This American Life went on the air in Chicago in 1995 and became nationally syndicated seven months later. In the subsequent decade and a half, executive producer and host Ira Glass has become an icon for those of us who tune in to NPR weekly to hear his “unexpected stories that happen to be true.” One week before his visit to Oberlin as a part of the 2011 Convocation series, the Review got Ira on the phone for a chat that ran topics from the journalistic revolution to reality TV to the simple pleasure of eating carbohydrates.
The executive producer and host of This American Life will speak at Oberlin on Saturday.
In 1978, you were 19 years old and you needed a summer job. Somehow you wound up at NPR?
Yeah, I talked my way into an internship. I lived in Baltimore and NPR was in D.C. I had never heard them on the air. Nobody had ever heard them on the air, really. They were tiny, they had one national news show at that time, and it was All Things Considered. NPR only really came to exist in 1970, so it was very new and very small, and I was able to talk myself into working there for free for a summer after my freshman year of college.
Was it love at first sight with broadcast journalism?
It’s funny; I wasn’t even doing journalism at the beginning. I was in the promos department, and it wasn’t a love at first sight thing. What it was was a really fun summer job, and I didn’t think about it beyond that. It’s fun to write and edit and mix and all that stuff, and I liked it. And then one of the producers who I did promos for was the guy who was on staff to invent new ways to do radio documentary, and he hired me as his production assistant after my sophomore year. I just learned a tremendous amount from him, and then I got interested in doing documentary stories.
You went back every summer throughout college?
This is skipping ahead a bit: so you started This American Life in 1995, and in 1999 the American Journalism Review said that you were “in the vanguard of a journalistic revolution.” It seems to me that what goes on in This American Life is just so simple, and obvious, even — these are interesting stories, and we’re going to talk to people and find out more.
[Laughs.] That’s kind of a funny way to put it.
So what is it, in your eyes, that makes it so revolutionary?
Truthfully, there’s always been a strain of this in American journalism. I don’t want to act like we invented something. Studs Terkel made an whole career out of talking to everyday people about their experiences and their job in World War II and growing up on the west side of Chicago, or whatever. So we didn’t invent this. And even in public radio there are other people who do stories where there are characters and themes and feelings.
So I think what’s newish about what we’re doing is to have a place where you can regularly turn to each week that’s such a visible exemplar of this kind of thing. Because I think that kind of reporting often ends up being the kind of one feature-y story in the newspaper, or the one feature-y story in broadcast, and to have people aggressively making an hour of it each week kind of reminded everybody who was listening, “Oh, right, these stories are kind of cool! That’s one way you could do it, isn’t it?” So we became the most visible exemplar of it.
There’s another guy who does a really good job of it, who was really very, very visible about the same time I started This American Life, whose name is David Isay, and he was doing these really beautiful documentary stories exactly in the style of This American Life, with characters and scenes, and it was very memorable. And I was always getting credit for doing his work. People would tell me, “I really loved that story that you did,” and then they would tell me about one of his stories.
I think what happened was that we simply became the poster boys for this style of journalism. I think the elements that make it seem so different are, number one, that it has no news peg. Usually if a normal person appears in the newspaper or in the news broadcast or appears in the subject of journalism, it’s either because they’re the victim of a catastrophe of some sort, or the victim of a crime, or they became exceptional in some way that made them newsworthy. And so to just do stories documenting actual, ordinary life— that still is not done that much. Just the notion that you’re hearing people who are exactly human-scale still seems kind of new.
When we came up doing it, another person who was really influential was my friend Paul Tough, who was an editor at Harper’s Magazine, at that point editing the reading section. He was also very interested in this kind of thing, in getting all these voices out there in a much more raw way than usual. And then the trick of doing this kind of reporting — and maybe this is way more detail than it’s worth going into — the trick of it is that once you have it be ordinary people, then you’re in this bad position where, chances are, it’s going to be boring, or precious. And so you actually need the stories to have an incredibly compelling plot for them to work for broadcasting.
