By the 1990s, narrative storytelling had all but disappeared from America’s radio airwaves. What had been the signature radio format in the 1930s and 1940s, had been replaced by news, angry talk, rock and roll, and, above all, television. Not only had video killed the radio star, in the words of The Buggles’ 1979 hit, but it seemed to be killing radio itself.
Then, in November 1995, the producer and journalist Ira Glass debuted Your Radio Playhouse, an hour-long magazine featuring quirky tales about ordinary Americans. That program would eventually morph into public radio’s This American Life, which has aired, thus far, for 680 episodes.
With Ira Glass hosting and producing, This American Life launched a storytelling revival on the radio. What Glass and his team did was to present first-rate journalism stylishly packaged as intelligent entertainment. Like the New Journalists of the 1960s, he deployed the techniques of fiction and applied them to his factual reports.
The result proved a sensation. One landmark came in 2008 with the show’s report on the financial crisis, “A Giant Pool of Money”—hailed by NYU professor of journalism Jay Rosen as “the best work of explanatory journalism I have ever heard.” A year later, the podcast version was still being downloaded a million times a month.
Today, This American Life broadcasts to 2.2 million listeners weekly. In addition, it has an audience of 3.6 million people who download the program as a podcast. And what started as a true-crime spinoff, Serial, has proved to be one of the most influential podcasts in Internet history. Media watchers often credit This American Life and Serial with jump-starting the current podcasting boom.
I spoke recently with Glass at his New York studio about the roots of his storytelling and how he came to transform the radio broadcast world. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.
Claudia Dreifus: When we first discussed doing this, you asked if I had heard a recent Terry Gross interview with Howard Stern. Why was that?
Ira Glass: Because it was an interviewer interviewing an interviewer. It was interesting to hear him appreciate her moves. He also clearly had no idea who she is. He admitted, “I sort of looked you up last night.” Whereas I know Terry has been listening for years.
To be clear: he’s an excellent interviewer. Part of the pleasure was hearing these two iconic radio voices talking to each other. Stern clearly admired the interview she was doing. She did such a good job of pointing him to things, being appropriately critical of the way that he talks about women, but also being appropriately admiring.
If I were to interview him, I’d feel intimidated.
Yeah. He’s a bossy sort of presence. I don’t like interviewing famous people. They make me nervous. I’ve always tried to avoid interviewing famous people.
Is that because they are usually over-interviewed or because they arrive at an interview with impenetrable masks?
All of these things.
It’s just more difficult. To get them to say anything real, you have to find an angle on their experience that will open them up. And there are things famous people want to keep private, things they’re tired of talking about, things they’ve told so many times that they have no interest in telling them again—but will tell again in exactly the same words they’ve used in the past,
When you were a kid, did you want to be famous?
I had no interest in being famous.
What did you want to be?
An astronaut. This was the 1960s. And later, in my teens, I think I had some vague notion of being around accomplished people, though I didn’t picture I’d be the famous one.
My parents were gunning for me to go to medical school. By the time I was like eighteen or nineteen, I thought I’d want to do something in the media.
As a kid, the thing I really loved was comedy. We went to the theater a lot: musicals. I could tell you every line, every joke, from “Fiddler on the Roof.” Putting on shows was a really big part of my childhood. I started putting myself on stage when I was eleven. My little sister and I would put on shows in the basement and invite the kids from across the street. As a teen, I’d gig on weekends as a magician for birthday parties.
What I’m trying to say is that there was something about making shows that got me into media, and that was what got me to radio.
Can I go back to something? And feel free to edit this any way you like. I’m already editing this interview in my head because I’m a crazy person and can’t stop myself. This idea of not wanting to interview famous people, that’s one of the things that led to the work I’m doing today. I knew in my twenties, while at NPR, that the thing I wanted to do was document regular people’s lives. The question then was, “How do you do that?”
How did you get to National Public Radio?
What happened was that in the summer after my freshman year of college, I was looking to get my foot in the door in some kind of media. I went around to the Baltimore advertising agencies and radio and television stations to see if I could find something.
I had a little bit of radio experience. After my senior year in high school, I had talked my way into writing jokes for this Baltimore disc jockey, this proto shock-jock named Johnny Walker, whom I loved. Every teenage boy in Baltimore loved him. This was before Howard Stern. He wasn’t as caustic as Howard, but out to be edgy and very funny. So, after my freshman year of college, when I was looking for work, someone at a local rock station told me, “We don’t have anything for you. But I know this guy at this new outfit, National Public Radio. Maybe he has something.”
I then drove to D.C. with the name of his friend, Jay Kernis. This was in 1978. NPR was small. It was so small that that you could just walk in off the street and say, “Hey, can I stick around and work for free over the summer?” and he went, “Sure.”
What was the culture of NPR like in that period?
Exciting. One of the producers—a guy named Keith Talbot—liked me. I was in the promos department and I made these really beautiful promos for his shows and he hired me as his production assistant the next year.
