Ira Glass, host and producer of “This American Life,” to speak in Breckenridge | SummitDaily.com

Ira Glass, host and producer of “This American Life,” to speak in Breckenridge

Interviewed by Jessica Smith
jsmith@summitdaily.com
Ira Glass
Stuart Mullenberg / Special to the Daily |

Ira Glass has one of the most recognizable voices in America. He’s one of National Public Radio’s top radio hosts, and his program “This American Life” is broadcast on more than 500 stations to about 2.2 million listeners each week.

Glass and his show have won numerous awards, including Glass being named Best Radio Host in America by Time Magazine in 2001. Unlike other more traditional news radio shows, “This American Life” has a more personal feature style than straight news, focusing on the drama and humor of the lives of everyday people. The podcast version is one of the most downloaded in the country.

This Saturday, Aug. 22, Glass will give a presentation in Breckenridge as part of the Breckenridge International Festival of Arts.

The Summit Daily News caught up with Glass before his appearance in Breckenridge to talk about his radio, storytelling and performing in person.

Summit Daily News: How did you get involved with this particular speaking gig?

Ira Glass: I go out every like three or four weeks, I give a speech or do something for a public radio station somewhere. And that’s been true since, pretty much since our show began, just to publicize the show.

SDN: The subject of your talk on Saturday is “Reinventing Radio.” Could you tell me more about what that means exactly?

IG: Basically I stand on stage and I have an iPad and I play clips and I talk about what we’re trying to do on “This American Life” that’s different from other radio shows, and especially what was very different when we started the show, and how the show really is an attempt to just re-invent radio.

SDN: At what point would you say during the show that that became its goal? Was that the goal at the beginning or did that evolve throughout the show?

IG: That was the goal from the beginning. From the beginning there was a sense — I and the people I was putting together the show with — there was a feeling that you could do a show that would have a different sort of feeling than the other things on public radio at the time, and the other things on the radio anywhere at the time. And part of it is just like, you know, it’s the way the narration is done, that it’s chattier and more personal, and part of it is the kind of journalism that it is. That it’s stories that are journalism but often about things that are way more personal, applying the tools of journalism to stories that are way more personal than journalists usually look at, and stories that are more, that have a stronger narrative, that are real plot-driven stories with characters and feelings and everything that goes with something that has a plot.

SDN: A lot of people consider radio one of the more old-fashioned types of media. What is your response to that? Would you say that that’s still the case or is that something that’s no longer true?

IG: It’s totally old-fashioned. It’s the first electronic medium, it pre-dates television, it pre-dates the Internet, like, it begins around the same or just a little after movies become popular. And yeah, radio is very, very old fashioned, and I have to say the kinds of stories we do on our show in a certain sense are very old-fashioned. They’re like old-fashioned stories like with a beginning, and a middle and an end, and you get caught up in the story and you want to find out what’s going to happen and you get invested in the characters, and it’s very old-fashioned storytelling. Though interestingly, these kind of stories are the most popular podcasts out there if you look on iTunes at the list of the top ten podcasts, most of the shows are radio shows, journalism done in the style, they’re long-form narrative journalism, and they’re audio only. It’s a super old-fashioned kind of thing delivered by a super high-tech sort of thing, to your phone.

SDN: It’s a really interesting marriage between the two — the very very old and the very new.

IG: Radio listening is going up right now. … The thing we found is over the last 10 years, 15 years, the listenership to our show hasn’t dropped; listenership is strong. So as people get inside other sorts of media, get inside the Internet and use their phones for everything, apparently people are still listening to stuff because it’s convenient and because there’s material out there that’s good.

SDN: What would you say made you want to re-invent the radio away from the newsy stuff into the more stories and features? What prompted that?

IG: I mean, partly it was just for my own amusement. I feel like, I was somebody working at NPR in Washington on the daily news shows and I felt like there’s a kind of story that I really really love that comes on the radio now and then, you could just do a whole show of stories like that, stories where there are characters and scenes and a lot of feeling, and a lot of funny, you know. I just felt like this is what I really like on the radio, let’s just have more of this, so it was really an attempt to run at that. And I think in general, work gets better when the people making it are out for their own pleasure.