Do you ever feel like you’re creating fiction?
The structural tools are those of constructing fiction. Like, the situations that I’ve been in where we’ve taken pieces of fiction and adapted them for the show, it feels exactly the same as doing a nonfiction story. You really have to think about what’s the feeling that you’re creating in this scene, and this scene, and this scene, and what’s the overall arc of it, and what’s this character’s arc, and what’s that character’s arc. I’ve just spent months, actually, with a friend editing and reediting and reediting this script for his movie, and it doesn’t feel any different than constructing the show.
You did this series of YouTube clips talking about what makes a story good — the importance of the anecdote and the bait. Something that stood out to me was when you said that “not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.” Could you sort of expand on that, and the process that you guys go through with finding stories that are worth listening to?
I think when you’re about to do creative work, nobody talks to you about where ideas come from. That’s somehow a weirdly undiscussed part of the creative process. Which is strange, because it’s a huge part of the creative process, and it’s one of the most difficult. But instead, we all get taught how to construct a paragraph, and how to use the digital editing system, and how to do HTML code for Wordpress, and nobody ever talks to us about what’s actually the engine behind the whole thing — which is, well, where are you going to get an idea? And my experience of it is that, to get an idea, you have to surround yourself with other ideas, because an idea comes from other ideas, and you have to surround yourself with stuff and information and stories that you like and things that you like and just notice where you have questions, and what piques your interest, and what you want explained. When you start to surround yourself with something that’s interesting to you, that will lead you to your next idea.
It’s not a very coherent end-decision way to go about things, and basically you have to run at a lot of stuff. If you want anything to be good, you have to run at a lot of stuff knowing that a certain portion of it isn’t going to work, and you have to be able to recognize, okay, now it’s time to give up on this. So… so… I don’t know, there’s something in that process of running at that stuff bravely, and trying to make it work and figuring out what to throw away, that I think is really important if it’s going to be any good.
All I’ve done is restate the exact sentence that you’ve quoted to me, so this has been a really terrible quote that I’ve given you and I’m really sorry.
Not at all! How much of a percentage would you say you guys end up killing at the end — you’ll try a story and it just won’t work?
We kill a huge amount of material. Sometime when the show began and we really didn’t have that much money, it was built into the budget that we would be killing a tremendous amount of material. Usually in broadcast you don’t kill very much; in broadcast journalism, if somebody goes out on a story, 95 percent of the time or more that story will be on the air that day because you have a hole to fill and that many reporters and you run a business. Our kill-ratio — from the beginning, we’ve always assumed that it would be a third to a fourth of everything we do. But in practice, it can be even more.
For example, this show that I’m working on for two weeks from now, it was unclear whether we should do a show whose theme was reality shows — about TV reality shows — or if we should shift the theme and make it about guardian angels. And we have an anchor story basically that’s about guardian angels who, at one point, shoot a reality show about themselves as part of it, and then we’ve collected a bunch of other stories. There’s this really amazing essay we have from this one guy, this piece that’s fiction that one of our contributors just happened to have on the shelf, something he’d sort of written for something else. Then I did an interview with one of the producers of The Hills that is really entertaining. The question is, should we do that? Or should we throw out all of that stuff and just use the guardian angel piece for a different show? And I think in the end we’re probably going to kill the reality show stuff, or actually we’re going to try to save one or two of those pieces for future things, but we’re going to kill the rest.
And I think in a practical way, often we’ll have an idea for a show and [between] the time we have an idea for a show and the time the show goes on the air, three or four months will pass or more, and we’ll go through 15 or 20 story ideas, and look into them, and maybe get a little tape, or have somebody do a draft, and then we’ll kill, you know, everything but the three or four that end up on the air. And so the real kill ratio, if you look at the number of ideas, is more like — we’re only running one out of four things that we ever kind of research and look into.
