Q&A: Ira Glass
National Public Radio listeners recognize Ira Glass’s voice instantly from his more than two decades as host of This American Life, the weekly broadcast/podcast that imparts stories based around a theme. Glass does live outreach and events, though, and is no stranger to Las Vegas as Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen found out when he spoke with him in advance of his Feb. 11 Seven Things I’ve Learned: An Evening with Ira Glass appearance at the Smith Center.
How was the first Monday of the Trump era at This American Life? There’s some semiotic significance in this interview, for sure.
How was it there?
It was just another day at the office, actually. I agree with you, though. This week is kind of a momentous week because I feel like we have this president who’s committed to dramatic revolutionary change and a congress who seems to agree with him on some things and not on others. It’s just going to be really interesting to see what’s about to happen.
It seems like less of a change in eras than epoch, and we’re right at that point in history. I imagine that’s having a major effect on your editorial planning: how do you speak to that or adapt to that, or help your listeners adapt?
I don’t think it’s our job to help anybody through anything (laughs) other than just understand what’s happening. For us, since our job is to document what’s going on in the country, our big thing now is what’s going to be most interesting for us to point our microphones at. Also, what stuff to do that other media is not doing. A lot of what we’ve been waiting on is for Trump to come into office so we can see which are going to be the first things on his agenda, which would be the most interesting ones to look at and which things are being overlooked. And already, even in the last two or three days since the inauguration, I feel like certain things have popped up a little more quickly than we thought they would. And so that’s interesting, and then I think there’s a lot of miscommunication between those who are supporters of the president and people who don’t like him, and I feel like just documenting what people are thinking and why they think it, and trying to do a job of that, and trying to do it in a way that you can’t hear elsewhere, that’s another thing we’re doing.
I think you achieved that with the recent segment on the Trump meme folks who were congratulating themselves on winning the election for him (608: The Revolution Starts At Noon, Jan. 20, 2017). It was fascinating. I felt like the way they were expressing themselves had just been widely unleashed this weekend.
Yeah, you’re talking about our story on people who attended the DeploraBall as part of the inauguration festivities, and they just kind of lay out their case that angry, snarky memes won Trump the presidency. And they make a real case, like … I mean, I think it’s a lot more than them that won the presidency, but they definitely set a tone and a climate, and definitely, I think, influenced how people saw Hillary Clinton. It was interesting hearing from them directly. There’s an incredible, wonderful article in The New Yorker (Jan. 23, 2017) that covers the same material without talking to them called “Jokes Won the Election” that really makes the case as well. Those two things—hearing Zoe Chase’s reporting on our show when she started talking to those people and reading that article—did totally change how I was seeing the election.
What were you working on today? What is Monday in the weekly process for This American Life?
This Monday was a day of frantically trying to do some edits on some stories, and plan out some stories for our next two episodes. There’s a story about Hawaii that we just spent about four hours going through. We heard a draft that was an hour, six minutes and 32 seconds long, which is exactly seven minutes and 32 seconds longer than our program. And then on the air, in the end, I’ll bet that story will be 25 minutes. What we heard was a first draft that was a real sprawl with lots of extra scenes, a lot more moments, a lot more characters than will be in the final version. We all talked about what were our favorite parts and is it in the right order, does it set out a mission properly at the beginning, and made a lot of changes. And really a lot of the heart of making our show work is just editing and re-editing and re-editing the story. By the time that story’s on the air it will probably go through four or five complete edits. In the edits, what you do for a radio show is the reporter reads the script out loud and plays the quotes, and you hear it in order and you hear it the way people will hear it sound without the music, of course, because that gets added later. And talk about what’s working and what isn’t, and go over every single sentence and every little turn in the plot. This is just the first step. One of the things in the talk I’ll be giving at the Smith Center is talking about this process and how we make the thing, and playing stuff that doesn’t make it onto the air.
I read your manifesto at Transom.com as well as David Grech’s account of going through the process (This American Life Tic Tock). It’s a long read and you go into a lot of detail, but the process is fascinating.
