio shows at all. “The pressure’s not coming from some contractual agreement,” says Malatia, “but from Ira’s desire to keep a radio presence going.” And, it seems, from his need never to catch himself working less than 70 hours a week. (He and a collaborator are also doing a screenplay for Warner Brothers.)

The radio show’s a “dream situation,” Glass told me. “We’re fully funded forever if we want to be. The funding is an engine that drives itself. We have this massive audience–1.6 million people a week–and we have complete editorial control. There’s seven of us, and when we decide we want something on the radio we put it on the radio.” His TV audience–and this is something Glass didn’t at first understand about cable–will be a lot smaller than what he’s used to. “A show on Showtime will be seen by half a million to a million people,” he said. If he becomes famous on TV it’ll be because he was already famous on radio.

Showtime can pull the plug after the first six shows, and if that happens Malatia will want This American Life back in Chicago. But the contract is for 30 shows over four years. Money from Showtime will cover WBEZ’s expenses in New York and pay the station about $100,000 a year on top of that–serious compensation for no longer being able to brag that This American Life is being created down the hall. “For anyone who’s a reporter or editor,” Glass said, “New York is where the people are in the way that the movie business is in Los Angeles and chicken production is in North Carolina. I know so many people in New York. So many writers on our show and so many editor friends.”

Is this a day he knew would come? “It doesn’t feel inevitable at all,” Glass said, “but I’m going to move there and be in a community immediately.”

News Bites

We were at war, the Senate was torn in two over who Samuel Alito was and what he believed–but the American media found massive resources to throw at a story where the truth was at stake.

Shame on you, said Oprah Winfrey to James Frey on live TV. The next morning front-page headlines in the Sun-Times shouted: “Oprah: ‘I Feel Duped.'” “Roeper: It Was One of Her Finest Hours.” Even so, the Sun-Times was waxed by the Tribune.

Tribune banner headline: “Oprah shreds Frey in a million pieces.” Page two: John Kass on Oprah. Editorial page: “Don’t mess with Oprah.” Back page of section one: nothing but Oprah, including columns by Internet critic Steve Johnson and media columnist Phil Rosenthal, who normally don’t show up in section one. Front page of Metro: Mary Schmich on Oprah. Online: Eric Zorn and Charles Madigan. That’s six Tribune columnists. Why? Because Frey had jerked Oprah around, she looked bad, and now she wasn’t happy.

Back in the 60s Lyndon Johnson said he knew he’d lost the Vietnam war when he lost Walter Cronkite. There aren’t many guests of the stature of James Frey for Oprah to pick on, but maybe she could lower her sights a little and invite somebody like Donald Rumsfeld.

At the Reader we knew that a deal between Ira Glass and Showtime would mean a move to New York because his wife, Anaheed Alani, works as an editor here. She’ll continue editing a bit for us from there, but we’re sorry to see her go.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.