SDN: Did you get a lot of pushback on that idea?

IG: Member stations picked it up really really quickly but NPR Washington was not on board for a really long time, and in fact never has distributed the show, we’ve always been independently distributed, partly because NPR had no interest at first, and I think there was a feeling like it didn’t sound like what public radio was doing at the time.

When we were first trying to get stations to pick up the show, one of the comments the stations would say is like they liked the reporting on the show and they thought I was a good producer, but they were like, but when’s the grownup going to show up who’s going to host the show? When’s the person going to show up with the deep voice to be the narrator? And so there was a little of that for sure, at the beginning.

Now I feel like we’ve been on the air for so long, people are so used to the way that I sound and that the way other people sound who sound like me on the air, I feel like now that’s eroded, and the new thing that happens and that we get comments from listeners, is the way women sound on our show and on the rest of public radio, I feel like there’s still an older generation of listeners who can’t abide the way that young women in their 20s and early 30s sound when they’re reporting serious stories on the radio, because of the way they talk.

SDN: Are you talking about vocal fry?

IG: Yeah.

SDN: How do your hour-long and two-part radio pieces stand up to the opinion that things should be short and sweet rather than long?

IG: I think it’s completely inaccurate. I mean I think that one of the things we know from ratings to our show is that the average listener to our 59-minute show listens for 48 minutes, and so people stick with it. And that’s the average, that means the people who tune in halfway through, they’ll stick around to the end. … I think, you know, if something’s good, and has forward motion built in, and is emotionally engaging, people will stick with it.

I think print, I think newspapers are in a different situation, because I think there’s only so much you want to read on a phone. Like I’ll read the New York Times sometimes on my phone and it’s a very different experience than reading it in the paper when it comes to a long article. I just think that a weird fatigue sets in of reading a long article as print, that’s an area where audio has an edge, because you can do other stuff while you’re listening.

SDN: What was it about radio that made you want to get into it in the first place, as opposed to newspapers or TV? What about radio draws you in?

IG: At first, ‘nothing’ is the answer. Nothing was appealing to me about the radio, I had no special feeling about radio. I didn’t know that much about it when I started working at radio. I was 19 years old and I was looking for something to do after my freshman year of college, I tried to get a summer job in the media somewhere and I was able to talk my way into an internship at NPR in Washington and I had never heard of NPR, I had never heard it on the air, and at that point it was the last 1970s — I’m very very old [laughs] — and so it was 1978, so nobody had heard of NPR. NPR was tiny, their ratings were next to nothing. And NPR had only exited for five or six years at that point, so nobody had heard of NPR and it was possible to walk in off the street knowing nobody and say, ‘hey you need somebody for free?’ and they were like ‘yeah, sure.’ I was able to talk my way into it and then I just found I really enjoyed it and really came to appreciate the special power that radio has to tell a story and to carry something with so much feeling. There’s just something about hearing somebody’s voice, if they’re talking from the heart about something that means something to them that is just so magnetic and satisfying to listen to. I knew nothing about radio and it was by making radio that I came to really really love it.

SDN: Saturday you’ll be talking in front of a group of live people. Does that feel different to you, talking to live people as opposed to being in the studio recording something?

IG: It’s totally different, it’s very much the opposite. In the studio it’s like you’re pretending to talk to people while you actually are talking to people through a microphone but you’re in a soundproof room with one other person maybe who’s there just making sure you don’t mispronounce anything. It’s a very different experience than being on a stage, there are people in the room; it’s exciting. …

Being on a stage, talking to people on a stage, is much more fun than talking to people over the radio.

SDN: Do you have a favorite part of your in-person performances?

IG: There’s some things that I play for the audience that haven’t been on the radio and can’t be on the radio that are really fun to play, and things that we didn’t run on the radio, you know, as a way of talking about what we think about when we think about putting things on. That’s kind of fun.

SDN: What do you hope the audience takes away from your presentation?

IG: I hope people have fun. … It’s designed to be super fun for people, mainly. It’s designed for people’s pleasure.


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