For two seasons on Showtime, we tried to make a television show that would feel exactly like the radio show. It won three Emmys, including Outstanding Nonfiction Series and Outstanding Direction for a Nonfiction Series.
We didn't go out looking to make TV. In fact, when the network first came calling, we tried to blow them off.
This was 2002, and we'd already given up on TV. You see, back in 1999, we'd spent a lot of time with some really talented TV people trying to figure out how to turn our radio show into a television show. We pitched the big networks (our host Ira Glass described this very strange experience in daily diaries for Slate) and we got offers from two networks to shoot a pilot, but we turned these offers down because it wasn't clear how to make a TV show that would feel anything like our radio show. After months of meetings and a small test shoot, we called it quits. We figured it couldn't be done.
But then Showtime called. It took five more years before we ended up on television.
Showtime hooked us up with Killer Films, the independent filmmakers behind Boys Don't Cry, Far from Heaven, I Shot Andy Warhol, Happiness, Kids, and lots of other films. Everything they do has an inventiveness and boldness. We also worked with a TV production company called Left/Right, who patiently showed us how to make a television show, how to make it good, and how to do it on budget. Often this required solving what seemed like unprecedented production questions. For instance: how do you make a budget and a production schedule for a television show when the staff spends at least half of every week producing a national radio program?
We agreed to try to make a pilot for a few reasons. First and foremost—and there's no high-minded way to say this—we thought it'd be fun. It seemed like a challenge to try to tell stories with pictures as well as words. We'd been doing the radio show for more than a decade; who knew if this chance would ever come around again?
Also, television is the medium of our age (well, strictly speaking, the Internet is the medium of our age, but we've always been one technological revolution behind). If we could pull this off, we'd be making a show that would reach a different audience, an audience that never listens to public radio.
Sometimes public radio listeners ask why we didn't do the series with PBS. The reason's simple: Showtime asked us to do television; PBS didn't. And Showtime turned out to be surprisingly easy to work with. We'd heard stories of networks giving "notes" that dumbed down shows or made them worse. Nothing like that ever happened with us. Showtime never asked us to do anything we thought was a bad idea. We made the show we wanted to make. We couldn't have done better at PBS.
Some things about the radio show were easy to duplicate on TV. Each week there are a bunch of stories organized around a theme. The stories are the same sorts we do on the radio, true stories about real people.
The hard part was everything else. First of all, there are lots of shows on television that tell true stories about real people: newsmagazines like 20/20, reality shows like Intervention and The Bachelorette, hard news documentaries like Frontline, and just about every single program on MTV. How could we make our show stand out from this crowd?
Also, and more importantly, how could we make the TV show feel the same as the radio show?
At one point, our cinematographer Adam Beckman and our director Chris Wilcha noted that the radio show has these reflective moments built into it, moments where the plot stops, and the people in the stories talk about how the experience changed them or their ideas about the world. We'd need these moments in the TV show, Chris and Adam said, for it to feel like the radio show. But what do you look at during those moments? What should the pictures be?
The answer ended up dictating a lot of the look of the television show.
It's shot in widescreen, carefully composed. The cameras are almost always on tripods so that it doesn't have that shaky documentary or reality show feeling. The goal is to make the show look, as much as possible, like a movie, and to have instances where the images themselves carry the story forward.
Weirdly, one of the most basic questions proved to be the most difficult to answer: where would our host, Ira Glass, be? We knew his voice would be part of the program, but once we decided that he should actually appear in the show (even this was up for grabs at the beginning), we had to confront what director Chris Wilcha called "the suffocating history of TV host clichés." It seemed like every imaginable way to film a TV host had been done: in a black void like Charlie Rose; on a fake living room set; strolling down a street with an interviewee, nodding meaningfully.
Finally, Chris declared that we should stop running away from TV host clichés and start running towards them. And what's the granddaddy of all TV host clichés? "The desk!" he proclaimed. "We're gonna get one of those David Letterman-Jon Stewart-Jay Leno desks, the kind of desk you never see except on TV. But the thing is, we're gonna put the desk out in the world!" One week the desk is on the salt flats in Utah, one week in a garage, one week by nuclear cooling towers. It embraces TV conventions, while kind of winking at them.
Of course, it was only after we were done that we realized that even this idea has been done before, by Monty Python. In Season Two, after further experimentation, we tried something very different. We ditched the desk and filmed Ira's bits for the show with a little Flip camera we bought at Best Buy for $149.
After two seasons we asked the network to take us off the air. It was too much work doing both the radio and television shows. We hope to return to TV someday, maybe with specials, maybe in some other form.
So here we are. You can read episode descriptions and watch trailers in our TV archive. DVDs of the first and second seasons are now on sale online everywhere and in our store. You can also download the entire first or second season from the iTunes Store. The best DVD product we put out is a limited edition, two-DVD set with both seasons, plus photos and essays by Ira and Chris and Adam and the rest of the staff. A good interview with Ira about Season Two is at The Onion; a nice Season One interview is on Fresh Air.