It’s weirdly exhausting, and it’s weirdly, like, you don’t know how to judge whether you’ve made the right decision. You end up just kind of talking about it over and over, because it’s almost like you’re imaging two such different things. The guardian angel show has an opening anecdote which I recorded the interview for on Wednesday, and I’m like, “That’s okay, but not as funny as the guy from The Hills,” which was amaaazing! And I mean, you sort of go through the show beat by beat, but then we did a kind of reality-show thing a couple months ago, and I’m worried, and then one of the stories in our reality show lineup accidentally… what happened is that it got so good that it’s going to have its own show. But then that really is a story about a reality show, and can we come back with another hour of other stories about reality shows? You end up having to judge all of these things that are both aesthetic questions and also production questions. Which honestly is part of what makes a job like this kind of fun, too, but there’s a lot of kind of creating stuff, and then having a good fit to make it kind of entertaining, and then just — killing it.
Like, if we have to kill that interview with the Hills guys, I don’t know what I’m going to say to him because he was an ideal interviewee. He was, literally, a perfect interviewee.
He had exactly the right attitude about reality TV. And he was inside of it, so encyclopedic in his knowledge, and he was really opinionated in a really funny way, and he was both kind of like one of us, as viewers, and one of them, as an expert. And he just had a lot of funny stories. And then he had a nice personal story, too. So he hadn’t really thought it through.
That sounds great. I’m putting in a request for you guys to finish the reality TV show.
It seems that around 2007, you went through this phase of doing a lot of visual stuff — there was the Showtime show, and a few live shows and broadcasts. Was that a deliberate decision on your part?
No. No. No. Much like the decision to get into radio, the decision to go into TV and cinema events — there was no deliberateness. It was like a drunk person stumbling… into… a… church.
Yeah, you didn’t know that’s where the sentence was going! And neither did I when I started it. No, like, we just kind of happened to end up there. A TV network came to us and said, “Do you want to do TV?” And we said “no” for a really long time, and they kept kind of rephrasing it in different ways and then it just seemed like, oh sure, let’s shoot 20 minutes. And then it seemed really fun, and you’re doing it. I don’t know. I think I wouldn’t want to overstate the thoughtfulness with which anything has happened in relation to This American Life. I think a lot of it — of what’s happened with the show and the history of the show, starting with its existence — has not been anything smarter than a bunch of us sitting in a room saying, “Hey, that might be fun!”
I saw a couple of the episodes of the TV show, and the cinematography is really beautiful.
Yeah, we lucked out there. Actually, the guy who was the cinematographer and the guy who was the director really gave the show a feeling and a look that amateurs in television didn’t really deserve. [Laughs] They made us seem like we really had it together and we really knew what we were doing, so that was a really lucky break. That cinematographer is actually filming a movie for us now — making a movie out of one of the stories from the radio show with this comedian named Mike Birbiglia. As you and I speak, we are entering our fourth week of principal photography with one week yet to go.
Have any This American Life movies been made before?
There was one that was made years and years ago. And that was one that we didn’t have much to do with except to say, “Sure, give us a check and make the movie!” It was called Unaccompanied Minors, and Paul Feig (who directed Bridesmaids, and was one of the creators of Freaks and Geeks with Judd Apatow) was the director. It was a Warner Bros. film, and it was okay. It was okay. I think pretty much everything that Paul Feig has done in his life is better than that film, and I think he would say the same thing, because he’s pretty awesome. But it was okay.
After the couple of years of being seen, were you happy to go back into just radio?
Yes! Yeah. It’s nice not having to think about what you look like.
I heard you had to have your ears taped back during the show?
I had my ears taped back, yeah. And I’ve gained about 15 pounds since then, and I don’t give a fuck.
Back to eating starches and carbohydrates?
That’s true! I am! Yeah, back to eating, yeah, exactly! And when I eat them, I think like, now I can do this!
You’ve often said that radio is for driving. Why do you think the car is so perfect of an atmosphere for listening to radio?
