While Ira Glass refuses to admit that he has adoring fans or that he is a journalist’s icon, it’s hard to prove otherwise. Named best radio host in America by TIME Magazine, Glass hosts NPR’s This American Life, which is broadcast on over 500 stations nationwide to some 1.8 million listeners. In his weekly interviews, Glass has covered a lot of ground – from cattle ranches to a cruiser somewhere in the Arabian Sea, and everything in between. From the new issue of the Blue and White (on racks near you soon), contributor Mark Hay met up with Glass at the show’s Chelsea studios.
The Blue and White: What is your approach to storytelling and interviews?
Ira Glass: Stories on This American Life are narrative stories. That’s the way they’re different from a lot of things on TV or in journalism. That is, there’s a character, the character’s in a situation, there’s a plot, things happen to that character and they learn something from their experiences—or at least their experiences drive them toward some thought or some thought about the world that then they share with the audience. It’s very old school… it’s the most traditional way of telling a story.
B&W: In the past you’ve shied away from run-of-the-mill headline news stories. But I recall you in a recent episode saying that you felt bad for sitting out Kosovo.
IG: [Laughs] Yes. Well, I felt bad as a news consumer. At the beginning I didn’t get the characters straight and, “Wait, who’s who and which one is the one we like and which is the one that we’re not supposed to like?” And I kept waiting for the big New Yorker piece that was going to explain it all to me and, in fact, there even were a couple pieces like that, but then I didn’t get around to them. And I think people don’t generally talk about what our experience is as consumers of the news, but at least for me I know for sure there are entire news stories that seem too hard, and I just think, “I’m never going to figure that out.” And so I just sit it out.
And I’m not proud of it; I’m just observing it as a fact, and also in solidarity with everyone else who has to consume the news. When I moved to New York City, we’d see these stories about how they can’t get it together to actually build something at the World Trade Center site, and it just dragged on for years. And I always felt as a news consumer that [laughs] these are the most boring stories in the world, because it was all about the internecine politics of New York City and New York State and the Port Authority. Any story that includes the Port Authority is automatically boring. And I vowed to my wife that as long as I lived in New York, I would never read any of those stories. The whole, like, New York and New Jersey fighting… who cares…
B&W: It seems like that would have been perfect for you though, the New York politics… You have done a few shows where you’ve gone into, say, the rubber rooms in New York public schools. What ended up dragging you into those New York politics, and all of that?
IG: Truthfully, we haven’t done that much on New York politics. It would be a good story if there was something at stake. But I don’t really know, because I refuse to get involved in that story. You know what I mean, like, I’m too busy [scoffs] being obsessed with Iraq and Afghanistan and health care and the insurance business and the collapse of Wall Street. That’s a big enough agenda for me in my news consumption.
B&W: Your Giant Pool of Money stories [designed to explain different components of the recent economic crisis] have been excellent recaps in addressing those problems where things get confusing. So you have been transferring some of that guilt into producing these new shows [Glass laughs]. Where do you think that’s going to drive you?
IG: We’ve consciously decided as a show to take the way we tell a story – where there’s characters and scenes and funny moments and emotional stuff and all that – and apply it to stuff that’s in the news in the hope that it will make journalism be a little more engaging on those subjects. And they’re fun stories to do, and it’s really a challenge to do an entertaining hour on the writ of habeas corpus. It’s really like climbing Mount Everest [laughing]. We did that show, and…
B&W: I was impressed.
IG: It’s just interesting to try. And with the economic stories, that really came out of one of our producers not understanding the stuff he was reading and just thinking, “Well, there must be an explanation for this that makes sense.” I find often that that’s the best way – to go about trying to figure out what’s not being covered by other people. There’s a gap for us to cover. And the answer turns out to be really interesting. And I feel like asking the basic questions often drives you towards a nice story.
B&W: Why is that not happening more prominently in the news?
IG: The mission of daily journalism isn’t to explain in that way, I guess. And what we’re doing is kind of more appropriate for a weekly product than for a daily product. The thing in daily journalism that comes closest is Slate.
The mission of daily journalism is to figure out what happened today and provide a little moment of analysis, of “what does this mean?” Versus what we’re doing, which can take months, you know? Like our take on health care – it took us from July to October to put together. I think other organizations could do it, but they have other things they’re trying to do first.
I feel like there’s a kind of news-robot language that news organizations use in reporting in general, where you feel like – especially when it gets to economic stuff – the language that they do it in is very technical and they assume that you know what they’re talking about. And they don’t step back and just explain, “What is this all about? How did we get here?” They don’t talk in a normal person’s language. And I feel like that’s one of the things that radio in particular can address. Because radio just works better for talking in normal-person’s language.
Every year, journalism loses audience to commentary and opinion and comedy. And I feel like for journalism to hold its own it has to really talk the way the commentators talk. The ideal news show right now would be one that has the tone of The Daily Show, where you feel like the host is a guy who doesn’t have any particular political axe to grind. He leans this way or that way, but he’s pretty upfront about that. He talks about the news in a normal way, like the way you would with your friends, and reacts with surprise to stuff that’s surprising and is amused by stuff that’s amusing. I think you could do, actually, a mainstream news show in that tone, or even a news paper in that tone, where it wasn’t… as much as I love the New York Times and read it every single day… in the dry kind of tone of the New York Times.
B&W: So do you think that you’ll just be on radio forever then? No gentle migration toward another medium as an equal part, or maybe even more?
