Before fame called, Ira Glass began a program for the old WBEZ show The Wild Room on this belligerent note: “I do not like the Chicago Tribune, the big daily newspaper where I live. They have a few good reporters, but overall it is a gutless, lifeless newspaper. They handle the serious news usually with the dull, stupid, unemotional tone of a junior high school civics textbook. Their feature stories have a sort of ‘gee whiz’ dunderheaded quality to them. I don’t think they know what they’re doing. So why, why, did I let them cut my hair?”
Today Glass is host of National Public Radio’s esteemed This American Life. Last month the Tribune’s TV critic, Steve Johnson, wrote a long, admiring feature story about Glass and the show for the Sunday magazine. Glass read Johnson’s piece carefully and judged its dunderheadedness to be refreshingly low. It was, in fact, “a really lovely writing job about the show. Steve got an actual story–and not the story I would have wanted him to get. I respect him. Having said that, I still don’t actually read the paper. It’s not my paper of choice.”
Johnson had dwelled on Glass’s perfectionism and on the life of strange, cloistered celebrity he now leads, in which women he has no time for find him irresistible. Glass’s rise to eminence was disposed of in a few broad strokes. We learned that he came to Chicago in 1989 because his cartoon-drawing girlfriend, Lynda Barry, lived here, and that he began producing award-winning reports for NPR’s All Things Considered.
“In the meantime,” Johnson went on, “he also helped start up and co-hosted, with Gary Covino, a local Friday night show on WBEZ called ‘The Wild Room,’ with a format he calls ‘free-form documentary banter.’ When WBEZ General Manager Torey Malatia came to Glass with an idea for a show with the potential to go national, Glass tinkered with the concept and signed on.”
That happened back in 1995–only yesterday to the bit players in Johnson’s narrative. “When that article came out in the Tribune and I saw my name in there, and Gary’s, I got this weird pang in my heart,” says Lynda Barry. “It was so weird to see our names in there with this person who changed my belief in human nature. I went out with him. It was the worst thing I ever did. When we broke up he gave me a watch and said I was boring and shallow, and I wasn’t enough in the moment for him, and it was over. I had to go around for a year saying, ‘Am I boring and shallow and not enough in the moment?'”
It was over, but she and Glass weren’t done with each other. She briefly collaborated with Covino and Glass on The Wild Room, and in fact coined the title. Glass recalls that Covino wanted to call the show “Radio Factory,” which he and Barry were able to agree was stupid. And when Glass went on The Wild Room to tell the story of why he’d let the Tribune cut his hair, she was the old girlfriend it got cut for. The Tribune had published a vapid Style section photo spread, with Glass as a guy with a ponytail who goes to a fancy Oak Street salon to make “drastic changes.” A caption said, “The final cut finds Glass ‘ready for Wall Street.’ He loves the new look and so do we.” Glass said on the air that he went along with this tomfoolery because the ponytail had been favored by an old flame who’d dumped him–and now it was time to stop pining and let her go.
“Get this,” says Barry. “He dumps me and does this radio piece about getting his hair cut. That is Ira to a T. You know what he used to call me? He used to call me his ‘little ghetto girl!’ We were reading the New York Times one morning a couple of weeks in, and he looked at me and said, ‘You don’t know what the IMF is, do you?'”
But did you really like his ponytail? I asked.
“He could have had a six-inch wart growing out of the middle of his forehead in the beginning, and I’d have thought it was cute.”
Glass says, “I was an idiot. I was in the wrong. About the breakup. About the haircut story. About so many things with her. Anything bad she says about me I can confirm.”
But it wasn’t Barry who remembered that Glass, the alchemist of “public radio’s fastest growing program”–to quote Johnson–once snickered on the radio at Johnson’s paper. That old show was mentioned to me by Glass’s former friend, collaborator, and peer Gary Covino.
“He and I were perfect partners for each other on the air,” says Covino sadly. “We had a perfect balance of the sensibilities we shared and the sensibilities that were very different from each other. If you listened to The Wild Room week after week, every week it was a totally different show. One week it was an incredibly serious documentary program, the next week it could be a wild, surreal absurdist discussion, and the next week could belong to stories told by other people with music mixed in. It could have a touching story or monologue, and the next thing you know, Ira and I are in some bizarre, funny discussion. It never got boring. It never fell into a rut. The show reflected what interested us, what we were doing with our lives, what thoughts were going through our heads, what our obsessions were. Those were the constants. The show could never go too far in one person’s direction. When it went too far, the other person would always find a way to pull it back. Sometimes that created some tension between us, but I always thought what came out on the air was worth the occasional tension and annoyance.”
