Ira Glass, creator of the long-running public radio program This American Life, has become a new generation’s answer to Garrison Keillor. Like Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion variety show before it, This American Life, though a very different kind of show, has become required listening for a wide swath of people, and its tone—at once playful and earnest, structured yet easygoing—owes a great deal to the demeanor of its host, though its tone and host are considerably less folksy than Keillor.
Of course, the affable, self-deprecating Glass might not agree, but he’d probably be too polite to say so. Maybe a slight chuckle, a pause, and a change of subject.
Still, it’s hard to argue with the numbers: every week, nearly 3 million people listen to his “documentary show for people who normally hate documentaries.” Both show and host have won a raft of awards, including, for Glass, the Edward R. Murrow Award (the public broadcasting equivalent of winning all the Oscars). In short, after 18 years on the air, Glass is not a competitor—he’s an heir.
This Saturday, he returns to Northampton for an engagement at the Calvin. His one-man show is both drawn from This American Life and separate from it, with Glass pulling back the curtain on how the program is pulled together: where they find their subjects, what works and doesn’t, and why. As he builds his story, he uses music and sound clips from the show to create the sort of atmosphere that has made This American Life such a mainstay. He was on assignment when the Advocate caught up with him to ask him a few questions.
Ira Glass: So I’m at this car dealership.
Valley Advocate : Anything exciting?
Yeah, it’s been great. It’s been really, like, a wonderful thing to get to work on. [Laughs.] I love my job.
We’re watching these deals go down, it’s just completely interesting, and just like exactly what you would want a story to be. It’s five of us reporting at this one car dealership, just daily life, and they’re coming to the end of the month, and they’ve got to make their numbers, and... yeah.
So do you actually get to get out and report and record yourself much these days?
Mm-hmm. I mean, it has to be done tactically, because there’s so much work to get each episode on the air. I have to be back in the office for a lot of that, but if we organize it right, then I can... whenever I can, it’s so fun.
I’m sure. And you’ve spent pretty much your entire life in radio, right?
Yeah. I mean, I started when I was 19.
So things have definitely changed—it’s a world of difference in a lot of ways, I would imagine.
Though, weirdly, it feels so similar. When I was 19 or 20, my job was like: think of something that might be interesting to do, and to try, then go out and try it, you know what I mean? Sort of wander around, try to think of something to ask the people. You get the tape and try to figure it out...so weirdly, as different as it now, it feels like I’ve had the same job since I was a teenager.
How we consume radio now seems so different, even from a few years ago, really. It seems so rare now that I turn on the radio and listen for a specific show at a specific time.
Yeah, me, too. Me, too.
So now, with on-demand stuff, podcasts, does that change how you guys do your job in terms of what you produce, or how it gets produced?
It doesn’t really change it, except in one really tiny, small, technical way. Thinking about it, all those changes in the way the show gets delivered to people—basically, we’re just doing the same show that we did, but now people can get it over podcasting and the Internet and all that, in addition to the radio. And one of the things that’s happened over the last 10 years is that podcasting has gone from being none of our audience to being a million people a week. So it’s a third of our audience now, while the radio audience stayed the same.
Like a decade ago, the radio audience was 1.8 million, and now it’s 2 million. One of the things that public radio stations have been worried about for the last 15 years was, would the Internet basically cannibalize the audience in a way that people wouldn’t listen to their public radio stations anymore?
And what’s happened is that up until about two or three years ago, it didn’t seem to be happening. And then in the last two or three years, you see people turning off their radios in numbers, and then more and more people—like a substantial number of people—just migrating over to a different way to hear the same material.
But in terms of how it changes our job, weirdly, the main way is that now we have people listening on headphones. And so, when you’re editing audio, there are certain edits that you can get away with on radio that you can’t get away with if people are listening on headphones, because they hear every little change in the background sound.
So now, when we make edits, we have to actually listen on headphones, and not just listen through speakers sitting on our desk... It’s not exactly the kind of global, epic, paradigm-shifting thing, but when I get back to those old shows, I totally hear those edits.
You’re coming to Northampton, and doing this live show...
I’m doing a talk. I’m doing a talk.
Right. It’s not a This American Life . But it draws from that, and has similar elements, yes?
Yes, yes, very much so.
I haven’t seen the live show. I’m picturing a Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape kind of situation: you’re onstage with some equipment, maybe a desk, maybe a lectern? What can we expect?
[Laughs.] I love that you’re bringing up Krapp’s Last Tape. That’s like a really—you really live in a college town, like where people would even know what you’re talking about. That’s really impressive.
My goal is to be both more profound and more depressing than Krapp’s Last Tape. If I can achieve that, then I believe I’ve achieved my goal. But no, it’s different than that. It used to be that the way I would do the show is that I would be given a mixing console and CD players, and I would sit at a table and that would let me play clips from the show, and put music underneath things, and basically recreate the sound of the radio show around me as I speak.
But now the technology has changed so much that, basically on an iPad, I can have a little mixer with all the clips and music and everything. And so I can wander around the stage the way that a stand up comedian would, and play clips and talk, and play music. It’s way more fun for me to be moving around.
And then the show itself is a mix of me talking about how we put together the radio show, and playing a lot of stuff that just never made it onto the air for one reason or another. Some of it is stuff that—I wouldn’t consider it dirty, but it’s illegal to play on the radio under current FCC rules, in a way that’s sort of fascinating to me. This content would hurt no one, but under the law now we can’t play it on the radio. And then other stuff just for reasons that are kind of interesting: stories that couldn’t be broadcast. Mainly the whole show is an excuse to play really funny or really emotional stuff from the last couple years.
And it’s just you? A one man band?
It’s just me. Right now I’m also touring sometimes with a dance company, but for this show it’s just me.
How is it you and dancers—what’s the connection?
I’ve been working up a dance show, where I tell stories and they dance. It’s just a really—it sounds like it would be awful, I know—but in fact it’s super fun to do. And it works out really nicely.
It actually sounds like a throwback to older kinds of storytelling, in a weird way.
Yes, and by older, I mean 14,000 to 38,000 years before the birth of Christ. Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.] Traditionally it’s been in front of a fire, in a remote part of the world.
You’ve been here before—the Northeast seems like such a public radio mecca.
For public radio...to come to Northampton, it’s home territory, for sure. I would say that it’s possible that there’s nowhere in America that I am more famous than on Main Street in Northampton. It’s possible that, per capita, I’ll be recognized by more people there than anywhere else. [Laughs.] If you can’t be recognized as a public radio person in Northampton, than you’ve failed to do your job correctly.
Where else are you headed? Is this a big tour for you?
No, no...since the radio show went on the air in the mid-’90s, every month I would go to a different city to kind of publicize the show. Because we’re a public radio show, we don’t have an advertising budget. And so the way that we promote the show—and this is true of other public radio shows as well—is, we go out. We go out on tour. So this was the easiest way to go on tour, where once a month I could fly out on a Saturday morning and give a talk, and fly back on Sunday morning. So that’s been going on since we became a national show, and in places like Northampton it’s super fun to do because people do know the show.
Absolutely—you’re rock star material here, trust me.
Rock star material—but without drugs or any of the other things that go with it.
Maybe a really strong latte.
[Laughs.] Yeah, it’s sad.•