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April 24, 2007

Classic radio show embraces medium makeover

Radio and television are two different media, sometimes borrowing from each other, but occupying distinct cultural niches. This American Life is an hour-long radio program produced by Chicago Public Radio on WBEZ 91.5 FM. Ira Glass hosts the show, which delves into eccentric realms of the nation in an attempt to capture a piece of Americana. Airing on Showtime for the first time on March 22, This American Life took on a new form: TV.

The radio program, on the air since 1995, will continue to run. However, Glass will now host 30-minute episodes on Showtime. The TV program is more focused, concentrating on one theme during the show. What makes the jump to television so challenging for a radio program is that the two media are vastly different. It is much more difficult than going from television to film or from theater to film.

The TV show cannot afford to lose that intangible quality that made the radio version so appealing for so many years. From the very first televised episode, it has been apparent that the two shows are distinctly separate entities.

When I first found out that there was going to be a television version of the radio program, I immediately worried that the radio program was being replaced. Thankfully, that is not the case. The television program is not merely a visual facsimile of the radio show. It is much more.

In the second episode, “My Way,” there is a brief yet gripping story about a photographer who made beautiful art at the expense of others. He describes a picture he took of a woman before and as a wave swept her into the ocean. The photographs are amazing because of the pain they evoke. The shots of the man and his pictures focus on his enlarger and other photographic equipment. The camerawork moves in and out of focus, mirroring the story and giving the audience crisp shots. It was at this moment that I saw the niche the Showtime series fills. The show embraces the medium of TV while still retaining the narrative devices that have made the radio show so successful for years.

The show runs the gamut from the episode featuring a 15-year-old who refuses to believe in love to a painter from Utah who rounds up bearded men from all walks of life in order to reproduce Biblical scenes. One thing that makes it instantly apparent this show is fully visual exists in the subject matter. In only five shows, there have been stories about painters, photographers, and documentary filmmakers. The visual arts play a major role in the themes of the shows, giving the program an almost self-reflexive quality if one considers the show’s genesis. Music and the auditory dominate the radio. The cinematography of the television series, which is often breathtaking, make it more than just a filmed version of the radio program.

The quirkiness of Ira Glass has always been a perfect fit for the material presented. Before each act, Glass sits at a desk with an old-fashioned radio microphone set in the foreground of an empty American landscape. These places have been a field, an ice shelf, in front of a snow-capped mountain range, and even a mundane parking lot.

The most compelling story thus far, in my opinion, was the prologue to the fourth episode. Depicted through cartoons, Glass and Jeff Potter discuss how Potter lost his humanity as a first grader. He describes an art project in which the students created cardboard cameras and started rivaling newscasts. All across the playground, fake cameras and fake news sprouted up until one child was seen beaten up. Perhaps Larry David’s inspiration for the Seinfeld finale, the other children did nothing besides focus their fake cameras on the child. The story, so brief, and yet so powerful, exemplifies the type of work that Glass has been doing for years and is now doing through a new medium.