At the start of Ira Glass' radio-art-lecture-performance-event on Saturday night in Hailey, the auditorium was totally dark. Glass' distinctive voice--wispy, witty, amused--filled the darkness.
"Maybe I'll do the entire show in the dark," Glass said, and the crowd giggled nervously.
This was the part of the night that was most like listening to Glass' hit public radio show, This American Life. The darkness was like the monotony of commuter traffic, and that familiar voice was the only point of interest, building suspense and carrying us along for the ride.
Was he really going to stay cloaked in darkness?
Would we really not see him?
The lights went up to reveal a lanky, bearded, bespectacled man, smiling innocently. Behold, radio's hipster king.
His thick-framed glasses conspired with his suit and tie to give him away, he confessed, as "an out-of-towner." But he told the crowd that a friend was texting him score updates from the Boise State-Oregon State game (7-7 at the start of the lecture) and that he would keep us updated, "as a public service." Polite applause--Bronco Nation and National Public Radio are not the same country.
Glass' performance took the audience through the experience of being Ira Glass, someone a few audience members were unfamiliar with.
"By a show of hands, how many of you have absolutely no idea who I am but you were dragged here by your spouse or friend?" he asked. "You must be having a very weird night."
The contours of the evening followed those of Glass' work. He was rapturous when discussing the joy and surprises of the creative process, sometimes tedious when recounting the tedium that lies behind producing and editing episodes of This American Life, and downright inspiring when he talked about the power of good storytelling.
Glass played a few greatest-hit clips. There was the interview aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier soon after the launch of the war in Afghanistan. One young female soldier talked about her job on the high seas in a time of war--restocking the ship's dozens of vending machines.
"No one eats the Bonkers," she said, getting audible giggles from the interviewer. Amid the tensions and stress of a post-9/11 America at war, This America Life found humor in the banal, and comedy in a not-so-funny situation. The story led to Glass' most pointed criticisms of the night, directed at the mainstream national news media.
"Think about your traditional broadcasters, your Sam Donaldsons or your George Stephanopoli," he quipped. "A traditional news anchor could not do that story. They could not talk about Cheez-Its and Bonkers with that young woman." The media has separated the serious from the funny, and that, Glass said, "is a failure of craft."
Instead, the media has constructed a robot world, a world without surprise, pleasure or joy, he said. "It's a world that seems smaller, stupider and meaner."
Glass--and the million or so people who download his podcast each week--are essentially humanists. It's when we humans are being humans that each episode of This American Life really sings. The stories are powered by the engines of classic storytelling, elements that "were old when Jesus used them," Glass said.
Hopes, desires and fears, tragedies, comedies and regrets. You can find these things in any great work of art including on the show that has made Glass an improbable hero. Judging from the nearly two-hour-long discussion of his work, it's clear that sharing this stuff, the good stuff, is what gets Ira Glass up in the morning.