“Performer” is not a word Ira Glass uses to describe himself—at least not when he’s onstage, before an audience. The host of National Public Radio’s This American Life is certainly engaging and empathetic. His squeaky voice, in itself, is charming—and almost too normal for radio.
His quirky, intelligent spin on stories in several acts throughout the hourlong program touches on everything from the purely comical to the underbelly of pop culture. It’s a reliable formula, Glass admits, but still, after 15 years, the stories continue to resonate deeply with listeners. Now syndicated to more than 500 Public Radio International affiliates, This American Life—and the narrative style Glass cultivated—has become an industry standard.
But, remember, Glass isn’t a “performer.” So, he shakes it up every time he gives a talk, as he will at Kingsbury Hall on June 25, to keep it fresh and interesting.
City Weekly: How is telling stories on air different than in a concert hall?
Ira Glass: Being on the radio is a very odd situation, because you’re in a soundproof room pretending like you’re talking to somebody that’s right across the desk—talking very, very personally. This is very different from being onstage, because the people are right there and because they react and because you can feel when they’re attentive and when you lose them—it’s such a bare thing. For somebody like me, if I’m not getting a laugh, like, every minute, I just feel like it isn’t going very well. So I’m constantly putting in material where I get laughs to keep the connection with the audience. I do think—unless you are at a super-huge venue—that there can be a real intimacy.
CW: During a feature on Riverdance (“Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time”), you mentioned how you hated repeating the same talk each night, and, rather, that you have to be spontaneous.
IG: When I saw Neil Patrick Harris hosting the Emmys or the Tonys, I realized I can perform in the way somebody who is a normal person can perform in front of other people. I’m not an actual performer. There’s certainly radio personalities that also love being in front of a crowd. I don’t love it. I was a producer before I was on the air—I really love editing, I love writing, I love scheming out what the stories are.
I can’t go around giving the same speech all the time, because I’m just not a good- enough performer to pull it off. And I can’t do it in a way that sounds sincere time after time, so I’m constantly having to rewrite the speech. Lately, I’ve been going through a massive process of overhauling it.
CW: What changes have you made?
IG: There’s a lot of new, really funny and interesting material—at least, I hope it’s interesting—that I’m field-testing that isn’t really set yet. Including, just last weekend, I was in Garrison Keillor’s hometown, St. Paul, and Minnesota Public Radio booked me to give a talk in the Fitzgerald Theater, where Keillor does Prairie Home Companion. And one of the things that I did (laughs) was perform some of his monologues, but as me, which was really fascinating. I even used my music.
A friend, Marge—who used to work on the show—was in the audience; she thought, hearing it, you know, that’s it’s Garrison—because it’s Bunsen Motors and the like—but hearing me perform it, it doesn’t seem like it’s one of his stories. It feels like it’s one of our stories [from This American Life]. It was really a weird theater experiment of the sort that I’m not super involved in.
CW: Are there parallels between Prairie Home Companion and This American Life?
IG: Truthfully, the structure of the stories is exactly the same, where there’s action moments and character moments and feeling moments. And it is always driving to some conclusion, because that’s what works on the radio. Then there’s the point-of-the-story moments.
CW: Has new technology helped you adapt your performance?
IG: Not until three weeks ago. When I used to talk, I made KUER [90.1 FM] get, basically, a radio rig. So I’d have CD players and play quotes and music on a mixing contraption like in the studio. It was on a table, so I sat the entire show. It just seemed like this technology is obsolete, because you can run all of it from an iPad now. So that’s what I do. I run the show standing onstage with an iPad, not hidden by the table. It’s been a very different experience. I guess it feels more like an actual performance.
CW: Over the years, This American Life has touched on several Utah-related stories. Utah Valley University professor Scott Carrier has been a frequent correspondent. Recently, Jane Felts reported on two Mormon missionaries in the upper West Side of Manhattan and, when This Americn Life aired on Showtime, Nancy Updike told the story on “God’s Close Up” of Ben McPherson, a Mormon spiritual artist who had difficulties finding models with beards.
And I’m someone that has seen the Book of Mormon, the musical, three times.
CW: I’m curious about how Utah-related stories have been culled for This American Life.
IG: There have been a bunch of Scott Carrier pieces that have happened there. Weirdly, I feel like there’s a lot of Mormonism in my life all of a sudden. I don’t know what happened, because of Scott Carrier and because one of my wife’s best friends is a Mormon. So much so, I was on a plane from Minnesota to New York on Sunday and I was sitting next to these two college kids and at some point we were talking and I was like, “Where are you going?” And it was Peru, and they were missionaries and I was like, “Mormons?” and they said, “No, Catholics.” But they also looked at me like that was so random. I don’t know, there was a lot of Mormon stuff going on.