And then the MacArthur Foundation came to WBEZ with $150,000. “They wanted a show that featured local Chicago writers and performance artists, and those people were on The Wild Room a lot,” says Covino. “They went to Torey, and he went to Ira. And Ira was smart. He saw an opening. He knew a lot of people at ‘BEZ were desperate to have the station up on the satellite nationally. So what he told them was that he didn’t want to do the idea proposed, that instead of $150,000 he needed $300,000, and that it would be a weekly show. The show he proposed was The Wild Room. He just didn’t call it The Wild Room.
“If I had been in Ira’s shoes I’d have done the same thing–with one big exception. I would never in a million years have thought of taking that opportunity to put the The Wild Room up nationally without him.”
How big is Ira Glass today? He’s so big that www.suck.com, a reliable font of Internet rudeness, just awarded him an “evil genius grant”–or Suck EGG–to shut up for a year. “The only real work he seems to do anymore is give interviews to fawning journalists and fight off the attentions of love-struck soccer-mom groupies.” You’ve arrived at a certain point in your career when Suck rips you (other EGGs were thrown at Neve Campbell and Shelby Foote), but Glass is so big that the Suck scrivener immediately E-mailed him an apology. “Frankly, there is nothing nasty to say,” Glass read with astonishment. “Of course, you know that better than anyone. But I tried, and my editor egged me on.”
Gary Covino left Chicago last week, and This American Life is the reason. He moved east to join his girlfriend and start over. “My heart is broken,” he told me. “Part of the reason I’m leaving town is for love and happiness, and part is to get away from here, which feels like it has become a dead end for me. There’s only one public-radio station whose signal covers the whole city, and it’s a station that alienated me pretty well.”
What happened in 1995? I asked him.
“It wasn’t like I woke up one day and found out this was happening. It was many months in the making, and it was a process where I was deceived–mainly by Ira at that point, and by Torey a bit, but also by myself. It was a classic case of denial. I sensed what was going on, but I didn’t want to face the fact that this person with whom I had this wonderful creative partnership, who was one of my best friends, was basically working to take the show we were doing and make it a national show and ace me out of it.
“Ira kept telling me things that let me hold on to it. He said he had $150,000, but he was demanding $300,000. So they had to raise another $150,000, which was way beyond anything WBEZ had done to that point. He was very negative about whether they’d be able to pull it off. I thought, maybe they won’t be able to do it, and I’ll never have to face what’s going on here. And the other thing Ira was telling me was that even if they got the money, he wasn’t sure he would do it. So he was telling me what I wanted to hear, and I was latching on to it, and the three of us never had an honest conversation about what was going on.
“Sometime in the late summer of 1995 I started to wake up to what was going on, and I felt very bad about it, very betrayed–you name it, I felt it. But by then it was beside the point. It clearly was happening. I was left with a choice. I could keep doing the The Wild Room by myself–and the big concession by ‘BEZ was that they’d been allocating $100 a week [in salaries] for the show Ira and I were doing, so now I could have the whole $100 a week. So I’m continuing to do a very ambitious show, and here’s another show that’s a knockoff of my show. And my show is worth $100, and that show is worth $300,000. And he has a staff to service his needs, and he has his own private studio, this publicity machine which is generating puff stories about him all over the place, a big fund-raising operation–and we’re doing the same thing!
“The final straw was Ira’s. The official line is it’s not The Wild Room and it’s not a similar show to The Wild Room. ‘This is a totally different show’–which I always felt was total crap. It was a lie and a game and it wasn’t true. I had discussions with Ira about that. He’d say, ‘No, it’s a different show,’ and I’d say, ‘What’s different?’ He’d name some element on the show, and I’d say, ‘We already do that!’ He would mention something else, and I’d say, ‘We do that.’ We went around and around about it several times, and one time finally–very briefly–I felt he gave me an honest answer. He looked at me and said, ‘The difference now is that I’m totally in control.’