IG: Right now, that’s what I think. I can imagine feeling like, “Okay, we’ve done this enough years as a staff and let’s stop and let’s invent something else.” I could imagine getting attracted by another project, like a daily news broadcast with a completely different tone than anything that’s done as news now. Or even a newspaper done with a different tone. Both those seem like really exciting projects that I bet somebody will do, and there’s a part of me where I want to do it. But I can also imagine, and I also think that the most likely thing is, you know, I’m better suited to this job than I am toward anything else, actually. And one of the things I feel like I learn when we try to make a TV show or work on a movie is, I feel like we did a really nice job for the network and I feel like we made some nice shows, but I feel like as radio producers, I and my colleagues here, we’re as good as, if not better than, anyone in the world. If we’re not number one, we’re certainly tied with the other people who really know what they’re doing. And, whereas TV, I think there are a lot of people who know more about making TV. So these other experiences just reinforce what a nice situation we’re in with radio, where we have an audience, we know really what we’re doing, and we’re good at it.
B&W: It seems like so much of this, when you look back at the history of This American Life, the show came together just by such chance – that you would get people like David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, yourself, all in the same studio creating something that people really want to consume. How much of what you do absolutely happens by chance?
IG: A disturbing amount of it. I met David Sedaris, for example, before he had published any books, but he was already writing, and his work was just as good then as it is now, and I just happened to be the first person to bring him to a national audience. So that’s just crazy luck.
I think a lot of making things for a living is luck. Inevitably. And I think that that’s okay, especially to make a show like ours. For us to find three or four stories that we really love enough to put on the radio, we’ll run at fifteen or twenty stories and go into production on seven or eight stories, and then throw out half of those. All you need is for luck to kick in on some of them.
When I was in college, I wish somebody had been more explicit about how hard it is to find ideas for stuff that you’re making. Like if you want to write songs or make movies or be a writer, or anything like that – I wish that somebody had taken me aside and said, “Okay, it seems really hard for you to come up with an idea for something. That’s appropriate [laughs]. That is really hard [laughing].” It’s always inevitably a numbers game if you want to do something good – you surround yourself with a lot of people and a lot of ideas, and you start making your thing, and hopefully something will come forward, and you’ll get lucky. My experience is you always get lucky if you’re willful enough about it. I discovered when I was in my twenties, and I started trying to make work, that if I would spend even more hours on it, luck would kick in on some story. And then you have to be ready to throw stuff out, too. You’re making room for the better stuff that’s going to come.
B&W: You seem to have such a great empathy, such compassion for so many different types of people. All the people that you’ve talked to on this show. Do you ever meet people who you just patently can’t stand?
IG: I do have a much higher tolerance for people. And it’s rare for me to meet people who I can’t stand. And this comes up all the time with my wife, where we’ll be at a party and someone will be totally annoying to her and, truthfully, to everyone. And I’ll still be thinking through the math of, like, “why are they this way?” I don’t know why that happens, it’s just how I feel.
…Should we talk at all about college at all? Because I started off at one college, at Northwestern, and I transferred halfway through to another college, to Brown, and I was really lost for a long time. Somehow I get the feeling now that people who enter college are a little more prepared than I was. Is that true?
B&W: Almost freakishly, yes.
IG: Anyway, I was a terrible writer for a long time. I started at NPR when I was 19 and at the time I was a really great tape editor, but a terrible writer, terrible reporter, and I was in my late twenties before I could do that. And I find that period just really typical. I feel like, if anything, I got stuck in it longer than most people. Most people come out of it when they’re 22, 23 but I was really lost until I was 27 and was kind of a late bloomer, you know? And I wish that there had been people who had gone through that who would have said to me, “This is normal, to be lost. And to also have ambitions to make stuff, or to write.”
But I would have the experience where I was making radio stories – I could tell that they weren’t that great. I could tell that they weren’t what I wanted them to be. And I didn’t know what to do. I’m basically a pretty optimistic person, I feel like things are going to work out, but it was really rough going and my parents were 100 percent against everything that I was doing and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t getting a decent job for a smart kid – going to med school. I think a lot of people face that, too.
B&W: The TV show: you got some very great reviews. And that was, to me, a very heartening sign that you could transfer this radio show into another medium.
IG: I feel like it worked out rather nicely. I wish more of our core fan base, the people who knew us from the radio, had gotten to see the TV show, but I feel like most people didn’t migrate over. And my sense is that people just had a feeling like, “Yeah, I like those guys, but I’m good with them. You know, like I’m good. I’m getting it once a week.” [Laughs] “I don’t need anything else. Eh, pictures, whatever.”
B&W: The last time I checked, the show This American Life was being beamed to New Zealand. This whole issue of the name and the discontinuity between This American Life and your international fan base – can you speak to that?
IG: To me, This American Life is just a name. If you go into the bathroom in our office, you’ll see on the wall the piece of paper I used to take notes on while we were deciding on the name and you’ll see all the names that we rejected. And This American Life is written down there at the bottom somewhere in pen because it wasn’t even on the list that we came into the meeting with. We are American as reporters, and so anything we do is American. We’ve done plenty of shows overseas now, plenty of shows on people who aren’t Americans; American-ness doesn’t matter. It’s sort of like we carry that with us; it’s luggage that we can’t lose at the airport. So, This American Life: since the show is so casual, it’s nice that the name would have a faux grandeur to it.