CW: Do you think highly religious places make better incubators for stories than others?
IG: No, I don’t. But I do find people that have religion to be really interesting in stories. And there was even a period in our show where we consciously went out of our way to do lots more stories about religion because my theory—and I think it’s probably still true (this is 10 years ago, probably)—was that the worst-covered people in America are religious people. That is: When you see religious people on the news or in the movies, anywhere in the mainstream media, they are portrayed as crazy people, as hotheads or as, sort of, elderly, very pious people that don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. And when you think about anybody you know that has faith, or lots of people, that’s not really what they are. My experience of my friends with faith was so different than the way people were being portrayed in the media that I felt like this was a huge territory that we could be documenting that no one was doing accurately.
CW: So are you most interested in the B-side of pop culture?
IG: Often. As a staff we are interested in a lot of different things. One of our moves is to do the stories that no one else is doing. People like [in those religious stories] that are not being documented correctly. We just did a thing on tea partyers, for the same reason. I felt like the way they were portrayed in the press was as insane racists. Those are the two qualities. A. They are insane; B. They are racist. I don’t really believe that. Yeah, maybe there is someone that is an insane racist, but I don’t believe that you can have a movement that large in this country and it is just nuts. When we got into the reporting, we found out, of course [they are] not. These are super-idealistic people and very normal people. And so that’s one thing we do. And another thing, we just want to do stories that are funny. That’s a good percentage of stories we do. And then there’s issues-y stuff. Like, we just don’t understand something and we’re like, “What went wrong with our health-care system. Wait, why do we need to fix it? Well, we’re reporters, we can figure that one out.” Maybe other people have the same questions. It’s a bunch of different stuff.
CW: Did you find, growing up, that you were always the one asking lots of questions?
IG: I did ask lots of questions, but in a different way. I think it was at the point where you make the transition to not be a child any more to having more adult conversations with people and more adult socializing—which is like, ya know, 11, 12, 13. I remember consciously feeling awkward around other kids. And the way I would get through it is that I would ask them questions about them. And I remember having it as a technique. I remember feeling awkward and when all else failed, just ask lots of questions. And I remember, as a result, a lot of people felt close to me, who I felt nothing for, because I wouldn’t talk about myself as much. You feel really close to someone who is asking lots of questions. As I got older I realized that doesn’t do anyone any good and had to train myself out of it. But that is an ongoing struggle in my life; I have to constantly be on guard against that. If I’m lazy, that’s what I do, instead of being more emotionally present. However, that said, it turned out to be a very useful thing to do—very useful training for the job I now have.
CW: What’s it like in the This American Life office?
IG: It’s funny because we just came out of our story meeting. Over the course of a week, we’re like any newspaper or show that’s putting on a regular product. Stories are falling through and we need to replace them and there are lots of little meetings throughout the week. Once a week, there’s a story meeting where we hash through a lot of the things that come from contributors and things like that.
CW: The framework to submit a pitch to the show is really open—it only involves an informal e-mail.
IG: Yeah. We use a surprising number of those pitches, too. There’s probably something every other week that is just a random person that we’ve never had any dealings with who just sent us something through e-mail. Relative to the number of people that write us, that’s not a lot, but relative to a lot of things, it’s a lot. And it’s not like the pitches go to the intern. I think a lot of magazines, when you write to them with an unsolicited pitch, the intern goes through it. With our show, it’s the senior producer or one of the more senior producers, because what you need is someone that can spot the good, raw material. It might just be a halfway pitch, but you need someone to recognize that that has huge potential. We take that super seriously.
[The original interview with Ira Glass was taken in two parts on June 14 because of time constraints. However, the first session didn’t record due to technical difficulties or, perhaps, a lack of technical understanding on the part of the interviewer. Lost was Glass riffing on his college studies in semiotics, tangents on the Howard Stern Show and the oddity of KUER’s “Where’s Ira?” contest, among other things.]
CW: Thanks for you time, Ira. I must say it is humbling to have the first interview fail to record, especially talking to a radio host.
IG: If it’s any consolation, every bad thing that can happen while recording an interview has happened to me more than once, including when the thing didn’t record, like my very favorite example with the key scene in a weeklong project, back when I was using cassettes. Before current technology you’d use cassettes, so you’d record on one side of the cassette and you’d flip it over and record on the other side. And if you’re not careful, when you get to the end of the other side, you don’t want to flip it over again and record on the first side. And that’s exactly what I did, completely destroying the most important half-hour of tape that I had gotten in a week of recording and it could never be re-created. And so my heart is with you.
1395 E. Presidents Circle
Saturday, June 25, 7:30 p.m.