“That was one of the things I guess was important to him. Part of the magic of it was that we had this great collegial thing going that you could hear on the air. But I guess it was driving him crazy. He had to have total control, and he wouldn’t rest until he had it. I had to be eliminated. While the station and Ira kept saying, ‘This is a new show, this is different,’ when it came time to scheduling it they put it on Friday night–the same night as The Wild Room and in the slot just before The Wild Room to tap into The Wild Room. I had to come in every week feeling miserable about what was going on, and behind me through a glass wall I could see where Ira was finishing up his show with a bevy of servants–and I’m supposed to walk around with blinders and not see anything. This was the final straw. You would have to be a total blockhead not to know how bad that was going to make me feel.”
There are striking differences between Gary Covino and Ira Glass–aside from the fact that the one who’s 39 and riding high is the son of an accountant and a psychologist, and the one who’s 44 and miserable is the son of a pizza maker. Covino admires improvisational radio, while Glass doesn’t like to leave a second unplanned. Covino wanted to go on doing wonderful radio with Glass forever but make a living wage at it, while Glass soon thought of The Wild Room as one step before the next step.
“The Wild Room consisted of three types of things,” Glass says. “Sometimes Gary alone. Sometimes I alone, sometimes both him and me, sometimes talking free-form. There were things I tried on The Wild Room that now have become part of this show, like for example, David Sedaris or Cheryl Trykv. A lot of stuff I produced on The Wild Room is not to his taste. Most of This American Life is exactly the kind of thing Gary never liked. It’s really odd that he feels I took it from him.
“Every week on The Wild Room we came to the show with two independent sensibilities. I love Gary. I loved Gary. But I didn’t want to keep doing that show. I didn’t want to have to argue about it. He brought what he brought to The Wild Room, and I brought what I brought to The Wild Room–and the notion that everything I brought to The Wild Room I got from him I find completely infuriating. If he had produced any of the kind of vignette stories or David Sedaris that I was doing on The Wild Room, if he’d been involved with them at all–at all–then he’d have some kind of case. But he had nothing to do with them. We were partners in the project, and I didn’t want to go on. And it hurt his feelings. Some people by disposition see betrayal around them even when it doesn’t exist. I feel like if Gary had taken everything he’d been doing on The Wild Room and gone on to do a show without me, he would have my blessing. And if he wants to do that, why doesn’t he do that?
“Another thing I find galling, he tells people I stole the show from him. If that’s true why did it take me so long to even figure out how to make this show? The show changed radically in the first six months, after 90-hour weeks on pilots. Everything at every step was so hard. I don’t know–it’s just so disrespectful.
“I didn’t want to do free-form radio anymore. I have no interest in improvisation. It might have been possible to design a show with him that he would have felt comfortable with and I would have felt comfortable with. But at that point–I was in my late 30s–I just wanted to do the thing I wanted to do. And I didn’t want to keep doing The Wild Room. You know, it was fine to do as a little local show late on Friday nights that most people never heard. But there’s a gravity and seriousness to another kind of radio–to preproduced radio like I’m doing on This American Life–that is just where I want to devote these years of my life.
“I’m sure he was right in saying I was sort of soft-pedaling it. At the time I’d been sending grant proposals to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for two years. I just assumed this would be another experience like that. So you know, I didn’t very assertively say–and I’m sorry about that. I’m sorry. I could have handled it by telling him earlier and more assertively, ‘I want to do this. I don’t want to do it with you.’ It’s a hard thing to tell somebody, frankly.”
Glass and Covino produced the The Wild Room together from November 1990 until September 1995. Covino kept it alive by himself until February of ’96. He says, “The show I got the biggest response to was the show where I talked about my relationship with my father. This was the show I did when I knew that next week they were putting his show on ahead of me, and I wanted to clue the audience in to the fact this wasn’t a good thing.”
Gary’s father, Carmine, ran pizza parlors in New Jersey, and Gary worked in them as a kid. He called himself “pizza boy,” which, he explained that night on The Wild Room, stood for everything he didn’t want to be. The Princeton students who used to come in were the golden boys, and Covino, too young to think in terms of class and entitlement, viscerally felt an immense gulf between what they expected from life and what he did.
Looking back on it, he said on the air, he could see that life had kept playing the same dirty trick on his father. His dad would build up a good business, and then his landlord or his partners–once they were his own brothers–would close the place for a few weeks and change the name and fiddle with the decor and reopen. And nothing would really be different, except that now the profits would be spread among fewer hands, because Carmine Covino had been run off. It just happened again to my father, said Gary Covino on The Wild Room, and this was a place he’d worked at for more than a decade.