Keith was on staff at NPR to invent new ways to make radio documentaries, and I was just his assistant on everything he did. One of his first projects was to bring [the late experimental monologist and producer] Joe Frank down from WBAI in New York. I remember standing in the old Studio 2 at NPR and Joe was performing a monologue and we were rolling music live underneath him. I’d never heard anything like that. I thought, “I don’t even understand what’s happening or how he’s doing this. I just want to hear what happens next.”
Radio wasn’t all that good in the 1970s. So there was a lot of room for experimentation. I was lucky to have fallen in with a bunch of people—Keith, Joe—who were rethinking radio from the ground up.
Who were some of your other influences in those years? I assume that Studs Terkel, who was doing interviews with ordinary Americans about their lives over at WFMT in Chicago, was an influence?
No. I knew who he was. I had read Working and liked it. But I hadn’t heard that much of his radio work at that point. In fact, Studs came and spoke at my college. I remember the question that I asked him. It was not a good question. “What’s the best story you ever heard?” He kind of had to go, “Uh, I’d have to think about that one for you.”
It’s funny. I get asked that question now. I get asked, “What’s your favorite story you’ve ever done?” It’s not a legit question of looking for information. It’s just saying, like, “Dance, monkey, dance,” or something. At that point, I wasn’t developed enough to have a serious question for somebody who knew everything about the craft.
So Studs was not an early influence. I’ll tell you who was: Roland Barthes. At college, we were assigned Barthes’s S/Z , which made me understand what I could do in radio.
Really? How did the French semiotician help shape your journalism? Frankly, a lot of people find semiotics to be…
—this incredibly pretentious literary theory that takes as its thesis that narrative is part of the general conspiracy of language to imprison us in our place in society. I ignored that.
In S/Z, Barthes takes apart a short story by Balzac, line by line. He asks: How does this story pull you in, engage, and give you pleasure? He names things that are helpful if you want to make stories about people. Barthes explains: here’s how to structure a narrative by creating a sequence of events that will create forward motion that will create narrative suspense, planting questions along the way that can be answered.
That turned out to be an enormously useful way to think about how to do an interview. I still structure my interviews by trying to get people to lay out plot, beat by beat, even if the stories are very small.
Aside from Roland Barthes, who taught you the basics of journalism?
I learned on the job. I worked at NPR for seventeen years: I was an intern, production assistant, tape-cutter, and eventually a reporter and a producer. When I’d produce pieces, I always felt that the stories should have more feeling, be funnier, to have these little moments, tastes—to get to you more.
Editing Noah Adams’s interviews taught me so much. He was an early All Things Considered host. In his interviews, he’d get people to explain what had happened and then he’d broaden the story out to some thought, some idea, he had about it. I became aware of how much bigger that made the story feel—to be able to step back from the action and move to some bigger thought and then return to the plot. It’s how many of our best This American Life stories are structured.
What did the early This American Life shows sound like?
We had artists, writers, theater people, whomever, do stories. And we had journalists do stories, side by side. So a typical early episode for us was called “Drama Bug.” That was our classic “fulfills the mission that we set out on the grant” show.
I went to a high school in Chicago that was putting on a high school play and documented their putting on their high school play. Then David Sedaris wrote about when he got the “drama bug” in high school. One artist, one journalist—put ’em back to back.
There might have been a third thing in there… We tried a lot of random stuff. Somewhere along the way, the staff became interested in making journalistic stories in a style where there were characters and scenes and plot and funny moments. We decided, “Let’s just run with that. The story exists for our pleasure as much as anyone’s.”
We always saw the show as an entertainment. We saw ourselves as designing a format in opposition to the way stories were structured on NPR. We talked about it as a public radio show for people who didn’t necessarily like public radio.
What was wrong with NPR?
The overall tone is very formal, a bit proper, a little stuffy. “Talking down,” isn’t exactly right, but something like that. I feel a little pained saying it—they do a great job—but there’s an accident of tone that is not serving them as well as it could.
Our show was out for fun. At the same time, we wanted to do journalism at the highest standard. The show is an experiment to see if one can make something entertaining that’s also good journalism. Can you marry those two things without a tradeoff?
How is today’s This American Life different from what you first went on the air with?
Oh, it’s so different. We don’t try to put everything through the prism of artists and journalists looking at one thing. That was gone, long ago. It’s overwhelmingly journalism now.
At the beginning, we mostly apply the tools of journalism to things that were so small and personal that other journalists wouldn’t have touched them: things going on in people’s families, a weird personal quest. But now, so much of what we do is things that are in the news.
Though we’re still experimental. Like, not long ago someone said, “Let’s go and have six or seven reporters on what happens in a car dealership over the course of one month.” It was a weird project, expensive. But we thought, “Nobody’s ever done this. Let’s run with it.”
Experimental, unpredictable… your show has lasted twenty years. Are you surprised?
Yeah. Most shows don’t last ten. We didn’t think we were starting anything big with This American Life, or with Serial. I just thought, “This is my taste. I assume enough people will like this so that we’ll be able to have a job for a while.”
I thought of it as being like a little indie movie or something. Nobody had ever done anything like it. It was hard to imagine it would be that successful.
Same thing with Serial. When it became so popular, all these things happened that we could never imagine would happen. Serial is the single most popular podcast ever made, with each episode downloaded more than 19 million times.
