FEATURE INTERVIEW - May, 2017
An Afternoon With Ira Glass
The NPR host of This American Life admits he had ‘no love of radio’ when his career began
REPORTERS: Bri-Alphonso-Gibbs, Jordan Allums, Isabel Angel, Ilise Angel, Aiden Ament, Sabrina Chaffee, Dante Cokinos, C.C. Clark, Lilly Durante, Matt Geffen, Sabrina Hao, Katrina Horsey, Will Ogden, Campbell Slavin, and Mary Winnick (from Convent of the Sacred Heart, Drew, Marin Academy, Marin School of the Arts, Sir Francis Drake High, Terra Linda High, and University High Schools)
After listening to just one episode of Ira Glass’s This American Life, you’ll realize that the popular radio show and traditional journalism have little in common. Started in 1995, the NPR series has grown over the years, thanks to its unconventional approach to storytelling and reporting. Rather than coldly regurgitating headlines about international politics and economics, This American Life hones in on intimate stories of everyday people, each revealing something funny, heartbreaking, extraordinary, or a combination of all three.
Glass speaks in a casual, conversational manner to 2.2 million listeners on more than 500 radio stations. The stories he and his team cover have taken him from a car dealership on Long Island, New York, to an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea, to refugee camps in Greece, to the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, to a middle school here in the Bay Area.
Located in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, This American Life’s offices are entered through a small lobby area, where the show’s name is written in plain white letters on the wall. Aside from that, there’s no indication that NPR’s series is produced here; it was only when we rode the elevators up to the proper floor and moved down the hall that we saw any signs of life.
Unlike the dull gray-and-white color scheme of a typical office space, the halls of This American Life are lined with orange doors, floor-to-ceiling glass walls and hardwood floors. Beyond we could see the blinking lights and control panels of the studio where the show is recorded. While we had expected a productive and top-shelf workspace, what impressed us was just how open and inviting This American Life’s environment is.
Glass joined us, and he fit right into his surroundings. His graying hair was slicked back to reveal lively, friendly eyes that matched his smile. When he greeted us, there was an enthusiasm in his voice. Even his dark jeans and blazer helped complete our first impression: intelligent and serious about his work, yet cool and casual.
“Honestly, when I got into radio I had no love of radio,” Glass confessed. “I had no feeling about it at all.” The only thing he was sure of was that he wanted a job in media. He was willing to do whatever he could to get his foot in the door somewhere, even if it meant working for a company he had never heard of.
National Public Radio, still in its infancy, was the place he chose. Since NPR had been broadcasting for only five years, it was the perfect opportunity for him. “Nobody had heard of NPR. Nobody was listening. It was all brand new, which is a good opportunity to get into a place.”
During his internship, Glass created promos for the station, eventually garnering the attention of NPR’s producers. His hard work didn’t just win him praise — it earned him a full-time job as a production assistant, where he got paid like a “real adult.” Glass still values the experience of that initial internship: “I learned a lot of little things. I was lucky enough to be in an internship where they gave me real work.”
As time went on, his job became more fruitful until the seed of This American Life was born.
“I like these kinds of narrative stories,” Glass said. “I had been doing them as a reporter and as a producer at NPR in my 20s and 30s, and I just liked them. I thought, ‘That’s the most compelling radio.’”
With narrative-driven news, as opposed to strict reporting, he could create dynamic stories with characters, scenes, and different emotions. “Obviously, that’s the thing everybody likes. And so I just thought we could make a whole show out of those, and at some point I just organized the money to start it.”
Since then, This American Life has reached a wide variety of people and outlets, helping cement NPR’s reputation and giving Glass the freedom to pursue whatever stories he and his team want to cover. Every week they entertain and inspire listeners with a variety of narratives and perspectives, each related with a level of emotion that has given rise to a whole genre of radio broadcasting.
Keen on building tension and suspense, Glass looks for each piece’s forward motion, telling stories through chains of events.
This American Life also shares whimsical and humorous anecdotes. Glass believes you don’t have to be a stiff to be a “real journalist” and that the most interesting stories often come from funny, unexpected moments that occur in the most serious of situations. “We’re out for fun.”
How do Glass and company come up with their episode ideas? The process isn’t as straightforward as you might think.
This American Life staffers plan episodes far in advance, and often they draw on their own interests.
“We’re interested in Donald Trump and climate change and Beyoncé. All the stuff that anybody normal is interested in, we’re interested in. And that’s what keeps you relevant.”
Every episode starts with 12 to 15 ideas, and only seven or eight of them will be produced. Most of those are killed, so only a handful make it to air.
Glass has learned over many years’ experience that the best stories often come from unexpected encounters. One occurred in the Bay Area’s Claremont Middle School. The original concept for the report, themed around stories involving identical twins, was to focus on the school’s principals, who happened to be twin brothers.
“We thought that if these guys could just tell us one anecdote about some amazing thing that they were able to do because they were identical twins and people can’t tell them apart, [it] could be a really great story to open the show.”
His expectations may have been too high: “These guys are really good educators, they’re really good principals,” Glass said. “There was a lot of talking about self-respect, and building people up, but no actual stories.”
...the best stories often come from unexpected encounters.
Although the This American Life team was disappointed by the lack of juicy narrative in the tale of the twin principals, another interesting story presented itself.
As it turned out, there were also twin- sister students at Claremont whose relationship was the exact opposite of the principals’. Glass said the twins were “always in the principal’s office because they (got) into these fights and [were] totally disruptive.” It was a good framework for a story. “Think about the best person in the world (to interview), it’s an [angry] 14-year-old girl who’s mad at her sister. You just would never get better quotes from anybody on any subject in any arena.”
After interviewing the first twin, Glass was not taken in; then “we found her sister and pulled her out of lunch and [she] totally flipped us. Oh no, now we’re down on the first one! So the whole story is changing based on new information.”
Through further discipline and education, the relationship (supposedly) improved. “They think we’re doing better, but we’re not doing better. We still don’t like each other,’” Glass quoted the girls as saying.
The principals told a different story: “We know they think that, but it’s a fact: They haven’t fought in school for months, so our plan is working.”
The twins’ story underscores a basic journalistic concept: If someone says something negative about someone else, you have to give the other person the opportunity to respond before publication. Interviewing one person can affect a story’s perspective; you need both sides to paint an accurate picture.
“I don’t think there’s real objectivity, (but) there’s fairness,” Glass said. “I don’t think we’re standing above human life and looking down on it and judging like God does.”
Next up for Glass: The touring show Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host.
Collaborating with dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass, Glass narrates stories just like he does on This American Life—except that in this case Barnes and Bass perform dances expressing the story’s themes and perspectives. Glass occasionally dances himself, but for the most part he sticks to the narrator role that has made him a household name.
Glass says that the key to achieving success and fulfillment is doing what you love: “I feel like it’s important to do stuff that interests you,” that in a world altered by the Internet and constantly shifting media, “there are no rules” and that “there’s never been a better time” to create podcasts and enter the world of radio.