I mean, I think it’s not that much different than what goes on at a magazine, but because we’re a weekly show and not a daily show we have the luxury of being able to be way more intense about it and go through way more passes on it.
It’s still hard to fathom how you get away to do these live appearances. I think you’re doing 15 of these shows this year, but I didn’t realize until I did research how much you get out of the studio. How do you manage to maintain the pace you’ve adjusted to?
I’d say it’s a combination of fear and a need to promote the radio show, and also some really bad time management skills combined into one unhappy mélange. I go through phases of a month or two when I’m working every single day, which I’m not proud of and I don’t defend, but I simply observe accidentally happens because I let it happen.
I’m picturing you regretting making a travel arrangement as you get close to a deadline.
Well, for instance this week we finished our inauguration show I think four minutes before it went on the air on Friday night at 8 o’clock Eastern Time, then we stuck around and made some changes for the podcast of the show because the podcast is longer than the radio show. We added a complete story to the podcast that wasn’t in the radio show. And then got home at 9:30 and was up at 3:30 in the morning to catch a plane to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where I gave a version of the talk that I’ll be giving at the Smith Center. So all of which to say there are some weeks, not all but some weeks, there’s a lot of running from place to place.
You’ve been producing live segments or events related to the show since 1998.
Yeah, when the show was first on the air, like, we’re a public radio show so we didn’t have any money to promote, and people at other radio shows said, “What you do is go to other member stations and give a talk.” And they said, “What’s good about it is fans of the show will bring people who hadn’t heard your show, so it will help with the listener base.” But the office said what’s supposed to happen is the public radio station is sort of on the hook to sell the tickets, and so they’ll just run promos saying the name of the show over and over, and they say that’s really what it’s good for. It let’s people know that your show exists. It sort of reminds them that your show is still on the air, and the speech you’re giving is sort of an excuse to make them run the promos. That’s the way we did it for a long time and since then arts organizations like the Smith Center have invited me to talk, so that’s added to the mix.
Someone in one of the articles I read wrote that when something like this comes here you don’t miss it. It’s kind of a big thing for here, culturally.
I’m of course intimidated to be competing directly with Penn & Teller’s show in the same town. I actually saw their show the last time I was in Vegas and I was so impressed, and loved it so much.
When was that? How long ago?
That was Christmas. I was in Vegas over Christmas. Because I’m a Jew I don’t celebrate Christmas and sometimes I come to Vegas. The casino I was staying at was filled with middle class Muslim-Americans (laughs). In a way that sounds so wonderful, and we saw Penn & Teller’s show on Christmas. Christmas night, actually. I’ve always loved them and saw them years ago, but I hadn’t seen them in years, and was so impressed by what a complete, thorough family entertainment it is. It’s really funny and it’s very knowing, but also it is really beautiful in places, just the way they handle the audience and bringing up the volunteers. It has such a generous spirit to it, and honestly coming to play the Smith Center I was like “Oh, noooo. Competing against those guys.” I know there’s a million other shows in Vegas but that just happened to be the one that I saw.
They actually changed up their show and moved it in a new direction. Like you said about the family thing, Penn’s kids are at the age when they’re interested in magic.
I just love how they’re not coasting. I love that they really have the will to entertain, and each thing they did was so original and so unlike any other thing in the show. I just thought, “This is a thorough entertainment created by people who really care about how they’re doing a nice job for the audience. I had such respect for it. After all these years that they’ve been working, to see people so alive in their work … it was exciting, truthfully.
The same thing can be said for This American Life. The striving to never be satisfied and always get better is very apparent if you listen regularly.
Well, that’s nice of you so say. We definitely do try all kinds of things. This last year we put out a movie with Mike Birbiglia (Don’t Think Twice). The last time we were at the Smith Center I was touring with a dance show that I was in, and dancing in and talking in. We’re shooting another movie this year. We did some musicals for the election. So yes we are constantly trying to do a nice job for the people, at the level that Penn & Teller are.
