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Ira Glass in two acts

"This American Life" host is delightful and intimidating

Ira Glass started at NPR in 1978 as a 19-year-old intern. He put "This American Life" on the air in 1995. Photo credit: Stuart Mullenberg

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Our story, today, in two acts. Act one: Rev. Adam McKinney is terrified to talk to Ira Glass. Act two: Ira Glass proves to be an utterly professional and delightful person, just like you would imagine if you weren't tasked to interview him.

I've had to interview a lot of people over my five years as a music columnist. For the most part, my subjects have been random bands breezing through town, and there's nothing wrong with doing the occasional awkward five-minute interview in that situation. On the other hand, there's been some doozies over the years, like when King Buzzo from Melvins got pissed at me for calling his new record "poppy."

Still, interviewing Ira Glass felt like Daniel LaRusso facing off against Johnny in The Karate Kid: I'm still a pathetic newbie, and here's Glass, who's been a professional interviewer for 15 years, and that's just with This American Life.

Ira Glass is a poised, professional person. Unlike most of the people I interview, he has no problem saying that he has no answer to one of my questions. Instead of stammering for an answer, he says that he doesn't have one and moves on. Our first line of questions touched on This American Life's recent episode where they profiled non-offending pedophiles. I had heard an interview with Glass, from a year ago, saying that he had been pitched this story, but had refused. Why the decision to air this story, now?

"I had been approached by somebody who wrote an email to me," says Glass. "He was a teacher, a school teacher, who was a pedophile, who hadn't ever molested a kid. He said that nobody writes sympathetically about people like him, who are pedophiles but don't act on it. I just found the whole thing so alarming. I didn't know what to do with it. It was a deeply unsympathetic pitch, and I, in fact, at one point, I went to a lawyer and said, 'Do we need to alert the authorities about this?'"

Reporter Luke Malone found a similar story about non-offending pedophiles who were teenagers, and that story ended up on This American Life. It's a potent example of how the same story can be shunned from one angle, but accepted from a different one. Glass has made his mark on the world of public radio from his ability to not only find the story, but find how to tell it.

"That happens all the time," says Glass. "You can't tell a story that will be effective if you don't have somebody that you can relate to in it. ... We end up killing a tremendous amount of material. More than most broadcasters, by far."

After so many years as the inimitable host of This American Life, Glass is in something of a transitional period, even if that's only evident to people paying very close attention. With the rise of podcasting giving distribution access to everybody, and with This American Life's distributor (PRI) parting ways with them, and with over 500 episodes under Ira Glass' belt, there's only bound to be branching out.

"We're going to start a new show, which would just be a podcast show, "says Glass, "but I don't want to say any more until we actually announce it."

Speaking with Ira Glass was easier than I worried it would be. I should've known so. He's a man with the cadence of someone who's spoken to thousands of strangers over the years. Even though I was asking the questions, he's the person who always held gentle control. It's easy to see how he's able to get so much out of people.

When he heads to Tacoma, he'll be bringing a full radio experience with him.

"We'll basically recreate the radio show around me," says Glass.

Listening to radio - and, now, podcasts - is such an intimate thing. To share that experience with an audience of people approaches a blissful communal experience. It's like standing in a crowd and realizing that everybody breathes the same air.

Our ending, today, in one act. Act one: endings.

REINVENTING RADIO: AN AFTERNOON WITH IRA GLASS, 3 p.m., Sunday, May 4, Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma, $29-$79, 253.591.5890

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