Here’s how Covino signed off. “I hate to say it, but you know I’m feeling at one with my father this week, because it’s back to that old realization I had a long, long time ago. You know, it just seems like in life there are two kinds of people. There’s the golden boys, you know, who seem to get what they want. And then–there are the other boys. There are the pizza boys. Starting next week here on WBEZ, we’ll have two different radio pizza shops, different in name anyway. One will be run by the golden boy, and the other will be right here at eight o’clock. The Wild Room. With me. Gary Covino. Your radio pizza boy.”
He sent Glass a tape of the show.
This summer, a letter from Yellow Springs, Ohio, was posted on the WBEZ Web site. “As someone who lived for a time in Chicago when the ‘Room’ was the best program on WBEZ,” said the correspondent, “and as someone who knows a bit of the story of how Ira Glass and WBEZ stabbed Gary Covino in the back…I have to say that I was particularly appalled recently when Mr. Glass showed up here to speak at Antioch College and act like some sort of guru who’s developed a new kind of radio.” The letter lauded The Wild Room for being “spontaneous, provocative and meaningful in a way that the current Glass-only version never has been” and mourned “the absolutely amazing show [the country] could be hearing now, had Ira and WBEZ been less selfish and more daring.”
Torey Malatia didn’t return the calls I made to him while I was working on this article. But he did respond, on-line and publicly, to the above letter. The tone as well as the content of his response infuriated Covino.
“Sounds downright Shakesperian,” Malatia wrote. “But oral history has a tendency to stray far from the facts, as has this little posting from, Yea verily, an eastern state. That Ira should leave Wild Room to produce This American Life, a national production (unlike Wild Room which was a local production), was my idea, so blame me. (Most posters have no problem doing this.) Were it not for the work load of This American Life, Ira and Gary might still have produced Wild Room together even after TAL started. Listeners to WBEZ know that This American Life coexisted with Wild Room (with Gary hosting solo) for several months after TAL first premiered in Chicago. WBEZ retains a productive relationship with Gary (who is a perennial part of our Chicago Matters series) even though Gary chose to give Wild Room a rest. Seek ye the rapier’s wound elsewhere, sirrah.”
So Covino posted a response. He said the listener in Yellow Springs was right–Malatia’s account of history was malarkey. He said that “one extremely-high budget version of The Wild Room was cloned and put into national distribution”–he couldn’t bring himself to mention either Glass or Glass’s show by name–“while I was permitted to continue the original program with almost no payment and absolutely no support. I will say that I was promised money, staff support and more air time by Torey Malatia….But none of what he promised ever materialized….It was while waiting to see if he would keep his word that I put The Wild Room ‘on hold’–until the day when I got some indication that any of the things Torey and I had agreed upon were going to happen. I’m still waiting.
“I resent it when I am portrayed as having ‘a productive relationship’ with the station; from my perspective, the relationship I did have with WBEZ for over five years was basically destroyed. And it infuriates me when I am sometimes referred to on the air (usually after a documentary I have worked on has won an award) as a ‘member of the WBEZ family.’ No healthy family treats so many of its members the way WBEZ does. Only the very sick ones do.”
Covino says that in the fall of ’95, he and Malatia began meeting. “I told him exactly how I felt. He would just give me a blank look and abjectly apologize for being such a bad manager. I started keeping count of those–I got to eight or so and stopped counting. I said if The Wild Room is in a better time slot and has more money it would be really popular. So we begin a series of discussions. The final budget I gave him was for about one-tenth of the budget of what is now the budget of This American Life. I would ask him, ‘Is this going to happen?’ And he would say, ‘This is definitely going to happen. I will make it happen. The kind of programming you do is what public radio is for. This will happen. There is no way it’s not going to happen.'”
It didn’t happen. And Covino says that so far as he knows, Malatia never lifted a finger. So Covino took The Wild Room off the air. He told Malatia he’d bring it back if WBEZ ever came up with some money.
Glass says, “With Torey, like with any public-radio manager, he’ll give you a chance, but you actually have to do everything. Come up with a concept that will work, and figure out where the money’s coming from, and what pitch you’ll use to get the money. Torey came to me with the notion that the MacArthur Foundation wanted to fund a local arts show featuring the work of local artists. I didn’t have any interest in that, but I had this other idea that would include local artists but would incorporate what I wanted to do. I took two months off to produce a pilot with no pay. If Gary had taken two months off work and come up with some scheme he could sell to somebody, he might have a fucking show too.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Gary Covino photo by J.B. Spector; Covino and Ira Glass, 1990 photo by Kathy Richland.