I saw you on the Reinventing Radio tour, but you came here with dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass? Can you tell me a little about them?
That show we started working on because I had seen them perform and I felt like watching them I got the same feeling from their show that we try to create on the radio show. They were super engaging, they were out to entertain, they were funny, but there are also emotional parts, and you just had a feeling that they’re inventing this form that nobody else is doing. I just thought, “This is the feeling that we’re trying to do on our radio show,” but what was interesting to me is the radio show, being a radio show, is entirely made of words, and they use no words. We thought it would be fun to collaborate, so we invented this show where I tell stories and they dance, and then occasionally I dance with them. Once we had the thing made we brought to Vegas, and all over the world. We played the Sydney Opera House this summer, and we played London for a couple of shows. In fact, in the beginning of February we’re reviving the show with some new stuff for running it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a few nights. It’s a really fun show to do, and then for me, I’m in my 50s and it was nice to learn something new, to dance. When you and I get off the phone, the next thing I’m doing tonight is I’m going to dance rehearsal because we’re working up new numbers for the show we’re doing in Brooklyn. One of the things I do over the course of my day is I have to actually set aside a few minutes and just practice the numbers that we do in the show that I’m in, because I’m not a good dancer. I totally need to practice it every day or I just don’t have it. I have no natural aptitude for it at all.
It’s also killing several birds with one stone, by getting exercise in your life.
That’s true. You do kind of have to stay thin in order to do that.
Is Seven Things I’ve Learned an extension of Reinventing Radio?
No, it’s an all-new show. This is different than anything I’ve brought to the Smith Center or talked about in Vegas. This is an all-new show. It just seemed like it was time to do something new, and this has tons of video in it, video things that we’ve made over the years that I think nobody in the audience will have seen at all, and then lot of outtakes and things. The show is just a container for seven things that I think would be fun to talk about in front of the audience, and it’s a mix of me talking about how we make this show, but also just walking through some wonderful stories that we’ve done on video or on the radio. That’s what it is.
Inspiration is obviously important to what you do. Have you always been able to maintain it during the course of your radio career?
I’ve always wanted to just be excited about what I was making in whatever form it was, and that was true when I was out in the field reporting stories, and it was true when … you know, just trying to invent what the radio show would be. And so I feel for anybody that does any kind of creative work, it’s most exciting when you’re trying something you’ve never done before. “I don’t like to be bored” is the main principle driving all that.
How did you become an intern at NPR in Washington? I get this visual of you about to walk into the double doors of this building with an “I got this,” attitude. Can you relate the scene?
Absolutely, and I think the facts of it might not be exactly what you’re picturing. When I talked my way into an internship at NPR it was 1978. NPR had only begun four or five years before that, so it was a brand new organization and everybody in the building is pretty young. It’s just like two floors of an office building in Washington D.C., and they have one daily show and it’s All Things Considered. They don’t even have a satellite to deliver the show to stations. Stations are getting the show over phone lines, so if you’re listening in Vegas or California or whatever, what you’re getting is someone holding the phone up to a radio speaker in Washington D.C. They didn’t get a satellite until ’80 or ’81, and it was a very small operation. Honestly, it wasn’t very popular. I’m not sure they even had a million people listening to All Things Considered each day, which sounds like a lot of people bit for a national radio show it’s not that much compared to the ratings, which are many times that today. It’s nothing. So I had never heard of NPR, and most people had never heard of NPR. I had never listened, and most people had never listened. And they were just kind of establishing themselves in 1978, and at that time the way I ended up there was I was just looking for some sort of job in the media after my freshman year of college. I grew up in Baltimore, which is about an hour away from D.C. I went to every TV station and radio station in Baltimore trying to talk my way into doing something, and somebody at a rock station said, “I don’t have anything for you, but I have this friend who’s working at this new outfit called NPR in Washington. Why don’t you see if he’s got something for you?” And I went and I met his friend, and his friend was like “Well, I don’t have anything for you but I used to work in the promos department. Let me introduce you to the people up there.” I said, “Can you guys use some help? I actually used to make promos for my college station.” … That was kind of the foot in the door and I just started making promos, then one of the producers I made promos liked what I was doing and hired me on as his production assistant the next year. And so the scene of me walking into NPR is just like, I had no idea what it was. I had never heard them on the air, but then once I was there I learned everything about it and that’s how I got really interested in radio, once I was already at NPR. I had no special desire to do radio or anything like that before then.
