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.
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-
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.
MFC: You've said you hate writing?
IG: Writing is the hardest part of the job. Writing is just very difficult. I'm an adequate performer. And I think I have a special talent as an editor. Editing is what I do best. But writing, uh, slogging through the material and picking out the quotes and imposing structure-the points you are going to include in the story and the points you are going to have to toss away-
MFC: You're filling me with enthusiasm about doing this article.
IG: [laughs] Well, you have to do the actual work when you're writing; there is no way around it. And that's why writing sucks.
MFC: Yet you just finished writing a screenplay?
IG: Right, with Dylan Kidd. He directed a movie called Roger Dodger. This American Life has a deal with Warner Bros., where they have dibs on stories from the radio show. And I have a deal with Warner Bros., as well, where I have to tell them about any idea that might make a good movie. If I have a dream that has cinematic structure, I have to drop a dime on it. So I read this book called Urban Tribes, a nonfiction book about a guy who wants to go to the Burning Man festival with his friends instead of going with his girlfriend to her friend's wedding. It's almost a piece of sociology. Here's what interesting: the number of single people in this country has doubled in one generation. People are taking longer and longer to get married; there is this whole decade between finishing college and not getting married, where your friends become your family. And that's where this character is in the book: he has reached the point where he has to choose.
To me, it was clearly a romantic comedy of our times. So I went to my Warner Bros. guy and said, "This is what American life is now; this is the exact moment of time for this story." And he bought it in a second.
MFC: Had you ever written a screenplay before?
MFC: So you had to move to a visual medium? How did you do that?
IG: Well, this is what I love about it-it can be fiction. I can make things up instead of having to try to fit the story around the facts. There is something so pleasant about that, a kind of floating-in-midair feeling where you can't even see the ground. It's a lot of fun for me. But, yes, I had to learn movies, which is also great fun when you're doing it with a professional movie director. Dylan and I watched movies together, and he pointed out all kinds of things that I never would have really noticed.
MFC: Like what? What movies did you watch together?
IG: One was Annie Hall by Woody Allen. So Dylan pointed out to me that normally in a romantic or screwball comedy, you see the two people meet cute. But in Annie Hall, Allen totally screws with the structure, so when you first see them, they're fighting. They enter fighting [laughs]. Then he goes back and tells how they met, and that way it's much more poignant.
MFC: Will you do more screenplays?
IG: I have no idea. It's been so much fun, but shocking. I mean, this is a studio movie. We can spend a lot of money, much more money than is spent on the radio show.
MFC: Speaking of visual projects, what about the television show?
IG: Showtime came to This American Life and wanted us to do the radio show as a cable TV show. And our reaction was, Oh, listen, thanks for thinking of us, but we don't want to compromise and we don't want something tacky and awful. And every time we'd add a new condition, expecting them to go away, they'd say, "Yeah, that's fine. Go ahead." Finally we reached this point where we couldn't drive them away.
MFC: I love that. If only life always worked like that.
IG: It would be great, right? So we had lots of things we didn't want: nothing that looks like anything else; nothing that looks like a TV newsmagazine. And we got exactly what we wanted. Beautiful photography, wide-screen, very original approach. I'm only on the screen for 15 seconds, and the rest of it is other people and their stories. The pilot has this rancher who had this bull, and he wants to bring it back from the dead. But you never see me interviewing anyone-too TV newsmagazine. I don't want to get into that kind of expected TV grammar.
MFC: So has Showtime picked up This American Life?
IG: Yes [laughs]. This is how we got stuck doing a TV series. [In January, Showtime ordered six episodes to air in the fall.]
MFC: Do you watch much television?
IG: Some. The OC. I never miss that. Gilmore Girls. Family Guy. And because Anaheed watches Project Runway, I do, too.
MFC: Like the radio show, will the TV show be about people talking? I mean, talking at length?
IG: Yes. Because you have to feel like that person is living some version of a life that could have been yours. That's the beauty and that's the art of it all. You want to feel the feelings of it. You want to know what the dream of it is, and the happy and the sad and the funny. That only comes across when someone talks for a long time. In radio, there is, of course, a literal choice where we can narrate the story and tell the listeners this and that and the whole point of the story. Or the person can tell his story himself.
MFC: As you said earlier, you can't come in at the end and say it for someone. The person has to tell you the key point or the turning point himself.
IG: Hmm, uh, OK. It's been a crazy ten years. So much happened and so much didn't. And I tried to be better and in some ways I succeeded. I got tired and scared and crazed and busy and frustrated and excited. And-oh, yes-happy, too.