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Interview with Ira Glass, host of This American Life


Published April 14, 2004 at 5:50 p.m.

Multitasking is not an option when listening to Ira Glass. Unlike most of the shows on the radio, his "This American Life" demands your attention. Every week at least 1.5 million Americans tune in to hear Glass and his staff present a set of quirky, thoughtful narratives on a unlikely theme such as "Hoaxing Yourself," "Middlemen," "Miracle Cures," or "What I Should Have Said."

Since its inception in 1995, the show has featured the audio musings of writers like David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell and Dave Eggars. But it's just as famous for its long pauses, the thoughtful musical interludes that disrupt its narratives, and its large and ever expanding cast of unknowns -- born-again Christians, a punk-rock mortgage broker, a family that has an imaginary duck, even real live pimps have appeared on the show. Under Glass' direction, TAL has won several journalistic awards. In 2001, Time magazine named the 45-year-old Brown University graduate "Best Radio Host in America."

Glass began his career in radio as a 19-year-old National Public Radio intern. Since then, he's held nearly every production job possible in public radio. He's often described as an obsessive, workaholic genius -- but in a good way. We spoke with him by phone from his office in Chicago, in advance of his April 19th appearance at the Flynn Center.

SEVEN DAYS: What are you going to talk about when you're here?

IRA GLASS: I go out and do a stump speech on behalf of radio itself. You know you're in a medium which isn't the number-one medium if you actually have to give a speech on its behalf . . . Basically I talk about what we're trying to do that's different, what we're trying to do in creating a different kind of radio at our show . . . doing a kind of radio where it's like a little movie.

7D: I think a lot of people wonder where you get your ideas, and how you put them together into a cohesive unit. Can you describe the development of a particular show?

IG: The story I'm actually working on right now, as you call, is about this guy named John Gottman . . . It came from a personal conversation in my parents' den with a friend of my mom's. Basically, Gottman is like the Christopher Columbus of understanding marriage. What's sprung out of his research in the last 20 years is an entire industry of people giving all sorts of counseling and education programs that actually, recently, the Bush administration threw millions of dollars at. That's what the Bush administration is doing to promote marriage...

With all the stuff going on with gay marriage, we thought, let's do a whole show about marriage . . .

One of our producers, Starlee Kine, for years has been saying that she wants to do a story about her parents, and how her entire life she's wanted them to divorce . . . Then we have this story about this kid whose mom came to this country as a mail-order Russian bride. Now he's in his twenties, and his mom thinks he should mail order a Russian bride. And then we've got this whole thing about gay marriage. My girlfriend -- she tells me often she's not just my girlfriend, she's also my web portal -- she emailed me this thing from a blog, where this guy sort of says, "Yeah -- not a moment too soon. This gay marriage thing is tearing me and my wife apart, and if those gays marry, it just cheapens our marriage."

We have about an hour-and-a-half of stuff at this point . . . so something's going to get fobbed off onto some other show, either the Russian, or Starlee. The thing is that Starlee's stuff sort of gestures at some of the things in Gottman in a pretty way. At some point Gottman talks about who are these couples that stay together but are unhappy, and you can just bounce from that to Starlee. Which is kind of what you want. You want all the stories to sort of talk to each other . . . We're going to rework every second of this show several times before it ends up on the air. Stories will get dropped, other stories will get revised.

7D: How long does that process usually take you?

IG: From the time we start working on a show until the time it gets onto the air, it's probably four months.

7D: The new FCC crackdown has been in the news a lot lately, and you brought it up in a recent show. Will it affect what you do?

IG: Oh, it's completely going to touch public radio, and it already has . . . A couple months ago we did a documentary story about transsexuals, and how people have to completely relearn how to fall in love from the other side of the gender line. It's this funny, sweet little story, but there does come a point where people talk about getting a girl if you have this mangled-up concept of your private parts. Depending on how a station would interpret it, and if local people would decide to challenge it, we could conceivably end up with a half-million-dollar fine for something like that . . .

It will absolutely prevent certain parts of certain stories. And honestly, maybe some of our listeners would just as soon not hear about that part of that story, and that's completely a legitimate point of view, but I'm on the other side of it. I think that there's an adult way to talk about it, that we should be able to talk about, as adults, somewhere on the radio, at a time when people can hear the radio, not at 11 o'clock on Thursday night . . . We are all Howard Stern. During the fundraising drive, I tried to get the public radio station to make buttons that said, "Keep WBEZ and Howard Stern on the air," but they said no.

7D: That sounded so political. TAL was originally an apolitical show.

IG: The original design of the show is that it would be about stuff that's not anywhere else on the radio -- nothing in the news, nobody famous, nothing you'd ever heard of. That was the original conceit of it. But years passed, and it just seemed like it would be fun to do stories about politics.

