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Hearing the distinctive voice of Ira Glass

Published April 11, 2014 9:38 am

Radio • "This American Life" host comes to town to tell stories from the other side of the microphone, while explaining his relationship with his dog.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Since "This American Life" launched in 1995, host Ira Glass has told a lot of personal stories on the radio. He's talked frankly about former girlfriends, about his relationship with his wife, journalist Anaheed Alani, and about his relationship with his parents.

But it was the story about his and his wife's dog, a rescued pitbull, Piney, that sparked the most surprising reaction from listeners — the most criticism, that is.

"This American Life" episode 480 revolved around the theme of what animals sacrifice for humans and what we sacrifice for them. In the show, originally aired in 2012 and re-aired on March 21, producer Nancy Updike conducts a remarkable interview/intervention with Glass, her longtime boss and colleague, in which he reveals his and his wife's lives revolve around Piney.

When I crowdsourced questions on Facebook for my interview with Glass to promote his "Reinventing Radio" talk at Kingsbury Hall on Saturday, April 12, several commenters asked to know more about Piney.

But before telling you the latest from Glass about Piney, it's time for a break in the narrative to explain the cult of "This American Life" to nonbelievers. The weekly, hourlong radio show airs on more than 500 public radio stations, including at 3 p.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday on Salt Lake City's KUER. Some 2.1 million people listen weekly, and 1 million people download what is thought to be one of the country's most popular podcasts.

Think of each episode as a movie on the radio, or an experiment, or documentaries for people who don't like documentaries. The show aims to use the tools of journalism to document real feelings and real emotions. As evidence of how iconic "This American Life" has become, Glass and the staff had a cameo in this year's "Veronica Mars" movie.

For this Salt Lake City gig, Glass is thinking about sharing some greatest hits from Utah radio producer Scott Carrier, or clips from a 2002 show about an aircraft carrier supporting bombing missions to Afghanistan, or 2008's "The Giant Pool of Money," explaining the housing crisis.

"On the radio, you can be a little more long-winded," he says. "It's possible it's not working on the radio at all, but I've chosen to believe it's working because the audience is not in the room with me."

For Glass, reinventing radio translates to telling stories from everyday life that are more emotional, more immediate and more surprising than news stories. "This American Life" producers hold to the values of journalism, yet aren't ashamed of being an entertainment.

"We're consciously out for fun, doing things we're doing because we're having fun," Glass says. "The audience can't have fun if we're not having fun. That's a core thing."

Ask Glass to explain fun, and "This American Life" seems like the answer. "I work with like-minded people," he says. "Fun seems irreducible. Fun seems like love — you know it when you see it."

He points to a recent show where seven producers reported from a Long Island Jeep dealership about the company's goal to sell 129 cars in a month. There was an episode where producers tried to create stories from ideas their parents had pitched them. Or the show where they commissioned Broadway and Hollywood composer Robert Lopez to write an original song, "Bet Against the American Dream," explaining a reported Wall Street tale of intrigue.

All of that background might explain why listeners care about the Glasses' dog.

Piney has a problem with aggression toward men, so the pitbull has to be muzzled when he leaves the apartment. The couple can't invite people over. Piney has nipped two children and a handful of adults, including Alani, multiple times. The word isn't nip, it's bite, if it includes drawing blood, Updike corrects Glass in the interview.

Piney sees a handful of doctors and takes Valium for his anxiety. For allergies, irritable bowel disease and pancreatitis, Piney eats a diet of rotating proteins — pork, rabbit ("it's weird to be feeding an animal that's cuter than your pet to your pet," Glass wrote in Newsweek), bison, ostrich and kangaroo. "Even now, it doesn't seem like that big a deal," Glass told me on the phone. "The stuff we're doing, when you add it up, does seem like a lot, but when you get into it, it's one step at a time."

That interview with Nancy Updike — that wasn't a set-up? That was a straight interview? "All of that is true, yeah," Glass said on the phone.

The couple didn't think Piney would live to the age of 2, but now at age 8 he's calming down. He has cycled back through proteins, no longer eating kangaroo, which is a relief, Glass says. The couple worried he might work through available animal proteins and move on to human flesh. "Like an O. Henry story or something, or that Stephen Sondheim musical," he says, referring to Mrs. Lovett, who bakes human flesh into pies in "Sweeney Todd."

The story sparked criticism from listeners, including one who tweeted he wouldn't pledge to his local public radio station because he didn't want to subsidize Glass feeding his dog. Some listeners had assumed they saw eye-to-eye with Glass, from years of listening to his familiar voice telling stories in his trademark confessional, digressive style. (Glass on his voice: "You've heard my voice on the radio so it sounds like a voice you'd hear on the radio. But if you compare my voice with a really great radio announcer, I'm just a whiny Jew. It's just sheer repetition that makes it sound like it belongs on the radio.")

But hearing the details of Glass' relationship with Piney changed the relationship between some listeners and the host. "You're not like me at all," some people complained.

"It really makes you understand while generally if you're a broadcaster you generally keep things neutral about your life," he says. "I think the fact that we would be spending $100 a week on food for a dog made us seem like very fancy people, which is not great from an audience standpoint." While he doesn't think of he and his wife as fancy, he admits: "We're middle-class. We don't have kids, so we can afford it."

Just another surprising story of man and dog, host and listener, from "This American Life." —

The distinctive voice of Ira Glass

The "This American Life" host tells stories about "Reinventing Radio."

When • Saturday, April 12, 8 p.m.

Where • Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle, University of Utah, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $32.50, $37.50 and $42.50 (plus handling and facility fees) at 801-581-7100 or kingtix.org

Also • Free parking at Rice Eccles Stadium lot, with shuttle service available; children under 6 not admitted. —

"This American Life" senior producer Nancy Updike on Ira Glass' dog, Piney:

"Ira told me I should think of Piney like the Incredible Hulk — fundamentally good, just high-strung. But my understanding of the Hulk is that he only blew up for very important reasons that were worth building a movie or TV series or comic book around. Piney goes Hulk during ordinary life circumstances."

Ira Glass on making creative work

"For the first couple years you make stuff, it's just not that good. It's trying to be good, it has potential, but it's not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn't have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it's normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I've ever met. It's gonna take a while. It's normal to take a while. You've just gotta fight your way through."