A car is perfect because there’s exactly enough other stimulation to keep your mind busy. Cooking is also really good because you have to do a task, so part of your brain is doing a task, but the task isn’t really that hard — cooking or driving. So it’s nice to have something there that’s not visual to keep you company. I guess that’s it. It’s not more sophisticated than that. And I do know from my own experience that that’s the most satisfying radio listening that I do. I mean, I listen to a lot of stuff as podcasts. And I live in New York City now, I moved to New York to do TV, and then we all just stayed after we quit television. And I have a dog, so I’m out with the dog a lot, listening to Radiolab, and Fresh Air, and the Planet Money podcast, and Marc Maron, and it’s good, but weirdly it’s not as good as being in a car. There’s something… a car is like a perfect listening room, you know?
When you picture your ideal audience, do you picture them in a car?
No. I don’t picture anybody at all. All I picture is like I’m just talking to a person, but I don’t picture where they are and I don’t picture what they look like. I’ve talked to other radio people who do, like one of the old All Things Considered hosts and NPR hosts, I know that she would picture talking to her husband. She would picture specifically speaking to her husband. But I don’t need to engage the power of imagination that much. I guess I could try to imagine I was talking to her husband, because that seemed to work great for her. But I don’t picture anything like that. It’s more like, I bet, when you write an article — you don’t picture where anybody’s going to read it or anything like that. You just think, how am I going to make this sentence so that people read to the next sentence? And that’s more my experience of it.
In fact, the entire production of my show is more about what is interesting to me. You know, like when I’m writing something I’m thinking, “What can I say that would make me want to keep listening?” And that’s everybody on the show, all eight of us. We talk about that, and that’s how we all respond to it. We all edit each other’s stories, and we listen to each other’s stories, and we try to be really mindful about, you know, here’s where my attention wandered, and here’s where I didn’t quite understand. And some shows are really interesting puzzles for that.
Like last week we did a 10th anniversary 9/11 show. That’s one of the shows where it’s just, like, an insane narrative puzzle because you go into to understanding that no one wants to hear anything about 9/11. That’s just the premise. And so you have to do something to get past that. Like, no one wants to hear a show about 9/11, it’s just like, we are all bored with it. We all don’t want to dive back into sadness, and also we’ve heard everything that you could possibly hear about 9/11. But then 9/11 comes around and it’s like Christmas, you can’t do anything about it, there it is, it’s 9/11. And so you have to figure out, well, are we going to do anything? Well, we should do something. And then to decide, to do something, it really becomes kind of a tactical choice to decide how do you do it so that you yourself would actually stay tuned past the first 10 seconds.
Did you see the Onion article about how news broadcast channels had agreed only to do ten minutes of 9/11 coverage each this year?
[Laughs.] Yeah… The truth is, I understand the tenth anniversary stuff, but last year, on the ninth anniversary… I felt, like, really confused. And just like, why are we celebrating the ninth anniversary of September 11th? What is there to say? Like, who… And I hope that number 10 kind of puts it to bed.
The president of entertainment at Showtime called you “the wizard behind the curtain.” Do you ever wish that you were in front of the curtain again, and not totally in creative control?
I feel like being in front of the curtain would be like being the puppet, having someone write my words for me. I mean… It’s a hard question to answer because I feel like I’m not actually the wizard behind the curtain, because I feel like what I’m doing is way more straightforward and that there is no curtain at all, you know what I mean? I’m the person who’s writing and editing my own stories, and then you hear me read them, and I think that in the stories I don’t seem like a different character than who I actually am, you know what I mean? Pretty much the design of this kind of reporting, it only works if I’m having my own real reactions to stuff; the stuff I think is funny, I act like I think it’s funny, and the stuff that seems interesting, I act really interested, so I think the problem in the whole construction goes back to the premise, which makes it really hard to answer, because I don’t feel like there’s much of a curtain. And I do a lot of my own reporting, you know? I did a half-hour story about a guy at an amusement park a couple weeks ago. I flew to Kansas City and met some random guy who’s the games guy at an amusement park, and, you know, wrote a half-hour story on him, and it wasn’t any different from when I was a reporter. It was exactly the same experience. I talked to a lot of people, took some notes, came back, wrote it into a story, and it was the same as when I was 25.