7D: Do you think the actual American life that we're living has become more political?

IG: Yes. Clearly it has. There's no question . . . For me, I used to be an "All Things Considered" staffer. I had to read two or three newspapers a day. When I left, I just felt the way Jews feel when they move to Israel, which is like, "Nah, I don't have to go to services anymore. I'm living in Israel, I'm off the hook." I felt like, ok, that's it; I've done my time. I never have to read a paper again . . . Now I read the paper every day. I'm obsessed with it. Others on the staff feel the same way, so that shows up in the show.

7D: But you still have plenty of random, passionate, heartbreaking and funny stories, and you still manage to make them sound a certain way, so that if I turn on the radio and happen across your show, I know immediately what I'm listening to. The people telling the stories pause, they laugh, they sound reflective --

IG: Though they're not, of course. That's just a sound we're giving them.

7D: How do you do that? How do you give them that sound?

IG: In terms of the production, we're directing those people when they read the scripts in the studio, and we make them read a certain way. We build in the pauses if they don't pause in their scripts, and we put in the music. We impose a uniform vision. Honestly, if anything, I worry that the vision is a little too uniform . . . And there are weeks where we try something different.

7D: Like that week recently when you sang the "I Wish" song?

IG: One of the best things about it, for me, as somebody who's been doing a radio show for eight years, is that we came up with the idea the day before it went on the air. Literally, at 9 o'clock at night the day before -- 22 hours before the show had to be broadcast.

The way the opening of the show goes is that I explain that there's this thing called the "I Wish" song, and that my sister, who makes movies at Disney, explains that all these movies have an "I Wish" song -- the person basically sings a song wishing for a thing that the movie will either give them, or give them in an ironic way, or that they'll get but they won't understand that they're getting, and how this is a common trope of musicals and movies going back 80 years at least.

And then I got to that point in the writing where I say, "Okay, today on our show . . . " but it felt like the next logical thought is "and so now here's our 'I Wish' song for the show!" It just seemed really weird not to have one. Like, literally, I found myself in this whole writing problem, where you get to that point in the writing, and the only logical move you can make is to break into song. You can't bring it up; it's like a loaded gun sitting there on the stage, talking about this thing. How do you not do it?

7D: Have you ever done anything like that on your show?

IG: Broke into song? No . . . We had never done that before. It made me want to do a whole musical, like the "Buffy" musical --

7D: That's what I was thinking of when you were talking just now, the very brilliant "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" musical episode.

IG: There's an "I Wish" song at the beginning of the "Buffy" musical, which, of course, I've heard the "Buffy" musical so many times I could actually sing to you, note for note and line for line.

7D: Sing it, sing it!

IG: [singing] Every single night this strange arrangement / I go out and fight the fight / Still I always feel this strange estrangement / nothing here is real, nothing here is right / I've been making shows of trading blows / but lately no one knows / I've been going through the motions, walking through part / nothing seems to penetrate my heart.

7D: That was great! So how are you going to keep from going through the motions? Where do you want to take your show? Whatever happened to the talk about taking it to TV?

IG: Yeah, in the last few months, the whole TV thing has come up again. One of the networks came to us and waived around a check for a quarter-of-a-million dollars, and said, 'Don't you think you want to take this check and shoot 20 minutes of stuff?' Which is pretty much the television equivalent of the drug dealer on the corner offering the kids the free cocaine . . . [But] it's all just chatter at this point.

7D: Whatever you do would be better than half the reality shows out there.

IG: I'm kind of a fan of the reality TV shows, I gotta say. One of the reasons to do TV now is that TV is so good now.

7D: Really? You think so?

IG: Oh my God . . . We are living through the golden age of television. And it came about completely because the cable networks kicked in full force, finally, and the mainstream TV networks don't know what the hell to do to keep market share. People are just trying crazy stuff. It's already starting to settle out, and it'll settle out more in a few years and you won't see as much innovation. This is the greatest period of television of our lives until now.

7D: What shows do you like?

IG: "The Sopranos" are still on the air, and "The Simpsons" are still on the air. And it's not "Buffy," but I'm still enjoying "Angel." "The OC" is like a perfect work of art.

7D: What's "The OC?" I don't have a television.

IG: You don't have a television? I didn't have a television for a decade, and the season "The Sopranos" came on the air, I got a TV, because it seemed like interesting things were happening. I feel like if you're missing television right now, you're missing a really interesting moment in our culture . . . You're turning your back on what makes life great.

7D: I never thought I would be getting a sermon on television from you.

IG: Just like radio can be satisfying to listen to, though rarely is, TV can be satisfying to watch, though rarely is. TV! It's for fun! Just like the radio.