It seems like a pretty serendipitous journey.
I think luck plays a bigger role in a lot of people’s lives than might be acknowledged sometimes (laughs). I wish I could claim there was a plan and I was smart, but there wasn’t at all. It really was I got lucky and then made the most of that luck.
You have to be prepared to handle that luck. It was interesting to learn that you majored in semiotics. If you hadn’t done that, there’d be no This American Life, I think. The way you find connections and connect the dots is very much related to symbolism and meaning.
You’re right, but it’s even a little cornier than you’re saying. What semiotics is, the part that I studied, is this kind of pretentious body of French literary theory, but the part that I studied was entirely about narrative works and that’s what really interested me. How do you make a compelling story that will get to somebody and affect them, and feel like something? There are things that I learned when I was in college—about narrative works, about how stories work, about how to make a story—that honestly I use every day in my job. In a way semiotics was a very practical set of tools that I had to go and use and apply to the radio stories I was making.
I heard Joe Frank, who did one of the early shows you worked. He did a show with O.J. Simpson’s valet, and I could see how he became a seminal influence on you.
Joe Frank was this guy who did a bunch of things, but one of them was radio monologues. I had never heard anyone tell a story on the radio until I heard Joe. I had never had the experience of listening to someone on the radio and feeling suspense and what was going to happen, that total feeling of investment. Joe was the person I worked with first when I was at NPR and started working as a production assistant. I was basically Joe’s production assistant, and I remember watching him in the studio and having this feeling of, “I don’t know how he does this, but whatever he’s doing I want to do it.”
And you took it to the next level. When I first heard the show and your voice I was driving at night, and I remember what a great accompaniment it was to driving at night. You heard the same voices when you listened again, like David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell, and it felt like a club that you guys had, and you wanted to keep coming back. It seemed kind of changed from that to a This American Life approach that producers began to emulate, like when actors work with Woody Allen.
(Laughs) And they sound just like Woody Allen?
They sound like Woody Allen. I noticed when I heard a new voice, they kind of joined the club. Do you see different eras at This American Life or is it kind of one continuous line to you?
The radio show has definitely changed over time. At this point it’s a much more serious reporting machine than it ever has been. That’s just a function of the staff being really interested in more reporting. At some point we realized we have this style we developed of telling stories that are related to the news but are also in our own style where there’s characters and scenes, and funny moment and emotional moments, and a whole story arc. They’re also about the election or anything else that’s in the news. Once we realized we really enjoyed doing that we just started to organize the show more around that and less around essayists like Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris and the others.
The first time I heard the tern “vocal fry” I thought, “That’s the This American Life style."
Yes, it is. We are proponents of it (laughs).
Did you recognize that when you first started reading about vocal fry, like, “That’s us”?
Or course. Me, most of all. I feel like I’m a good example of it, and I feel like it’s one of those things … vocal fry, it’s always been here. To act like it’s a national crisis hitting us now is kind of silly.
You expressed an appreciation for Sinatra in Mother Jones magazine, especially his phrasing. You have a penchant for pauses, and Sinatra was like that too.
(Laughs) I’m glad for my Las Vegas appearance that I am getting to talk about Penn & Teller and Frank Sinatra in the press I’m doing. I feel like I’m totally trying to speak to the local crowd.
Do you think you have an appreciation because of his delivery and …
Timing? I wish I was working at that level of sophistication. I definitely notice how the performance works, but I think I mostly love the things abut Sinatra that every other Sinatra fan loves—what an incredible mix of feelings that man brought to every song, and what a great voice.