Thirty seven years ago, a 19-year-old Ira Glass began interning for National Public Radio (NPR). While Ira knew he was passionate about media, he was still trying to fully understand what he wanted to do with his life. “When I was a teenager, there was a certain kind of thing I liked…” he explained with a chuckle, “But I couldn’t make anything that I liked, I was awful…” At the time, the state of media and distribution meant that radio was more or less a small group of people who held the monopoly on news and opinions that could be broadcast. Ira worked within this world, doing a variety of jobs like writing and editing; eventually, he moved up to the positions of producer and host. Along the way, he struggled to learn what were considered the most valuable skills of hosting and producing radio journalism. “It’s good to be a good interviewer, it’s good to have good ideas, it’s good to know how to find a story out of nothing, it’s good to be a good writer. I didn’t know any of that… I spent seven years really getting the basics down, and I thought I was like the slowest person I ever met.” Through the hardships of learning the ropes, however, Ira eventually cemented himself as a valuable member of NPR’s team.
While some would be content working themselves into the status-quo, Ira began to feel there was a type of storytelling that the radio had greatly under-valued. For him, the long-form stories of individuals that he met were often funnier with more feeling than the normal reports programs like All Things Considered and News Hour were covering. In short, “…they felt like something more.” Ira and a team of fellow NPR employees began work on a new program that they hoped would capture the intimate feeling of these stories; and in 1995, “This American Life” (back then, it was called Your Radio Playhouse) premiered on NPR stations nationwide. From the beginning, Ira and his team wanted to make a show that cast off the stereotypes of how reporting was formatted and presented. By ditching the usual news topics and drone-like speech patterns of TV and radio journalists, “This American Life” began to set itself apart from everything else in its field. Each week, a selection of fascinating individual stories, narrated by the individual who experienced them, were broadcast. The November 17th series debut featured stories about religious epiphanies, wrongful incarcerations, and HIV diagnoses, setting the stage for the 560 plus episodes to follow.