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Ten years ago, in the first interview of his career, Ira Glass, a producer and on-air reporter for National Public Radio’s idiosyncratic news and features program All Things Considered, sat down and told me about the idea he had for a new kind of radio program. It was going to concentrate on everyday life, with fiction or poems sandwiched between strangely ordinary people telling strange stories. Glass wanted to apply novelistic techniques to radio reporting. It all sounded a little vague, but then he let me follow him around while he and a part-time crew worked on the show in Glass’s largely unfurnished apartment.
It still seemed a little vague, but certainly everyone involved was having a lot of fun. And Chicago magazine published the story about Glass and Your Radio Playhouse, as he was calling the show back then, before the first episode played on the air on WBEZ.
The show, of course, morphed into This American Life, one of the fastest-growing programs on public radio. It has an annual budget of more than $1 million and now plays on 500 stations across the country, reaching 1.6 million listeners. It has won the prestigious Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards, and Glass has also been invited to do the show at the HBO Comedy Festival.
Today, Glass, 46, is still busy and full of startlingly fresh ideas, like making a new Showtime television series based on This American Life. He is still boyishly thin and still wearing black horn-rimmed glasses, but now his once all-black hair displays highlights of gray. He still speaks in a breathless rush, with pauses thrown in when least expected. With an if-only-life-were-more-like-the-radio attitude, he still tries to edit conversations as they go along, searching for that perfectly pitched sentence-pause-reaction combo.
Now, after the tenth anniversary of This American Life, he sits down in his still messy office and talks about life, love, storytelling, movie watching, and how a bad relationship led to a creative breakthrough.
IG: Gosh [sinking into a chair with a sigh], I feel a little, uh, overwhelmed, and I don’t know exactly what.
MFC: A little tired?
IG: Yeah, tired. Which isn’t like me. But then I remember I have good reason to be tired. Besides doing the radio show every week, I’ve done at least 14 little speeches promoting the show in different cities. And I’ve just finished writing a screenplay and doing a TV pilot, and I got married and I lost 30 pounds.
MFC: You lost 30 pounds?
IG: [laughing] Of all those things, everyone is so excited about the losing weight part. People love hearing about that. I don’t eat meat or any starches. That’s the trick.
MFC: So let’s talk about the real news: you’re moving to New York.
IG: Yes, it’s because This American Life is going to become a TV series for Showtime. I mean, we’re still a radio show, too. And WBEZ will still be the producer of the radio show. So even though we’ll be in New York, I’ll be saying, “This American Life is produced by WBEZ in Chicago.”
MFC: And when do you leave?
IG: In about five minutes. That’s what it feels like. In March, really. It won’t change the show at all, except for those who know that now we’ll actually be in New York. They might experience some kind of psychological shift. Because there’s something really nice about radio shows coming out of the Midwest, like Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion coming from Minnesota or Michael Feldman’s Whad’Ya Know? coming from Wisconsin. It makes you feel good about America. But we could be back at any point. TV shows get canceled all the time.
MFC: When we got together ten years ago, you were working on the pilots for This American Life. In fact, at that time, the working title was Your Radio Playhouse. How has the show evolved in the past decade?
IG: One of the founding ideas of the show was, Nobody who’s famous, nothing you’ve ever heard of, nothing in the news. It was just going to be stories of everyday life. In the beginning, we matched up these everyday-life stories with lots of arts programming. We tried to have a fiction writer matched up with a journalist, or a performance artist with a journalist. So a basic show would include a conceptual piece, some reporting, maybe something by David Sedaris or a poet reading something, and one more reporting piece.
Now there is much less emphasis on everything that isn’t actually reporting. Even the stories that David Sedaris does currently are much more journalism than about his own life. We still have an occasional piece of fiction, but it’s much less part of our mission.
MFC: Why the change?
IG: Well, about five or six years into the program, we started developing more of a storytelling style-characters and situations and dialogue. And we liked it. We liked it enough to take that style and try to apply it to the news. So that was the direction we were already headed in and then September 11th happened. And, like the rest of the country, we got a lot more interested in the news and in what is happening in the world.
MFC: You used that novelistic news approach recently in your coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
IG: When the hurricane hit, the TV and radio coverage-the actual news coverage-was great. But you never heard anyone talk for more than a sound bite. And we thought, Hey, this is a nice coincidence because the one thing we can do is let people talk. And let them speak at length, in depth about their experiences.
I mean, we didn’t even have time to get down to New Orleans or Mississippi. It was like, quick, get the people on the phone and have them tell us what in the hell is happening to them.
MFC: In the midst of all that coverage, you were still able to find stories that weren’t being done elsewhere?
IG: There were a few key interviews that set the tone for the rest of what we did. There was a woman who ended up at the convention center. Everyone was seeing the pictures on TV, but all you kept hearing was, “There is no food, and there is no water.” But we had this woman telling what it was really like, in wonderful detail. She’s talking about staying with her mother, and the levees break and she literally risks her life to go back to her house to get a carton of cigarettes. She laughed when she said it because she knew how bad it sounded. We could ask her all the questions that people wanted to know-like, What do you do when you have to go to the bathroom? Or, Why is there such a feeling of suspicion there? And she told us how they were told, over and over again, to line up for the buses, and they would and then the buses would drive by. And the trucks with food and water would drive by. But they had to keep lining up for these buses or supplies that would never come. And all the people there were black, so this feeling built that “they want us to die.”
MFC: The Katrina coverage seems very important to you.
IG: You have to ask yourself, What is the radio good for? The radio is good for taking somebody else’s experience and making you understand what it would be like. Because when you don’t see someone, but you hear them talking-and, uh, that is what radio is all about-it’s like when someone is talking from the heart. Everything about it conspires to take you into somebody else’s world.
When our radio show began, that wasn’t so much our mission, whereas now the show is mostly about that mission. In the beginning we wanted to do new stuff, talk in a normal way. Have you noticed? People on the radio don’t talk the way they normally speak.