History is rewritten every day, and I am compelled to offer another version of the story told in the Reader about The Wild Room and This American Life [November 20].
Anyone who actually listened to The Wild Room (which I did) and who listens to This American Life (which I do) knows that there is a world of difference between the two shows. The Wild Room was nice, it was fresh, it was casual, it was often very funny, it was sometimes boring. Gary did his political diatribes, and Ira did his personal stories. Ira produced artists and performers, and Gary did his labor documentaries. Ira and Gary and Lynda Barry fooled around and told stories, played great music seldom heard on the radio. As I recall, Lynda left the show after a short time and was only heard there a few times after 1990. Gary and Ira continued, and sometimes the show was really great and sometimes it was like two silly frat guys screeching at each other. I don’t know what Gary did outside the show, but having met Ira around 1990, I know that he was an NPR reporter and working on public school investigative reporting and all other manner of radio journalism at that time. The tension between the kind of work they wanted to produce was more and more clear on the show. Gary wanted a free-form, topsy-turvy, didactic, screw-you-and-the-world show, his own leftish kind of Paul Harvey hour; this was evident when he ran The Wild Room alone. Ira wanted a form that was more considered, much more ironic and detached, and somehow at the same time it was more intimate–a show that featured artists and writers. This was clear when he ran The Wild Room alone. Together on the show, their on-air banter was increasingly strained and competitive and not especially compelling.
Anyone who has worked in artistic collaboration knows that the road is hellish and fraught with disagreement. When it’s great, there’s nothing better, and when it’s not, well–as your article rightly points out, it is like a marriage, in this case a rocky marriage. And when a marriage ends, people are hurt. Gary is right to say he was in denial. Ira had been applying for grants for years without Gary’s name on those applications; this was no secret. Gary could have been applying for his own grants. No one stopped him. This is the really pathetic part of the story. Some basic fact checking would have told you, by the way, that the MacArthur Foundation did not just drop $150,000 on the station and Ira did not just creep in and grab it. The MacArthur Foundation invited an application for funding. Ira took off work for two months and produced three pilots with his own money. Anyone who knows Ira knows that every penny he has is poured into his work, and he is not supported by some mythic wealthy family. (And by the way, as someone who comes from pedigreed working-class stock–and I am proud of it–this violin playing for Gary’s dad’s pizza-man plight as underdog is really shameful. Be proud of your dad or not, but take responsibility for your own life, man!) The application to the MacArthur Foundation, along with the third year of applications to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, were, unbelievably, accepted. None of us helping with the show thought that the money would come through, and when it did no one had any idea of the amount of work that it would take to produce the show. Though I no longer work on the show, I was one of the “servants” that Gary refers to in his description of the This American Life staff. In this part of the world, Gary, we are referred to as producers, and we do actually work hard in our own right.
This is one reason why this show has worked. Hard work, fucking hard work, early in the morning round the clock till early the next morning. Day after grinding day. There is a core sensibility in the show, a vision, plain and simple, that has not been heard before. It is different. People want to listen to it. Anyone who has been close to This American Life knows that Ira Glass has worked body and soul to make it work. And so have the rest of the staff, Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike, Julie Snyder, and many, many others. The sensibility of the show is Ira’s; it is wry and funny and tells a story about our lives in a way that The Wild Room, great as it sometimes was, never did, never sought to do.
The reputation this show has garnered has been earned. Pathetic carping won’t take that back. The show speaks for itself. Gary Covino was an interesting personality and a good reporter. He and Ira collaborated for a while and then went separate ways; would that we could all stay together living happily ever after all the time, always and forever. But, like it or not, that isn’t real life for most of us. In the past, divorce wasn’t possible, and people remained together, often in misery, for their entire lives. In the modern world, lovers love, lovers break up, there is pain and heartache and blood, and then people divorce and they go on with their lives. Gary had his show, he had the same opportunities as the rest of us. Gary Covino quit. That’s what happened.