I’m sure you’re aware that two of your staff are Oberlin grads, Alex Blumberg ’89 and Ben Calhoun ’01.
I am very aware of that. And another very close friend of mine, Robert Krulwich [’65] is an Oberlin grad.
All three of them were here this past spring for a symposium that the Review put on, so we got to meet all of them.
What was that like? What were your impressions?
Well, they were all on the same panel about public radio broadcast and the room was packed. It was this tiny little room, and these guys were sitting at the front with a moderator, and then there were about 200 students packed into this little lecture hall that was only supposed to seat about a quarter of that. And it was really interesting, they had clips to play for us, to demonstrate the difference there was between just having words, and then having words with sound effects and background noise to get the message across. And Alex Blumberg kept namedropping you.
In what context? To do what?
I kind of forget, but he kept being like, “Oh yes, as Ira said the other day…”
That’s really funny. That’s very sweet. I feel very proud that he would even feel like he has to bother at this point!
Yes, you were very much a presence in the room. But for me, hearing these voices on the radio all the time, it’s interesting to put faces to them.
Yeah. Usually that’s a disappointing experience, but yeah, I understand that.
Oh, no, girls were whispering about Ben.
Ben is so cute! Ben is like… Okay, for a normal person, he’s cute, but then for someone who works in radio, Ben is like an exploding nova of cute. [Laughs] Even against normal people he’s cute, but in the real world, it’s like, blinding! He might be the Brad Pitt of…
Of public radio?
Of public radio? Of all radio broadcast! Simply by being a normal, good-looking person — [lowers voice] he’s literally walking by my office right now, I hope he’s not hearing this — I feel like, yeah. Commercial radio, satellite radio, public radio, all radio, like, yeah. That’s the reason why people go into a profession where no one will see them, because they don’t want anyone to see them!
Yeah, he’d never have to get his ears taped.
That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. It actually says that above his desk in Latin.
But I brought that up because I was wondering what you have heard about Oberlin, if anything.
What have I heard about Oberlin… Actually, one of the original producers of the show, Alix Spiegel ['94], went there too. I mean, I know that you guys have a great music school. Oh, my friend Lucy Wainwright Roche ['03], who’s actually going to be onstage with me at the event, she’s from Oberlin. All I know is that there’s a lot of music there, and that… it’s funny, I do have a very clear picture in my head of what Oberlin is. Um… but I’m not sure if I could articulate it so well on the spot. I think of it as an unusually good school, but not good in the MIT way. Good more like a lot of creative people… who are nice…
…And not dicks. Yeah, like, there’s a lot of liberal arts schools, but because there are so many people I know who’ve been there, I think of it as one of the best. I have no data for that, except I just know a bunch of people who went there. Liz Phair, she’s another one I know who went there. She was there with Alex, Alex knew her when he was there.
Everyone is very excited for you to come to Oberlin. You’re sort of a pop culture icon here.
I think that’s very sad. I think that says more about Oberlin than anything you’ve said so far, that I would be a pop culture icon there. I feel like if I had to summarize it in a sentence, that’s what Oberlin is: Oberlin is the one school in America where I would be a pop culture icon, for better or for worse. [Laughs]
It’s true. The former Editor-in-Chief of the Review actually wore glasses very similar to yours.
Aww. Aww! That’s nice.
Did you know that there’s an entry on Urban Dictionary for “Ira glasses?”
Yeah. [Reads] “A pair of glasses that look like those worn by Ira Glass, host of This American Life, characterized by prominent black frames. A favorite of the literati and intellectuals since the 1960s.”
Wow. Okay! Just knowing that, I feel like my work is done. Mission accomplished! Thank goodness.