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His American Life: A Look at Ira Glass

That sincere, in-the-same-room-with-you voice has proved to be seductive for the listeners of Ira Glass. This American Life, his true-stories show distributed by Public Radio International, recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. Next up are a screenplay and a TV series. Even with a move to New York coming soon, Glass took time out to talk about life, love, work, and how a bad relationship led to a creative breakthrough.

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Photograph: © Lisa Predko

Glass gathering stories in 2003 at Navy Pier, where WBEZ’s studios are located.

MFC: How do they speak?

 

IG: There are different versions of the radio voice. There’s the right-wing Rush Limbaugh wannabe voice. There’s the fake Howard Stern wannabe voice. There’s a very particular public radio announcer voice, which has two variations: the old version and the young version. The old version is a little more formal and the new version has a bit of a stutter step in it. The public radio voice is a very reasonable voice. What it carries with it is utter reasonableness, you know, in every part of it.

MFC: What is your voice?

IG: My voice is me talking like I always do, with the pauses and the stutters and the uhs. Every week we get complaints: Why does he speak so quickly? Why can’t he enunciate better? Why does he pause and then rush all his words together? At some point, I just start writing back and say, “You know, this is my voice and you’re stuck with it.” Radio is more powerful the closer we mimic the way we actually speak to each other. That’s why Howard Stern is such a great radio talent. People on his show are actually speaking to each other. You might not like what they’re saying, but they’re real conversations.

MFC: Why does one story make it on This American Life and another doesn’t?

IG: I like the stories to have surprises. You can’t just tell a story of our actual everyday life because that’s not very interesting. It has to be a remarkable thing that happens to an everyday person. You have to have a good talker. And you have to have someone who will actually say what you need them to say. I mean, if the story is where a man realizes, Everything I thought was wrong, then in the end, he has to say that, or something that conveys that. Or you don’t have the story. You can’t come in at the end and say it for him. He has to say it or it doesn’t work.

MFC: You don’t seem to have any trouble finding stories for the show.

IG: People say to me, “God, people don’t tell stories any more.” And I always think, What are you talking about? All we do is tell stories all day long. From what happened to you today to the weird thing that happened when you went to get your nails done. It’s just one story after another. You can’t live without them.

MFC: Last time we talked, you said, “I think you can really learn something when you listen to people talk.”

IG: Sure, I still believe that.

MFC: So are you your mother’s son?

IG: [laughs] I guess I am, in so many ways. Yes, my mother was a clinical psychologist. And she probably had more influence on me than my dad did. He was an accountant and he was, you know, like dads-away at work. Absent in a lot of ways. But once I hit my 40s, I started to see both of their personalities in me all the time. I don’t have kids; I have a radio show. So in some ways I had to work out my parenting skills by learning how to be a better boss. That’s been a big thing for me in the past few years. I had to make a conscious decision to learn to understand other people better and learn to manage people better. I had to decide to go outside my own world, my own head.

MFC: Growing up in Baltimore, you wanted to be an astronaut?

IG: It sounded like fun at the time. I have two sisters-one older and one younger-and they are both MBAs. But my younger sister and I went in these creative directions. She’s an executive for Disney; she made the Love Bug movie and that one where the mom and daughter change identities-

MFC:Freaky Friday.

IG: Right. Over time, my older sister saw how much fun we had doing more creative things, and now she’s an agent selling books. And she’s great at it. So in some ways, we are all interested in listening to other people’s stories.

MFC: To hit a few more of the plot points of your life: You went to Northwestern University?

IG: Right, for one year. And I hated it. I was in the wrong department, and I didn’t meet anyone interesting. Years later, I find out there are all kinds of great people there at the same time, like Mary Zimmerman and David Sedaris. But all the cool people, it turned out, were in the theatre department and I was in radio broadcast, which was a horrible and out-of-date department.

MFC: So you transferred to Brown University?

IG: Yes. And I was so happy there. I was already doing some work on NPR through the D.C. station. And I majored in semiotics, which I use every day of my life. I liked the people at Brown, while I really disliked most of the fellow students I had met at Northwestern.

MFC: After graduation, you started doing NPR work. And you lived with someone who thought all your ideas were silly?

IG: Right. I lived with this woman for seven years. She was serious, she worked for Ralph Nader, and she was a lawyer. And I felt terrible because, uh, I was interested in different things, and what I liked she thought was stupid. Then I’d think, She’s right; it’s stupid. She didn’t think I was smart enough or interesting enough for her. And I started to think that, too.

MFC: Well, it’s easy to believe that when someone tells you that with such conviction.

IG: I was very much the junior partner of the two of us. And-well, I could go on and on, explaining this or that part of the relationship. But the truth is she just didn’t love me. In the most simple, straight-up way, she simply didn’t love me. One summer she was in Texas, doing some kind of serious work like a law internship or something, and suddenly I was able to make the transition from not being able to write a story to being able to write a decent story. And that was because, for once, her voice wasn’t in my head so completely.

MFC: Things changed for you when you left that relationship?

IG: Totally. The whole world opened up for me. I felt such relief. The world had never felt so big. I could do a few things, and then I could feel a little better-and you know how it goes. I had permission to be creative and to follow my “little” ideas and stories because she wasn’t around saying, Oh, who cares about that? Or, What is the point of that? And I felt for the first time that everything was going to be OK.

MFC: How old you were then?

IG: Thirty. I was 30 and I moved to Chicago and, overall, everything became OK.

MFC: You got married in August 2005?

IG: I married Anaheed Alani, who is a writer and an editor. She and I had gone out briefly years before, and we didn’t get along. I mean, we couldn’t even finish a meal in each other’s presence without a big fight or someone storming off. We were that kind of couple. So we broke up. And then about five years ago, we got back together. And it’s been great in some amazing ways. Being married has been so pleasingly different from just going out or even living together.

MFC: How so?

IG: It’s been very romantic. And there is just this “we” to the whole relationship. I really feel like I have a partner. Which is a wonderful, sort of giddy feeling.

 

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