INTERVIEW- Glass' house: NPR host brings radio to the Paramount
If you're looking for an epiphany– like the kind radio listeners hear on the National Public Radio documentary program This American Life every week– in the story of how its host Ira Glass came to be in radio, you won't find it.
"It was completely by accident," says Glass. "I was looking for a job in college, I stumbled into NPR's headquarters in Washington, never having listened to NPR in my life, knew nothing about it, and talked my way into an internship."
What has followed, however, is a career completely of Glass' design. Rather than report on the news as he had learned working in D.C., he headed west in 1995 to Chicago NPR affiliate WBEZ to create a radio show based around the idea of telling the stories of otherwise unknown people and bringing their stories to the airwaves in a fresh, unconventional style.
"The challenge," says Glass, "was to be a real reporter, but to do it in a highly produced, emotional way that was so totally captivating so that you couldn't turn away from it."
Nearly 15 years after that first episode of This American Life aired, the show has won two Peabody Awards for excellence in broadcasting, Time Magazine once proclaimed him "America's Best Radio Host," and the show is the most downloaded podcast on iTunes.
Now, he brings This American Life to the Paramount Theater stage. He spoke with the Hook from his hotel room in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
The Hook: How do you go about translating what you do on the radio for a live audience?
Ira Glass: A lot of it is just an excuse to play bits of tape from the show that I love. You'd have to be an insane superfan to recognize it all, though one could ask, 'Who would show up to these things except insane superfans?'
The Hook: What was it about working in radio that drew you to it?
Ira Glass: At the beginning, it was all about the amazement– that I could make something, and it would go on the air out to millions of people, even just 30-second promos. Then I was lucky enough to work with a guy named Joe Frank whose job it was to invent new ways to make documentaries. You can Google his name and listen to him online now; and if you do, you'll recognize it instantly as a cousin to This American Life. He had a way of making people seem really vivid, and when he was performing a story on mic, he had a way of doing it that you absolutely had to know what was going to happen next.
The Hook: Something that's always struck me about This American Life is how much the stories cause the listener to empathize. How do you go about reconciling that empathy with the need to maintain a reporter's objectivity?
Ira Glass: In some ways, it's the most radical and original move you can make as a reporter. We did a story this week about this fringe group of Mormons in Utah, and it's a group that's gotten a lot of bad press because they're polygamists. The story was about what happened when they hired a regular old accountant, who wasn't part of their group, to handle their money and the series of scandals that followed.
In the first draft, the members of this group came off like crazies. But the truth was they had a reasonable case against this accountant. So what we ended up with was you hear their side in a forceful way, you hear his side in a forceful way, and empathizing didn't take away from the objectivity, because you understand why this group is doing what they're doing.
I think they had probably told other reporters these same things, but I think there's a habit in American journalism that says being adversarial is what makes a good reporter. But being empathetic can get you to the same place, and if anything it gives you a little more.
The Hook: You manage to get everyone on this show from a man who cloned his dead pet bull to a group of inmates who are putting on a production of Hamlet in prison. Where do you find these people, Google alerts?
Ira Glass: I wish it were Google alerts. The bull we found because one of our producers was teaching a journalism class at Columbia, and one of her students was doing a story on that guy, just a little ten-minute phoner. With Hamlet in prison, the woman who was directing the production was a longtime friend of one of our regular contributors. With others, we'll just get random pitches. A tremendous amount of the work is just finding the stories. To open this week's show I interviewed one guy, but I also interviewed four other people who didn't make it into the show.
The Hook: I understand that you became a vegetarian after doing a story on a woman who rescues chickens from poultry trucks, and that you started playing poker after doing a story on professional poker players. What is it about certain subjects that causes you to make changes in your own life?
Ira Glass: With the poker in particular, the chips and the cards and everything about it just seemed really cool– in the way a 14-year-old boy means that word. It's become the thing that I do to keep me from re-editing last week's show in my head. Also, I'm a sucker for believing I'm about to get lucky. It's my entire reporting technique.
For our Christmas show, we went to a mall in Nashville, and by the end of the day we hadn't really gotten anything, and I was tired. And I walked by this phone kiosk, and my eyes met with the guy there. It turned out he was the #1 salesman at this phone kiosk, and his girlfriend was the #1 roller-skating waitress at the Sonic. They had this chemistry that just sounded really good on the radio.
The Hook: I heard that you had to really work hard at learning how to talk on the radio.
Ira Glass: I'm not a natural performer, and I used to have this thick Baltimore accent. Then, I had listened to other people on NPR news shows, and there's a certain sing-song style to the sound of NPR. I abhor it, and I believe we must do everything we can to destroy it. So I had to learn how to break out of that the same way I had to learn how to lose my accent.
The Hook: You moved the show from Chicago to New York in 2006, and now with Barack Obama having made his presidential run, some are saying Chicago is now the new center of cool. Did you move too soon?
Ira Glass: Yes, it would have been nice to be in Chicago for the whole Obama thing, but I would disagree that Chicago is the new center of cool. The new center of cool is in the White House.
The Hook: What is it about Chicago that allowed This American Life to develop?
Ira Glass: Being in New York now, I see politics here as very much like the politics of Kazakhstan: there are tiny little warring tribes vying for resources, and it's very heated, and the rivalries go back generations. In Chicago, there's a feeling that there's a lot up for grabs. Even before Obama, Chicago was the site of the most ambitious school reform in the country. In New York, L.A., and D.C., there's a sense that they're running the world. In Chicago, there's the freedom to say, "Okay, let's make something up."
The Hook: Have you ever had an interaction with President Obama?
Ira Glass: No, but I do know Bill Ayers. Anybody who cared about politics or education in the mid-'90s within a 200-mile radius of Chicago knows Bill Ayers. He is totally mainstream. However, be sure to warn your readers that when they come to the show, they'll be listening to someone who palled around with a terrorist.
Ira Glass will appear at the Paramount Theater on Saturday, February 7 at 8pm.