It’s often said that your show is the model for many of the podcasts now on the Internet. How do you feel about having launched this trend?
That’s flattering but, I think, inaccurate. There are different kinds of podcasts. So there’s a corner of the podcast world where people heard This American Life and were inspired to do true stories as narrative journalism.
Joe Rogan [The Joe Rogan Experience] and Dax Shepard [Armchair Expert], they come from a different tradition. I feel like those people heard Howard Stern and went, “Oh, I can do a version of that.”
Then there are all the podcasts that are just like random friends who decided, “Let’s sit in front of a microphone and talk.”
Are there too many podcasts?
I don’t think there are too many. If people want to express themselves, that’s nice. If people want to make things themselves, that’s great.
Of course, there’s a lot of stuff being made that just isn’t that good. But that’s true in any medium. Most movies aren’t that good. Most songs aren’t that good.
Could all these homemade podcasts—and there are so many thousands of them—end up disrupting traditional radio in the same way that blogging and the digital revolution that followed devastated print journalism?
So far, radio’s doing fine. Public radio lost some audience for a while, but then the news has been so dramatic the last few years that everyone’s audiences went back up. I don’t know the latest numbers on public radio. In general, radio is staying strong.
With our ratings, our radio audience has stayed the same for over a decade now. We didn’t lose the radio audience as we gained this other [podcast] audience.
Which podcasts do you download?
The Daily from The New York Times, which is modeled on our structure. If you talk to Lisa Tobin who designed it, you’ll find that it is very much designed as a narrative—though it’s transformed in a way that’s appropriate for the journalists of The New York Times. Who would have thought we’d be on the air long enough that The Times would bother knocking off a version of our format?
I listen to Malcolm Gladwell. He’s become a great broadcaster. When he started, he wasn’t used to performing. But there’s a natural hamminess to him. He’s now figured out a way to write and perform his thoughts out loud.
What else? Reply All, Radiolab, Heavyweight, Stay Tuned with Preet. I’ve been enjoying Armchair Expert.
What about it appeals to you?
Dax Shephard, the host, is genuinely curious about people. I go for the sessions when he talks about marriage. Once, he interviewed his wife, Kristen Bell. They got into a marital fight where she started bringing up stuff that he did years ago.
He really did listen to a lot of Howard Stern. This idea of sharing who you are in a way that’s really bare, that’s much further than someone like Terry Gross or I would ever go. He’s completely an over-sharer.
Speaking of sharing, how do you get your sometimes reticent sources to speak so candidly about their lives?
My old mentor Keith used to say that an interview is like a party that you’re throwing, and however you behave is how the other people will behave. I try to create a comfortable climate. You tell a story about yourself where you’re being a human being. That permits them to be a human being back. It helps to get things more real.
Now and then, I find myself in situations where people have heard me on the radio for so long that they’re intimidated. Saying something personal helps us get past it.
Terry Gross is said to sometimes have the opposite problem. When some of her sources get to Fresh Air, she can’t stop them from talking. She’s “Terry Gross,” and they’ve been listening to her for all their lives. They’re ready! Does that happen to you?
It’s less common. There are people who have heard This American Life and they think they know how the story they’re there to tell would fit into our format. They have these tidy little thoughts to share. Those are the stories we end up killing. They’re literally unsalvageable. They’ve thought it through too hard. They are lovely people, but it can’t be worked. We kill between a quarter to a third of the stories we start.
Are sources who’ve been through psychotherapy better at interviews than those who have not?
I haven’t observed that, but I believe that is probably true. It doesn’t have to be psychotherapy, honestly—even if they’ve been through a decent twelve-step program where they’ve been forced to be introspective. We have to kill stories sometimes because the people are just not capable or in the habit of reflecting on what happened to them in a meaningful way.
Are you a workaholic?
Workaholic implies a problem. It’s more like I get in a little over my head. I’m not the greatest at managing my time. I’d like to work a little less.
Do you have hobbies?
I don’t need a creative outlet. I don’t need to embroider or blog or anything like that. I have stuff I do. I see tons of plays. When I have time, I watch TV. I haven’t had that much free time.
You’re asking about hobbies? I’m dating. It’s time-consuming. It’s weird being single. It was unwanted. I was glad to be married. We were together for over two decades, my wife and I.
You are over sixty. The last time you were out in the dating world, you were in your late thirties. Are you finding it difficult?
Actually, it’s kind of nice and sort of sweet. There’s a lot of hope to it. It makes you feel alive. My wife and I had been stuck in a situation we had trouble fixing.
One person I went out with was a friend of a friend. She didn’t know who I was. We’d be walking on the street and strangers would come up to me and say how much they loved the show. And she was like, “WTF?” I was all, “I told you, I’m semi-famous!”
Finally, she listened to the show and she called me up, sort of surprised. “It’s really good,” she said. “And when you’re talking there, it sounds just like you’re talking to me, but you’re on the radio. You sound just like yourself.”
That was an enormous compliment.
An earlier version of this piece misstated in the introduction that This American Life is a National Public Radio show. This was never the case; it is a public radio show formerly distributed by Public Radio International and now by Public Radio Exchange. The article has been updated.