If there's such thing as a public radio star, Ira Glass is it. Each week, This American Life, the program Glass developed in 1995, garners more than two million radio listeners before being downloaded another 2.4 million times. His colloquial, verge-of-a-cold style, well rehearsed but full of pauses and inflection, has become so influential that The New York Times dubbed it "the NPR voice," and the success of This American Life has generated an entire industry of narrative nonfiction, paving the way for shows like Serial and Radiolab. As Glass prepares to bring his talk "Seven Things I've Learned" to DPAC, we spoke with him about Twitter, Donald Trump, and what it's like to be one of a generation's most influential storytellers.
INDY: In a lot of ways, you're sharing other people's stories and feelings rather than your own. What does that responsibility feel like?
IRA GLASS: I don't generally feel like what I am doing is giving lessons. I think of the stories as being fun. We report on a lot of things that we think are important for the world to understand, but always in a context of entertainment. Like, I'm just trying to do a nice job for people, so when they turn on the radio, there's something interesting there.
The way I see it, my job, like yours, is as a reporter. I want it to be interesting, and I also want it to be powerful. I do feel a sense of responsibility to fulfill the mission of public broadcasting, which is not just excellence but also to put voices and stories on the air that aren't getting on the air anywhere else. I take that responsibility very seriously.
The thing that you're pointing to, though, is that the producers are conduits for other people. Through our taste, the things that we notice about stories, there's a lot of us in there, too. To pretend otherwise would be silly. We don't try to hide it. We're fair, but I don't think we're these omniscient, objective broadcast news reporters.
One of the things we like about making the show, and that people like when they listen to it, is that you can often tell what we think about situations, but we do that in a way that's still cognizant that we're mainstream media. I think you can be mainstream and be fair to everyone and not pick a side, and still be in there, reacting to things.
In Durham, your performance includes mixing stories live onstage. What does that mean, exactly?
When I started giving these talks, I hadn't been onstage since college. I was used to being on the radio. So I tried to get through a speech by making it as much like a radio show as I possibly could. I had them give me a mixing console and audio, and I actually performed the entire talk sitting down, mixing clips and music. I did get much more comfortable, and the technology changed, so now I have all of the basic mixing power on an iPad. I can basically re-create stories by doing narration, music, and sound. It's fun to do. We used to do the radio show that way. There were parts that we would mix on air, and I always really liked that.
Over the years, you've expanded into movies, podcasts, and live shows. How does that affect your public radio career?
I wish there were some system to it, or some high-minded reason. The last time I was at DPAC was for a dance show, where I told stories and dancers danced, and occasionally I danced with them. We toured the show all over the United States. Don't Think Twice, the movie with Mike Birbiglia, seems to be doing great so far. There's no system to it other than people came up with ideas, or I did, and they seemed like they would be fun to do. One of the things that doesn't get said to young journalists enough is to amuse themselves. It's so much better when we, as serious-minded journalists, are out for fun, out for curiosity, or for our own pleasure. I hope that's not wrong to say in this context. I think one of the reasons why our show has done a lot of coverage of Donald Trump is because we, as a staff, are fascinated by what is happening in the country. To pretend it's not exciting seems wrong.
I read an interview where you sort of denounced Twitter, since you already had a platform through your radio show. Now, you are tweeting quite a bit. What inspired that change?
I didn't denounce it. But at that time, I wasn't on Twitter, and I thought, I'm already reaching enough people with my thoughts. But now I'm on Twitter! Part of it was running a business, if I can be totally frank. And then I started spending a lot of time on Twitter, reading what people were writing and going to the links that they were sharing. There are many mornings when the very first thing I do is search for Donald Trump's name on Twitter.
That seems like a terrible way to wake up.
But I want to know what's happening. I'm a citizen of the United States of America. It's a great way to wake up. It's always interesting.
This American Life had a television show for two seasons. What happened there?
We won three Emmys and then asked to be taken off of television. That's one of the things I'm going to talk about. I show clips of the TV show, and talk about what it was like to make it, and why we quit. In short, to do stories that feel like our show is just enormously different on TV, for a bunch of reasons.
Why is radio important?
Radio is weirdly powerful. Since the 1950s, when TV came in as a force, people have been predicting its demise, but it just doesn't die. It seems to be going as strong as ever. I think there are activities that you can't do while looking at a screen, so it's nice to have audio content when you're driving or cooking.
And then, when radio is working well, it's a very specific and intimate medium. It feels like you're connecting with just one other person. It's less like TV and more like the Internet, like we're both on equal ground somehow. There's something very adorable about that. An interesting process has been putting our radio show on the Internet. We now have more people listening on the Internet than we do on the radio, and we did nothing to market it. I think it adapted so well because the tone of the show is so much like the tone of the Internet. You feel like, oh, it's just a person talking to me.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Heart of Glass"