’When it started, we were very distrustful of Showtime, and I think they were very wary of us,” says Ira Glass, who recently moved himself and his award-winning public-radio program, This American Life, from Chicago, where it had been for about ten years, to New York City, where, when we spoke, it had been for about ten days. “It’s like two worlds colliding, right? Pay cable and public broadcasting. But it’s been a really happy thing for us. We kept waiting for the meeting where they say, ‘Okay, when do the girls take off their tops?’ But that meeting never came.”
Glass and his transplanted colleagues are busy preparing a TV version of TAL, set for a six-episode run on Showtime, premiering this fall. They’re also producing new shows for the radio, and building new offices and studio space on 27th Street, near Seventh Avenue. This American Life, which helped launch David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, and David Rakoff, has built a cult following with its offbeat audio essays and reported pieces about everyday life—pieces Glass has referred to as “little movies for the radio.” Now his challenge is to turn those stories into little movies for TV. “A great way to do a radio story is to have somebody who’s really funny, a great talker, and have them give you the blow-by-blow of some amazing thing that happened to them in the past,” he says. “If you’re doing that on TV, what do you look at? You don’t want to have a person in a big black studio, like Charlie Rose. So what we’ve come to is this idea that part of the story should take place in the present tense.” In short, expect more stories shot out on location rather than chewed over in the studio, as evidenced by the show’s pilot episode.
If Glass can lure even half of his radio show’s 1.7 million weekly listeners to TV, Showtime will consider it a hit. Glass had originally hoped to stay put—“At the beginning of the whole process, I was incredibly, brattishly insistent on the idea that the whole thing would happen in Chicago, and they were fine with it,” he says. “They just said, Okay, just make the budget work. And it turned out to be very difficult to make the budget work.” So he and four other producers moved here. And though TAL has been as closely identified with Chicago as has, say, Oprah, Glass isn’t concerned that the move will affect the flavor of the show. “I’ve always said that because I end up working, like, 70 or 80 hours over the course of a week, I could be on the space shuttle and it wouldn’t make a difference. Like, I happen to be in New York City, but I could be in Chicago or anywhere. Which is sad, because I really do adore New York.”