Roughly 650 episodes of This American Life over the course of 23 years have made Ira Glass — the show’s creator, host, and executive producer — one of the most recognizable voices in public radio. But longevity alone hasn’t made him so renowned. This American Life, which is heard each week by 2.2 million people, regularly transfixes its listeners by beautifully weaving together unexpected narratives.
Glass visited Tacoma’s Rialto Theater on June 24 to present Seven Things I’ve Learned, a multimedia engagement that offered insights into Glass’ life and career in storytelling.
Prior to his visit, Glass took a break from editing an upcoming episode of his radio show to speak with 425 by phone from New York City.
Q: In terms of the content on This American Life, the stories are so intimate and eclectic. Every time I listen to an episode, I think, “How do you find these people?” So, where do you get your subjects?
A: It’s a disturbingly random process. It’s a mix of stories that have been pitched to us, or one of us is interested in something, or we’ll just have an idea for a thing we want to try.
The truth is, most of the interviews we do, most of the people we reach out to, it doesn’t work out. The story doesn’t turn out to be quite as interesting as we thought, or the person isn’t a great talker. One of the reasons it seems like everyone is such an amazing speaker on the show is because we’ve eliminated the people who aren’t — most of them, anyway — before they ever make it to air.
Q: What percentage of people you interview don’t make it on the show?
A: An overwhelming number. Like 80 percent don’t make it on to the show. Probably more. We easily kill a third to half of the stories. So, most things we try don’t work out.
Q: Is that mostly because people have a hard time talking on (the) radio?
A: No. I think what we need often is so particular. We need someone to talk about an experience in such a particular way.
Q: Is there anyone that you have interviewed that you’re really jonesing to check back in with for an update?
A: I feel like the right answer to this question would be yes, because it would indicate that I’m a good person who’s still mulling about the hundreds of people we’ve interviewed. The fact is, I’m so worried about getting next week’s show on the air, I don’t have much time to do that. There definitely are people who I wonder about from specific stories, and occasionally I’ll reach out to them and just find out, like, “Hey, what’s up?” But that’s pretty rare.
Q: Is there a subject that you want to get into, but that you haven’t yet?
A: I mean, right now, like a lot of people, I feel very aware that we’re living in this historic time of change in our country. It’s completely fascinating and difficult and energizing and confounding to try and document that well, and document it in ways that other people aren’t already doing with excellent journalism. So, that is the project that’s most interesting to me right now.
Q: Where do you get your professional inspiration? Are there writers, publications, videographers, or other podcasts that you turn to, to help you develop your own craft?
A: There are definitely things that I hear or see or read that inspire me. Lately, I’ve been listening to The Daily, which is The New York Times’ podcast, (and) I can’t recommend (it) highly enough. They’re taking the news and doing it as narrative, which is obviously something we do on our show, and they do it 20 minutes a day. It’s the lead story, usually, from the day before, and it’s done so thoughtfully, and unpretentiously, and beautifully thought through. It’s just a model of thoughtful story selection, and focusing, and angle, and editing. You know, it’s just exciting to hear people do such good work day after day. And it’s nice to feel competitive with them. It’s nice to have someone doing work so good that I feel like, “Oh, I want to get in there and do something as good about the current moment and be exciting.”
Q: After creating roughly 650 episodes, how do you keep it feeling fresh, exciting, and interesting?
A: I work with a lot of people who haven’t done quite as many. So, it seems like every week people are coming up with ideas that we’ve never done that would be fun to try. I feel like in that way, the ecosystem of my feelings is very primitive. I’m like a dog that someone throws a ball to. I totally do get burned out and tired, but as soon as someone says, “Why don’t we do this?” I totally forget — wait, I was just tired. That would be fun, too. I’m both lucky and unlucky that I can be transfixed with an idea, with any story idea that seems exciting, and then just devote myself to it. That’s what keeps it feeling new.
As a staff, I feel like we’re all interested in doing stuff on the show that we’ve never done before, and stuff we haven’t heard anyone else do. Like, spend 24 hours at a 24-hour diner. Let’s follow a car dealership for one month as they try to make their sales goal. Let’s do every story from classified ads in one newspaper’s classified advertisement. Let’s make a musical — take a true story and make it into a musical. Let’s do a song from the point of view of Paul Ryan. It’s fun to make something new.
Q: How does Episode 1 compare to your latest episode? What’s changed? What’s stayed the same?
A: In Episode 1, I’m performing my lines differently. I sound different. It feels more like a live radio show than it does now. I wasn’t as used to performing, for sure.
Also, Episode 1 has way more artsy-ness to it. In the early years of the show, there was less hardcore investigative journalism than we do now, simply because we didn’t have the money. We were a staff of four people versus a staff of a dozen people now. We couldn’t take three weeks to work on a story — or, we could take three weeks, but we couldn’t take, like, three months to work on a story. We just didn’t have the staff for it.
Q: There are so many podcasts out there now. Is there any pressure to stand out against all of them? Or is that not something you even think about?
A: It’s not something I think about a lot. There was a period that we were never not the No. 1 podcast on iTunes. Now, on any given week, we might be, we might not be. Other people get up there all the time, and I notice for sure, because I’m very competitive.
But it’s not clear what it would mean to compete with other podcasts. All we can do is make the very best (and) most exciting show we know how (to do), and just hope the audience agrees with us. It’s not like I’m taking steps to study what all these other shows are doing and knocking them off. I have no interest in knocking anybody off. I feel the pressure of the competition, but I’m doing nothing at all different to beat the competition. Which, maybe, is the very definition of a loser (laughing). But I think we’re still going strong.
Q: You’ve done a lot of interviews, and you’ve probably been asked just about everything. Is there anything you wish people would ask you about? Is there anything you’d like to talk about?
A: The thing that I know a lot about, that I don’t think is generally interesting, and occasionally someone will ask me about and I feel so excited, is just questions about how to run the business of the radio show. Once a year, someone is starting up a podcast or starting up a radio show, and (they) say, “How do you do this?” And I always feel like I can totally talk about this. I had to figure it out on my own. It was really hard, and I totally have thoughts about how to run the business of a radio show — like, what to do in the pledge drives, or how to talk to the stations — that no normal person would have any interest in. But in order to have my job now, I had to become an expert in a lot of arcane details about the public radio system.